The fact that we’re even having this discussion tells you how far Audi’s come in the uber-sports sedan sweepstakes. Normally, this comparo would write itself. BMW M3 = driver’s car with super smooth, vicious punch. Audi RS4 = sure-footed supersonic GT with numb tiller. BMW fun. Audi fast. BMW wins. But since this contest was first mooted, The Boys from Bavaria have made the jump to V8 space, while Audi have finally figured-out how to make not dying entertaining. But has anything changed?
Well, subtlety is out. The M Team’s festooned the M3 with battle-ready vents, mesh grills, bulges and quad exhaust pipes. It's a bit of a Bangle blingmobile with bells on, but the bad Bimmer’s jewelry is entirely functional; should commuting turn violent, the M3 is ready. Unlike previous iterations, the new M3 doesn’t look graceful, elegant or demure in any way, shape or flame-surfaced form. At best, it’s like the bad girl the guys don’t respect– but really, really want.
Audi’s upped the ante by adding the Titanium package to the RS4. Ingolstadt’s imagineers have blacked-out the grill and fitted dark grey metallic wheels and exhaust pipes. So adorned, the RS4 look meaner yet more understated than the M3. It’s more stealth, more wealth, more stealth wealth. The RS4 is like the nerdy girl with a devilish streak ready to let her hair down and set the library on fire.
Welcome to the bat cave, sir. Both the M3 and RS4’s cabins are dark und somber, in the great German tradition of humorlessness minimalism. The RS4’s standard A4 interior sets the bar for seamless build quality and functionality. Despite the delicate indelicacy of small buttons next to a large nav screen, Audi’s MMI system makes the iDrive seem like a fussy, overcomplicated interface. Which, of course, it is. (The salesman spent 15 minutes trying to convince me the wart would become intuitive once I became one with the force.) While the iDrive bulge makes the dash look lumpen, BMW gets bonus points for crafting a light blue leather interior that matched the outside color to perfection.
The M3’s seats offer all the right curves and adjustments; cosseting and caressing my keister like a [legitimate] massage therapist. OK, lose the brackets. Sticking with the theme, the RS4’s seats are a masochist’s best friend. You sit on their granite surface rather than in them, enduring rather than enjoying their embrace. Of course, both driver’s thrones were designed for one thing: helping you lose your license as quickly as possible. So let's get on with it, then…
An idling M3 doesn’t burble like ye olde eight-cylinder M5— the gold standard for American muscle cars (go figure). But crank the M3’s eight to its 8500 rpm redline and the aural assault will loosen even the most stoic mother-in-law’s bowels. Yes, but– hit the RS4’s “S” button and the four-door sounds like a dinosaur gargling. Specifically, a T-Rex. Watch the light turn green, slam the Audi’s accelerator and all the lost souls of Las Vegas are gathered-up and cast into Dante’s inferno. Part muscle-car, part Ferrari, all testosterone; the Audi wins the aural charisma contest hands down.
Ah, but the BMW holds an ace up its sleeve– as I discovered power sliding down Durango St. towards the Wynn Las Vegas. No car, not even a Porsche C4, makes going fast so easy. The M3 is always in tune with its driver’s needs, sending a constant stream of entirely useful real-time data. Better still, the BMW’s chassis remains composed in every situation, no matter how… extreme. But here’s a surprise: the M3’s steering is over-light, over-sensitive and over here. Who’d a thunk the Bimmer would suffer from Audi’s old Achilles heel?
Strange but true: the Audi feels more hard-edged, more like a track day special than the BMW. Harder riding, heavier helmed and less computerized, the RS4 is the more engaging steer, especially at nine or ten-tenths. Unlike the BMW, the Audi challenges you to go faster, makes you work harder and leaves you feeling like a champion for doing so. The main problem: the suspension is so hard that daily driving leaves you with an unnatural desire for a Swedish Tempurpedic.
After driving the BMW and Audi for several hours, the M3 emerges as the most civilized, fastest, most capable, best value GT car in existence. It’s supremely capable in all situations, adjustable in ways I never thought possible, at speeds I’ve never thought advisable. It’s the obvious winner. Yet if I were to spend my own money, I would buy the RS4. It’s the more challenging– and rewarding– vehicle. It’s also a bit rarer and more aesthetically subdued. The BMW M3 is man’s best friend, a perfectly trained thoroughbred that knows how to hunt. The Audi RS4 is a wild animal that begs to be tamed. It’s my kind of sports sedan.