On paper, Audi's S5 coupe is not a high-performance match for the BMW M3 coupe.
Believe the paper.
The M3 is a set-your-hair-on-fire monster: fortified with V-8 power, the 414-hp, rear-wheel-drive M3 explodes from nothing to 100 km/h in 4.5 seconds. This is what you'd expect from muscle-bound super cars like the Chevrolet Corvette Z06, Porsche 911 Turbo and, ah, Audi's own R8.
Beyond mere drag racing, however, the M3 is a coupe that stays under control right to the limit. The steering responds right then, right now and also gives excellent feedback. What I mean is, you know what it's doing all the time, so you're unlikely to over- or under-correct. Impressive.
Go ahead, try stitching together a slalom run. You'll need to work at tipping over those cones.
And grip? Oh, my.
The weight distribution - 51 per cent front/49 per cent rear - is as close to ideal as you can get. Add in the slick, electronically -controlled rear differential, as well as electronic anti-skid aids, and what you get is a car whose back end just won't let go.
The M3 is so powerful and poised, cognoscenti of the fast and furious wonder why BMW does not set about building a serious super sports car like an Audi R8. Imagine what BMW might do here.
Obviously, the talent is there at BMW - both in the car and the engineers behind it. And the challenge seems apt enough, given the rivalry between these two Bavarian auto makers. Surely an R8-fighter would be in keeping with the BMW brand.
Yet there is no real BMW equivalent to the R8. Believe me, the M6 is not it.
Thus, the next best thing in the Bimmer lineup - at least for my money - is the M3 coupe.
Okay, now we've come back to the S5. We've taken a bit of a winding road to get here, but this Audi is, in fact, a nominal challenger to the M3. But only just.
When it comes to raw, unbridled, leave-you-drooling, heart-thumping, palm-sweating, kick-your-rivals-and-enemies-to-the-dirt performance, the M3 is closer to the R8 than the S5.
That is until we get to this little matter of price.
For the record, the R8, the 420-hp base model with the 4.2-litre V8, lists for $141,000. That's just about twice what you'll pay for an M3 coupe ($71,300) and more than twice the sticker on a 354-hp S5 quattro ($65,900).
This is why we simply must compare the M3 to the S5, even though some of you, I know, are right now banging out flaming e-mails, each one insisting that this is a silly mismatch, that I am confused or have simply lost the plot entirely.
But bear with me.
Audi's S5 is powered by a direct-injection 4.2-litre V-8 and is a similar engine to the V-8 in the R8. There is enough juice in this power plant to launch the S5 from 0-100 km/h in 4.8 or 4.9 seconds. That's in the ballpark with the M3, folks.
On top of that, the S5 comes standard with Audi's quattro all-wheel-drive system. The point here is that the Audi carves slalom cones nearly as well as the M3. The tenacious quattro grip pays big dividends when you're transitioning from left to right to left to right and so on.
Sure, the BMW is clearly a car more dedicated to pure performance than the S5, and so on a race track, in the cones, or around Germany's Nurburgring circuit, it would best the Audi time after time. Yet not by so very much, really - and the Audi does cost less and have a more comfy city ride than the Bimmer, even when it is in Comfort mode.
Comfort mode? The M3, with its 19-inch wheels and performance rubber, can be had with Electronic Damping Control ($2,000) that allows you to pick any of three firmness levels: Comfort, Normal and Sport.
Comfort makes the taut M3 livable for the commute, but there is nothing soft about this setting. Normal is normal only for someone with petrol running through their veins. Sport means you're on a racetrack and aren't paying attention to your jiggling organs and rattling spine.
In the Bimmer, by the way, there is a little M Drive button (accessed easily enough through the iDrive controller in my tester) and it's there to let you save your preferred settings for all the racy bits: suspension dampers, throttle mapping, steering effort and level of assistance from the dynamic stability and traction control systems. At an extra $2,500, it's not cheap, but if you're in this deep with this car, why not?
The S5 has a similar three-tier stability control system, but the suspension is non-adjustable. On the other hand, remember that the Audi does come standard with AWD.
The added quattro grip is fantastic, but it comes with a weight and weight-distribution penalty. In a nutshell, the S5 is nose-heavy. To compensate, the S5 sends 40 per cent of its power to the front and 60 per cent to the rear. The effort is there to replicate the balance of a rear-wheel-drive car, but it's not quite right and a studied hand at the wheel will notice some under-steer or plowing in the corners.
Everyone can tell that the S5 has a more compliant and supple ride than the M3, though. It's sporty and composed, sure, but never abusive. The S5 is a quieter car, too.
As for engines, both are astonishingly good, but the M3's V-8 gets the nod. The 4.0-litre V-8 has more torque over a range, the redline is a massive 8,400 rpm, and there is 85 hp more from about 5,000 rpm to redline. The Audi's V-8 has a satisfyingly snarly sound, but it's less powerful and the redline comes at 7,000 rpm.
But the S5 has the better cockpit. Both cars have beautiful gauges, smart-looking tachometers, snug sport seats and mind-blowing audio systems.
Yet the BMW's looks downright austere compared to the S5. Also, Audi's Multi Media Interface (MMI) controller system is easier to manage and more intuitive than BMW's iDrive.
Now in fairness, BMW has had the good sense to evolve and refine iDrive to the point where it's functional, understandable and usable. I no longer hate iDrive. Period. You're not likely to hate it, either.
As for the cabins of these two, both coupes are four-passenger cars, though just barely. The Bimmer has more rear headroom, but not by much. The M3 has a grab handle fixed to its headliner and it's useful for levering yourself in back.
Overall, the S5 has a more attractive, more appealing look inside. BMW's cabin says this car is all-business.
So if you want a business-only, thoroughbred sports coupe, your choice is the Bimmer. If you want an elegant and very fast coupe, the S5 is the better choice.
Indeed, that holds true in every way, right down to the exterior styling. Case in point: the M3 even has that power bulge on its hood to speak to what this car is all about - raw speed and tremendous handling.
It's off to the racing with this M3 - you racing. With the S5, it's more about going off to watch the races in style.
2009 BMW M3 COUPE
Type: Rear-drive, high-performance coupe
Base price: $71,300
Engine: 4.0-litre V-8, DOHC
Horsepower/Torque: 414 hp/295 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual or M double-clutch automatic/manual ($3,900)
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 15.3 city/9.7 highway; premium gas
Alternatives: Audi S5
- Awesome power and performance
- Race-track handling, steering and braking
- Smart technology, such as M Drive
- Even in Comfort mode, this Bimmer can wear you out in a long commute
- Cabin is a little too business-like in appearance
- If you want all the best goodies, you pay extra - a lot extra