A Tale of Three Coupes – and a Sedan: BMW’s Un4gettable Test Drive: BMW 435i Coupe vs. Mercedes-Benz C350 vs. Cadillac CTS
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BMW holds, from time to time, driving events featuring their products and competitors’ product for comparison. This year it is the Un4gettable Test Drive, featuring the BMW 4 series coupe. Coming along for the party were, amongst others, a Cadillac CTS and a Mercedes-Benz C350. All three of these sporting coupes are available in rear wheel drive or all wheel drive.
On paper there is enough equivalence to make the comparison of the three interesting. One caveat before beginning however, the Cadillac CTS is aimed more towards the 5 series, E-Class as a competitor, not towards the 4 or C-Class. The Cadillac has a longer wheelbase and is half a foot plus longer than either the C350 or 435i. But, importantly, pricing is similar for the three.
While style is often a matter of personal taste, none of these coupes are without their charms. These three are aimed directly at the heart of the premium sports market and have to have a broad appeal. The companies’ design language has to be on its best behavior with these cars, though there is some leeway because they are the two-door variants of the more popular four door models. While they are expected to be cleanly styled, they can get away with some flourishes.
All three coupes hit the target for sportiness and elegance. The Cadillac ‘Art and Science’ design language features sharp edges and daring shapes. The Mercedes-Benz C350 styling features a long flowing line that runs from the fenders, below the door handles, across the rear fender before it up ticks to the rear deck. It is typical understated elegance from Mercedes, a manufacturer that does not want its cars ever to feel ‘out of date’. And, of course, the BMW displays the traditional BMW styling hallmarks.
There’s more to like than dislike on the three, though I can point to at least one feature on each I dislike. The front fender vent on the BMW is one, the ‘string of pearl’ LED DRL lamps on the C350 is another, and the slab sides of the Cadillac could stand some additional sculpting. But even with those quibbles – which some will disagree with – all three are handsome.
Coupes are inherently drivers’ cars and their interiors should reflect that orientation. Gauges and controls should be readily accessible by the driver. The driver, and front seat passenger’s, comfort – over the long haul – should trump styling silliness. And all three coupes deliver.
All three coupes’ seats were of the ‘sit on’, not ‘sit in’ variety. Often seat bolstering is soft, which can be comfortable over short distances, but decent firm support is needed for comfort in a machine that will cover long distances and each coupe had good long distance seats. Leather surfaces were available for all three, however, choosing the leather seating option on the C350 precludes selecting the Sport Package.
Instrumentation on the C350 and CTS subordinate the tachometer to a large central speedometer, whereas on the 435i the speedo and tach get equal billing. That could be because neither the Cadillac or Mercedes-Benz are available with a manual transmission.
The Mercedes-Benz and BMW have push button start, the Cadillac uses a rotating knob on the steering column – a keyless key if you will. The center IP stacks of all three contain a variety of buttons and knobs to control HVAC and audio, with the BMW concentrating on keeping controls higher on the dash than the other two coupes.
Materials used to cover the surfaces of the dash and styling were all very good with the exception of the ‘plastic metal’ that covered the center stack of the Cadillac. It looked promising from afar but when it’s touched, there is no heat transfer which immediately identifies it as something it’s not. Wood (even a picture of wood), piano black, faux carbon fiber are alternatives, and almost anything would be better in the CTS than ‘plastic metal’.
Over a mixed loop of freeway and surface streets (including some pavement under construction) all three coupes showed they were biased towards performance, with the BMW having an optional set of suspension/transmission/steering settings. Steering on all three coupes was quick and direct and delivered useful feedback.
Each of the three coupes felt poised and that reflects all three’s use of ‘front engined-rear wheel drive’, balanced platforms. Cadillac uses the Alpha platform and like the BMW 4 series it features a near 50/50 weight distribution. The C350 is based on the W204 chassis and it too is well balanced.
The edge here is to the flexibility of the optional BMW ‘Sport +/Sport/Comfort/Eco’ settings. While both the Cadillac and Mercedes-Benz acquitted themselves well for all around handling, the optional BMW suspension settings give it just a bit more usability.
All three coupes were equipped with six cylinder engines, the BMW an inline six, while the Cadillac and Mercedes-Benz come with a V6 (60 degree V angle). All three engines produce similar horsepower, but the BMW has a decided advantage on torque. While the 435i has the smallest displacement, the 3.0L N55 is the only turbocharged engine of the group.
The three coupes had 8,7,and 6 speed automatic transmissions, with only the BMW available with a manual transmission option. The 435i 8 speed is the familiar ZF gearbox and can be placed in manual mode and shifted via the optional paddle shifters. Putting the 435i in Sport or Sport+ modes optimizes the shift quality of the transmission.
The 7-speed automatic in the C350 also had a Sport mode available and paddle shifters. Using sport mode in the C350 provided good crisp shifts. And while trundling around city streets, the Economy mode provided unobtrusive and frugal shifting. This is a good gearbox.
The 6-speed automatic on the CTS was, however, decidedly non-sporting. Shifts were agonizingly slow compared to the 435i or C350. It’s as if a request for a downshift was a suggestion to the gearbox and not a demand. There has been some talk of Cadillac going to an 8 speed automatic, and it cannot happen too soon. The gearbox is the CTS’s Achilles’ heel.
It should come as no surprise, seeing as how biased I am towards manual transmissions, that the BMW 435i would be my first choice, but it comes – when optioned as tested – at a fairly steep price.
The Mercedes-Benz C350 surprised me, this is a car I could see owning, it was both sufficiently sporting and comfortable – a nice cocoon of an interior to coddle the driver and passenger as the miles fly by; a good car.
The Cadillac is another proposition however. Until Cadillac addresses the shift quality of the CTS’s gearbox, and decides to put something other than ‘plastic metal’ on the center stack, I wouldn’t consider it.
So, there was a 750i available, and being a sucker for big sedans, I asked if I could have a go in it. Sure, was the response and off I went. Odd, there are M sill plates on the 750i.
The big sedan’s cabin was superbly luxurious. The leather, wood, and metal oozing elegance. The seating was perfect and the controls were all where you expect them to be in a BMW (there is a real continuity from model to model in BMW interiors, even if furnishings and material quality differs). However, the speedo and tach are replaced with what might best be called video game gauges. They were off-putting to me and as you go through the ‘Sport+/Sport/Comfort/Comfort+/Eco’ modes the gauges change colors and markings.
But once underway the big BMW impresses. It feels like the proverbial bank vault – a solidity that big German sedans exude. And then there was an opening on the freeway that the twin turbo V8 could exploit and off the 750i went. What great acceleration (and a wonderful V8 snarl for a soundtrack to accompany it). Civilized – but nevertheless capable of much mischief.
What got my attention, when back on surface streets, was the ‘Comfort+’ setting. There was a bit of surface street construction, pavement misaligned by height and other bumps and dips, that Comfort+ soaked up without hesitation. Comfort+ is there for passenger comfort, and often, in cars as big as the 7, it’s the back seat that is important. The 750i has a decent back seat – but it was not as spacious as I’d like in a big sedan, which would naturally lead to the L version. Could they build be an M750iL? Please. (Of course they can, order a 750Li with the M sport option!) The 750i is a blast to drive, just what you expect from BMW – maker of driver’s cars.