Alfa, BMW, Cadillac, Mercedes gun for dominance
Compared to the scads of high-volume entry-level sports sedans—you know, the ones with the highly publicized lease deals—there are but a few, high-dollar, high-horsepower variants.
The Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio, the BMW M3 Competition Package, the Cadillac ATS-V, and the Mercedes-AMG C63 S are all designed to make schoolchildren out of restrained adults. They provide near-supercar levels of performance, yet still carry four people and their stuff with ease.
These cars have an extreme impact on both their drivers’ heart rate and pocketbook, not to mention the public’s perception of those lesser models that spawn these high-end variants. These are the image-makers—the cars that form the basis of barroom bragging.
We spent an inordinate amount of time with these four cars, covering hundreds of miles of city roads, back roads, and bombing around two different race tracks. After putting a total of over 3,000 miles (4,828 km) on the cars, we have a clear finishing order.
So let’s get giddy with it.
Fourth Place: Mercedes-AMG C63 S
The best engine
We don’t like putting any magnificent Mercedes in last place. Sadly though, the C-class’ inherent greatness didn’t survive the transformation from excellent luxury sedan to top-flight sport sedan as well as its peers.
The C63’s engine is the sole V-8 here and the most charismatic of the group. On a cold start, the 4.0-liter erupts with a neighbor-startling cough, settling into a labored, loping, baritone idle. You could fall in love with the AMG before even driving it.
At 503 hp, the V-8’s peak output is a rounding error less than the best-in-class Alfa Romeo’s, but its two extra pistons and 1,091-cc additional displacement help it best the Italian V-6’s maximum twist by 73 very sonorous lb-ft of torque. Although the AMG is almost 150 pounds (68 kg) porkier than the next-heaviest Cadillac, the brute’s underhood muscle put it in the thick of the quarter-mile drag race – and still delivered the best city fuel economy. We are slightly disappointed that for AMG duty Mercedes replaced the torque converter in its seven-speed automatic with a multi-plate clutchpack whose programming allows far too much slippage and not enough smoothness off the line. The torque converter would have been way better.
The AMG is impressive in the corners, beating everything but the Cadillac in our handling tests. Unfortunately, the experience doesn’t back up the numbers—the C63 feels like an unwilling participant in the sport-sedan game. Its steering turns rubbery as the g-forces rise, and its brake pedal becomes less responsive when the carbon-ceramic front (and steel rear) brakes heat up.
The C63 has, by a considerable margin, the best interior of these four cars in terms of switchgear, buttons, and instruments—or pretty much anything that falls to hand or is in line of sight. However, in daily use we found the C63’s high-mounted front seats don’t offer much lateral support in return for their firm cushions.
A minor quibble, perhaps, especially when the trade-off is that V-8 under the hood.
Third Place: Cadillac ATS-V
The best chassis
As a device to haul passengers and stuff, the ATS is deeply flawed. Its back seat is unusably small, its ride quality unpleasant, its infotainment system infuriating, GM’s eight-speed automatic is sluggish and occasionally downright harsh, and the cabin is filled with road noise and cheap materials that look pulled from a kit car.
But in terms of handling, this Cadillac is in a class of one. The ATS-V drives as though guided by the god of chassis balance. It never has a problem putting its prodigious power to the ground, and it remains beautifully neutral into, through, and out of a corner. The V is so adept at making use of all four tires’ available grip that I was forced to invent a new word to describe its dynamic magic: Dynamagic.
The recipe behind Dynamagic is the triumvirate of an electronically locking rear differential, magnetorheological shock absorbers, and Performance Traction Management—GM’s performance-enhancing stability control. You don’t feel any of the systems working, but you know they must be. When you reach the ATS’ cornering limit, its front tires lose grip first. In normal cars, this understeer means the fun is over. In the ATS-V, however, you can simply add more lock to the steering wheel. In response, the car tightens its line. That yaw means the rear wheels are responding to steering inputs at the front. It’s…Dynamagic!
The results are clear: with tires no more aggressive than the other cars’, the ATS-V slaughters its competitors with 1.03 g of steady-state cornering grip and a staggering 23.7-second figure-eight performance. That’s not only 0.3 second quicker than the next-best Mercedes, but the list of supercars the Caddy beats is embarrassingly long
That handling isn’t enough, however, to ignore the ATS-V’s biggest flaw: its engine. The twin-turbo, 464-hp 3.6-liter V-6 is powerful in all the wrong ways: it’s coarse, unrefined, laggy, and lacking in personality. Pumping in a dozen or so decibels of fake engine noise through the stereo speakers helps, but ultimately it’s the powertrain that holds this Cadillac back. If the ATS-V had the Camaro SS’ pushrod V-8, we could have forgiven a multitude of material and back-seat sins. But it doesn’t, so we can’t.
Second Place: BMW M3 Competition Package
The best M3
We’ve been tough on BMW for this generation of M3 and for good reason. Its engine sounds like a garbage disposal and makes more power than the chassis seems capable of handling. Its steering offers practically no road feel, and the dual-clutch transmission moves it off the line with either the urgency of a sloth on Dilaudid or enough wheelspin to obscure a complete neighborhood in tire smoke.
The M3’s Competition Package, new for 2016, demonstrates the importance of proper tuning. Apparently, all it took was a bunch of minor tweaks to transform the F80-chassis BMW from a discordant mess into a convincing imitation of a proper M3. Despite having more power than the base M3 (444 hp instead of 425), the competition-pack car can actually accelerate without incinerating its rear tires.
Stiffer springs, retuned dampers, and stouter anti-roll bars are a recipe for a tauter ride—and kudos from us because an M-car should be focused on performance and not solely on comfort. The comp-pack’s steering is way better than the regular F80’s, too, having learned a few tricks from the hardcore M4 GTS. The big on-center dead spot has become smaller, but the assist programming is all wrong. Like the larger, still hydraulically assisted M5 and M6, the M3’s steering effort is adjustable to three levels, all of which are far too heavy.
The M3’s dual-clutch automatic still has no idea how to properly execute a quick launch, as witnessed by the 4.3-second 0-60 run, which is by far the slowest car here and the least urgent F80 M3 we’ve tested. A quick glance at the 118-mph (190-km/h) quarter-mile trap speed, however, shows that all horses are present and accounted for. This M3 is a touch slower around the figure eight than any prior F80 or F82-chassis M3/M4, but generating numbers was never a problem with this generation M3. It was the experience that was lacking. And luckily, the Competition Package goes a long way toward fixing that.
This newest M3 is finally a well-rounded sport sedan. It has a great back seat, a powerful engine, and it looks fantastic, especially with the GTS-inspired wheels. The fact is, though, it’s a decade behind the Cadillac dynamically, a full luxury class behind the Mercedes in interior quality, and nowhere near as multitalented as the Alfa Romeo.
First Place: Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio
The best all-rounder
To judge a brand-new car’s expected reliability by the reputation of a car produced 30 years ago is absurd, but bad reputations are tough to shake, especially one as well earned as Alfa Romeo’s. Alas every conversation we had about the Giulia Quadrifoglio included concerns of impending catastrophic breakdown. To our surprise, the Alfa showed no sign of weakness during this long, abusive test. Instead, it charmed us all and crippled the competition, claiming an easy victory.
Why so easy? The sheer breadth of its capabilities. The Giulia is a jack-of-all-trades and master of most. Whereas most cars do one thing well at the expense of everything else, the Giulia simply does everything well. For example, it rides so smoothly, is so quiet inside, and cruises down the highway with such relaxed confidence that we GPS-verified its speedometer to ensure it wasn’t optimistic by 15 mph (24 km).
But then, with the mode selector in Race mode, the Alfa forgets about luxury, transforming into a violent sports sedan with a bad boy attitude none of its three competitors can come close to matching. On track, the Alfa demonstrates athleticism nearing the Cadillac’s but manages an even quicker lap time. The Giulia’s torque-vectoring rear differential helps put every one of its 505 horsepower to good use. There’s no accidental tire smoke here. In fact, the Giulia doesn’t like to do powerslides; it just wants to be fast.
Speaking of fast, the Alfa’s steering uses an obscenely quick ratio, 11.8:1 with just 2.3 turns from lock to lock. The electrically assisted steering is as light as a Ferrari’s and almost as precise, giving its driver the impression that the Giulia is weightless. Aided by hyperaggressive 60-tread-wear Pirelli P Zero Corsa tires, cornering grip is yuge, which left us puzzled when the Alfa tied the BMW for the least skidpad grip of the group.
Ignore that number. In fact, ignore all numbers because whether driving in a straight line, in corners, or on a racetrack, the Alfa is incredible. Over broken, twisty tarmac, this sedan’s family lineage becomes clear. Ferrari’s former chief engineer Roberto Fedeli is now Alfa Romeo’s chief technical officer, and the Quadrifoglio’s dynamics bear his stamp. This five-seater possesses the same preternatural ability as the best recent Ferraris to follow your wishes no matter how absurd the request. It does things that seem impossible, feeling like it could change direction while airborne. It shrugs off jumps, bumps, surface changes, and camber swaps as if the laws of physics were rewritten especially for it. You know there must be electronic trickery happening, yet you feel none of it. And better, all of this capability is met with equal parts fun, and that’s something so often missing in very fast cars. The Giulia Quadrifoglio is the closest thing to a Ferrari sedan you can buy.
Read our review on Alfa Romeo’s first SUV, the Stelvio, RIGHT HERE.
We haven’t even spoken of the engine yet. The 505-hp 2.9-liter V-6 is a masterpiece. It’s not just good for a V-6, like every other engine of this configuration, but genuinely, surprisingly, odds-defyingly epic. Then again, it should be, since it’s a Ferrari California T V-8 with the front two cylinders lopped off. The short-stroke, nonbalance-shafted six will rev 900 rpm past its 6,500-rpm tachometer redline, never making any of the cringeworthy mechanical noises that plague all other V-6s. This is, perhaps, the best V-6 since the famed Alfa Romeo “Busso” engine that powered the Giulia’s predecessors three decades ago.
By any normal standards, the powerplant suffers from major turbo lag. No surprise, because it delivers similar power to the twin-turbocharged Mercedes V-8 using just three-quarters the pistons and displacement. However, the Giulia knows that turbo response quickens with engine speed, so it plays a few tricks to keep its engine on the boil. First and most fabulous, the 505-hp Quadrifoglio’s first six gears are shorter than those in a 155-hp Mazda Miata. Read that sentence again, please.
The second trick is keeping the exhaust from the two banks of cylinders mostly separate, resulting in a V-6 that sounds more like two angry three-cylinder engines. The pitch doesn’t change much with engine speed, so what sounds to your ears like 3,000 rpm is more like 5,000 on the tach. The Quadrifoglio’s engine never screams like an Italian soprano, but all those relaxed revs mean you’ll never be yelling about its turbo lag.
In stop-and-go traffic, of course, you can catch the engine asleep. It’s here that you also notice the Giulia’s biggest flaw—it is impossible to come to a smooth, slow stop. To blame are two things: one, a by-wire braking system that’s not always linear in its response and two, a clutch that decouples the transmission right as the car is about to come to a full stop. Fiat-Chrysler says the by-wire system allows the brakes to react more quickly to inputs and cycle more quickly under ABS, but the Quadrifoglio’s braking distances were midpack despite its grippy tires. So we see no benefit from using the by-wire system.
What we do see is added complexity on an Italian car. That makes us nervous. We happily awarded the Giulia first place, experiencing no reliability issues at all with the two test cars we abused. Then, a few weeks later, a different Giulia died in traffic, leaving one of our senior staffers blocking the road until the flatbed arrived. And then yet another test car showed off its Italian heritage by stalling randomly during a photo shoot.
Apparently this Giulia might live up to Alfa’s love-it-but-don’t-trust-it reputation after all. Or it could just be early-build teething problems from an all-new platform. We still think it’s the best compact sport sedan you can buy, even if it winds up breaking your heart. Better to have loved and been towed home than to have never loved at all.
Editor’s Note: Three of the four cars below represent the most recent tested examples.
|2017 Alfa Romeo Giulia (Quadrifoglio)||2016 BMW M3||2016 Cadillac ATS-V Sedan||2015 Mercedes-Benz C63 S AMG|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front-engine, RWD||Front-engine, RWD||Front-engine, RWD||Front-engine, RWD|
|ENGINE TYPE||Twin-turbo 90-deg V-6 alum block/heads||Twin-turbo I-6, aluminum block/head||Twin-turbo 60-deg V-6 alum block/heads||Twin-turbo 90-deg V-8, alum block/heads|
|VALVETRAIN||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|DISPLACEMENT||176.4 cu in/2,891 cc||181.8 cu in/2,979cc||217.5 cu in/3,564 cc||243.0 cu in/3,982 cc|
|POWER (SAE NET)||505 hp @ 6,500 rpm||444 hp @ 7,000 rpm||464 hp @ 5,850 rpm*||503 hp @ 5,500 rpm|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||443 lb-ft @ 2,500 rpm||406 lb-ft @ 1,850 rpm||445 lb-ft @ 3,500 rpm*||516 lb-ft @ 1,750 rpm|
|REDLINE||6,500 rpm||7,500 rpm||6,500 rpm||7,000 rpm|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||7.4 lb/hp||8.2 lb/hp||8.2 lb/hp||7.8 lb/hp|
|TRANSMISSION||8-speed automatic||7-speed twin-clutch auto.||8-speed automatic||7-speed automatic|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Multilink, coil springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar||Struts, coil springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar||Struts, coil springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar; multi-link, coil springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar||Multi-link, coil springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar; multi-link, coil springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar|
|STEERING RATIO||11.8:1||15.0:1||Varible, 15.5:1-11.1:1||14.1:1|
|BRAKES, F; R||15.4-in vented, drilled, carbon-ceramic disc; 14.2-in vented, drilled, carbon-ceramic disc, ABS||15.8-in vented, drilled, carbon-ceramic disc; 15.0-in vented, drilled, carbon-ceramic disc, ABS||14.5-in vented disc; 13.3-in vented disc, ABS||15.8-in vented, drilled, carbon-ceramic disc; 14.2-in vented, drilled disc, ABS|
|WHEELS, F;R||8.5 x 19-in; 10.0 x 19-in forged aluminum||9.0 x 20-in; 10.0 x 20-in, forged aluminum||9.0 x 18-in; 9.5 x 18-in, forged aluminum||8.5 x 19-in; 9.5 x 19-in forged aluminum|
|TIRES, F;R||245/35R19 93Y; 285/30R19 98Y
Pirelli P Zero Corsa AR Asimmetrico
|265/30R20 94Y; 285/30R20 99Y
Michelin Pilot Super Sport
|255/35ZR18 94Y; 275/35ZR18 99Y
Michelin Pilot Super Sport
|245/35ZR19 93Y; 265/35ZR19 98Y
Michelin Pilot Super Sport
|WHEELBASE||111.0 in||110.7 in||109.3 in||111.8 in|
|TRACK, F/R||61.2/63.3 in||62.2/63.1 in||60.5/60.4 in||63.3/60.9 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||182.6 x 73.7 x 56.1 in||184.5 x 73.9 x 56.3 in||184.0 x 71.3 x 55.7 in||187.2 x 72.4 x 56.1 in|
|TURNING CIRCLE||37.5 ft||40.0 ft||38.4 ft||37.1 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT||3,749 lb||3,646 lb||3,788 lb||3,936 lb|
|WEIGHT DIST, F/R||53/47%||52/48%||52/48 %||54/46 %|
|HEADROOM, F/R||38.6/37.6 in||40.3/37.7 in||37.6/35.1 in||37.1/37.1 in|
|LEGROOM, F/R||42.4/35.1 in||42.0/35.1 in||42.3/33.5 in||41.7/35.2 in|
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/R||56.1/53.6 in||55.1/55.1 in||54.1/51.1 in||54.0/50.3 in|
|CARGO VOLUME||13.4 cu ft (est)||12.0 cu ft||10.4 cu ft||12.6 cu ft|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|0-30||1.6 sec||2.0 sec||1.5 sec||1.8 sec|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||1.6||1.7||1.7||1.6|
|QUARTER MILE||12.1 sec @ 119.8 mph||12.5 sec @ 118.0 mph||12.1 sec @ 116.2 mph||12.2 sec @ 119.5 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||100 ft||100 ft||99 ft||101 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.98 g (avg)||0.98 g (avg)||1.03 g (avg)||1.01 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||24.2 sec @ 0.84 g (avg)||24.2 sec @ 0.85 g (avg)||23.7 sec @ 0.88 g (avg)||24.1 sec @ 0.86 g (avg)|
|2.68-MI ROAD COURSE LAP||120.22 sec||120.61 sec||120.81 sec||122.49 sec|
|TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH||1,600 rpm||1,700 rpm||1,450 rpm||1,600 rpm|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$85,745||$88,095||$73,570||$89,035|
|AIRBAGS||8: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, front knee||7: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, front knee||Dual front, f/r side, f/r curtain, front knee||9: Dual front, front side, front pelvic, f/r curtain, driver knee|
|BASIC WARRANTY||4 yrs/50,000 miles||4 yrs/50,000 miles||4 yrs/50,000 miles||4 yrs/50,000 miles|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||4 yrs/50,000 miles||4 yrs/50,000 miles||6 yrs/70,000 miles||4 yrs/50,000 miles|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||4 yrs/Unlimited miles||4 yrs/Unlimited miles||6 yrs/70,000 miles||4 yrs/50,000 miles|
|FUEL CAPACITY||15.3 gal||15.8 gal||16.0 gal||17.4 gal|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON||17/24/20 mpg||17/24/19 mpg||16/24/19 mpg||18/25/20 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||198/140 kW-hrs/100 miles||198/140 kW-hrs/100 miles||211/140 kW-hrs/100 miles||187/135 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.99 lb/mile||0.99 lb/mile||1.03 lb/mile||0.94 lb/mile|
|RECOMMENDED FUEL||Unleaded premium||Unleaded premium||Unleaded premium||Unleaded premium|
|* SAE certified|