The chat over the last handful of years is that Audi must surely be giving BMW's boardroom a few headaches. And if there aren’t any furrowed brows up Munich way, then BMW is simply not paying attention to what’s been happening in the world.
This feature was originally published in MOTOR’s January 2011 issue
Of course, it’s one thing for upstart Audi to be chipping away at BMW’s perceived mastery of the German-sales-rep-car scene. But it’s a whole new game when one of BMW’s halo models turns up in Audi’s cross hairs.
Which is, of course, precisely the situation when it comes to the last couple of generations of Audi’s RS4 blasters. Not only has Audi suddenly shovelled a whole heap of unwanted competition upon the M3, the company has also dodged the grief over preconceptions about what makes up a 'proper' RS4. No such luck for BMW, which has battled market expectations as it repositions the M3 as a V8 and not an in-line six.
These days, it’s simply not enough to have a single variant of even a respected halo model. Oh no, you’ve got to diversify in line with a global car-market for which the word 'niche' is becoming paradoxically mainstream.
From that situation came the four-door version of the M3. But rival Audi’s RS-ministrations have moved from the now discontinued RS4 sedan to a coupe that goes by the name of RS5.
So, if there’s ever been a more obvious comparison to make, we can’t think of it; can the RS5 match the M3 on the road and track? It’s a 24-carat no-brainer.
But hang on, if both of these cars are claiming to be hi-po coupes, then doesn’t another old favourite come into the reckoning? Surely, should BMW and Audi be happy just inflicting a little pain on each other? Wouldn’t the smart operator go for the market segment’s top dog and, in the process, thump its opposite number by default?
Maybe. At least that was our thinking when we decided to also throw the undisputed champ, the Porsche 911, into the mix.
Now, there are obvious price differences here, and with a sticker of $165,600 with the M-DCT tranny, the M3 is the bargain buy. The Audi is next to step up with a $175,300 sticker (which includes the dual-clutch trans) and the Porsche is in another solar system, with $241,200 being asked for the Carrera 4. That balloons to $248,000 if you want the PDK gearbox. Yow.
Philosophically there are gaps as well as large tracts of agreement. The BMW remains resolutely rear-wheel drive while the RS5 uses Audi’s vaunted quattro all-paw system, in this case in its purest form (no Haldex clutches or on-demand stuff here).
The 911s transformation from charismatic widow-maker of the 1960s and ’70s to well-rounded pillar of society in the last half of its life has seen it become available in both rear- and all-wheel-drive forms.
The one on these pages is of the all-wheel-drive persuasion, because … well, because that’s what we could get our hands on. If, like us, you prefer rear-drive 911s, the price comes back to the field a little by a factor of just over $20K to $220,800.
Engine-wise, it seems atmo mills in a forced-induction world can still be cool. The Audi’s 4.2-litre V8 sure ain't new – we first saw it in the RS4 way back in 2006 – and these days it still feels and sounds the same even though it’s now cranking out 331kW. The BMW’s 4.0-litre V8 isn’t still in its wrapper, either. It first appeared here in late 2007 and its 309kW have been static from that day forward.
While we’re on the subject of mature powerplants … Lord, the Zuffenhausen flat-six powered the bilge pumps on The Ark. But the story of Porsche’s boxer-six is one of constant refinement and with modern touches like direct injection and a variable displacement oil-pump, the old girl was more or less a brand new design circa 2008.
It has managed to remain more than simply relevant, as in, how does 254kW from 3.6 litres sound? (And there’s always the S version with 3.8 litres at 283kW if you need more).
In transmission terms, there’s a degree of agreement as well as some dissent. Both Porsche and BMW believe the will to change one’s own gears is still a valid concept. As such, the 911 and M3 can be had with a conventional six-speed manual and three pedals.
Not so over at Audi, where they reckon the two-pedal layout of the RS5 is so good, there’s no need to offer an alternative. But when it comes to the slusher versions of each car, there’s wider acknowledgement of the benefits of a double-clutch self-shifter.
Porsche’s is called PDK, BMW’s goes by the name of M-DCT and Audi prefers the name S tronic. OMG. They all have seven ratios and offer paddle-shifting and a range of settings that vary shift speeds from 'urgent' to 'Rodney King'.
They are also all highly talented at what they do, incorporate launch control and are quicker from rest than the same vehicle equipped with a clutch pedal. Should that matter to you, of course.
To be honest, I’m chuffed to find that our 911 does posses a clutch pedal, partly because Porsche gearshifts are among the best in the biz, but mainly because these cars are for driving, not commuting.
That said, it’s hard to find fault with the other clutchless pair, other than to say that the Audi's shift speed sometimes feels a little slower than you'd really like (usually when you're having a slight go), and both RS5 and M3 show up a tiny amount of snatch in traffic and car-park shuffling. It's not bad, but in 2010, it comes as a bit of a surprise.
Even clearing the city shows up a few differences in the way these three work. The Audi feels big; wide and relatively heavy, and even though it rides bigger bumps well, smaller ripples can be felt through the seats. The 19-inch Pirelli P Zeros can also be a bit noisy on some surfaces, but that's more of a tyre thing in our experience than a model-specific complaint.
The RS5 also stays true to the Audi RS tradition by having the best front chairs of this bunch. In fact, they're among the best you'll find in any current model, even if the rest of the Audi interior is not – and this could simply be down to familiarity – as sporty as those pews.
In fact, the perception of sportiness is one area where the Audi does stumble a bit. While there's no mistaking the 911's role in life and the M3 looks chiselled and tough, the RS5 looks a bit, well, soft. In fact, until you clock the badges on its nose and bootlid, you're left wondering whether it's an RS5 or an S5.
And while the M3 appears an altogether tougher customer from the outside, it continues inside with the usual BMW Teutonic attention to detail and the view forward over that pert little power bulge.
The Porsche, meanwhile, has great seats also and another of the best forward views in motoring as you guide the car down the road, aiming between those slightly bobbing wheel-arches.
But if the Audi can be a bit vocal, the Porsche has them all – and us – holding their ears in terms of transmitted noise. Okay, the current range of 911s from the Turbo down are all a bit rowdy on the right (wrong) surface, but even on the Carrera 4's 19-inch Pilot Sport SPs, the racket is, depending on the bitumen being crossed, everything from slightly droney to full-on shout-to-hear-each-other deafening.
Which makes the BMW, on the similar Pilot Sport hoops as the Porsche, the most soothing long-distance car, noise-wise. It's also probably the most compliant, although the bump-absorption inherent in the 911's front-end set-up is probably better, but simply not as well matched (in ride terms, remember) by it's slightly firmer rear end.
Either way, the Porsche and the BMW are very hard to split in terms of steering feel and accuracy, and the fact that the 911 can pull this off while also driving its front axle is both remarkable and rather typical of the breed.
Meanwhile, that disparity between the set-up of the front and rear suspension might account for a small amount of lateral movement, which becomes more obvious as speeds rise.
It's certainly not the old rock-on-a-string thing that early 911s are (in)famous for, but you can feel that there's more weight out back than in front and that in the way it's all arranged allows for some hip-swaying when you get cheeky.
No such problems with the M3, which sniffs out corners like a bloodhound and zeroes in on the apex. And the tactility of that M3 tiller! Maybe BMW has made some running changes to this car [erm, stop-start tech – Ed], but it remains the most entertaining steerer of any V8 M3 I've ever stepped aboard. Which is bad news for the RS5, a car that also clings to the road like a limpet but simply doesn't move me the same way.
In fact, there's a small dead spot in the steering right at the straight-ahead. It almost feels like you've got to knock the rack out of its slumber before it starts to turn, at which point it suddenly loads up with both feel and weight. It all works, but it just doesn't seem as linear as it should.
But man does the thing go! That atmo V8 is surely at its peak in this rocketship application and there's even decent low-down thrust this time around too boot. It's an absolute howler.
The numbers don't lie, either, and the Audi blazed its way to 100km/h in 4.4 seconds, a good 0.4secs ahead of the M3. They both thump the Porsche (by a bit, not a lot) but the relatively humble 911 feels almost as frisky at the top end and a good chunk torquier at the bottom.
Fact is, the flat six even feels punchier than the M3 down low, but that's only on the road. Get them on a track where they're all bashing the limiter, and the 911 starts to fall away.
Soundtrack of the year goes to the RS5, though, which has that V8 warble that only the Europeans have managed thus far as well as a good selection of blurts, burps and raspberry-toots whenever that computer cuts the spark and shifts you up a cog. You even start to short-shift the thing to induce the bottom-burps that I doubt you'd ever get sick of hearing.
Ultimately, of course, cars like these will be judged to the Nth degree on a racetrack. It’s the only way to find out what really happens when you beat them with a big stick and the only way to remove as many variables as possible for a direct comparison. It's also why you keep hearing car-makers banging on about their Nürburgring time. It matters, okay?
That being the case, it's time to wheel out John 'Bozzo' Boston, a bloke who has the ability to crank out super consistent (and quick) lap times, to help us get to the bottom of this lot.
So here's what Bozzo thought of each after some flying laps of Wakefield Park:
“The Audi has the best brakes. By far. I’m amazed at the amount of mid-corner grip it had, too. It’s very good.”
“What it doesn’t like so much is the change of direction. That could be down to tyres, but I reckon it’s the weight of the thing that makes it want to stick to a line once you’ve committed to it.”
“It’s affected by ripples on the track, too – it’s a delayed reaction that sort of makes it go into hesitation mode before deciding what it’s ultimately going to do.”
“Bottom line is that you need to be decisive with it but also to make sure your laps are clean if they’re going to be quick.”
“By comparison, the BMW feels much faster, but I suspect that’s mainly because it moves around a bit at the back, and it’s happier to change direction.”
“The M3's gearbox shifts faster and, overall, it’s a lot more fun.”
“The brakes aren’t as good as the Audi's, yet I felt like I could stay in it for 50 laps. At the end of the day, though, it’s still a pretty heavy thing to chuck about and, like the RS5, you need to be patient with your entry speed and put in clean laps.”
Which leaves the Carrera 4 – the car that we all thought, based on our experience with 911s, would kick serious butt at the racetrack.
"I think I’m a little disappointed in it," Boz painfully admits.
"The brakes started to get spongy after two laps. And, because of that, when you were braking from high speed, the back end would start walking around more. And that’s not just the rear weight bias, because it was getting worse as the laps went by.”
“To drive the 911 at ten-tenths requires a heap of discipline. You soon learn not to trail brake in it, but even then, it can still understeer.”
“It doesn’t feel as fast on the track as it does as a road car.”
“The gearing is not as well suited to Wakefield as the other two. In fact, it was faster in second than third in places where – even in every other 911 I’ve ever driven – I’ve always used third.”
Geez, talk about turfing things into a cocked hat. But I’ve gotta agree with Bozzo, the 911 was a bit – 'disappointing' is such a strong word for a car like this – somehow unfulfilling.
Then again, you need to keep in mind that this, the least-powerful all-wheel-drive variant, is probably the last contemporary 911 with which you'd tackle a racetrack. Which means it stands as a great road car first and foremost.
But so are the others. And when you throw price into the equation (which, let's face it, everybody does), the Carrera 4 loses just a bit more ground to the others. But not enough to let the RS5 past. Its huge stomp notwithstanding, the Audi simply lacks the killer instinct and tough-guy image of either the 911 or M3.
And with the latter cleaning up on the track as well as giving back lots of change from the Porker's asking price, the BMW has to be declared the winner.
Maybe the Bavarians don't need to be so worried after all.
|BMW M3||Audi RS5||Porsche 911 Carrera 4S|
|Body||2-door, 5-seat coupe||2-door, 4-seat coupe|
|Engine||3999cc V8, DOHC, 32v||4163cc V8, DOHC, 32v||3614cc flat 6, DOHC, 24v|
|Bore x Stroke||92.0 x 75.2mm||84.5 x 92.8mm||97.0 x 81.5mm|
|Power||309kW @ 8300rpm||331kW @ 8250rpm||254kW @ 6500rpm|
|Torque||400Nm @ 3900rpm||430Nm @ 4000rpm||390Nm @ 4400rpm|
|Transmission||7-speed dual-clutch||6-speed manual|
|Suspension (f)||struts, A-arms, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar||struts, locating links, anti-roll bar|
|Suspension (r)||multi-links, coil-springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar||multi-links, coil springs, anti-roll bar|
|Tracks||1538/1539mm (f/r)||1586/1582mm (f/r)||1488/1548mm (f/r)|
|Steering||power rack and pinion|
|Brakes (f)||360mm ventilated/drilled discs, single-piston calipers||365mm ventilated/drilled discs, eight-piston calipers||330mm drilled/ventilated discs, four-piston calipers|
|Brakes (r)||350mm ventilated/drilled discs, single-piston calipers||324mm ventilated/drilled discs, single-piston calipers||330mm drilled/ventilated discs, four-piston calipers|
|Wheels||19 x 9.0-inch (f), 19 x 10.0-inch (r)||19 x 9.0-inch (f/r)||19 x 8.0-inch (f), 19 x 11.0-inch (r)|
|Tyres||Michelin Pilot Sport;
245/40ZR18 93W (f), 265/40ZR18 97W (r)
|Pirelli P Zero;
|Michelin Pilot Sport SP;
235/40 ZR19 91Y (f), 305/30 ZR19 91Y (r)
($175,720 as tested)
($183,924 as tested)
($246,160 as tested)
|Pros||Steering accuracy, overall athleticism, sound, gearbox||Outright grunt; one of the best-sounding V8s, sports seats||Flat-six cackle, handling, balance, flexibility, quality|
|Cons||Pipped by RS5's pace, takes time to learn how to steer it||Feels heavy, not as involving as rivals, bit too pricey too||Gearing, spongy brakes, priced way above this pair|
|Rating||8.5 out of 10 stars||7.5 out of 10 stars||8 out of 10 stars|
|BMW M3||Audi RS5|
*Editor's note: A last-minute clutch issue with the Porsche stopped us from running acceleration times.
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