From the January 2008 issue of Car and Driver.
We’re not exactly sending lambs off to the slaughter, but putting various competitors of the BMW 3-series into the ring with that brilliant German car can occasionally feel like cruelty. A perennial 10Best Cars winner, the 3-series—and especially the current generation—is so good at doing so many things that these contests turn out to be battles for second place.
Nonetheless, every car, without regard for past praise and accolades, goes into a comparison test with a tabula rasa. We approach each car as if to say, “What have you done for me lately?” and each is driven with an open mind. The first day of a comparison test is much like the first day of school: Optimism abounds, everyone is granted a virtual A plus on that first day, and everyone, for a while anyway, is perfect. And then, long before the day is out, the harshness of reality sets in. So much for ephemeral perfection.
To try to even the odds with the illustrious 3-series, we assembled three $38,000 sports sedans with manual transmissions, sport packages, and a real chance at toppling the German. Those qualifications kept cars such as the Lincoln MKZ (no manual) and the Lexus IS250 (too slow) from competing.
So what kind of 3-series does $38,000 buy? Well, $39,675 buys a base 300-hp twin-turbo 335i, so we decided to take it down a notch, opting for a well-equipped 328i manual with Sport and Premium packages (leather, power seats) and xenon headlights for $38,825. Running contrary to our usual methods, we brought the lightly updated Infiniti G35 to the party despite a recent loss to the 328i [“Winds of Change?” April 2007]. We figured readers would be interested in how a G35 stacks up against some of the newer competition, the Mercedes-Benz C300 and the Cadillac CTS.
Although manual-transmission Mercedes sedans have left us cold in the past, a recent drive of the redesigned C350 led us to extend an invite to a 228-hp C300 Sport with a manual gearbox. The more powerful 268-hp C350 would have made the price ceiling, as its base price starts at $37,275, but the C350 isn’t available with a manual.
Cadillac, meanwhile, does offer a manual transmission in both models of the new CTS. We skipped the 258-hp version and instead locked onto the more powerful 304-hp direct-injection V-6. At our request, Cadillac optioned a CTS perfectly for this comparison. Our tester wore a manual transmission that knocks $1300 off the sticker and came with a $2980 Summer Performance tire package that includes sticky 18-inch Michelin PS2s, larger brakes, a limited-slip differential, fog lights, and the firmest suspension tuning (FE3) this side of a V-series Cadillac. At $36,970, the manual CTS undercuts the less powerful and smaller BMW by nearly $2000. Will the competition bring enough game to bring down the champ? We set out to Southern California to find out.
Fourth Place: Mercedes-Benz C300 Sport
What we noticed first inside the C300 while running through the canyons near Ojai, California, is that the road felt as if it were coated with Crisco. Or as one staffer noted snarkily, “I’ve never hydroplaned on a dry road before, until now.” While the other sedans gripped, pounced, and powered through the corners, the Benz, wearing all-season tires that are a part of the Sport model, slid and protested its way through the Highway 33 jaunt. Mercedes does offer an 18-inch wheel upgrade for $1000 that adds dedicated performance tires, but our $37,410 example didn’t have the option and likely suffered for it as the rest of the sedans in the test benefited from having more serious performance rubber.
HIGHS: Supple ride, subdued mechanicals, superb navigation and stereo systems.
LOWS: Low-grip tires, light and fast steering, intrusive stability control, floppy shifter, flat seats, unimpressive interior materials.
At a sedate pace the Benz will do a good sports-sedan impersonation, but pushed to its limits, what comes across is a car with a contradictory mix of luxury and sportiness. There’s a lack of cohesion that is apparent in the first turn taken by the large, thin-rimmed steering wheel. Quick-off-center, light-effort steering hurls the C300 into corners far quicker than expected, but it only takes a few corners to adjust to that rapid turn-in. Unfortunately, the rest of the car isn’t in step with the steering. The aforementioned tires, a comparatively softly sprung chassis, an intrusive and nanny-like stability-control system that can’t be fully deactivated, a floppy shifter, a kickdown switch on a manual car, and a vinyl seat with lateral support reminiscent of an El Camino bench are reminders that Mercedes reserves the serious driving stuff for its much more upscale AMG customers. In this test the C300 consistently posted the worst performance numbers and in general resisted our come-ons to go faster.
Step the C300 away from the performance precipice, and the Benz seemingly finds itself and connects with the driver. A comfortable ride, a nearly silent engine, a solid structure, and the low-set multifunction turn-signal stalk will have Benz owners and luxury seekers feeling right at home. Making S-class customers feel right at home should they get a C300 as a loaner is the excellent COMAND system that combines controls for navigation, audio, and a multitude of other settings into a single knob. Unlike BMW’s iDrive, the Mercedes system is intuitive and doesn’t leave an unsightly growth in the middle of the dash.
Aside from the electronics, the rest of the interior fails to impress. Much of it is made up of shiny, hard plastic that is low-rent enough to suggest that maybe it was Chrysler that divorced Mercedes. In back, a rear seat with very little space was rated the least comfortable and serves as a reminder that the C300, and the 328i, for that matter, is barely larger than a Honda Civic sedan—a Civic, in fact, has more interior space than the Benz. So Mercedes has built a refined, small sedan. It’s sporty on an intramural level; too bad the rest of the class plays on varsity.
THE VERDICT: A convincing sports sedan at a sedate pace, but pushing hard reveals a luxury car impersonating a sports sedan.
2008 Mercedes-Benz C300 Sport
228-hp V-6, 6-speed manual, 3480 lb
Base/as-tested price: $31,975/$37,410
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 6.5 sec
100 mph: 16.8 sec
1/4 mile: 14.9 @ 95 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 174 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.83 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 15 mpg
Third Place: Cadillac CTS DI
If you’ve just eyeballed the 10Best Cars list elsewhere in this issue, you’re now asking: “How can the 10Best-winning CTS lose to the G35, a car that isn’t even on the list?” Fair question. As Ricky Ricardo would say to the mischievous redhead, “You’ve got some ’splainin’ to do.” So ’splain we shall.
HIGHS: Impeccable chassis tuning, Cadillac style inside and out, the interior GM refused for so long to build, a relatively big back seat, requires only 87 octane.
LOWS: Loutish shifter, odd clutch feel, engine groans, leaden feel, excessive weight.
For our 10Best evaluation, Cadillac gave us the choice of a manual or automatic CTS with the more powerful direct-injection engine; we couldn’t have both. But if we opted for the automatic for 10Best testing, we would be able to get a manual-transmission CTS for this comparison test. We got a CTS with an automatic transmission for 10Best, and it wowed us with its refined manners. The six-speed slushbox performed crisp and quick up- and downshifts, the engine proved to be the strong, silent type, and the chassis felt unflappable and, well, Germanic.
What we found during this comparison test was that coupled with the six-speed manual, the CTS didn’t feel quite as finished or satisfying as the automatic-equipped car. Not even the $1300 “rebate” a customer gets by purchasing a CTS with a manual transmission would be enough to make up for its bad habits. From a stiff clutch pedal with inconsistent engagement to a clunky and high-effort shifter that resists smooth, quick gearchanges, the CTS’s powertrain seems crude without the automatic. Push in the clutch after running first gear toward the 7000-rpm redline, and the engine lets out an unflattering moan. Strange whooshing and droning sounds accompany any changes in throttle position. As one tester glibly put it, “The CTS has more strange sounds than a haunted house.”
It also didn’t help that the BMW preceded the Cadillac in our car-swapping rotation. After a turn in the 328i, the CTS feels positively huge, more like a competitor of the 5-series than the 3-series. Heavy steering, a high cowl, and a curb weight that is more than 500 pounds greater than the BMW’s all conspire to give the CTS a big-car feel. Even with 304 horsepower and a superior power-to-weight ratio, the CTS clipped through the 0-to-60 sprint in the same time as the 328i (6.1 seconds), a few ticks slower than the 5.8-second figure we recorded in a preproduction CTS.
Once we adjusted to the size difference and the heft of the steering and shifter, the CTS proved to be up to the task of chasing down the Infiniti and BMW. Our FE3-equipped CTS wore the aforementioned exotic Michelin PS2 rubber as part of its Summer Performance package and the firm yet compliant chassis settings that helped the CTS win a 10Best award. Mild midcorner bumps are sopped up without complaint, and turn-in is predictable. The steering is wanting for more feel, but no one complained about its accuracy. During really big impacts, the suspension makes a distant sound, but the shockwave doesn’t radiate through the imperturbable structure. At the track the Michelin rubber helped the CTS stop from 70 mph in the shortest distance (155 feet) and charge through the lane change with a best-in-test 64.2-mph speed. Brake feel didn’t impress, as the first few bits of travel are without any bite.
A high-speed cruise down the interstate gave us some time to appreciate the CTS’s great on-center steering and well-executed cabin. Even when trimmed in vinyl, the CTS’s cabin looks terrific—this synthetic stuff looks better than GM leather of the recent past. High-quality plastics, bespoke switchgear, and a dashboard covered in carefully stitched vinyl look as if they were lifted from a much more expensive sedan. Exterior styling and the aggressive proportions of the Cadillac wowed usually jaded L.A. car snobs. At night the various elements in the headlights and taillights of the CTS give it a futuristic look. Bright neon taillights and LED brake lights are an especially fetching piece of design.
The CTS is a big, relatively heavy car, but its size does pay dividends. Thanks to the 191.6-inch overall length and 113.4-inch wheelbase, the Cadillac boasts the largest trunk of the group and the most spacious and comfortable rear seat. If Cadillac were to fix the rudeness in this particular powertrain combination and slice off a few hundred pounds from its curb weight, the CTS might finally overthrow the 3-series.
THE VERDICT: America’s sports sedan is let down by an uncouth transmission and a slight weight problem.
2008 Cadillac CTS DI
304-hp V-6, 6-speed manual, 3900 lb
Base/as-tested price: $35,290/$36,970
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 6.1 sec
100 mph: 16.5 sec
1/4 mile: 14.7 @ 95 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 155 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.87 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 13 mpg
Second Place: Infiniti G35 Sport
Now in its second comparison test against the 328i, the 306-hp G35 finds itself second best once again. No big surprise there—why would the exact same vehicles get a different ending now? It is not our way to repeat a test exactly, so this time we at least learned how the G35 ranks against new competitors. We were surprised that the G took down the newcomers with such ease.
HIGHS: Rocket-sled acceleration, lots of features for the price, thinks it is a Nissan 350Z.
LOWS: Gritty shifter, the coarse hum of the big V-6, lacks the finesse of the Bavarian.
We’re still enamored with the G’s ability to knife through corners with the grace of a much smaller car, its comparo-leading acceleration numbers—0-to-60 in 5.5 seconds and the quarter-mile in 14.1 at 102 mph—and the features one gets for $38,000. It’s not readily apparent unless a 328i is around, but the G35 has struck a Faustian bargain with the car gods. In exchange for speed, spectacular dynamic abilities, and an attractive price, the G35 trades refinement and finesse.
As with most deals made with the devil, the source of the G35’s great power is also the source of its defeat: a raspy but very strong 306-hp, 3.5-liter V-6. It doesn’t take long to tire of the mechanical drone that accompanies every piston stroke. There is a grating quality to the 77 decibels at full throttle that make us want to reach for earplugs. Yet earplugs would only solve the audio part of the problem; the bad vibes can be felt through the shifter.
G35 updates for 2008 include revisions to improve clutch feel and quell vibrations in the shifter and clutch. These changes, shared with the G37 coupe, still haven’t completely stopped the shifter from vibrating like a, well, vibrator, but at least the clutch feel and the reverb through the pedals have improved. Throws are splendidly short, but shifting requires more effort than we like. Second-gear synchros still don’t seem up to their job; quick shifts still result in the grating sound of unhappy gears.
Okay, so there are downsides to the G35’s bargain with the devil. There are some wonderful advantages, too. For $38,865 you get a fully loaded G35, and as a consequence, this car cleaned up in the features and amenities column. Navigation, heated leather seats, power everything, adaptive cruise control, Bluetooth hands-free phone system, and Bose stereo with iPod capability and integrated hard drive to store songs are all part of the pact. The Infiniti also offers a balanced chassis with 0.89 g of grip, communicative steering, a firm ride (occasionally too firm), and strong brakes. Like all the cars on this comparison test, in isolation the G35 feels like a winner, but it only takes a drive in the 328i to understand why the Infiniti is second best.
THE VERDICT: It’s all good, but the BMW is all great.
2008 Infiniti G35 Sport
306-hp V-6, 6-speed manual, 3600 lb
Base/as-tested price: $33,115/$38,865
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 5.5 sec
100 mph: 13.6 sec
1/4 mile: 14.1 @ 102 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 157 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.89 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 14 mpg
First Place: BMW 328i
Even before we left town, we thought this might happen. Once again, the lambs got eaten by the 328i. How could one of these challengers win when our only gripes about the BMW were that (1) it has a tight back seat for three occupants, (2) one tester complained that his knee would hit the door trim in corners, and (3) the radio display disappears behind polarized sunglasses?
HIGHS: Better to drive than most sports cars, hushed refinement of a luxury car, relative light weight, best fuel economy.
LOWS: Smallish back seat, radio display disappears with polarized shades.
What the 328i does better than its peers is combine the ingredients of the perfect sports sedan: driving dynamics and luxury. A 328i possesses handling and driving dynamics that rival, if not best, many sports cars’, but for those who don’t have multiple points on their license, the 328i also offers the refinement generally reserved for expensive luxury cars.
The rightness starts with the seats. Equipped with the Sport package, the 328i gets highly adjustable and well-bolstered sport seats. It’s easy to find a comfortable seating position behind the thick, small-diameter steering wheel. An upright windshield and a small dashboard confer expansive sightlines. Poking out of the center console is a leather and plastic shifter that feels a bit rubbery but never fails to find the right gear.
Setting the pace through our canyon drive in the 328i was an easy task. Responsive and nicely weighted steering made it possible to place the 3380-pound sedan within fractions of an inch of where you want it to be. Strong brakes that offer bite with every millimeter of travel inspire confidence to slow in time should there be a patrolman around the next corner with a radar gun. Using all the grip from the run-flat Bridgestone Potenza RE050As is stress-free because the controls and the chassis communicate exactly what is happening at the road. Those same run-flats occasionally thud when one encounters a midcorner bump, but the unflappable structure smothers the impact before it gets to the driver.
Machines in motion emit sound: some of it good, some of it bad. The 328i keeps all the bad noises from reaching the driver and only delivers what we want to hear. Road noise is largely absent; gear and transmission whine are inaudible. There is a pleasant, light snarl from the engine’s intake, but other than that, the six-cylinder seems as content spinning at 6000 rpm as it is at idle. The engine’s lack of obvious stress makes exploiting it a pleasure. Never once did the 328i feel like it was down 76 horsepower on the G35, even though it is. At low rpm the BMW engine lacks the punch of the torquey, larger-displacement engines, but revs build quickly and the 3.0-liter six rewarded us further by returning the best fuel-economy numbers of the bunch.
Once again, a 3-series rises to the top of a comparison test. It is simply the best executed, best conceived, and best sports sedan currently available for the price. As for the competition, like the Chicago Cubs tell themselves at the end of every season, there’s always next year.
THE VERDICT: BMW still makes the best sports sedan for $38,000.
2007 BMW 328i
230-hp inline-6, 6-speed manual, 3380 lb
Base/as-tested price: $33,175/$38,825
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 6.1 sec
100 mph: 16.4 sec
1/4 mile: 14.8 @ 95 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 161 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.90 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 16 mpg
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