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Audi S3 Sportback vs BMW M135i

By Curt Dupriez | Photos Easton Chang, 06 Nov 2015 Features

Audi S3 Sportback vs BMW M135i

Can the new, all-wheel drive Audi S3 boot BMW’s ripping rear-drive M135i off the Bavarian hatchback roost? Let the battle begin!

At BMW Welt, the museum-come-mega showroom in Munich, there’s a room for children to draw BMWs of their wildest imaginations.

During one visit, I joked to a company rep there must be a trapdoor installed to swallow the four-year old who rendered the 1 Series, thus disposing of the evidence. Oh, how one of us laughed.

Still, there’s much to like about the five-door, especially in top-shelf M135i trim. Here’s a sub-1500kg device with a turbo straight six, its engine arranged correctly (longitudinally) and driving the correct wheels (the rears). It’s also quite interesting, particularly the adoption of an excellent eight-speed automatic transmission in lieu of the usual twin-clutch or increasingly scarce manual options you usually find in small hatches.

BMW-M135i -frontIt’s a daring car. In a world pushing towards formulaic conformity, the M135i is refreshingly rebellious. Quirky, idiosyncratic and memorable; cardom needs anomalies like this, for vibrancy if nothing else.

Enter Audi’s S3 Sportback. Could it be any more run-of-the-mill? A 2.0-litre turbo four mounted transversely, foundations shared with VW’s safe-as-houses Golf and, you guessed it, Audi’s signature quattro all-wheel drive. Cog-swapping is a choice of old-school or twin-clutched manuals, six forward ratios apiece. In most respects, the S3 is as predictable as it is conventional.

Then there’s the styling. Exterior-wise, the five-door (we don’t get Europe’s three-door) is sharp, contemporary and proportioned so neatly as to render it almost invisible in traffic, let alone a flock of Audis. It’s handsome and homogenized in equal measures. ‘Restraint’ is the mantra. And it extends throughout the entire S3 package.

Audi S3 Sportback rearIt’s no secret the S3 lost 15kW en route from cooler European climes to sun-parched Oz. But two things are worth highlighting. Firstly, 206kW and 380Nm are nothing to sneer at. And, secondly, on outputs alone the S3’s slot in the go-fast small car hierarchy seems much closer to the rung occupied by STIs/Evos than it does pricier German hallmarks like the A45 AMG and M135i.

With 50 per cent more engine capacity and two extra slugs, the M-lite five-door produces a commanding 235kW and 450Nm. Somewhat evening the tally out, though, is the BMW lists for $64,900, or $5000 more than the base Audi’s price.

Of course, add on top the murky business of German specs and cost options. For instance, the eight-speed is part of the M135i’s mid-2013 update which brought with it “$5000 of added value”, much of it parking and navigational conveniences. Standard fitment, though, are big four- and two-pot brakes, bi-xenon headlights and, believe it or not, sports seats.

Want sport seats in your S3? That’ll be an extra $4990 for the S Performance package, which also adds LED headlights, B&O sound, a unique 18-inch wheel design and magnetic adaptive dampers. BMW can fit tricky damping, too, for an extra $1420, but Audi won’t upgrade its single slide caliper brake for anything bigger. They’re quite evenly pegged.

Ingolstadt claims 5.0sec for the Oz-spec S3’s 0-100km/h sprint. Quicker than the legendary rally homologated Sport Quattro and just one-tenth shy of the Euro S3. Munich claims 4.9sec for the Bimmer. And what the M135i lacks in all-paw traction it makes up for with launch control functionality to get those 245mm rear Michelin Pilot Super Sports hooking up hard. The Audi runs narrower Conti rubber all ’round, measuring 225mm, or the same width as the BMW’s front hoops.

Audi s3 engineAs outlined in our first drive a few months back, the Oz-spec S3 has lost a certain degree of fizz and urgency compared with the Euro version. It’s slightly noticeable and Audi claims the changes are in minor fiddles (such as ECU tuning) rather than a reduction in boost (which maintains Europe’s 1.2bar) and, subsequently, the mid-range torque delivery is rich, round and fat. 

This new-gen direct-injected TFSI design, which features a revised head and turbocharger, seems to blossom the power, its delivery silky and seamless. It’s a sweet match to the handy S-tronic transmission that blats along with its rev-matching, spark-cutting trickery during 6800rpm upshifts. There’s an innate sense of precision in this powertrain combination, its character smooth and robust. If it were a drink, it’d be a fine shot of espresso.

The BMW six, however, is like a shot of vodka. It feels punchier, its response to throttle inputs more immediate, the engine’s added capacity no doubt being the significant contributor.

BMW M135i engineThe mid-range shove is tremendous, the shock to the driveline a little more visceral with judicious right foot stabs. It wants to unhinge those rear boots with little provocation. If the Audi wants to cha-cha, the BMW begs to boogie.

I suspect engineers have fiddled around in the details in this revised 1 Series. The last M135i I drove, with little restraint around the hot-mix formerly known as Eastern Creek, felt like a woollier, incoherent beast. BMW’s turbo engines can, in some instances, forgo precision for sheer shove, but this six feels sharper and more linear than I remember.

The old car’s softer-edged disconnect and lack of discipline extended to its handling package, particularly its eagerness to spit its bum sideways with alarming and disconcerting regularity. It’s been replaced with a noticeably keener balance between the surety of grip and compliance with the playful tail-wagging and edginess of proper sports cars.

A lot of it could be environmental, too – it’s simply happier along less-than-perfect back-roads between Sydney’s northern outskirts and the Hunter Valley than it is on a manicured circuit. They’re a mess of surface and camber changes, alarming imperfections, random compressions and mid-corner anomalies.

They demand more restrained pace and provide a fitter test of real-world handling depth and prowess.

Audi S3 Sportback frontAnd it’s here that, Sport+ drive mode engaged and its loose MDM stability smarts enabled, the BMW shines and satisfies. For a start, it’s the first M-fettled 1 Series I’ve driven in a while that’s not constantly trying to kill me.

The S3 is no slouch, either. Dial up Dynamic drive mode, switch the electronic fun police to ESP Sport and it does a decent tightening of the reins and kicking of spurs. It mans the battle stations instantly, piles on the pace with gusto and certainly doesn’t lack for output when stringing together backwater apexes.

By sensible measures, it’s very quick. In isolation, the steering’s beaut; weighty, linear and quite clear in its communication. But in Dynamic setting it’s under-assisted, a little ponderous and doesn’t feel quite as genuine in feedback as the BMW’s. Neither car’s rack is slow, both getting from stop to stop in 2.2 turns, though it’s the M135i’s tiller that transmits urgency off centre.

Of the two, the Audi’s a little more fidgety across low-frequency bumps, yet a little softer-edged, and has more pronounced roll over hard bumps. It’s slightly more skittish when sniffing out grip from the outside rear over rough road.

BMW M135i sidePush on, admittedly at a fairly antisocial pace, and the S3 seems to default to a nice, safe state of mild understeer, no doubt tuned in for more modestly skilled drivers. That said, this new generation of A3/S3 chassis has exceptionally sweet balance – you just have keep your corner entry speed closely in check, and lift-off antics enthusiastic, to the get the S3 to dance around on its rubber in the mid-corner.

What might’ve iced the cake, though, is having the quattro system feed more torque rearward under throttle, a more focused rear diff and more generous rubber. But as it sits, the S3 is certainly more ‘fast’ than ‘fun’ when blasting through corners.

While the BMW’s low-speed ride quality is a little busy, its dynamic talents – particularly in the damping department – are quite satisfying. Suspension compliance across rough surfaces is polished and front-end grip seems never to give up the ghost.

You can pitch it into a corner hard and it grips up and settles while remaining unflustered over the worst mid-corner bumps. And it takes caveman-like throttle brutally – or ambitious corner entry speed; take your pick – to unglue those rear Michelins. Further, the window for fun between a sweet few degrees of oversteer and half-an-armful of opposite lock is easy to access. It’s quick and an absolute hoot at pace.

BMW M135i interiorThe M135i’s cockpit is a little humdrum. BMW’s subdued interior designs are tradition and trade as ‘classic’ styling, but this could be the cabin of a lightly spruced-up 116i. The pews are ordinary, lacking proper bolstering and support, and the leather feels a bit synthetic, a little too much like the Sensatec gear fitted to lesser 1 Series variants.

It’s a little claustrophobic, too, though the low-slung seat positioning is suitably purposeful. There’s also less head and knee room in the rear than the Audi.

Audi S3 Sportback interiorThe Audi’s cabin feels roomier and airier in both rows, its materials richer, its details tech-ier, the Nappa leather on those optional sport seats more sumptuous. It’s oh-so-very Audi; predictable and without idiosyncrasies. But if it isn’t broken…

Importantly, and despite many differences, both cars excel in blending their target market’s wants: well-to-do city small families in a one-carspace scenario.

They’re thrilling enough for petrolheads, civilized enough for sensible ‘other halves’, utilitarian and comfortable enough for the (small) kids, affordable enough for the moderately heeled and compact enough to feel at home in the thick of Big Smoke insanity. There isn’t a small SUV – RS Q3 included – with this much all-round accomplishment.

Audi S3 Sportback vs BMW M135i rearBut only one truly enriches the motoring gene pool with a surfeit of quirk, character and individuality. It’s simply a more dynamic, interesting and memorable option. And not despite its questionable looks but perhaps even because of them.

The question, too, isn’t why you would buy a turbo-six, rear-driven, automatic five-door small hatch. But rather, why wouldn’t you?

  Audi S3 Sportback   BMW M135i
  3.5 out of 5   4 out of 5
Body 5-door, 5-seat hatch   5-door, 5-seat hatch
Drive all-wheel   rear-wheel
Engine 1984cc inline-4,
DOHC, 16v, turbocharger
  2979cc inline-6,
DOHC, 24v, turbocharger
Bore/Stroke 82.5 x 92.8mm   89.6 x 84.0mm
Compression 9.3:1   10.2:1
Power 206kW @ 5100-6500rpm   235kW @ 5800rpm
Torque 380Nm @ 1800-5100rpm   450Nm @ 1200-5000rpm
Redline/Cut 6500/6800rpm   7000/7000rpm
Power-to-weight 143kW/tonne   163kW/tonne
Consumption 10.2L/100km (tested)   11.7L/100km (tested)
Emissions 243g/km (tested)   278g/km (tested)
Transmission 6-speed dual-clutch   8-speed automatic
Weight 1445kg   1425kg
Suspension A-arms, coil springs,
adaptive dampers,
anti-roll bar (f); multi-links,
coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar (r)
  multi-links, coil springs,
adaptive dampers,
anti-roll bar (f/r)
L/W/H 4324/1785/1404mm   4340/1765/1411mm
Wheelbase 2631mm   2690mm
Tracks 1535/1511mm (f/r)   1512/1532mm (f/r)
Steering electronically-assisted
rack and pinion
rack and pinion
Lock-to-lock 2.2 turns   2.2 turns
Brakes 340mm ventilated discs,
single piston calipers (f);
ventilated discs,
single-piston calipers (r)
  340mm ventilated discs,
4-piston calipers (f);
345mm ventilated discs,
2-piston calipers (r)
Wheels 18 x 7.5-inch (f/r)   18 x 7.5-inch (f); 18 x 8.0-inch (r)
Tyres 225/40 R18 (f/r)
  225/45 ZR18 (f); 245/35 ZR18 (r)
Michelin Pilot Super Sport
price $59,900   $64,900
price as tested $64,890* *S Performance package $4900   $66,320* *Adaptive M running gear $1420
Positives Clean design; potent performance;
rich interior;
the thinking man’s choice 
  Hot rod engine;
handling balance and communication;
velvety smooth auto
Negatives Style can be seen as bland;
understeers on the limit;
weaker engine tune for Oz
  Erm, ‘challenging’ looks;
incohesive interior;
no limited-slip diff