2020 BMW M235i Gran Coupe vs. 2020 Cadillac CT4-V vs. 2020 Mercedes-AMG A35

“Is that the one with the Corvette engine?” The guy admiring the candy-red Cadillac wants to know if he’s in the presence of the mighty 640-hp CTS-V.

Not quite, friend. This is the one with the four-cylinder truck engine.

“Oh. Well, I’m sure it’s still fast.”

That passing interaction perfectly captures why the Cadillac CT4-V, the BMW M235i Gran Coupe, and the Mercedes-AMG A35 exist. A decade ago, each of these cars might have been the forgotten middle child in a three-powertrain lineup. Today, they wear the coveted V, M, and AMG badges to run in the draft of legends like the Cadillac CTS-V, the BMW M3, and the Mercedes-AMG E63 S. If the casual observer thinks these entry-performance vehicles have twice as many cylinders and twice as much power as they actually do, everything is going to plan.

The Caddy, Bimmer, and Merc gathered here are the top performers in their respective model lines but only for the moment. Cadillac has teased us with the CT4-V Blackwing, which will land above the V. An M2 Gran Coupe is as certain as tomorrow’s sunrise. And while Mercedes might not deliver an AMG A45 sedan to the U.S., you’ll get the same experience in its fraternal twin, the CLA45.

Marc UrbanoCar and Driver

Performance-lite models like these are a booming business. BMW and Mercedes now offer more models with some form of M or AMG branding than without. Fortunately, there’s substance to add credibility to this marketing exercise. All of the contenders are armed with sticky summer tires, capable suspensions, and power-packed engines. They are real sports sedans, and they offer a taste of the full-bore perform­ance models at a discounted price.

The $50,795 M235i and the $52,705 A35 pop out of similar molds. Both use transverse-mounted turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-fours driving all four wheels. While the 302-hp Mercedes engine pips the BMW four-cylinder by a single pony, the BMW’s automatic transmission has one more gear than the AMG’s seven-speed dual-clutch. But where Mercedes has already primed us for this format with the old CLA-class, we’re still trying to make peace with the idea of a BMW sports sedan—especially one with an M badge on it—running a transverse engine.

The Cadillac CT4-V avoids the issue altogether by sticking with tradition. All-wheel drive is available for an extra $1100, but this particular $52,165 CT4-V drives only the rear wheels, as nature intended. The turbocharged 2.7-liter inline-four that’s shared with the Chevy Silverado makes 325 horsepower and 380 pound-feet of torque here and pairs with a 10-speed automatic.

We wanted an Audi S3 to complete the set, but that model is at the end of its life cycle and a replacement is still many months away. Audi declined to participate. With a spread of just 24 horsepower, 115 pounds, and less than $2000 between the three vehicles, this is one of the most closely matched comparison tests we’ve run in recent history.

Third Place:
BMW M235i xDrive Gran Coupe

Marc UrbanoCar and Driver

Highs: Rev-happy engine, precise steering, admirable performance.
Lows:
Punishing ride quality, front tires give up early, doesn’t look like a BMW.
Verdict:
Emphasizes performance numbers over day-to-day livability.

Add up the bronze exterior trim, the blue brake calipers, the yam-colored seats, and the girthy steering wheel, and it’s clear the M235i is trying hard to prove it’s worthy of the M badge on its butt. The performance numbers largely support membership in the M club. The BMW is the quickest in the test to 60 mph, with a blitz of 4.2 seconds. Its quarter-mile run ties that of the Mercedes: 12.9 seconds at 107 mph. The 156-foot stop from 70 mph lands right between the performance of the Cadillac and the Mercedes. And its last-place skidpad finish is a still respectable 0.91 g.

Marc UrbanoCar and Driver

The illusion falls apart when you drive the BMW over rough pavement or down a challenging road. The stiff suspension punishes the driver at every pothole and crack. Ripples in the road cause the body to bob and rock. For a transmission with a torque converter, the eight-speed automatic sure has a hard time creeping away in first gear with any grace.

The profile view is the M235i Gran Coupe’s most flattering angle. Anyone sitting in the back seat will literally feel that roofline.

Hefty steering points the M235i accurately up to its limits, but the front tires lose grip much earlier than the rears. There’s just too much understeer here, and it constantly reminds you that the engine is mounted transversely, the economy-car way. The torque running through the front tires doesn’t affect the BMW’s path under hard acceleration, but attentive hands may notice the compensation software feature that uses the electric-power-steering motor to mute and counteract the front end’s compromised geometry. You’ll feel the steering wheel alternately stiffen and lighten as it attempts to stifle the front end’s predisposition to lay down a serpentine path.

A low-rpm torque peak and relatively high power peak make the M235i’s engine a bright spot. It pulls hard and spins smoothly no matter where the tach needle is pointing. But it hardly makes up for the chassis, which was too harsh on every road we drove it on, or the tiresome road noise on the highway. It’s as if BMW forgot that this four-door will be used as a daily driver. There’s a reason no one commutes to work in a shifter kart, BMW.

Marc UrbanoCar and Driver

Speaking of livability, the Gran Coupe lacks rear headroom. There’s barely even neckroom. It’s better up front where the seats are comfortable and the iDrive infotainment system is easy to use. While the low roofline compromises the view out, you’re still better off looking out of an M235i than looking at an M235i. The styling can’t hide the awkwardly tall decklid or the stubby front end.

We went into this comparison test thinking it would be a close race from top to bottom. The M235i has the performance to hang with the pack, but when it comes to enjoying the time behind the wheel, the A35 and CT4-V are so far ahead, they’re practically out of sight.

Second Place:
Mercedes-AMG A35 4Matic

Marc UrbanoCar and Driver

Highs: Hard-charging attitude, sleek interior, makes us feel young again.
Lows:
Structural jitters, awkward infotainment interface.
Verdict:
More of a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo than a C-class.

The A35 strikes us as a sort of tuned sport compact dressed in luxury-car clothing. It’s more Mitsu­bishi Lancer Evo and Ford Focus RS than C-class. The 4.3-second assault on 60 mph starts with a sucker-punch launch-control start, and with its raucous 85-decibel exhaust—easily the best sounding here—the A35 could hold its own in a shouting match with an eight-cylinder Mustang. Can an internal-combustion engine run on Red Bull and Adderall? How else could this car be simultaneously so wired and so focused?

Marc UrbanoCar and Driver

The A35 has all the easy stability of a transverse-engine all-wheel-drive vehicle. Yet it manages to feel more nimble than the M235i thanks to astonishing front-end grip and the alert turn-in response that grip produces. Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires help the lightest-in-test A35 score the highest skidpad number by a wide margin, at 0.99 g. It all adds up to a car that approaches its lofty limits without ever feeling nervous or unpredictable.

For better or worse, the AMG A35 reminds us of sport compacts from the past. Its cabin is easily the most upscale and stylish in this test.

Analogies to the Evo and Focus RS aren’t an entirely good thing when a car costs $52,705, though. Highway speeds generate excessive road noise inside the A35. The dual-clutch transmission sometimes hesitates when engaging from a slow roll, and it tends to slam into gear during downshifts under deceleration. And while the AMG’s $850 adaptive dampers help take the bite out of big suspension hits more gracefully than the BMW’s suspension, the hardest impacts reverberate through a body structure that feels kind of tinny for a Benz.

Mercedes’s urbane cockpit shames the BMW and Cadillac interiors with its techy and upscale styling. For another $400 on top of the $600 AMG Performance steering wheel, Mercedes will mount controls for the driving modes, damper settings, and the stability control right on the spokes. Cool.

Marc UrbanoCar and Driver

The MBUX infotainment system is the least intuitive of the three. It can be controlled by the touchscreen on the dash, the touchpad in the center console, and the thumb control on the steering wheel, but any method feels like a compromise—as if the designers couldn’t decide which one was the primary input.

The AMG A35 illustrates how these transverse-engine architectures present new challenges for companies that are experts at building cars with longitudinal engines. The first-generation CLA-class felt blatantly cheap inside and abused its occupants with a stiff ride. Now BMW appears to be saddled with similar problems. This AMG rectifies those earlier shortcomings while still partying just as hard. The A35 is an excellent sports sedan; it just falls short of the chassis refinement we expect from a $50,000 luxury car.

First Place:
Cadillac CT4-V

Marc UrbanoCar and Driver

Highs: Superb dynamics, luxurious ride quality, sharp-witted transmission.
Lows:
Low-revving, gritty-sounding engine; drab interior design.
Verdict:
An excellent sports sedan built around the right fundamentals.

Give Cadillac credit for sticking to its principles. In a world that overprescribes all-wheel drive and cross-brand parts sharing, Cadillac remains stubbornly and admirably committed to rear-drive sports sedans. And while fashion dictates that a $52,165 vehicle should roll on 19- or 20-inch wheels, the Cadillac arrived on its stand­ard 18-inchers. The CT4-V is a better car for it.

Marc UrbanoCar and Driver

Not as high strung as the A35 but every bit as agile, the CT4-V feels equally at home on highways and country roads. Its steering is precise, linear, and weighted just right, although it delivers less feedback than we were expecting considering how good the ATS-V’s steering was. The Cadillac’s taller sidewalls, longer wheelbase, and standard magnetorheological dampers help it ride significantly better than the BMW and the AMG. That also translates into a subjective handling advantage. Compared with the others, the V holds its body flatter and calmer while dancing over Michigan’s lumpy back roads. Thanks to its imperturbable composure, its quiet demeanor, and its better-balanced weight distribution, the Cadillac drives like a much more expensive car than the BMW or Mercedes.

Cadillac bucks the latest trends by giving its small sports sedan rear-wheel drive, a long dash-to-axle ratio, and easy-to-read analog gauges.

Unfortunately, we can’t say the same thing about the cabin. While the finish and materials are on par with those in the BMW, the vast dark expanses remind us that February is just four months away, and we live in Michigan. Sad. At least the CUE infotainment system has happily evolved into an agreeable interface. It now has not one but two (!) volume knobs (one below the screen, the other ahead of the rotary controller).

The interior design feels like a product of General Motors rather than Cadillac. The engine definitely is a product of big GM. Cadillac vehicles have long been hamstrung by the mass-market engines the brand shares with Chevrolet, and the CT4-V is no exception. While it makes good time in our instrumented testing, the 2.7-liter is reined in by a low 5500-rpm power peak and an off-key exhaust note. The big four, which was thirstier than both 2.0-liters, sounds neither luxurious nor sporty. Its gravelly thrum is about as pleasing as hearing a lawn mower at 7:00 a.m. on a Sunday.

Marc UrbanoCar and Driver

This comparison might have ended with a different finishing order if not for the smart shifting of the transmission. Fluid and fast in its gearchanges, the conventional 10-speed automatic is always ready to drop the engine into the fattest part of its torque curve. It takes the busywork of matching a low-revving engine to one of 10 gear ratios and makes every shift a satisfying event.

While the CT4-V falls into the same traps that have plagued Cadillac for too long, the brand’s insistence on doing things the old way is what makes this V so good. Built on the right architecture and honed by GM’s vastly underappreciated chassis-tuning team, the CT4-V is the best sedan in this segment you can buy right now.

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