Features

New BMW M3 Touring vs Audi RS6 – battle of the super estates

Can the BMW M3 Touring out-muscle the indomitable Audi RS6? Jethro Bovingdon finds out...

Unwittingly, the day before we shoot the Audi RS6 and BMW M3 Competition Touring on the rolling roads that thump and yump over the North Yorkshire moors, I remind myself just why the fast estate car is such a special concept. My first sight of the RS6 is at 6am. It’s shrouded in thick ice and the air is so cold that my clothes crackle as I walk towards it. A few minutes later I’m thawing in heated seats and pointed towards Brands Hatch, some 100-miles south. The miles accrue easily and the 4-litre twin-turbocharged engine slips almost silently into the background. It’s just the start of a very RS6 sort of day.  

The track is perilously slippery but the Audi barely notices. It’s acting as fast chase vehicle, photographer and video team taking turns to lay in the boot to capture an old racecar with 900bhp or more. Once I’ve removed the baby seat, of course. The Group C car tiptoes where the RS6 claws and I’m pretty sure the Audi would give it a real run for its money in these conditions. Then, when the sun sets and the temperature plunges once again, I head north. Way north, to Kirkbymoorside, a solid 250-miles away, taking in the hell of the M25 in rush hour and mile upon mile of the oddly dilapidated A1. It’s after 10pm when I arrive, fuelled by burger and McFlurry and the last 20-miles or so of the journey are cross country, the road running straight at times and then throwing in a burst of tights corners. The big Audi morphs from refined cruiser to relentless, unstoppable force and delivers me to the hotel feeling remarkably fresh. I almost wish there was another hour to run.

This is a formula that Audi has mastered over the years. Perhaps the line of RS Avants hasn’t always been the sharpest or most nimble, but to cover ground quickly, effortlessly and with a kind of all-powerful, indomitable gait they’re just about perfect. Then there’s the look. Musculature barely contained within the sheet metal and occasionally bursting through in the form of bulging ‘arches. Like a superhero trying hopelessly to blend in amongst civilians. Audi can be a cold and slightly misunderstood company and not even the brilliant R8 seems to truly stir-up passion, but people love the RS6 and RS4.  

Of course, the real dream is to capture this long striding performance and appealing utility and marry it to genuine driving excitement. The RS6 has homed-in on this target in recent times and with the new RS4 Competition, Audi is clearly on a mission to hit that elusive and potentially game-changing target. So it’s ironic that with the first UK-registered RS4 Comps just weeks away from landing that BMW’s first ever M3 Touring has already arrived. We’ve been waiting for this car for literally decades and now it’s here, quietly drumming its fingers on the table and asking the RS4 Competition what’s taking so long. Think of this as a taster of what’s to come, then. The RS4 Competition will have its day but first the M3 Touring has to get past the RS6. All 592bhp of it.

In the cold dim light of a winter’s morning these two cars aren’t traditional rivals. Eight cylinders in a vee versus six-cylinders running straight, 592bhp plays 503bhp, £106,020 of full-sized estate meets a smaller, more focussed £80,550 five-door. However, the point of this test is that Audi’s biggest, baddest estate car defines the breed. It is the breed. To become the new champ will take more than dynamic brilliance. The M3 Competition Touring needs a sprinkling of the magic that makes the RS6 achingly desirable and satisfying over thousands of miles in all weathers, loaded to the gunwales and streaked with road grime. We can’t do all of those miles in the next couple of days but the road grime won’t be a problem. The remnants of snow and ice line even the lower laying roads and as we climb up onto the moors the surface is in turn dry and salty, wet and muddy or covered in fresh snow and slush.          

I stick in the Audi and once it’s warmed-through can enjoy some of the other facets of its character. Notably that 4-litre twin-turbocharged V8, which not only sounds delightfully thunderous but has the rare ability to always have something in reserve. Even when you think you’re really travelling there’s another few millimetres of throttle travel to explore. Crack it open still further and even greater performance floods in. Unstoppable and, seemingly, bottomless. The 8-speed ‘box doesn’t quite punch in shifts but such is the torque and the scale of the delivery that not having that physical ‘sporty’ signifier isn’t an issue. The RS6 flies.

Oddly, it does feel slightly old fashioned. In some ways that is A Very Good Thing. The RS6 has buttons to control things like the heater. Alle-f*cking-luia. How has the entire industry shifted to a solution that is less efficient and more dangerous? Anyway, that’s an issue for another time. But there are other areas that date the RS6. Chiefly, the driving position. There’s a slightly strange relationship between the steering wheel, seat and pedals that makes the car feel oddly cramped despite being so cavernous. You sit low and can bring the wheel in nice and tight, but your legs are caught in no-man’s land between out-stretched – sportscar style – and more upright, as in a more luxurious car. I’ve never noticed it before but the driving position does fundamentally make you slightly ill at ease. 

This particular car is fitted with the standard air suspension. As such the ride is quiet and mostly very good - although like all cars with air springs the RS6 can skitter over smaller ripples and lumps – but there is a penalty in terms of agility, body control and just a sense of focus compared to a car specified with the optional Dynamic Ride Control system, which uses coil springs and interlinked dampers to resist roll, pitch and dive. At speed and as the forces ramp-up on these fast, ragged roads that can make the RS6 a touch remote and betrays its sheer mass. At over two-tonnes there is a hell of a lot of momentum to contain and at times the suspension is really reaching to keep things under control. 

So, the onslaught of power and the challenge of these roads is enough to stretch the RS6 to the limit. It never fully cracks, though. Playing with the Individual setting allows you to ramp up dampers, the torque-vectoring diff and the response of the engine but leave the steering in its lightest (and most natural) setting and whilst the big Audi does want for a bit of precision there’s nothing wrong with the balance at road speeds. The front clings on gamely and on corner exit you can feel that diff sending drive to the outside rear wheel for just the merest suggestion of oversteer. Try to provoke much more and things get a little clumsy, the RS6 understeering first, then swinging into a sort of messy, momentum oversteer. I know the DRC-equipped car is much more immediate and precise, but there’s no questioning the effectiveness of the RS6. 

The M3 Competition is no flyweight. BMW claim a DIN kerbweight of 1865kg and on our scale with a full tank of fuel this car – sporting carbon ceramic brakes and the lighter bucket seats  - registers 1858kg. By comparison the RS6 comes in at 2188kg. A yawning 330kg difference. To be honest it feels like more. Much more. Immediately, the BMW makes it clear that it has a very different take on the ultimate fast estate car formula. The Audi tries with all its might to balance effortlessness and refinement with an underlying steely core, whereas the BMW simply embraces its inner sportscar. There’s more road noise but more connection, the ride isn’t as polished but steering response is in a different league. It takes 10 yards to know this isn’t M rocking-up in Audi’s patch and gently upping the ante. In fact, you needn’t even move to suspect it if the carbon bucket seats are specified. There is no emulation here. It’s a different animal. And does it have a bite…

There is a huge amount of adjustability built-in to the M3 but even if you simply hop in, start up the vocal straight-six and pootle away with the dampers in their softest setting and the drivetrain set to ‘Efficient’ it quickly becomes apparent this experience is going to be a treat. There’s a lovely sense of precision to everything the BMW does and although it is clearly a smaller and slightly more raucous car than the Audi, the quality of the dynamics shines through. Hit the Set-up button down by the gear selector and a menu pops up in a simple grid formation and allows tailoring of Engine, Chassis, Steering, Brake feel, the M xDrive and the 10-stage traction control system. It might seem like overkill but the presentation is so simple and so accessible that playing around on the fly is actually rather fun. 

You could say that about the M3 in general. The Swiss-cheese carbon buckets are silly, but raise a smile. The new curved touchscreen and dash display is yet another example of buttons being abandoned, but the retro graphics look great, there are knowing little nods to the past like the depiction of an M1 for the tyre monitoring system and the UI itself even works quickly and intuitively. And just like the coupé or saloon, when you disable the traction control you can access a full rear-wheel drive mode, too. Why would you do such a thing when the 4WD Sport setting is so wonderfully resolved? Fun, I suppose. Is that such a bad thing? 

Today, we don’t bother. The roads are perilously slippery and a quick prod of the DSC button allows me to select the more permissive MDM mode for the stability system and then 4WD Sport (the car defaults to the standard 4WD mode on start-up and requires MDM to go into 4WD Sport). I prefer Sport for the steering as it’s just a shade too light and vague in Comfort and on these flowing roads the Sport setting for the suspension provides the best compromise between absorbing the ravaged surface and keeping the body in check. Of course, you can have two favourite settings accessible via the M1 and M2 buttons on the steering wheel so after the first week or two of ownership you’d never really worry about all the options again.     

So yes, there’s a marked drop-off in refinement here. The Touring is perfectly useable but there’s more road noise thrumming back through the interior. Where the air-suspended RS6 lopes the M3 Competition nibbles at the surface. It feels busier and less impervious. However, pretty much as soon as you meaningfully up the pace everything flips on its head. The BMW is simply in a different league when it comes to agility, control and entertainment. I think the real point of difference is that whilst the RS6 can be persuaded to attack a road, the M3 wants to get stuck in. It’s locked on line, with wonderfully sharp and consistent responses and it manages to combine unbelievable grip and traction with a really playful, nimble balance. This car might weigh 1858kg but it has the manners and the traits of a smaller, lighter car. 

As the hours slip by and the miles accrue the M3 Competition Touring gets more and more impressive. At times, I genuinely forget it’s an estate car at all. Quite how this pretty substantial Touring manages to feels smaller and more capable than the recently launched M4 CSL is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps the much bigger RS6 I’m driving it alongside explains that feeling to a certain extent, but I think fundamentally the G8x M3 and M4 work best with the superb xDrive four-wheel drive system and when their focus is primarily road rather than track. There’s such wide-ranging capability here and the way this M3 refuses to understeer and then exhibits the most gorgeously progressive manners when the straight-six is fully unleashed is something really special. 

The engine? It lacks the ultimate head-spinning power and creaminess of the Audi’s, but the 3-litre twin-turbo is angrier, the throttle response is sharper and the very short intermediate gears heighten the feeling that the M3 is a smaller car than it really is. It’s like sprint gearing on an old JDM-import Subaru Impreza. Would the M3 feels even more exciting with a dual-clutch gearbox? I suspect so. But as automatics go, this is a very, very good one. Aggressive when required but extremely refined at a canter. It’s another positive compared to the overtly aggressive tuning in the CSL that feels contrived and slightly clumsy. 

It speaks volumes that I’ve slipped into comparing the Touring with an M4 CSL rather than the RS6. Quite simply it decimates the Audi as a sportscar. Sharper, more communicative, possessed of greater control and a much more immediate, adjustable and exciting chassis, it comes alive as the Audi checks out. Of course, there’s always an alternative point of view. The Audi is more comfortable, quieter, it flies under the radar, offers more space and makes hundreds of miles disappear as if by magic. It remains one of those deeply desirable cars that would make life just that little bit happier every single day. If you own a couple of sportscars already and want a flexible, fearsomely fast and handsome family car, the RS6 is king. 

However, not all of us can be so lucky. So, let’s say you want sportscar thrills every single day plus some very welcome versatility. Suddenly the M3 Competition xDrive Touring looks to be nothing short of irresistible. You might think a 3 Series Touring specced to over £100,000 is just silly. Perhaps it is.

Then again, why not think of this car as a 911 Turbo for when the kids won’t fit in those tiny rear seats anymore. Framed like that you could almost say that the first ever M3 estate isn’t bad value at all. I haven’t mentioned the grille at all, have I? Funnily enough, I didn’t notice it even once after my very first drive. There can be no greater recommendation than that. 

This story was first featured in evo issue 307.

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