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Audi RS4 v BMW M3 v Mercedes C55: Power Shift

The brilliant new 4WD Audi RS4 has the BMW M3 CS and Mercedes C55 AMG firmly in its sights

The players may be getting faster, louder and ever more sophisticated, but the script never changes. It goes something like this: a new hot Audi is launched, with class-leading power, huge cross-country pace and the sort of pumped-up, hunkered-down appearance of a heavyweight boxer in a slim-cut Savile Row suit. Meanwhile, the ageing, down-on-power BMW M3 saunters quietly alongside and slowly but surely picks the latest and greatest Audi apart piece by agonising piece, in so doing reaffirming itself as the ultimate all-rounder. To add insult to injury, a few months later a brand new M3 will usually be launched, the segment redefined, and Audi (and the rest) must start the inevitable game of catch-up. As sure as night follows day, the M3 will always be a step ahead of the competition. Untouchable, delectable and deeply desirable. The spec sheet suggests little has changed with the launch of the new Audi RS4. It has 414bhp to the M3's 338bhp. The quattro system is more sophisticated than ever and channels the monster power to four broad 255/35 R19 contact patches. That's the cross-country pace taken care of. Then there's the appearance that's so tough you hardly dare look it straight in the piercing xenon eye. So far, so predictable... But it's in the detail that the RS4 seems to be going seriously off book. That quattro system now has a distinct rear bias (40:60), all the better for balance and interactivity. The 4.2-litre, 48-valve, normally-aspirated V8 engine could have been developed within the walls of BMW's M Division such is its free-revving nature (the rev-limiter halts the madness at 8250rpm) and creamy-smooth yet unmistakably hard-edged voice. This is a new sort of fast Audi, and having tasted its potential in Italy (evo 085) we were desperate to find out if the cycle had finally been broken. Has Audi really torn-up the script and built a car to surpass the mighty, iconic, and - with the introduction of the CS package - better-than-ever M3? The Audi-versus-BMW battle is the main event, no question, but we've also brought along a Mercedes C55 AMG. Often overlooked, the C55 is surprisingly nimble to drive and awesomely fast. Its 5.5-litre V8 thumps out 367bhp and enough torque to take chunks out of freshly-laid tarmac. Think of it as an SLK55 with a fixed roof and four seats. And without the image problem. Make no mistake, the C55 has the potential to give both RS4 and M3 CS a serious run for their money. We're in Wales, where else? Okay, we're not exactly getting in the spirit of Audi's attempt to explore uncharted territories and hit new highs but, a bit like the M3, the roads that criss-cross North Wales are the benchmark against which all others must be judged. When you want definitive answers to the big questions, there's nowhere better to seek them. So, the stage is set: £49,980, 414bhp, 4.2-litre V8 RS4 head-to-head with £43,555, 338bhp, 3.2-litre straight-six M3 CS and £48,790, 367bhp, 5.5-litre V8 Mercedes C55 AMG.

The M3 looks the best value, but such is the ubiquity of BMW's searing baby on the used market that the lower initial outlay will quickly be negated with tumbling residuals. These three are perfectly matched. Parked side-by-side, all three cars gently pulsing to the beat of their potent engines and gradually shedding the thick layer of ice that's clinging to their bulging bodywork, it's the Audi that punches out of the fog and demands your attention. Of course, it's the least familiar, which lends it an air of mystery, but the beautiful multi-spoke alloys, bold face and heavily swollen arches combine to make the sober C55 look, well... limp. Even the M3 seems to be cowering in the RS4's presence. While road test assistant Hayman draws on his tenth cigarette of the morning, and Roger Green discusses the shoot-list with photographer Morgan, I jump into the Audi's hot seat... Ah, heated seats. Don't you just love 'em? The RS4 is soon up to temperature. As we thread along the narrow roads that will soon open up, climb, fall, flick, swoop and generally do their best impression of an Alton Towers roller coaster, there's no question I've chosen the right car. The seats are wonderfully gripping and supportive, the funky flat-bottomed steering wheel perfectly positioned. The cabin feels worth every one of those fifty thousand pounds. Nobody does this sort of thing better than Audi. More surprising is the RS4's ability to glide over nasty ridges and clumsy surface 'repairs' with impeccable wheel control and no hint of kickback through the steering. It feels light on its feet and even at modest speeds the chassis has a balance and responsiveness that immediately sets it apart from any other Audi I've driven. It's big brother, the mighty RS6, feels like a ballistic steamroller by comparison; all muscle and no subtlety. Clearly the RS4 signals a new philosophy for sporting Audis. We swap cars at the Shell station in Betws-y-Coed (which must be one of the most profitable petrol stations in Britain. Behind the counter, there's a photo of one of their better days: a line-up of Enzo, F50, 288GTO and F40, with one John Barker feeding them Optimax). I now find myself in the C55 AMG, chasing the RS4. The roads are still slick with morning dew, and despite the bellowing 5.5-litre V8 shoehorned into its engine bay, the C55 has no meaningful reply to the RS4's awesome combination of immense grip and ferocious power. Incredibly, when you think of Mercedes integrity just a handful of years ago, the C55's interior feels cheap after the supreme quality and cool design of the RS4. The plastics are hopeless and the dash is a mess of tiny buttons with indecipherable legends. The C-class may be in the winter of its life, but the RS4 makes it feel obsolete already. Still, with the RS4 long gone I can concentrate on just what the C55 has to offer as a driving experience. The ride isn't as settled as the Audi's: the damping feels slightly less controlled and there's certainly more body-roll and pitch. The steering has a dead patch either side of neutral but then weights-up nicely, and although it's by no means the most feelsome of systems it does start to feel more accurate the quicker you go. Like all AMG products, it's the engine that really defines the C55's character. It doesn't rev to the heavens like the RS4's V8, but in the mid-range you can feel the advantage of that extra displacement. Any throttle movement is rewarded with an instant, neck-snapping response, and the thick seam of torque morphs effortlessly into an anarchic, almost shocking top-end. The Mercedes' bombastic mid-range delivery makes even the RS4's mighty power unit feels like a VTEC. The C55 may have just five gears and be hampered by a conventional torque-converter auto, but it's clear that in a straight line fight it's anything but outmoded. With the winter sun burning the early- morning fog from the sky and rapidly drying the road surface, perhaps the Mercedes will start to shine. It seems that the M3 CS already is. Hayman drove the car across to Wales last night and was keen to stick with it this morning. 'After the fantastic memories of our Car of the Year test, I have to say it felt a little ordinary yesterday,' he sighs. Fortunately there's more: 'Up here it's incredible, though. Even in these conditions and with its power deficit, it can happily match the RS4. And the balance is just so good.' Sounds like the cue to reacquaint myself with an old friend... Where's all the power gone? Ah, there it is - much higher up the rev-range. And what a noise! All high-tech, high-displacement fizz and crackle. Incredible throttle-response, too. The CS feels light, razor-sharp, almost devoid of inertia compared to the lazy Mercedes, and against expectations the M3 has more faithful front-end grip than even the RS4. That's the advantage of having a straight-six tucked well back in the engine bay rather than a V8 slung out ahead of the front wheels. Activate M Track mode with a prod of the button on the tactile suede-rimmed steering wheel, and you're allowed more slip before the traction and stability systems call a halt to the fun, enabling you to use that strong front-end grip to feel your way into the M3's immensely gifted chassis. There's less torque than a thumping V8 produces, but the payoff is superb traction. Even pinning the throttle from the apex of greasy third-gear corners fails to excite the relaxed stability system. The rear will move a few degrees when you're deep into the power-band and really leaning on the Michelin Pilot Sports, but as it does so the information from the steering (the CS benefits from the quicker, more feelsome CSL rack) and through the seat cushion almost draws a picture in your mind of the car's attitude - it's like an out-of-body experience. Stay committed and the CS scythes cleanly through the corner, totally balanced, completely hooked-up. When you're dialled-in to the chassis and really nail a road in the M3 it's so unhurried, so serene. You could almost set it to music. I love this car. Roger Green has had his fun in the M3, too. But emerging from the RS4 he seems like a man with something to get off his chest. 'It's just so fast. The engine is a monster, and the way it deals with nasty roads is very un-Audi-like. The gearchange is fantastic, the steering smooth and consistent. And those eight-pot brakes are superb. Phwoar!' He likes it, then. And the Merc? Hayman didn't get off to a great start with it. He didn't realise you have to engage 'M' on the transmission tunnel for the steering-wheel-mounted up- and downshift buttons to work faithfully, and kept finding himself fully committed mid-corner only for the 'box to kickdown, the tail to snap sideways and the ESP to clumsily tidy things up. Now enlightened (he only had to ask) he's warming to it. 'Incredible torque,' he says, 'nice steering feel once you're up to speed, and although it rolls a bit at modest speeds, the body control is actually very crisp when you're on it.' I'm pretty much in agreement with the Haymanator. In fact I'm unexpectedly falling for the C55. It's so full of character you can almost forgive it the dodgy interior and staid lines. And despite a more understeery initial balance than either RS4 or stubbornly neutral M3, it's very easy to impose your own will on the car. The ESP can't be switched off completely, though, which is annoying on track or even on bone-dry, well-sighted roads, but on damp, leaf-strewn tarmac the system is perfectly judged in its most lenient setting (just prod the ESP button and watch for the yellow triangle glowing on the dash). One particular corner illustrates the point perfectly. An uphill left taken in third and blind until the apex. Coax the front tyres onto line, feed in some power and immediately the V8 takes the modest-looking Pirelli rubber to its limit, the tail edging out enough to require just a flick of opposite lock. Keep a steady throttle and the C55 stays up on its toes, gently drifting, ESP allowing free rein. As you crest the rise and see the road ahead is empty, a bit more gas adds to the angle. Too much and the ESP recovers the slide. Get it right, though, and the C55 dances with a delicious angle until the road straightens. Then it explodes along the next straight in one violent lunge. Few cars have such a grin factor. So, the M3 CS is, as we discovered last month, a truly bewitching car. More surprisingly, the C55 is getting under our skin, too. But the RS4 has a kind of magnetic draw. You can often hear it tearing towards its redline, even when you're wringing the neck of one of the other cars, and especially if the Audi's driver has hit the 'S' button, freeing the exhaust, sharpening the engine's response to your right foot and increasing the seat's grip on your torso. It's a tight, metallic howl, cutting through the cold air with a fervour that even the screaming M Power straight-six can't muster. Let's break down the constituent parts that set the RS4 apart from other hot Audis. First and foremost there's the linear steering response. It's still a Servotronic set-up and perhaps just a shade on the light side, but unlike, say, the S4, the changes in assistance as your speed varies are imperceptible. The manual 'box is slick and positive, and the brakes are exceptional (the eight-piston front callipers grip 365mm discs), displaying none of the hyper-sensitivity that often makes Audis tricky to meld with. It all feels just right. The engine is one of the greats. At low revs there's ample response (unless you've just stepped out of a C55), and it feels genuinely muscular even when lugging at 2000-3000rpm. At 5000rpm you're flying, and then, just when most V8s are starting to huff and puff under the strain, the RS4 kicks again and hammers on to 8250rpm. Never once does it feel overstressed or unenthusiastic. It gives the RS4 a soul. That the chassis not only contains the V8's muscle, but actually encourages you to cling on to every last rev and search out every scrap of horsepower, is a testament to the latest incarnation of the quattro drivetrain and the clever pitch- and roll-reducing DRC (Dynamic Ride Control) suspension system. That it very rarely feels nose-heavy or doggedly understeery is vindication of the decision to send more of the power to the rear wheels. Here's an Audi with a nice neutral balance and genuine nimbleness. How long have we waited to say that? So it kills the M3 CS, then? Well, not quite. At eight-tenths the RS4 feels exceptional, and even when pushed to its very limits it retains much of its composure. However, it's still true to the Audi philosophy, which means it will always look after you first and foremost, even when you just want a bit of entertainment. Towards the end of two days of fantastic driving it's fair to say that our collective confidence is up and our pace has escalated. Suddenly the RS4 doesn't feel so impregnable. The ride, so unflustered and reassuring until now, deteriorates as our commitment grows. The body control starts to betray that peculiar engine position with slightly clumsy crashing where before it had glided. It's very busy under braking, too - somewhat unexpected considering the car's inherent stability. And ultimately, despite the clever four-wheel-drive system that can channel as much as 85 per cent of power to the rear wheels, it becomes clear that mild understeer is still the RS4's preferred stance. The RS4 is a mighty achievement, a sea-change for fast Audis that hints at how good the mid-engined R8 might be when it arrives later this year. But where the BMW and the Merc taught us new and exciting things the harder and further we drove them, the Audi lost just a bit of its lustre. Perhaps it's a victim of its mesmerising first impression. It's an impossible standard to live up to. By contrast the Mercedes feels remarkably average on a quick squirt, but beneath the off-putting 'box and initially odd steering feel is a chassis that is incredibly engaging. Even so, it can't scale the heights of the Audi or BMW. It's a softer, less focussed product. Still, its peachy balance shows that AMG could really deliver the goods if they wanted to. No surprises then. It comes down to RS4 and M3 CS. After ten minutes behind the wheel the RS4 was my winner. It's got the looks, the interior, the edge on performance. Forty-eight hours later, the deft balance, awesome adjustability and sheer exuberance of the M3 CS seemed insurmountable. It gives you so many options, and I don't just mean you can oversteer it all day long (which you can). It has incredible balance, and it's so responsive to your inputs that you feel intimately involved through every part of every corner. For you and me, that's what really counts. The M3 is still the all-conquering action hero. Did I mention there's a new one later this year?

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Comparison

 BMW M3 CSAudi RS4Mercedes C55 AMG
EngineIn-line 6-cylinderV8V8
LocationFront, longitudinalFront, longitudinalFront engine, rear-wheel drive
Displacement3246cc4163cc5439cc
Bore X Stroke87.0mm x 91.0mm84.5mm x 92.8mm97.0mm x 92.0mm
Cylinder BlockCast ironAluminium alloyAluminium alloy
Cylinder HeadAluminium alloy, dohc, 4v per cyl, variable valve timingAluminium alloy, dohc per bank, 4v per cyl, variable valve timingAluminium alloy, sohc per bank,three valves per cylinder
Fuel and IgnitionBosch electronic management, multipoint fuel injectionBosch electronic management, direct injectionElectronic engine management, multipoint fuel injection
Max Power338bhp @ 7900rpm414bhp @ 7800rpm367bhp @ 5750rpm
Max Torque269lb ft @ 5000rpm317lb ft @ 5500rpm376lb ft @ 4000rpm
TransmissionSix-speed manual, rear-wheel drive, M-diff, stability and traction controlSix-speed manual, permanent four-wheel drive, electronic diff lock, ESPAMG Speedshift five-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive, ESP
Front SuspensionMacPherson struts, coil springs, gas dampers, anti-roll barFour-link, coil springs, anti-roll barMacPherson struts, coil springs, gas dampers, arb
Rear SuspensionMulti-link, coil springs, gas dampers, anti-roll barDouble wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll barMulti-link, coil springs, gas dampers, anti-roll bar
BrakesCross-drilled and vented discs front and rear, ABSCross-drilled and vented discs, front and rear, EBD, ABSCross-drilled and vented discs front, vented rear, EBD, BAS, ABS
Wheels8.5 x 19in fr, 9.5 x 19in rr9 x 19in fr, 9 x 19in rr7.5 x 18in fr, 8.5 x 18in rr
Tyres235/35 ZR19 fr, 265/30 ZR19 rr Michelin Pilot Sport255/35 ZR19 fr, 255/35 ZR19 rr, Michelin Pilot Sport225/40 R18 fr, 245/35 ZR18 rr, Pirelli PZero Rosso
Weight Kerb1570kg1650kg1635kg
Power to Weight219bhp/ton255bhp/ton228bhp/ton
Max Speed155mph (limited)155mph (limited)155mph (limited)
Lap Time89.8secs88.60secs90.10secs
Basic Price£43,555£49,980£48,790
Rating554
0 to 60 MPH5.1sec (claimed)4.8sec (claimed)5.2sec (claimed)
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