The mist is rolling across the landscape, alternately revealing and then hiding the road ahead. In the moments when visibility is good enough you’ll see that the stretch of tarmac rises, falls and twists with the topography. Look closer still and you’ll discover the route is littered with hidden crests and wickedly deceptive tightening corners. Adding to the fun is the water-logged surface that’s also covered with an alarming mix of fallen leaves and the odd patch of slimy mud. This is Exmoor in autumn. More importantly, this is quattro country.
With hindsight, we couldn’t have picked a better spot or better weather to give the Audi RS3 Saloon its first proper run in the UK. Underpinned by the firm’s famed four-wheel-drive system, the Audi aims to inject a much-needed dose of driver enjoyment over and above the S3 Saloon, which delivers plenty of all- weather grip and go but not much in the way of grins.
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Driving the changes, literally and figuratively, is a heavily revised version of Audi’s turbocharged five-cylinder engine. It’s the same unit used in the TT RS and RS3 hatchback and it features aluminium construction that makes it 26kg lighter than the cast-iron boat anchor previously used. That’s a lot of mass removed from the nose and should go some way to reducing the inert nature of RS3s of old. Better still, despite going on a diet the 2.5-litre five-pot delivers more power, with an increase of 32bhp to a dizzying 394bhp. There’s more muscle too, with peak torque swelling from 343lb ft to 354lb ft, all of which is delivered with an electric motor-like spread from 1700rpm through to 5850rpm.
After it had seen these figures and then peeped out through the curtains and clocked the weather, you’d have forgiven the BMW M2 for hitting the snooze button and staying in bed. Yet the squat, stocky BMW is made of sterner stuff. It’s also recently been treated to a bit of a mid-life refresh, but the changes are merely cosmetic, with new LED headlamps and a tweaked dashboard. This means the M2 makes do with the same twin-turbocharged 3-litre in-line six as before, which at 365bhp is down on power compared with the Audi, but can generate a substantial 369lb ft at a ludicrously low 1450rpm. All this poke is channelled through the rear wheels via a limited-slip differential and seven- speed twin-clutch gearbox (a six-speed manual is available, but the DCT makes a fairer comparison with the seven-speed S-tronic-only Audi).
It may be the older car and its updates only minor, but there’s so much the M2 gets right. Those bulging wheelarches stretch over the car’s wider track to give the BMW a junior muscle-car look, guaranteeing you’ll never confuse it with a more humble 2-series. Inside, you sit much lower than in the Audi, and while the standard seats look rather flat and featureless, there’s a wide range of adjustment and plenty of support. There’s no escaping the trademark chunky three- spoke M steering wheel, of course, and the lightly revised dash is angled towards you. A neat addition is the new black- panel dial pack, which appears out of the darkness when you thumb the ignition.
By contrast the RS3 is a much more restrained device, particularly in our test car’s battleship grey paint finish. There are some subtle RS add-ons, including unique trim finishers and 19-inch alloys, but in all other respects the Audi looks visually similar to the cheaper S3. The low-key approach continues inside, the RS3 favouring sophistication over sportiness. The high-backed front seats and colourful air-vent surrounds add some interest, as does the new TFT Virtual Cockpit instrument display, but the Audi feels more like an upmarket executive saloon from behind the wheel, whereas the BMW gives off the air of a purpose-built sports coupe.
This feeling is confirmed the moment you get moving. From the light steering to the hushed refinement, the Audi is a laid- back companion during daily duties. Sure, the standard passive dampers deliver a firm ride, but it never gets jarring.
Even the five-cylinder motor remains under the radar. There’s a flare of revs and a couple of ‘look at me’ pops and bangs from the £1000 sports exhaust as it fires up, but under normal circumstances it delivers effortless and unobtrusive progress. It’s helped on this front by the slick dual-clutch ’box, which when left to its own devices smoothly shifts up as early as possible to make the most use of the engine’s deep-chested torque.
The BMW’s DCT transmission isn’t such a smoothie, determinedly hanging on to gears when an upchange is due and then delivering occasionally jerky shifts when it does decide to play ball. The straight-six is more vocal for more of the time, its deep baritone a constant acoustic backdrop. The M2 reacts more to the road surface as well, your backside treated to a constant running commentary on the state of the tarmac. Yet as with the Audi, the passively damped BMW never becomes unruly – it’s stiff, but the suspension does a good job of rounding off the jagged edges of the worst road imperfections.
Even at cruising speeds the BMW’s keener to remind you of its performance potential. On first acquaintance the Audi’s no-sweat steering seems aimed at those who want an easy life when parking, but the BMW’s meatier affair creates an instant connection – you get the impression that this is a car up for a good time.
Which is just as well because the mist is starting to clear now. I’m back in the Audi, keen to see whether the easy- going nature that made the long haul down to Devon such a cinch will prove a hindrance when you want to pick apart your favourite stretch of road. One thing’s for certain – the RS3 is shatteringly fast.
Squeeze the throttle to its stop in second, third or fourth (it doesn’t really matter which, such is the five- pot’s brawn) and the car takes off like a bazooka shell. It’s helped, of course, by its Haldex-controlled four-wheel-drive system, which allows you to deploy every last ounce of performance, even in these treacherous conditions. When we later strap our timing gear onto the RS3 at an equally wet test track, it fires from zero to 60mph in a jaw-dropping 3.7sec. Three point seven. In the wet! In a saloon car!
What’s more, when you work it hard the Audi’s lag-free turbo motor starts to find its voice, helped in no small part by that pricey sports exhaust. Yet it’s not the warbling war cry of a Group B Quattro, but rather a cultured wail that’s not a million miles in timbre, if not volume, from that of the R8’s V10.
When the Audi’s flat-chat in these conditions the BMW struggles to keep up. Traction is better than you’d expect, the M2’s Michelins biting more convincingly than on the larger, standard-spec M4 (the M2 laid down a respectable 4.9sec for its wet 0-60mph run), yet caution is still required. Even with traction control on, the BMW’s tail will twitch and writhe over surface changes and through standing water. This issue is compounded by the DCT transmission, which can’t match the Audi’s seamless shifts and often rams home the next ratio with such a jolt that the rear axle squirms uncomfortably with the torque reaction. The manual gearbox alternative offers far more finesse.
Tread carefully, however, and it’s clear the M2 is no slacker. It’s six-cylinder lump doesn’t rev with quite the zeal of the Audi’s unit, but its bassy metallic growl has you chasing the red line whenever the road opens up. And once it’s rolling, the BMW accelerates with real purpose, that 369lb ft of torque helping fire the stocky machine along with real conviction.
Even so, with the tarmac still soaked it’s an act of folly to try to lock onto the rear bumper of the Audi, which is devastatingly quick across these sinuous Exmoor roads. This particular RS3 is fitted with optional alloys (£695) that have the unusual distinction of being wider at the front than the rear – 8.5 x 19in and 8 x 19in respectively (the standard wheel is the latter size all- round). As such, the front also gets wider Pirelli rubber – 255-section versus 235. The Saloon’s handling is further boosted by its rear track being 14mm wider than that of the Sportback hatch version, which itself has a rear track 14mm wider than the standard A3’s (both RS models are broader by 20mm at the front).
As you’d expect, it’s a poised, planted and virtually foolproof device. Simply turn into the corner, plant your foot on the throttle and feel the brilliantly effective four-wheel-drive transmission slingshot you down the next straight. Body control is immense, too, with sudden crests, big bumps and internal-organ-crushing compressions failing to knock the Audi off course.
And yet there’s something missing here. The steering is quick and precise, the optional £4695 carbon-ceramic brakes serve up powerful and progressive stopping power, and the Audi clings faithfully to your chosen line, but it’s just not very exciting. For starters, there’s precious little feel through the steering, and that grippy chassis is not up for getting expressive. You soon learn that a brush of the brakes or sharp lift of the throttle has barely any effect on the Audi’s balance or trajectory.
Yes, the lighter engine means the RS3 is less lazy on turn-in than before, but it’s still a hefty old lump hanging over the front axle. And when really pressing on you can feel the torque vectoring nibbling at the brakes in an effort to keep the Audi on your desired line. There are various driver modes that allow you to alter the steering weight, throttle response and the like, but no matter how much you fiddle, the Audi feels just a bit one-dimensional – although there’s no denying that it’s a brutally effective dimension.
That’s not an accusation you can lay at the wheels of the BMW. It demands more concentration and respect, but rewards with greater interaction and excitement. Compared with its overly complicated M4 big brother, the M2 is refreshingly simple to get the best from. There are no multiple modes for the dampers (adaptive units aren’t even an option), engine mapping or steering, just the same overarching Eco, Comfort, Sport and Sport+ modes you’ll find on most BMWs. For enthusiastic driving it’s that last setting that works best, as it delivers a sharper throttle and a more relaxed stability control.
Even in the wet, the M2 benefits from strong front-end grip, and while the steering lacks some feedback, you know the nose will run wide only if provoked. Keep it smooth and there’s surprising traction, but get greedy with the throttle and the ESP gives you just enough movement at the rear to play the hooligan using the power. You still need to bring your A-game, however, particularly with the electronic safety net removed completely, because thanks to its short wheelbase the M2 is spiky when you reach its limits, requiring quick and precise inputs to keep it all pointing in the right direction. However, as the roads dry, the M2 becomes far more confidence- inspiring, allowing you to pick up the pace to the point where there’s virtually nothing in it between it and the RS3.
The BMW is not without its faults. The brakes are a constant frustration, with an initial deadness at the top of the pedal travel that makes them hard to modulate, while the DCT gearbox feels a generation behind the best – it’s never as quick or crisp as the Audi’s S-tronic, or as good as the manual BMW ’box.
So where does that leave us? Well, the Audi is a hugely impressive piece of kit, and one that should make lots of sense in a country where the weather and road conditions can be so unpredictable – as a startlingly capable and low-stress way of getting from A to B as quickly as possible, it’s arguably without equal. Plus it’s home to that magnificent engine, one of the best available in any car. Yet while it’s a better machine than all previous RS3s, it’s still rather aloof and detached.
By contrast, the BMW feels like a proper bespoke performance car. It’s flawed, occasionally frustrating and ultimately not as easy to live with as the Audi, but it draws you into the action and rewards in a way the RS3 can only dream of. If only BMW would develop a Competition Package...