BMW sure does have a lot of automakers gunning for its share of the compact/mid-size sports sedan market. The 3 series tested by car magazines is always a high power rocket set up more for track than for street, but the reality in dealer showrooms is that BMW is making more and more econo-luxury cruisers with power in the low 200 horsepower range. BMW knows that is where the meat of the market is. The new challengers have a hard task ahead because they need to somehow convince the magazines and websites that hold annual “BMW of the year awards” that their cars stack up to the rare rocket 3 Series, while at the same time making a great car to compete with the BMW 320is that will soon flood dealer lots.
In order to take a bite out of the BMW pie each automaker is taking a different approach and it shows when you drive their cars. Lexus has tuned up their IS 250 and IS 350 so that it might have a decent chance of earning some credibility with the boy-racer auto-media. At the same time the IS 250, and some IS 350s undercut the BMW by up to 20% when loaded with the same goodies. Infiniti has gone off the high board into the deep end in terms of transforming the old G35/G37 in to a new car that has very little to do with the older generations of its compact sports sedan. And it is not really fair to use compact anymore, who are we fooling? The new Infiniti Q50 (and Q60 coupe) models are so packed with whiz-bang modern gadgets that they don’t seem much like driver’s cars anymore. Cadillac isn’t playing any games at all. Rather, it is simply going to try to be better at BMW in every segment of this class, from top to bottom.
At a recent event we were able to step directly from the Lexus IS350 AWD into the Q50 Premium, then into the Infiniti Q50 Hybrid, and then finally the Cadillac ATS 3.6 Premium. These are cars that compete head to head with the BMW 3 Series and each other. We won’t focus on their hard numbers, but rather what a driver will experience on a test drive and what impressions one is left with. You should also note that this story is "news opinion." As opposed to a press release.
2014 Lexus IS350 AWD
The Lexus is now a car that cannot be called boring in terms of style. It looks compact sitting next to the Q50 in a parking lot, and significantly more “racy.” The non-F Sport models look good up front. The F-Sport models overdo the spindle grill in this writer’s opinion.
Entering the Lexus one is impressed by the overall sporting feel of the cockpit. Materials are almost all great except one piece of trim on the center console that looks lower grade and out of place. You sit low in the car and the seats hug you, but don’t constrain you.
In a drive at legal speeds the car is tight, well balanced and feels like Goldilock’s porridge. Just right. On our test loop there is a stop sign after which one enters a road with a 45 MPH speed limit. Punching the IS350 Brings it to life and the sounds are great. The car snaps off shifts so quickly it makes this writer wonder why Lexus bothered with the fancier 8-speed, locking torque converter in the non-AWD cars. Anyone wanting more than this level of thrust for their road car is simply fooling themselves. The car shoots forward so fast you almost immediately run out of time and space before you risk a speeding ticket or the safety of those around you.
Bumps are not a problem in the IS350 AWD. Its tires are all the same size, have moderate profiles, and are not oversized. Therefore rough roads are taken with a pleasant feel. Having driven the F-Sport, which has entirely different, more aggressive rims and rubber we can say with confidence if we were shopping we would skip the F-Sport treatment. Turn-ins on public roads are sharp and crisp, the car has excellent brake feel, and more braking and handling capability than would ever be needed on a commute or back-roads blast.
The IS350 is not a large car. This tester is 6 feet tall and feels very comfortable in the car. If you like a much larger cabin, with more room around you in the car, try the GS350, which is not much more money, has the identical drivetrain, and is simply put, a +size IS.
The window sticker for this tester was under $50K and it was loaded. Both of the next two cars we will discuss were priced about 10% higher than this. About the cost to take your entire family to Bermuda for a nice vacation. Try to keep that in mind as you read on.
Cadillac ATS 3.6 Premium Collection
Let’s get this out of the way right now. This writer loves the new Cadillac ATS and may have some personal bias towards it. This Cadillac comes any way you want it. Do you want a bare-bones, underpowered, de-contented rental fleet beater? They will make one for you. Do you want an ATS that is just as good as the CTS, but 20% smaller in every dimension? Not a problem, and in fact that is what we tested. Like turbos and stick shifts? Check. Like big, powerful and smooth 6 cylinders and silky automatics with excellent paddle shifters? Look no further. In fact, we are very confident that if you want an American-made M3, Cadillac will soon roll out and ATS-V with over 400 horsepower. Like all things American, the ATS is now an institution, not a model number.
The exact ATS we drove had it all. The most powerful engine (321 horsepower), paddle shifters that work great, all the luxury goodies, and a piano gloss interior style that is hard not to love. The car is so good in every respect on-road that we will not waste your time. It accelerates, turns, brakes, and handles bumps just like the Lexus. Both are very similar that way. The Cadillac has Magnetic Ride Control, which may be the best system on the market at any price to make a sporty car comfortable.
We do have some complaints. The display on the center console goes all goofy when you use polarized sunglasses. The heads up display also disappears with them on. You could switch away from polarized glasses and get some of those old-folks welding goggles, but if you are in the ATS you are not yet ready to take that step. With the sunglasses off there is terrible glare off the interior trim onto the windshield. So bad we could actually capture it in a photo. The car also has a sense of being just a tad, a smidge smaller than this writer likes. That is not based on measurements, but rather over all feel. Let us offer this counterpoint; A distinguished automotive writer in attendance who we hold in high regard recently bought for himself and his wife an ATS with the 2.0 Turbo and a six speed stick. They both LOVE it. He is 6 foot five. So the car really is big enough. And again, if you want all this but super-sized there is always the CTS. This car, with similar content to the Lexus, but rear-wheel drive cost $ 53K. Is it $4K better than the Lexus? Your call.
The Infiniti looks larger than its competitors. It looks much more luxurious as well. This car is clearly puts luxury ahead of sport. We drove a Premium version first. No paddle shifters. Say that again – A sports sedan with an automatic transmission and no paddle shifters. Next up is the steering, which on your test drive will distract you from the rest of the drive. The steering is now disconnected mechanically from the wheels. It is so amazingly direct and crisp you cannot believe it. Then you can set it to be even more so. There are toggles to adjust every aspect of the car. Everything can be adjusted from steering to handling to acceleration (throttle sensitivity). When you look at the dash you see a graphic with the status of the many driver aids: How is my blind-spot, my rear-cross traffic, my lane centering, my forward collision situation? If you need to have a constant view of the status of all this you could either look out of the car’s windshield and windows, or you can look here. Your choice. Infiniti makes this more important than the RPMs of the engine or the speed at which you are travelling to the nano-biology conference you are scheduled to speak at.
The Infiniti does not a single thing wrong. It is excellent, modern, polished, big, and I could not possibly want one less.
Infiniti Q50 Hybrid
The Infiniti representative told me that the Q50 Hybrid is actually its sportiest and fastest of the line. So I had to try that of course. It is a V6 hybrid. It had the look of the Premium, but a little more bling-bling. I was expecting it to be sporty since I was told it was, and since it looked the part. I drove it in “Standard” mode. In fact, I had the Infiniti person set it to standard. When you set off, the gas pedal pushes you back. It does not want to let you give it the gas. If you force it to take the input you want, it relents (grudgingly) and then takes a breath and explodes down the road just like the BMW 335i does due to turbo lag. I turned the car around at the next opportunity and I returned it to the paddock. My apologies, but I do not test and report on cars that are marketed as sporty, but try so hard to ruin that feeling. Both Infinities were over $53K MSRP. If you are interested in this car we suggest you change it to “Sport” mode and give it a fair evaluation.
About All-Wheel Drive
All of these cars can be outfitted with AWD. On-road that makes little difference in terms of our testing. However, if you live in a northern state at the top of a steep hill, or if you are going to take your car skiing, that is a sensible option. Otherwise we feel in this class of cars that it is a waste of money and a waste of gas. The models we had to test were somewhat limited, so you will see the Lexus is AWD. We have previously driven all the versions of this car on and off track. Some of our impressions here are of the non-AWD car.
The Final Word
The sports sedan segment is now so broad that anyone with Honda Accord money can buy the base model BMW 320i and get vinyl seats and no navigation system. Or you can spend about $64K on a BMW 3 Series model that looks just like it. This segment is now a huge class of cars and each is starting to develop its own style and personality. If there is one thing we learned it is that the price you pay is not directly related to the quality and feel of the car you get. We suggest you figure out your priorities, read up on the models you like most and drive a couple from each manufacturer that you might consider. If you do, you could save thousands and bring home a car that fits you like a glove.