M3 meets its nemesis
So you’ve already devoured CAR’s first drive verdict on the new BMW M3 and its V8 engine and watched the video of us punishing it at the Ascari race resort, but how does it stack up against its key rival? That’s the RS4 in case you were wondering, the 414bhp V8-powered A4 from Audi's tuning arm, Quattro GmbH. There’s no two-door coupe version of the Audi to directly rival the Coupé-shelled M3 – that role will be filled by the RS5 next year – but the range is more complete otherwise, stretching from four-door saloon to five door Avant and two-door Cabriolet, pictured here.
First the similarities: they’ve both got 414bhp V8s capable of revving past 8000rpm but the BMW’s 3999cc unit gives away 22lb ft to the 4163cc Audi eight which manages to serve up 317lb ft of tyre-tearing twist. And there’s not much in it to look at the bald figures, both scooting to 62mph in just under 5secs, the BMW’s 4.8sec effort besting the Audi’s by a mere tenth and both being pegged to 155mph by electronic limiters. And that’s despite the four-wheel drive Audi’s better traction. Because while the M3 sticks resolutely to two-wheel drive, channelling its grunt to the rear wheels and relying on the clever M differential to keep things neat (or not, depending on the driver’s wish), the RS4 employs Audi’s Torsen four-wheel drive system, in this case with a slight rear bias. What does prevent the RS4 posting some even hotter times is its kerb weight: a portly 1845kg, compared to 1650kg for the saloon version. The M3 tips the scales at 1655kg but that’s nothing to be proud of when the old car weighed nearly 100kg less.
On the road:
For all its bulges, vents, carbon roof and bazooka exhausts, the M3 seems strangely genteel on first acquaintance. The driver’s seat is irritatingly high-set, a big disappointment after the old car’s, and not aggressively hugging like the RS4’s whose adjustable thigh and kidney bolsters keep you restrained better than the leather belts on old sparky in West Virginia State Pen. Crank the V8 into life and there’s good news immediately: it sounds meaty at idle and nothing like the M5’s rattly V10. Underway at low revs it rumbles like the old E39 M5’s V8, then screams its way past 8000rpm before you need to grab the next cog in the six-speed manual ’box. There’s no SMG alternative this time but a dual clutch version with paddles is on the way. The RS4 comes only with a proper manual too, Audi’s DSG transmission having only been engineered for transverse applications, but the change is quicker and more positive than the M3’s. Here’s the really odd bit though: for once Audi has managed to produce a car that’s more satisfying to steer than its rival. To be honest, no M3 since the E30, and I include the CSL in that, has steered as well as it might. This new car suffers the same problem, not being positive enough in those first few degrees of movement. At 2.3 turns between locks it’s not slow and it does respond immediately, but the Audi’s weighting just off centre gives you far more confidence. And on the bumpy roads around our photo location in the hills above Marbella, the Audi delivered every one of its 414 horses to the ground while the BMW’s traction light blinked away with enough vigour to warrant an epilepsy warning. But those same roads highlighted some pretty awful wobbles in the RS4’s structure and reminded us why we love the hot Audi so much more as a saloon than a cabrio. Back on the smooth roads, both cars recover their composure and the BMW starts to make sense. Rear drive and that M-diff which can provide 100 per cent lock across the back axle gives the M3 more cornering options than the RS4 but it’s not overtly lairy. As before there’s a degree of understeer to get past before the hooligan stuff can begin and the DSC safety net is always there to save you – unless you switch it off. Yes, there of lots of buttons to press. Unlike the pleasingly uncomplicated Audi and old E46 M3, you need to spend some time finding out which of the BMW’s damping (if you’ve gone for the optional £1200 EDC suspenion), steering and DSC settings works for you. As with the M5 and M6, you can store your favourite settings using the iDrive system and then summon them using the M Drive button on the steering wheel.
So which would we choose?
Not the RS4 cabrio I’m afraid. Right engine, right number of doors, but wrong car. Too wobbly, too heavy and, at £60k compared to £50k for the M3, too expensive. But a £50k RS4 saloon or the fabulous Avant? That could be a whole different story. BMW has clearly engineered the M3 in a way that leaves room for a CSL to appear later and appease those demanding something more hardcore. The new M3 is a well sorted, well rounded junior GT, a car we’d all give our right arms to own, but it’s not a giant leap forward and may leave some craving something a little wilder. Don’t dismiss it though. It’s clearly more grown up than the old car, still fun, but more of a slow burn, a car that takes a bit of time to impress you with its spread of abilities whereas the RS4 lets you know what you’re in for right from the off. For more on the RS4 and M3, grab yourself the next issue of CAR, on sale early August.