Payne: Caddy ATS-V rivals BMW M3

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Tiger Woods is more than a great golfer. He's a legend who redefined his sport, raising the bar for power, fitness and all-around performance.

In his first Masters tourney in 1997 he blew the doors off the field, romping to an unheard of 18-under-par, 12-stroke victory. He dominated the sport for years after. A man among boys.

Twenty years later, Tiger is no longer the hunter but the hunted. The benchmark for a new generation: Spieth, Johnson, McElroy. As powerful as Tiger (everyone hits it 320 off the tee now). As fit as Tiger. As rounded as Tiger. Sure enough, two decades after 21-year old Tiger's Masters Blitzkrieg, 21-year old Jordan Spieth shot a record -18, equaling the legend. The field has caught up.

The BMW M3 is the Tiger Woods of performance sedans, and the 2016 Cadillac ATS-V is Jordan Spieth.

Since its intimidating, track-torching, 240-horsepower E36 BMW M3 launched here in 1995, the BMW has stood astride the performance luxury market. Its power, comfortable interior, and all-around performance set a new bar for a sedan you could drive to work weekdays — and flog at the track on weekends. Its success forced rivals to raise their game. A new generation of Tigers — Mercedes AMG, Audi S4 — are better than ever.

But now, the M3 has a true contender: The 2016 Cadillac ATS-V.

Like the Tiger wannabes, V engineers admit that the M3 (its four-door option is an M4) was their benchmark. They even bought one to dissect like a lab frog. And if Spieth proved he belonged by tying Tiger's Masters' course record, then Cadillac would prove its claim by inviting the motorhead press to test the new Caddy on one of the plant's premier race courses: Circuit of the Americas outside Austin, Texas.

This monster is not for the timid. Designed for Formula One, it is 3.4 miles in length with neck-wrenching ess turns, brake-boiling hairpins, 145-mph straightaways, and a Turn One as iconic as the Masters' 12th hole.

"You want to be King of the Hill? You'll have to climb me first!"

At the end of the front straight, the road rises three stories into a left-hand hairpin like an asphalt version of Cedar Point's Top Thrill rollercoaster. Insane. I row the V's gears — third, fourth, fifth. A sprinting, 3,750-pound pole vaulter. Four-hundred-forty-four foot-pounds of twin-turbocharged, V-6 torque pins me to the seat.

As the road rises, the beast compresses on magnetorheological shocks at 120 mph before I stomp six-piston, front Brembo brakes that pull the eyeballs out of my sockets. Bang. Bang. Bang. My lightning manual downshifts are assisted by electronic rev-matching. Forget heel-and-toe, the machine does it better. I rotate the rear-engine missile hard left. No squall from the meaty, sticky-soft Michelin tires.

And then as suddenly as the road rose, it drops away. For a moment, the ATS-V feels suspended in space. On top of the world, its V logo stretched skyward like Sylvester Stallone's arms as he dances on the top step of Philly's Museum of Art — the Rocky theme song blaring.

Powerful. Fit. All-around athlete. An M3 fighter.

Car & Driver track testing found the V (.97 g) the M's peer in cornering grip (.98 g). Try that in the ATS-V's predecessor, the CTS-V. The big car was Thor's hammer. Powerful but heavy. To continue our golf analogy: John Daly on wheels.

The V comes by its athleticism naturally. It sits on the base ATS chassis — the so-called Alpha platform that I whipped hard on Connecticut back roads last year — and which I (and more than a few of my colleagues) attest to be the best chassis in luxe-dom. Caddy's engineers take this choice DNA and team it with the twin-turbo cyborg from Hell: the 3.6-liter, 464-horsepower LF4 V-6, the most powerful engine in its class.

And this is where Tiger-like, M3-inspired fitness really shows.

American muscle cars like the Ford Focus are laugh-out-loud fun until its hand-wrenching torque-steer reminds you it's not as well-engineered as, say, Germany's VW GTI.

Not the ATS-V. The car is weaponized to the teeth with the same tricks that make the M3 so deadly: Extensive bracing in the front end. Huge front cooling ducts ("Ichey vents" for Inter-cooler Heat Exchangers the engineers call them. Cute). And titanium-aluminide turbochargers that even the M3 can't match, resulting in a turbo that spools more smoothly even as it delivers jaw-clenching power.

But perhaps the ATS-V's greatest attribute is that it's easier on the backside than Bavaria's finest.

Unlike the stiff, growly M3, the V is a better daily driver — a hybrid between the Bimmer and Audi's less-track focused, 333-horsepower (that's it?) S4. That's a good thing because the V won't leave you much padding in the wallet. A track-ready V stickers for $74 grand, just shy of the M3's eye-watering $81k. Benchmarking to top talent doesn't come cheap.

Still, it's worth noting the difference is BMW's $8,150 ceramic, brake fade-fighting rotors, while the V gets away with steel Brembos that never dimmed in our day-long test. Credit a Cadillac development team of track jocks — led by two-time SCCA national champ John Buttermore.

So Caddy's Spieth can match BMW's Tiger in performance. Can he match him in personality?

The crucial brand question. And this is where the V comes up short. The M3 exudes emotion, its iconic kidney nostrils giving way to sexy, fluted eyes and sculpted lower air intakes. The V by contrast is more brutish, less elegant. Hulk next to Ironman. Its armored, chain-mail grille fronts a blunt face compared to the M3's handsome curves.

Style matters and the ATS-V won't make the girls coo like the M3. Until they get inside, perhaps. The V's interior is elegant, its micro-fiber seats marvelously micro-adjustable. Even the Caddy's oft-derided CUE system beats Bimmer's difficult rotary dial. Better to jab at CUE's touch screen than to fumble for a knob.

Clever touches abound like a phone charger behind the console screen and multiple drive modes that make the ATS-V easier to drive on the limit. But all this digital wizardy adds heft and both the V and M3 are big cars. Indeed, many customers will prefer the Bimmer's bigger back seat even as it chases away the purist.

For those customers there is the new BMW M235i which your loyal scribe reviewed last fall. Smaller, simpler, cheaper — still blindingly quick. Alas, another benchmark for Cadillac to meet.

As good as the V is, it's a reminder that Caddy is always chasing BMW. When will Cadillac set the benchmark? Maybe someday. Maybe when Jordan Spieth beats Tiger's 14 major titles.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

2016 Cadillac ATS-V

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, four-passenger two-door sedan/coupe

Price: $61,460 base ($74,325 sedan and $$74,355 coupe as tested)

Power plant: 3.6-liter, twin-turbo V-6

Power: 464 horsepower, 444 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Six-speed manual (optional eight-speed automatic)

Performance: 0-60 mph, 3.8 seconds; 189 mph top speed (manufacturer)

Weight: 3,750 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 16 mpg city/24 mpg highway (auto transmission); 17 mpg city/23 mpg highway (manual)

Report card

Highs: Track-worthy handling; street-worthy ride

Lows: Blunt styling; claustrophobic back seat

Overall: ★★★★

Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★

Good ★★★

Fair ★★

Poor ★