BMW M3 Touring v Audi RS4 Competition – hardcore estates go head-to-head
BMW has set a new benchmark for fast estates with the M3 Competition Touring, but Audi is fighting back with the RS4 Avant Competition, which brings a few new tricks of its own
It’s the height of summer in the Peak District. For which read ‘quattro weather’. Later the sun will burst through the clouds for whole minutes at a time, but right now it’s unrelentingly grey and a mist of rain hangs in the air and distorts the view ahead like a heat haze. If only. In the past, this would have been a very good thing for a resolute, heroically stable Audi RS4 squaring up to a BMW M3, the former’s qualities magnified as the M3’s are drowned by the prevailing conditions. But that was then. Now the M3 Competition Touring is armed with xDrive as standard. What hope an RS4 approaching the very end of its production life against a box-fresh M3 that’s borrowed Audi’s long-time secret weapon?
You sense Audi has asked itself the very same question and the answer it’s come up with is intriguing and unexpected. The new Competition package for the RS4 – the current B9 generation of which was launched way back in 2018 – is strangely restrained in some ways. There’s no more power for the 2.9-litre twin-turbocharged V6, for example. Driving through the same eight-speed automatic gearbox as before, it delivers 444bhp at 5700rpm and 442lb ft from 1900 to 5000rpm. The top speed limiter is raised to 180mph and thanks to new gearbox programming and stickier tyres the benchmark acceleration improves a touch, cutting two-tenths for a 0-62mph time of 3.9sec. The latter incremental gain can’t match the M3, which outguns the RS4 with 503bhp, 479lb ft and 0-62mph in 3.6sec.
But honestly, who cares whether it’s 3.9 seconds or 3.6, 503bhp or 444bhp… both cars have more performance than you can reasonably use on the roads. So, Audi’s decision to chase precision, agility and adjustability and to shift the RS4’s character via a radically different suspension set-up and by recalibrating the rear torque-vectoring differential, steering, ABS and stability control to complement the upgrade is refreshing and rather heart-warming.
The core of the Audi’s Competition package is three-way manually adjustable coilover suspension dubbed ‘RS Sport Suspension Pro’. The hardware is supplied by KW and allows for individual adjustment of high- and low-speed compression (15 and 12 clicks respectively) as well as low-speed rebound. For road use this height-adjustable platform is delivered with a 10mm drop over standard, with scope to go 10mm lower still for, um, trackdays. In your 1745kg estate car.
I rather love the absurdity of it all. And there’s no denying our black-everything test car looks positively evil with its 20-inch wheels tucked right up into sculpted wheelarches. The shallow 30-profile sidewall of the P Zero Corsas (a healthy 275mm wide at each corner) adds to the Audi’s magnetic aggression. With thicker anti-roll bars and much stiffer springs, plus standard-fit carbon-ceramic brakes, the RS4 Competition is indisputably what you might call ‘a proper job’. It costs from £84,600.
Price is one area it does beat the M3 Touring Competition xDrive, which starts at £86,570 and with the addition of carbon-ceramics and a few other necessities (who could cope without carbon bucket seats in their estate car?) easily trips into six figures. You can also buy an RS4 Comp without the sexy suspension, for reasons yet to be determined. Maybe it’s just way too stiff on the road? Maybe somebody sane within the company realised that the Comp is an engineering project first and foremost and reasoned that many customers looking for a rapid family car might prefer a button on the dash to change between suspension modes rather than having to lie on their backs. Perhaps. Even so, I can’t help hoping that the majority of the 75 UK-bound Competitions are fitted with the RS Sport Suspension Pro set-up. It spent a full year in development and should create a very different sort of RS4.
On the early-morning schlep north to the Peaks, the RS4 is full of surprises. The ride is taut and the Audi very definitely has the firm gait of a performance car, but it doesn’t even get close to tripping over into harshness, and the sense of infallible wheel control adds new layers to the RS4 experience. Combined with slightly heavier and much more consistent steering (the rack now has a fixed ratio of 1:13.1) and a more natural connection between the front and rear axles, the Competition has a really satisfying togetherness. It’s not a car that feels instantly energised but there’s such precision and depth in evidence.
Sadly, the twin-turbocharged engine remains effective rather than inspirational despite reduced sound-deadening inside the car and a new RS Sport exhaust. At least the gearbox punches more cleanly between ratios. You’ll want to program your favourite modes onto the RS1 and RS2 buttons mounted on the steering wheel, though. It’s possible to tailor engine and gearbox response, exhaust noise, steering and the Sport differential. Now that the suspension is decoupled from this system it’s basically Dynamic for everything other than the exhaust (the V6 never makes a great noise so stealth seems a much better option).
Even so configured, the engine does seem lazy in its response to throttle openings and erodes some of the excellent work done elsewhere. The gearbox performs best when shifting manually as soon as you’re away from urban environments or the motorway. There’s the usual malaise in Comfort mode and unnecessary aggression in Dynamic mode if left to its own devices. It seems strange to say it of a car that can do 180mph and 0-62mph in sub-four seconds, but the RS4 Competition is very definitely a car you’d choose for its chassis rather than a sparkling drivetrain. That much is clear even before the road starts to climb and turn.
One thing I haven’t mentioned is that the RS4 Competition does feel like a car slightly out of time. Mostly in good ways. It feels surprisingly compact and the swept-back roofline creates a sense of a car with all its mass concentrated nice and low. The interior is clearly high quality and has a central touchscreen and a TFT dash that offers a huge amount of configurability, but there are actual buttons to complement the touchscreens and everything feels functional. The showy and often needless complexity that’s become the norm is pleasingly absent. An owner of a B7-generation RS4 would jump into this car, see a logical path to this driving environment and quickly master how to use every control. My only wish is for proper paddles rather than the apologetic switch-like items for the gearshift and a seat that would crank a little bit lower.
In sodden conditions the RS4 Competition is as assured as expected. Perhaps more so. Where the standard car’s rear Sport differential seems to have a slightly artificial and abrupt actuation – working well to pin the front tyres to the road but then creating a whip of sudden oversteer on corner exit – the Competition just feels hooked-up, very neutral and with supreme traction. Perhaps you don’t get the spikes of adrenaline, but it’s really satisfying to build up a natural rhythm and realise that very few cars could even hope to keep up and fewer still with such precise composure. The Corsa tyres might not be ideal for streaming roads but you’d never know it. The treadblocks squeeze through the water and find incredible purchase.
The more aggressive suspension set-up uses the RS4 Comp’s even higher limits and more sweetly honed differential programming to great effect. Aside from the deft control at each corner you can feel that the car has more roll stiffness, particularly at the rear, which creates much better turn-in response and a real shift in character. The standard RS4 is a good car – fast, grippy and so much more agile than the old Audi understeer clichés might lead you to expect. Yet it never quite crystallises into something truly sharp and ready to go with you as the road gets more testing and your commitment clicks up a notch or two. It flatters to deceive. The RS4 Competition is more alive in every sense. Save for that slightly thin-feeling engine…
Drop into the M3 Touring and you’d swear it was a car from the class above. It feels huge. You sit much lower, the curved screen that serves as the full dash seems to tower above you and the glasshouse is so much bigger. I guess if this were a test of middling versions, a consumer magazine might call it much more ‘airy and spacious’. In the context of a performance variant it just feels disconcertingly large and tall. The RS4 is smaller in every dimension than the M3, but even the BMW’s extra 27mm width and 42mm in height doesn’t convey the impression of scale you feel in the driver’s seat. It is not a great start.
However, the narrow carbonfibre seats (admittedly an expensive option as part of the £11,250 Ultimate Pack), the mechanical nature of the gearshifter as you select D and the lovely rubber-backed carbon paddles begin to wipe away concerns. The M3 is more obviously built around the driver. Every contact point is a cut above. And the engine, even at idle, has an attitude that the Audi’s V6 fails to summon even when extended to the limiter. The Competition version of Audi’s estate may have had sound deadening removed, but stepping into the BMW makes you realise that there’s still a deep layer of refinement – or even separation – between driver and powertrain in the Audi. Remember I said that the RS4 never feels truly energised? The BMW bubbles like a Diet Coke bottle with half a dozen Mentos dropped inside.
That impression only grows out on the roads that meander across the Peaks. The M3 is so much more urgent in everything it does. In the wet that can make it feel a little more nervous, and where the RS4’s slightly slower reactions convey that it’s pushing through the surface water, with the M3 you have to learn to trust that the grip is there. Ultimately it can shadow the RS4 Competition move-for-move, but the driver will probably be slightly more stressed, working at a higher level of alert. The M3 also can’t match the uncanny ability of the RS4 to swallow wicked compressions without ever hitting the bump-stops, nor the way it shrugs off heaving and corrugated crests with consummate ease. Those trick dampers simply have more range.
Flashes of brilliance from the Audi can’t stop the stampeding brilliance of the M3 Touring, however. Its engine and auto gearbox are so much sharper, the four-wheel-drive system offers the sort of throttle adjustability of which the Audi could only dream, and the feel and feedback zinging back to the driver are simply of a different magnitude. The RS4 Comp’s impressive showing in isolation is left in tatters by the BMW, which feels like a force of nature in terms of the sheer performance on offer and is so much more generous in sharing the act of unravelling a road. The relationship between thrilling performance, secure grip and traction, a malleable balance and sheer exuberance is so finely drawn. This car has really redefined what a performance estate can be, and the M division’s ability to make the most compromised of shapes and sizes feel completely uncompromising is becoming a fantastic and fascinating habit.
Perhaps this outcome was inevitable. Audi has done a fantastic job of creating a supple, precise performance estate with real poise and quite staggering composure, but the RS4 Competition is built upon a platform that simply isn’t as versatile and inherently athletic as the BMW’s. The slightly underwhelming engine and gearbox are exposed by the M3, which rips from one tightly stacked ratio to the next with breathtaking aggression. The controls feel slightly sludgy compared to the effervescent BMW’s and – perhaps most galling of all for Audi – the M3’s xDrive four-wheel-drive system just about matches the quattro set-up for stability yet retains the sharp, uncorrupted feel and sense of fun that has defined the M3 for decades. The margin of the BMW’s superiority here is sobering.
Something approximating summer has broken out by the time that I’m homeward bound. Covering maybe 45 minutes of cross-country lanes and wider but scarcely trafficked B-roads before joining up with the M1 south in the RS4 Competition is a lovely way to spend time. It passes slow-moving cars with shotgun force, eats up decaying roads with ease and never feels clumsy or nose-heavy. Moreover, it’s a bit more subtle and undercover than the snorting M3 and I think the carbon-ceramic brakes have more feel, too.
The fact that I could conceivably roll into Donington Park on the way back, drop the ride height another 10mm, have a play with the dampers to provide even more support and get stuck in is a new dimension to RS4 ownership. Will owners actually do this? I doubt it. But projects like this deserve to be celebrated. In the end, it’s hard not to conclude that the RS4 Competition is a futile exercise in trying to reclaim a segment that Audi once owned lock, stock and barrel. The M3 Touring Competition xDrive is now very much the benchmark. But the fact that Audi isn’t prepared to go quietly into the night is encouraging. The fact that it looked beyond simply seeking out a huge power upgrade is inspiring. A failure in ultimate terms, then. But one with its heart very much in the right place.
BMW M3 Touring v Audi RS4 Competition specs
|Audi RS4 Avant Competition||BMW M3 Competition Touring xDrive|
|Engine||V6, 2894cc, twin-turbo||In-line 6-cyl, 2993cc, twin-turbo|
|Power||444bhp @ 5700rpm||503bhp @ 6250rpm|
|Torque||442lb ft @ 1900-5000rpm||479lb ft @ 2750-5500rpm|
|Top speed||180mph||155mph (limited)|
This story was first featured in evo issue 314.