I once said the best way of making an early-morning car journey bearable was to pick the most relaxing, wafty motor possible. But, as I realised recently, there is another way. The new F80 BMW M3 is it.
A pre-5am start was necessary to get to the photoshoot location you see here at sunrise, so after jumping in the BMW, I set the car’s various driving modes into sport and belted down the twisty road to avoid the dreaded M25 morning traffic.
I arrived ahead of my colleague Darren - who’d be turning up in one of the M3’s challengers - more awake than I’d felt in a while. Who needs espresso when you have a 425bhp rear-drive super saloon? But I wasn’t there to dwell on one car, I needed to see how this hot new BMW fares against some stiff opposition.
This is a bit of a problem at the moment, however, because the BMW doesn’t really have any clear rivals. The new Mercedes C63 won’t be on our roads for a while yet, and the muscular Lexus RC-F is a two-door coupe only (for now). That just leaves us with the Audi RS4.
The RS4 is now only available in ‘Avant’ estate form. Which is ironic, as the BMW is a saloon only (its coupe brother is badged M4, don’t forget), and the Bavarian company reckons it isn’t worth making it as an estate.
If you want practicality and performance, then, it’s M3 vs RS4. But should it be the naturally-aspirated V8 Audi, or the turbocharged straight-six BMW? Time to find out.
Audi RS4: The Pros
£56,545. That’s how much the Audi will cost you. Despite being cheaper than an M3 with a dual-clutch gearbox, that’s a lot of money. But spend a little time kicking the car’s throttle, and you realise it makes a good case for being worth the cash thanks to its utterly magnificent engine. It may have received a bit of a mauling in our sound-off poll against the M3 for being a bit too quiet (switching to Dynamic mode does add a bit of volume), but trust me: it’s immense.
The howl you experience while winding it all the way up to 8250rpm immediately becomes addictive. It may be lacking the low-down torque of the M3, but it’s responsive and provides more than enough shove if you leave your gear changes nice and late. The shifts from the dual-clutch ‘box add to the theatre, too, with a delectable chuff firing out of the exhaust pipes with every squeeze of the right-hand paddle.
As with every experience we’ve had with Audi’s S Tronic transmission, it’s a slick setup offering blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cog swaps, and is a good fit with the engine. We weren’t exactly clamouring for a manual version (which doesn’t exist), put it that way.
It’s all just very fuss-free to drive. Plant your foot whatever the conditions, and the four-wheel drive system grips and lobs you onwards at an absurd rate. And when you really throw it around, it doesn’t feel at all like a big estate car, with excellent body control even when you’re being brave.
Predictable understeer is the order of the day if you start to push beyond the RS4’s limits, although it is possible to get a wee bit of movement from the rear. Steering isn’t usually Audi’s strong suit, but in the RS4 it’s accurate and just about on the mark in terms of weight.
Audi RS4: The Cons
For all its big wheels and aggressive bodykit, if you quickly glanced at the RS4 or just saw one passing by, it’d be easy to miss those bulging arches and mistake it for one of the thousands of S Line-kitted A4 Avants. Is that an issue? Depends entirely upon how much you like to shout about the firepower you’re packing, but if I’d spent the best part of £60,000 on a car, I’d want a few more clues that this is a lot more special than your regular A4.
The inside is the usual tasteful Audi affair, but there’s one less than tasteful element needlessly dragging things down: nasty fake carbonfibre trim. The interior does age the car, too. The B8 platform is - after all - getting on a bit.
The car’s major plus point - that brilliant engine - also serves up one of the main downsides. After a day of pretty hard driving, we’d barely averaged double MPG figures, and that included a relatively relaxed 70mph cruise to the shoot location.
Yes, it’s a bit obvious to say that a naturally-aspirated V8 engine is a tad heavy on fuel, but the simple fact is you’ll guzzle far more unleaded driving this than the BMW with its smaller turbo lump. After our shoot finished, the RS4 had used twice the amount of fuel the M3 had. In a car like the Audi - which you’ll want to drive all the time as it’s such a damn good all-rounder - that’s hard to ignore.
Tester #2: Darren Cassey
The RS4 is almost a victim of its own unquestionable quality. Step inside, and you’re greeted with the usual Audi high-quality interior. The bucket seats are comfortable and cosseting, but the interior isn’t far removed from a standard A4, which somewhat dulls the sense you’re in something special.
But then you plant the throttle. The RS4’s Quattro system is unbelievably good; the car simply squats and catapults you towards the horizon. It’s so good in fact, that even in the damp conditions we were dealing with, quick progress required nothing more than a rowdy stamp on the throttle. The Audi’s gizmos would go to work, ironing out any indiscretions your lead-footed nature may have caused, and BAM, you’re away.
Before driving the M3, I loved this fact. It was no nonsense, any time, any place power. But after the excitement of the BMW, the Audi just felt a little lacking in fun. I fear you’d become used to the huge, surging power all too quickly. This leaves me in the awkward position of saying the objectively better car isn’t necessarily the one I’d go for.
BMW: The Pros
Yes, this BMW is a couple of cylinders down on the old one, and the RS4. Yes, it’s the first M3 to have a turbocharger (two, in fact) sapping its exhaust note. But you don’t need to worry. This blown six packs a mighty punch low down in the rev range, and is a versatile unit that’ll happily kick you up the backside whatever gear you’re in.
At 425bhp it may be down on power compared to the 444bhp Audi, but its 406lb ft of torque makes the RS4’s 317lb ft look a bit limp. It also sounds like an utter savage (they really didn’t need to bother with that daft, synthetic nonsense piped through the speakers) with what surely must be one of the loudest production car exhausts around today. Oh, and there’s no fake tailpipe malarky like on the RS4; you just get a socking great back box with four pipes sticking out the back like an automotive firing squad.
Those exhausts are just one of the pointers toward this car’s true nature. Unlike the RS4, there’s no mistaking what the M3 is. You spot that wide track and the accompanying muscular wheel arch bulges from a mile off. Get closer, and you’re treated to big gills in the front wings, a hefty lump on the middle of the bonnet, and gigantic brakes (our test car came with the organ re-arranging, optional carbon ceramics). It doesn’t understand subtlety, and for that, I applaud it.
BMW M3: Cons
You might have noticed I was a little quiet about drivability all the way through the ‘pros’ bit. That’s because to drive, the M3 is surprisingly flawed. First there’s the steering which, for me, is weighty but in an oddly artificial-feeling way.
I could live with that, if the car wasn’t so much of a handful. In anything other than bone dry conditions, it really struggles to get the power down. Certainly, you don’t expect to be able to mash your foot down without a care in a 425bhp rear-wheel drive car, but also, you don’t expect the rears to spin up even when you’re being careful and there’s little more than a slight greasy coating on the tarmac.
It can also be very snatchy, and very unpredictable. What doesn’t help is that when the rear boots do start to slip, the traction control cuts masses of power in a particularly unsettling way. You can turn the TC off, but regardless of stability settings, this is a car that demands absolute concentration from its driver.
The thing I find most aggravating, though, is the complexity. The steering, suspension, engine, gearbox and traction/stability control each have three different settings. After crunching the numbers, I found that this means there are 243 potential combinations. 243! You’re left with this unshakeable feeling that maybe you haven’t found the right combination yet, and maybe, just maybe if you punched in the right settings, the M3 might start to make sense.
Tester #2: Darren Cassey
This car proved to be a huge dilemma for me. On the face of it, it’s the worse car. Its rear-wheel drive system can’t put the power down, squirming and twitching constantly when you go for the throttle, leaving your nerves fraught after a quick blast. Driving it home from the shoot while it was raining, Matt kept holding back behind me, then planting the throttle until he latched onto my bumper. I could have no such fun; every squirt had to be meticulously meted out, unless I fancied a full-on tank slapper in traffic.
And yet this is the car I miss. It looks awesome, with its bulging arches and pointed nose, and everyone knows what it is. It makes you feel special while you’re driving it, even in town. But most importantly of all, it’s fun. I’ve always said I’d take clinical competence over character any day, but this is the car that changed my mind. It’s mildly terrifying, it’s loud and bloody hell is it quick. I’m a convert.
With our time with the M3 running out, I went for one final drive. I’d finally found a driver setting combination I could get on with: steering, suspension and engine in Sport Plus, gearbox set to medium ferocity and the electronic aids set to the less intrusive MDM mode. With those electronic aids not aggressively cutting in anymore, I was able to get into a much better flow. Maybe I could get on with this car after all.
“I found myself loving the car despite its flaws, but it feels wrong for a BMW M car to have so many blemishes”
It was a thrilling experience: I could feel my heart pounding away in my chest, my palms were starting to get a little sweaty, and my wide eyes were scanning the road ahead to assess the next corner. But, it was all just a bit too serious, as seems to be the case for most spirited outings in the M3. Yes, it’s exciting, but I’m not sure for the right reasons: the thrills are more of a ‘am I going to get home without ploughing into a hedge’ variety than anything else. This was reinforced by another snap of the back-end near the end of the drive, when I really wasn’t expecting it.
I found myself loving the car despite its flaws, but it feels wrong for a BMW M car to have so many blemishes. You expect a precision tool, but the M3 is more like a ruddy great hammer. With its heavy steering, unruly back-end and savage power delivery, it’s almost like the BMW is over-compensating for the drop in cylinder count. It’ll be great on track, but out in the real world with bad weather and bumpy, broken-up roads, it’s less convincing.
More than anything, I wanted the M3 to feel like its M Performance little brother - the M235i - and then some. But it just doesn’t. Actually - ignoring the fact that it’s a lot less practical - the considerably less expensive, non-M Division 235i coupe is a more compelling package that’s considerably more engaging to drive.
So while my colleague may be a convert, I’m not. I found the RS4 far more fun to drive, and you have that reassurance that you can boot the hell out of it come rain or shine. It feels on your side, rather than the M3, which is an unruly beast that’ll bite back if you’re not careful.
Perhaps the RS4 is a bit too safe and a bit too easy, but it’s anything but boring - hurl yourself out of a few corners and redline that amazingly revvy V8 a few times, and you’ll have all the proof you need.