BMW 4-series vs Audi A5 coupe twin test (2021) review | CAR Magazine

BMW 4-series vs Audi A5 coupe twin test (2021) review

Published: 01 March 2021 Updated: 01 March 2021

► BMW and Audi coupes battle
► We play the aspiration game
► Are these cars from the last century?

Success has long been celebrated – and flaunted – by putting a flashy German coupe on your drive. But, just as BMW launches a new 4-series, has the world moved on?

Pre-flight briefing: BMW 420i

Why is it here?
Because finally the conversation had to shift from what it looked like to how it drove, so here we are: behind the wheel of the new G22 4-series. While evolved from the same platform as the current 3-series, the 4 is no lazy spin-off – Munich’s lavished a pretty comprehensive re-engineering job on the platform to make the 4 more of a driving machine.

Any clever stuff?
Physically there’s a stiffer body, lower ride height, wider tracks, re-tuned braking, steering and suspension systems and more negative camber on the front wheels. The 420i goes without the 4-series’ new 48-volt mild-hybrid system, and you can’t have it with xDrive all-wheel drive. The Technology Plus Pack (£3650) brings Driving Assistant Professional for a degree of semi-autonomy on highways.

Which version is this?
The entry-level petrol, with 181bhp and 0-62mph in 7.5sec. The 430i uses a more powerful version of the same engine, costs £4k more and can be had with the M Sport differential. The M440i xDrive is an altogether more potent device with a straight-six engine, 369bhp and a £55k price tag before options. Go on, push yourself…

Read our BMW 4-series review

Pre-flight briefing: Audi A5 40 TFSI

Why is it here?
The new 4-series is, like every BMW coupe before it, a driver-focused product that assumes balance, poise and precision are at the top of your list of priorities. But perhaps they’re not. Maybe you’d prefer a beautiful cockpit, less divisive styling and the easygoing efficiency of front-wheel drive. The A5 offers all of the above.

Any clever stuff?
The engine is nothing more or less than a state-of-the-art petrol four-cylinder with direct injection and turbocharging, promising 187bhp and 236lb ft (the latter from a diesel-like 1450rpm). TFSI combines direct injection (fuel/air mix into the chambers, rather than a manifold) and ultra-high-pressure fuel injection to deliver a stratified charge – instead of filling the whole cylinder with a mixture rich enough to burn, the Audi motor ignites one rich pocket of fuel/air mix that in turn sends the whole lot up in a carefully choreographed and more efficient flame front.

Which version is this?
An A5 40 S-line. S-line (circa £2.5k) brings bigger wheels, matrix LED lights, a styling package and sports seats. Petrol options include the even slower Sport 35 TFSI, our 40 and the 261bhp 45, while the diesel outputs are 35 (161bhp) and 40 (201bhp). Go for the 45 petrol or the 40 diesel and you get quattro all-wheel drive.

BMW 4-Series vs Audi A5: because you’re worth it

4-series a5 chase

The ice warning bongs, and over the first few miles – as you work to get some warmth into the car’s oily bits and your brain’s idle tissue – you lose track of the number of layers of unwanted interference between the BMW’s Bridgestones and the road surface. In summer theirs would be a happy and uncomplicated union of generous and consistent grip. Not today. Today there’s water, there’s rain-swept grit and gravel, and there’s mud. There may even be ice. Traction is a concept rather than a given; grip you can lean on frustratingly elusive.

Happy and unbelievably comfortable in the 420i (fabulous heated seats; heated steering wheel, Harman Kardon audio of wondrous power and clarity), it’s easy to go with the flow; drive mode in Comfort, engine and gearbox barely trying. Easy like a Tuesday morning.

That lazy serenity does not last long.

The change comes slowly, imperceptibly at first, like a shifting glacier. Subconsciously, perhaps prompted by the badge on the M steering wheel, your rear-wheel-drive, relatively pure and unadulterated (by contemporary standards) BMW coupe gets you thinking about all the rear-drive BMW coupes that have come before. You think about cars like the 2000 CS, with its generous and sublime proportions, cutting through late-’60s Munich traffic like a Hofmeister-penned steel shark. And you think of 2002s gently oversteering their way around the Bavarian countryside on weekends.

4-series cornering

Suitably inspired, you up the pace. Now Comfort’s too slovenly, so you switch to Sport and dial back the stability control a notch. The mud finally stops, the school-run traffic clears off home and you find yourself free on a rural stretch of beautiful B-road.

Two things immediately become blindingly apparent. The first – and there’s no easy way to say this – is that the 420i is criminally underpowered. Initially the 2.0-litre unit feels pretty strong, the turbo torque and deft eight-speed auto combining to let you effortlessly out-swim the commuter shoal. But now, with the space to work the car a little harder, the BMW’s engine runs out of answers. Just as you expect the torque to hand over to the power – at around 4500rpm – absolutely nothing happens. Ah.

So painfully lacking is the 420i for anything resembling straight-line speed that, for a few moments at least, you can think of nothing else, so discombobulated are you by the notion of a £50k sports coupe from BMW with less power than a Fiesta ST (if a shade more torque).

Moments later, fortunately, you also notice that the 420i is sensationally good to drive.

4-series rear pan

Aware of the car, now that you’re awake and tuned into the messages coming through the 4’s lower, stiffer body, piloting the 420i becomes an immersive, very satisfying pastime, even if you do find yourself working the engine harder than you’ve worked an engine for the best part of three decades. Front-end grip and roll control are particularly impressive, the two qualities urging you to brake less, to trust the front axle more, and to run into corners faster and faster. Do so and you can almost see the engine’s impotence as a blessing, the absence of great slugs of turbo torque lending itself to the kind of smooth, quick lines the chassis excels at. Almost…

The steering rack gives you little by way of actual feedback but it’s so precise, and the rest of the car so RSJ-rigid, that you feel the contact patches intimately. So quickly do you and the car build a rapport that you’re soon judging everything just so, the front biting and the rear axle slurring a little wide over a crest, just as you knew it would, so precisely have you balanced lateral load and throttle position against the paucity of grip. Perhaps in warm, dry weather the BMW would be a less interesting, more one-dimensional device, with far too much grip given its performance (like my old E90 320si, then). But today, in this filth, the 420i is a perfectly balanced BMW coupe doing its thing, and as we roll into town, the car’s Arctic Race Blue metallic (£670) flanks blasted with road filth but its shimmering brake discs swept clean, I’m grinning in the first giddy throes of love.

We’ve come to the kind of prestige new-build estate you feel cars like this were created for. Handsome new homes with flawless lawns. Neat driveways unblemished by time or leaky sumps. Here and there, on garage walls where you’d expect a hanging basket perhaps, the smug, sleek lines of a Tesla wallbox. There is money here, ambition, and there is Farrow & Ball. And where before estates like this were ghost towns on weekdays, in these strange times there is life; professionals on Zoom calls or out on screen-break runs, endless DPD vans, and us.

a5 side pan

Us? The BMW and its Audi rival, the A5, both keen to discover if they still have a place in the world, and in this world in particular. A decade ago you’d have bet your house on it (and that house would have been four-bed, detached and with a double garage for the sunny-days Boxster and the kids’ bikes). But now, in a world besotted with crossovers and PHEVs? A world in which Model 3s and Evoques are the new premium normal? A couple of piston-engined German coupes with price tags to make your eyes water no longer look like such a dead cert.

Ah yes, those prices. The 420i is £40k right out of the blocks. Do what must be done and add the M Sport Pro package (£2500, but worth every penny for its uprated brakes, sublime Harman Kardon stereo and the adaptive dampers), chuck in a smattering of nice-to-haves (you work too hard to have to adjust your seat manually) and before you know where you are, you’re at £49k.

This isn’t the moment at which the Audi rides to our rescue. This S-line 40 weighs in at £47,900 with options. More affordable A5s are available but they’re very slow, aesthetically under-nourished and so minimalist you’re grateful for a seat to sit on. For circa £2.5k more than entry-level Sport, S-line brings bigger wheels (19s as standard), matrix LED headlights, that all-important S-line exterior styling package and sports seats. If you’ve got all day, Audi offers a less powerful petrol engine, the Sport 35 TFSI. But this 187bhp 40 is surely a minimum. It’s mated to a twin-clutch gearbox but drives the front axle alone. You’ll need the fruitier 45 (261bhp) for quattro all-wheel drive, and you’ll need top-spec Vorsprung trim for adaptive dampers. So, front-wheel drive and fixed-rate dampers it is, plus manual seat adjustment and not a hint of hybridisation. For nearly £50k. What year is it?

I get it: coupes are aspirational, heart-not-head purchases. While clearly giving very little in terms of value for money, they give generously when it comes to style, dynamic flair and the kind of right-badge premium image that’s so important (to some), right? Maybe, but goodness me is the pressure on. Just look – as Jim used to say – at what you could have won. An M Sport 3-series saloon with the altogether more convincing 30i engine (still a turbo four-pot, but with 254bhp) is £40,640. And you need only find a couple of grand more for the 330e plug-in hybrid: 288bhp and 30+ miles of electric range, plus change for fancy paint and a Tech pack or two.

4-series interior

And let’s not even start down the road signposted by the 4’s absence of rear doors. Is the implication not that the rear seats will be for occasional use only? Heaven forbid, then, that you might look instead at the M135i, Munich’s (cheaper) hot hatch with the power (302bhp), traction and spooky torque-vectoring – even Kris Meeke couldn’t crash a 135i – to leave the 420i for dust.

And what if, like perhaps one house in 10 on this aspirational housing estate, you fancied sticking a wallbox on the front of your garage and a Tesla in front of your house? If the flagship Model 3 Performance is out of reach, know that the rear-drive Standard Range Plus (£40,490, 5.3sec 0-60mph, 267-mile range) and the Long Range (£46,990, 4.2sec 0-60mph, 360 miles) are not.

So many reasons, then, not to buy either of these cars. Perhaps, like high street retail, the posh German coupe’s time has been and gone? Nah.

These cars are, in terms of powertrain at least, surely the last of their line, but those lines are as long as they are distinguished, and decades of accrued expertise and big-budget evolution have brought us here: to two cars as impressive as they are true to their marque DNA.

Catch a rear three-quarter view of the A5 and it is, to my eyes at least, a deeply pretty car, and that style only goes up a couple of notches when you climb inside. This (mostly) is how you do a modern cockpit – the Audi’s is a calm, uncluttered interior that feels spacious without feeling empty. The materials are fantastic, from soft leathers to shimmering brushed alloys, and the seats every bit as comfortable as the BMW’s and more handsome, if less passionate in their lateral embrace. Only the new tacked-on infotainment screen jars, feeling like an afterthought amid so much otherwise neatly resolved design. It’s a touchscreen system but not exclusively so, with analogue controls for important stuff like air-con and volume. The good news continues with a panel to the right of the steering wheel that feels positively prehistoric in 2021, with its analogue knobs for display brightness and head-up display location adjustment. Joy! It’s such a relief when, having girded your loins to launch into the touch system, you realise you don’t need to. Think of making change, reach for control (without having to look), make change, drive.

a5 rear pan

An Audi that fires without a diesel clatter still surprises, given the work the marque did to develop the technology in endurance racing, but it’s a welcome surprise: a petrol purr, even an all-but-inaudible one, is arguably a better fit with the A5’s character.

On the move the A5 is an undemanding conveyance, with an unobtrusive and effective powertrain – the engine is noticeably punchier than the BMW’s, if disappointingly muted without the 4’s fake noise – and impressively high levels of refinement. You could drive this thing for weeks at a time without complaint, the noise levels very nearly as hushed as the bank-vault BMW. I can think of few finer cars for a long and odious late-night (or early-morning) solo mission (except maybe the same thing but with more power and all-wheel drive…).

It’s almost lunchtime, so the sun’s dropping from the sky at a rate of knots and the temperature plummeting with it. Determined to tease another revelation from the Audi, to go with the facts that it’s very comfortable and very handsome, I prod through to Dynamic mode and take control of the gearbox paddles. Snaking across Rutland on an ever-evolving tapestry of light, sun-dried tarmac, dark tree-shaded greasier stuff and whole sheets of pure mud, the Audi’s no slouch. The steering’s even more inert than the BMW’s, and you don’t notice just how dead the brake pedal is either until you jump back into the 420i and nearly headbutt the windscreen. But the A5’s passive set-up rides well at speed (less so around town) and controls its mass pretty convincingly.

4-series a5 rear chase

Clumsy early attempts to acquaint yourself with the handling balance result in long bouts of understeer during which you’re little more than a bemused passenger. (And, you suspect, a raised eyebrow from the car – the BMW, by contrast, delights in such mischief.) Part of the problem (this pilot is surely the bulk of it…) is the rubber-on-tarmac sensation from the Hankook tyres. Or, more accurately, the complete absence of sensation. Their demeanour is one of aloof detachment, and that skaty vagueness quickly leads you to the (erroneous, it turns out) conclusion that the thing lacks grip.

In truth the A5 is an impressive cling-on merchant. There’s pronounced roll across the front axle, certainly after the 420i’s poise, but keep things smooth and textbook and the Audi can be made to fly, helped by an ever so slightly punchier power-to-weight ratio.

But the BMW has more to its repertoire, and for that reason – and several others – it’s the car you long 
to drive more. Munich’s been doing cars like this for a long, long time, and it shows. If all those little changes over the 3-series (stiffer ‘shell, lower roof and centre of gravity, increased negative camber, increased track widths) look minor on paper, consider that every single one meant BMW turning its back on some very attractive economies of scale. Then you realise how serious it is about differentiating the 4-series as a more convincing driving machine; more convincing both than the 3-series with which it shares so much and, in this instance, with the Audi A5.

Second opinion: Ben Barry

Neither the A5 40 TFSI nor the 420i is offered with all-wheel drive. The BMW copes just fine in greasy conditions due to its modest power and because heavy acceleration squashes the driven wheels into the surface. To be fair the front-drive Audi manages well, partly thanks to nicely calibrated traction control that balances rather than kills power during slip. But it is the scrabble champion here, so quattro would improve refinement – yet you have to step up to a 45 TFSI to get it. The 420i’s adaptive suspension also provides a cushier ride.


Audi, meanwhile, is a master of the high-tech interior that’s reduced to its essence yet sparkles with premium flash. I particularly like this car’s technical fabric trim. But the BMW has usefully more space in the rear seats and its infotainment and driving modes are easier to fathom. The A5’s touchscreen is a stretch, where you can twirl, touch or gesture at things in the 420i. BMW’s drive modes could be easier to glance at (they’re next to the gearlever) but they’re more intuitive to find and operate than Audi Drive Select, which is easily hidden by a drink in the cupholder.

Final reckoning

The exorbitant pricing and lack of electrification we’ve talked about. But another issue with cars like these is the nagging sense that their performance stylings aren’t underpinned by any dynamic substance: that their good looks write cheques their oily bits can’t cash.

To an extent, that’s true of the A5. This is not a driver’s car to fire the imagination, prompt endless long-way-home detours or have you browsing trackday dates for the Brands Hatch Grand Prix circuit. But this is neither a surprise nor the product of any real engineering shortcoming – Audi knows its customers, and most are far more interested in breathtaking refinement and a knockout interior than ultimate brake-pedal fidelity or on-the-limit adjustability. But to dismiss the A5 as stodgy would be wrong. Front-wheel drive it may be but there’s grip and composure and real cross-country ability here, not to mention the enormous feelgood factor born of the handsome design inside and out. It just needs more power, all-wheel drive and a less vexing list price.

4-series a5 static

The A5 could also use a rival less rounded and talented than the new 4-series. BMW’s is an impressive and desirable new coupe now able to match the Audi for cockpit quality and refinement while trumping it on core BMW values.

The 420i’s interior feels largely cribbed from the 8-series, and if it doesn’t feel special enough to go up against 911s and Bentleys in the 8, it feels pretty special at this price point, the G22’s reassuringly traditional volumes (high ‘n’ wide transmission tunnel, slim side glass) dragged into 2021 by the neatly integrated infotainment screen, sci-fi ambient lighting and crisply resolved design.

And if some of the materials feel cheap after the Audi (beige textured plastic!) find solace in this being one of the best infotainment set-ups out there. Oh how we mocked the multiple control methods, using them as a stick with which to beat BMW for a lack of decisiveness. But it was right and we were wrong. Touch, voice, gesture and iDrive are all valid means of communicating with the 4-series, and if they’re effective individually, they’re particularly
convincing in combination.

The 4 lands its knockout blow on the road. Adaptive dampers mean it rides better. The stiff body shrugs off even the most awkward, asymmetrical hits, while the suspension damps wheel movements in a single cycle. And though the under-nourished engine will leave you yearning for a six, the BMW’s poise, accuracy, grip and fluency all add up to a more satisfying and addictive driving experience.

BMW 4-series vs Audi A5: verdict

4-series a5 verdict

First place
BMW 420i M Sport
Better to drive, yes, but the BMW’s also roomier in the back, quieter and has better ergonomics. It wins.

Second place
Audi A5
Handsome inside and out and no dud to drive. But the ageing A5 struggles against fresh Munich metal.

By Ben Miller

The editor of CAR magazine, story-teller, average wheel count of three