What happens when Cadillac takes on BMW?

It must be hard to kick ass, decade after decade. It puts a giant target on your back, after all — you’re the one everyone else is trying to knock down, year after year.

In the car world, Bayerische Motoren Werke AG has been that leader for a long time. BMW created the sports sedan segment with the M3, released an early luxury SUV with the X5, and is now focusing on the future with its "i" sub-brand. It’s even promised a self-driving car by 2021.

Which brings us to Cadillac, an American brand that was the BMW of its day — those days being the 1950s. If there was a brand emblematic of the rising American middle class, suburbia as swinging cool, it was Cadillac. But since the Rat Pack went away and shag rugs got a haircut, the brand has mostly served as a reminder of a bygone age of American manufacturing.

Cadillac’s modern goal is to ascend to BMW heights. Or perhaps even to topple the Bavarians. It is like a chastened Goliath who has come out of his cave, looking to knock the boastful David down a notch or two. So if reinvention has found brands as diverse as Pabst Blue Ribbon, Cadillac has also arisen anew. MSRPs have gone up. Corporate HQ has moved out of Detroit to very swank digs in downtown Manhattan, and the talk of the company is, smartly, as much lifestyle and aspiration as cold hard metal.

This is The Harper Spin, a weekly column from seasoned auto critic Jason H. Harper. He’s raced at Le Mans, crushed a car in a 50-ton tank, and now, he’s bringing his unique style to The Verge.

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(Cadillac)

The good news is that the engineers have also been sweating the details of that cold hard metal. While the brand’s main mover, the Escalade, embodies backwards thinking (a huge and hulking SUV with lots of bling), sedans such as the CTS have improved every generation, hunting for the market share owned by the BMW 5 Series sedan and Lexus GS. Cadillac sales haven’t truly reflected the vast improvements, but one wonders if the time has come.

Because over the last few years, BMW has stumbled, too. It spread itself thin, looking to expand market share by introducing a ream of niche vehicles. There were models like the 5 Series Gran Turismo, launched in 2010, which was a five-door hatchback that weighed almost 5,000 pounds and was saddled with a bulbous butt. It is reviled.

And while everyone from Hyundai to Infiniti have relentlessly benchmarked the brand’s best products, Cadillac is the most likely marque to actually take advantage. A slew of new crossovers are in the works. (None of this is a knock on Bimmer. It’s hard to be the king.)

It’s hard to be the king

Not long ago, I drove four Cadillac sedans back to back, seeing just how far they've come to matching BMW. So, here’s the deal. The ATS competes with the BMW 3 Series. The CTS is larger, and has traditionally been positioned as a cheaper alternative to the 5 Series. The CT6 is Caddy’s new luxury model, straddling the line between a well-optioned 5 and the flagship 7 Series. In the name of spicing things up, I opted for the souped-up, performance-oriented versions of the ATS and CTS, the "V" models.

Lined up in a parking lot in north New Jersey, the Caddies made a nice showing. The designs are both distinctive and yet restrained. In the case of the ATS and CTS, the V versions are generally beefier than the regular cars, with additional side skirts and aerodynamic cladding. But they don’t scream for you to look at them. The grilles are fabulous, though the bodies are a bit blocky for my tastes. The CT6 is arguably too restrained, but it fits into the family tree nicely. It is recognizable as a new age Cadillac.

Cadillac CT6 event photos

(Cadillac)

The ATS-V starts around $61,000 and is available as both a sedan and coupe. My tester, at $75,900, was a rear-wheel-drive sedan with a 3.6-liter twin-turbo V-6 and a six-speed manual. It competes directly with one of the most famous of all BMWs, the M3, which is now in its fifth generation.

The idea that a Cadillac could ever compete with a M3 would once have been heresy. But the current generation M3 (starting around $64,000) has lost its way. It is flush with 425 horsepower courtesy of a 3.0-liter turbo inline six engine, but it’s no longer the cogent performance machine it once was. If the M3 used to be the buttoned-up businessman with an inner demon, the current model is a bulging-eye madman who kicked over his boss’ desk and hasn’t shown up to work since. History is unlikely to look upon it with the reverence of older generations.

The ATS-V is a more linear machine. It has more power, at 464 hp and 445 pound-feet of torque, but it delivers it in a saner, more accessible way. The M3 has a tendency to kick out its ass end even when you didn’t ask it to, which might seem insouciant but can be plain scary. The ATS has to be coaxed into any type of slide. The ride is better, less punishing, and the magnetic shocks are a wonder found on a number of GM products. They allow the car to ride comfortably over big bumps even at speed. By contrast, the M3 is so stiff it seems brittle.

As for interior, there are many elements in the Cadillac to delight. Recaro performance seats are an option, at $2,300, as is the suede-like material coating the steering wheel and shifter for $300. But the Cue infotainment system isn’t nearly as good as BMW’s excellent iDrive, and the back seat is cramped, headroom is poor, and ingress to the rear is punitive.

If you’re looking for more space — and even more power — turn to the CTS-V. My tester started at $83,995 but came to $100,330 with options. It packs a wallop: 640 hp and 630 lb-ft of torque from a supercharged 6.2-liter V-8. Oddly — and unlike the M3 — the BMW M5 is the meeker, saner vehicle. The M5 has 560 hp and 500 lb-ft of torque from a 4.4-liter turbo V-8, but it retains a more luxurious and businesslike feel. You can get the M5 to unleash, and it drives wonderfully when you do. But it is generally tamped down, a performance model once in a while.

This generation CTS-V is a beast. It has the soul of a muscle car, but one that handles incredibly well. The problem with it is that it makes you want to go hell-bent all the time. It lunges and strains against its leash. The suspension is also giving, though not cushy, but it makes a lot less sense of a daily driver than the M5. Yet it easily wins the desirability award. Given the choice between the two current cars, I’d take the Caddy. Driving one makes me dream of owning one, though I’d fear for my driver’s license. I’m not going overboard when I say that I love this car.

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(Cadillac)

And then there’s the luxury space, where the new CT6 is looking to make a mark. While it is longer than the 5, it isn’t a full-on luxury barge like the 7 or a Mercedes-Benz S-Class. It will also be available with a dizzying array of engine options, including a plug-in hybrid and a V-8. Right now you can get a 2.0-liter four cylinder, a 3.6-liter V-6, or a twin-turbo V-6. Pricing follows the same wide array, ranging from $54,000 to around $90,000.

Perhaps you can already see an issue. The same buyer who wants a car for $55K is probably not the same buyer willing to spend $88,460 — the price of the CT6 Platinum that I tested. It is hard to appeal to a great swathe of customers in the luxury world. While a 5 Series customer might look at the new Cadillac and see it as a viable alternative, one finds it hard to believe that a 7 Series owner is likely to switch.

This difficulty of playing in the 7’s world is even greater since the new-generation 7, priced from $81,500, is a superlative machine. It looks great, drives like a dream, and is stuffed with more technology than a T-800 Model 101 Terminator. Even the key comes with special gadgetry. BMW owners know that it is a superlative machine, too, and they don’t have to convince any of their friends of that fact. The same can’t be said of the CT6. In the luxury space, the Caddy is an unknown quantity.

My day of Cadillacs included a drive of the 2.0-liter CT6, priced at $66,310. That is not cheap, especially for a four cylinder, long the province of economy cars. But in some ways it’s the happier machine over the two available V-6s. With less weight in the nose, it carries momentum around corners and feels lighter on its feet. The front seats are magically thin, and the Bose stereo is fabulous. Win and win. But the lower price point means some materials aren’t as nice. Just cast your eyes up and look at the drab headliner, for instance.

The CT6 Platinum is the current top option. With every box ticked it comes in at around $90,000, roughly the base price of a BMW 740i xDrive. The Caddy is also all-wheel-drive, and it gets rear-wheel steering and those great magnetic shocks. GM is very bullish on tech lately, and the new sedan has night vision, automatic braking, all the safety alerts you can imagine, including being able to detect pedestrians in the road.

The 3.0-liter model looks more solid and mature than the cheaper 2.0, owing to a beefier grille and a more upmarket interior. The rear is especially welcoming: comfortable and with plenty of headroom, this is a car that is exceptionally nice to be driven around in. (This is particularly important in markets like China, where every luxury automaker would like to make a bigger dent.) But the CT6 with the most powerful engine simply doesn't thrill to the road in the same way as a 5 or the 7. It’s… well, fine to drive. Which isn’t enough to change the marketplace tide.

It shows that, given time to refine models like the CTS, Cadillac is capable of very great things. The company took the learnings of the CTS, scaled down the body size, and produced the ATS and the ATS-V — and the latter is a car that really is better than the current BMW M3. Its relationship with luxury, though, is still in flux. The CT6 will continue to be refined. I’ll be especially curious to see how niche versions like the plug-in hybrid will be received. And, eventually, we’ll surely be given a true flagship, something as big and grandiose as the Caddies of old. And you can be sure that all the lessons of the "lesser" models will be incorporated.

For all that, BMW (and the other stalwart German brands) will take notice. Hopefully, so will customers.


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