From the December 2007 issue of Car and Driver.
There’s probably no better place to run a comparo of three examples of automotive gluttony than in Bavaria, one of 16 German states and the one we think has a lot in common with the mind-set found in our own swaggering state of Texas.
Like Texans, Bavarians are pugnaciously independent, quick to recite what makes them and their region so special, and believe that the best way to settle an “issue” is to put you on all fours in search of your front teeth. Texans invented the beef critter; Bavarians discovered the pig. The menu stops about there and shifts directly to the drinking section. In the Bavarian south, indulging in swine and pilsner is no sin-it’s an inalienable right. Walk into the famous Hofbräuhaus drinking hall in Bavaria’s capital of Munich-it escaped allied bombs in World War II, proof that God exists-and order up three liters of super-strength German suds to kick off your noonday antics, and no one blinks an eye in horror. To go with it, how about a slab of Limburger, maybe a two-pound pretzel?
So Bavaria’s culture of carpe diem-Seize the day! Hell, carpe everything!-is an appropriate backdrop in which to run free in three sedans that any Bavarian would be thrilled to call his or her own.
Throw in Bavaria’s many unrestricted autobahns, bucolic and pothole-free secondary roads, the glorious foothills of the Alps to the south, and it’s the place to unleash the power and handling possibilities of three 400-plus-hp sedans.
It should come as no surprise that two of the three cars tested here are made in Bavaria. From Ingolstadt comes Audi’s all-wheel-drive RS 4. The premier model in the A4 range, the RS 4 comes from Audi’s sporting subsidiary, Quattro GmbH, the performance outfit that builds the R8 supercar. In that spirit, the RS 4 and the $114,100 R8 share the same direct-injection V-8. Although the RS 4 is now facing its final year of production, it still feels frisky enough to be pitted against some new competitors.
Then there’s the ’08 BMW M3. As the first M3 to be powered by a V-8 engine—a 414-hp 4.0-liter-the M3, now in its fourth generation, has some worried that V-8 power has changed its character from race bred to overfed. The new one might in fact be closer in concept to the previous-generation V-8-powered M5 than to the old M3. Even if that’s correct-and we’re not convinced that’s true-that M5 was an astonishingly impressive performer.
The final player in our “It’s better in Bavaria” comparison comes from a neighbor to the west, the state of Baden-Württemberg. It’s not Bavaria, but its inhabitants like to say, “We can do everything any German can do, except speak good German.” For them, doing everything includes building the Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG. Unlike M3 devotees, Benz loyalists would never complain about a V-8 in the C-class. After all, Mercedes has been providing V-8-powered C-classes since the 1998 C43 AMG. Displacing a very American 6.2 liters, the C63’s V-8 puts out the biggest numbers here-451 horsepower and 443 pound-feet of torque. It’s the only car here without a manual transmission, but the seven-speed automatic has one more gear than the others and will do exactly as commanded from its paddle shifters.
We would have liked to include the Lexus IS-F and Cadillac CTS-V, but neither was available in time. Look for those two sedans to be pitted against the winner of this comparison in about six months. And picking a winner wasn’t easy. It took several days of arguing and 700 miles of driving before a clear winner emerged, so we then proceeded to argue about second place. Some of us are still arguing.
Third Place: Audi RS4
What’s the RS 4 doing back here in third place? It won its last C/D comparo [“Rocket Sedans,” September 2005] against the previous-generation C55 AMG and M3, although that one was without test numbers and therefore “unofficial.” In light of the new competition, maybe there’s a bit of familiarity breeding contempt, although no driver in this test directed an unkind word at the RS 4. Perhaps it’s bringing up the rear because BMW and Mercedes took the RS 4 seriously enough to develop their own new models to trump it. Nonetheless, the RS 4 remains a highly desirable car and one we’d be happy to own, but all the apologies in the world can’t keep it from sitting at the bottom of this heap.
HIGHS: The perfect ride, the sound of the V-8 at 8000 rpm, idiot-proof handling, tenacious grip, a joy at 10 mph or 150.
LOWS: Not quite as involving as its competitors, sticker shock.
Most of the RS 4’s personality comes from the free-revving 420-hp, 4.2-liter V-8 that is firmly secured just ahead of the front axle. Acceleration times were 0.1 second quicker in the 0-to-60 sprint and the quarter-mile than were those of the last RS 4 we tested. More time might have been shaved off the 0-to-60 blast, but the RS 4, possibly in an attempt to keep from self-destructing, refused to let us dump the clutch at the redline at launch. We were never left wanting for acceleration, but in this group the RS 4 came in third.
Hanging the engine ahead of the front axle allows Audi to package some of its all-wheel-drive hardware and transmission in a small space, but at the same time it results in a front-heavy weight distribution—it’s like a Porsche 911 in reverse. Fortunately, Audi worked to keep the front-heavy RS 4 from understeering the driver to sleep. Just as a 911 seemingly repeals the laws of physics, so too does the RS 4. Neutral handling, quick turn-in, and perfect balance inspire confidence. During the back-road section of this exam, the Audi almost proved to be too easy to drive—some pilots complained that working hard in the M3 and C63 was more rewarding than the effortless manner of the RS 4. This Audi is too civilized to make you sweat.
No one complained about the RS 4’s ride quality. Thanks to dynamic ride control, the car remains composed whether you’re shuttling elderly women to bingo or qualifying for Pikes Peak. To accomplish this, Audi ties together the hydraulics of the diagonal shocks. The result is excellent damping and a suspension that resists dive, squat, and roll. The RS 4’s high-speed ride and its chassis’s stability were deemed best in test on the autobahn.
On a grumpy note, the interior is looking slightly dated next to the newer entries. We make no complaint with the chosen materials or construction—it’s just looking a bit too familiar in this grouping. However, we all agreed that a good ol’ Audi interior was preferable to the spaceship-console approach of the M3. Our European-spec RS 4 wore some equipment that distinguished it from the stateside model. An annoying start button for the ignition, lightweight racing-style seats, roll-up rear windows, and optional 15-inch carbon-ceramic front rotors ($7000) are features unique to the European model. We get luxurious power seats, power windows for all positions, and the carbon-ceramic brakes aren’t offered. The price for our RS 4 worked out to about $10,000 over the C63 and M3, most of that due to the brakes on our Euro-spec car. But we still felt that the RS 4 shouldn’t command a premium over the two other cars. So maybe it shouldn’t win, but third place? A car this good at this many things finishes last? Not to worry, a new RS 4 should arrive in about a year or so, and it will undoubtedly be looking for revenge.
THE VERDICT: Being easy to live with and overall competence aren’t enough in this group. You also have to offer roller-coaster thrills.
2007 Audi RS4
420-hp V-8, 6-speed manual, 3814 lb
Base/as-tested price: $69,785/$81,885
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 4.5 sec
100 mph: 11.3 sec
1/4 mile: 13.1 @ 108 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 157 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.87 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 14 mpg
Second Place: Mercedse-Benz C63 AMG
First of all, forget what you know about AMG C-class models: the relentless understeer, the heavy steering, the subtle styling additions, and the last-place comparison-test finishes. Mercedes now intends to go apex to apex with the M3.
A good start is the C63’s immensely powerful 6.2-liter V-8, designed and built by AMG, the high-performance wing of Mercedes. This V-8 makes 451 horsepower and 443 pound-feet of torque, which is 89 more horsepower and 67 more pound-feet of torque than its predecessor, the C55. But we were even more interested in what AMG had achieved with the significantly reworked front suspension that results in a 1.4-inch-wider track. Could the C63 dance like the brilliant $140,000 CLK63 Black Series?
HIGHS: Shocking performance, heroic engine wail, the world’s best automatic, excellent seats.
LOWS: Harsh suspension, over-the-top styling, overweight and a gas guzzler to boot.
Hoist yourself into the deeply bolstered front bucket—easily the best seats of this grouping—and grab the sculpted, flat-bottom steering wheel. The shift paddles are at three and nine o’clock, and they respond instantly. They’re still connected to a traditional automatic, but the quick responses and the blipped-throttle downshifts make you forget.
Did we mention it’s loud? Well, not cruising at 70 mph—there it was the quietest of the three. But mash the gas, and the car behind you will get an earful of loud, even at speeds above 100 mph. And be sure to downshift for some glorious gurgling-and-popping engine braking.
Since most AMG cars are now powered by this engine, we thought Mercedes might artificially hold back on this historically most-inexpensive AMG car’s performance, so we’re pleased to report that this beastly Benz can outrun AMGs costing more than double the C63’s $63,000 projected price.
An aggressive right foot generates can’t-help-smiling burnouts, while a more restrained squeeze yields a fuss-free launch, followed by a hair-raising 3.9-second explosion to 60 mph, easily outrunning the other two. Upshifts happen quickly, leaving just the smallest interruption in the surge of power on the way to a blazing 12.3-second quarter-mile at 116 mph, and the Benz keeps charging hard until it runs headfirst into its 153-mph speed governor.
However, resorting to 55-percent-more engine displacement and 50-percent-more torque than the M3 to make the two-ton C63 outrun the BMW, which is lighter by 463 pounds, may indeed generate grins, but not admiration as an engineering marvel. How can the Benz weigh 220 more pounds than an Audi burdened by its heavy all-wheel drive? And even in this fuelish trio, the C63 stood out for fuel economy, 29 percent worse than the two others, averaging 10 mpg over 700 miles, or almost $200 per day in Germany, where premium gas is $7 a gallon.
Still, AMG has done a commendable job concealing the C63’s weight by its quick, light, and accurate steering. But when the limit is approached, as it is in our lane-change test, the differences are clear. The M3 is far more willing to turn in and is quicker to transition, slithering through the lane change visibly quicker than the C63, although the Benz outpaces the Audi by a wide margin.
The upsize AMG brakes somehow managed to stop the heaviest-in-test C63 in 155 feet from 70 mph, the best of the day, although by only the slightest of margins. However, the C63’s binders didn’t have the initial bite so praiseworthy in the M3, and they were the only ones that got noticeably spongier after the testing regimen.
What really killed the Benz’s chances of upsetting the M3, however, was its harsh ride. At low speeds, the suspension seems overly damped; the C63 dutifully tracks every lump in the pavement to the detriment of the jostled occupants. As the speeds rise, on back-road two-lanes, for example, the problem disappears and the Benz feels extremely capable and secure. But at even higher speeds, on unlimited sections of autobahn, the bucking behavior is back. It never caused the C63 to feel unstable but was nevertheless clearly the worst of the three cars.
In the end, we found the C63 to offer the most special experience in this highly desirable trio, but as the days wore on, we became slightly less enamored with the Mercedes’ aggressive behavior and looks—the creases, the bulges, the vents, and the gaping front fascia could almost pass as an aftermarket job in this tasteful group. But if you like to be seen, heard, and talked about, the C63 is your Lamborghini of sports sedans.
THE VERDICT: The overtly aggressive sports sedan.
2008 Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG
451-hp V-8, 7-speed automatic, 4034 lb
Base/as-tested price: $63,000/$73,000 (est.)
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 3.9 sec
100 mph: 9.2 sec
1/4 mile: 12.3 @ 116 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 155 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.88 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 10 mpg
First Place: BMW M3
The M3 has been a work in progress for 20 years now, and this fourth-generation car arrives with double the number of cylinders as the first one and more than double the horsepower. Still, some feel that the race-car-like character of the original has been diluted by weight, horsepower, and electronic aids such as adjustable power steering, electronically controlled damping, and the iDrive interface.
After 700 miles behind the wheel of this M3, we feel confident that much of the simple, honest goodness that made the M3 the envy of the automotive world is present in the new car. It’s no longer a homologation special, but next to the C63 and RS 4, this latest M3 offers the purest, least diluted, most involving, and best-in-class driver-and-machine relationship. Those characteristics are what made the M3 great, and they’re still evident in a faster and more refined package.
HIGHS: Communicates to the enthusiast driver, the thrust of the high-revving V-8, lightweight feel, unflappable brakes, lowest price.
LOWS: Ungainly iDrive tumor in dashboard, iDrive interface, slightly rubbery shifter.
At 3571 pounds, the M3 is the lightest car here (243 fewer pounds than the RS 4 and, as noted, a whopping 463 pounds lighter than the C63). The newest M3 might be 177 pounds more portly than the last M3, but with the competition in mind, it comes off as positively svelte. The weight saving is achieved via the carbon-fiber composite roof panels, aluminum-suspension components and hood, and new 4.0-liter V-8, which, according to BMW, is lighter than the old 3.2-liter inline-six. In this group, the BMW is also closest to having perfect balance between the front and rear wheels (51.9 percent in front and 48.1 percent in back). The net effect of paying strict attention to the issue of weight results in razor-sharp responses and a chassis that is easier to control when flirting with the limits of adhesion than in those two other cars. For those who value the objective over the subjective, the M3’s best-in-test skidpad and lane-change numbers bear witness.
Still obsessed with numbers? The M3’s acceleration times landed it midpack, despite having the best power-to-weight ratio. Roughly a half-second has been lopped off the previous M3’s time to 60 mph, and owing to the massive increase in horsepower, 150 mph arrives 8.4 seconds sooner than it used to. On the autobahn, the BMW hits an effortless 161 mph before the governor shuts down the fun. At that velocity, the electronically adjustable shocks keep the chassis planted and secure.
Unlike the two other V-8s in this comparison, the BMW V-8 doesn’t provide laid-back power. With the smallest displacement (4.0 liters) and the least amount of torque (295 pound-feet) the BMW V-8 demands that you rev it toward its 8300-rpm redline. Oddly, from inside the car, the sound is raucous and metallic, not unlike that of the previous inline-six. From outside the M3, the quad exhaust belts out a classic V-8 soundtrack, although hearing the engine run past 6000 rpm might cause those raised on lazier V-8s to cock their heads like the RCA mascot.
As the lightest car here, it should come as no surprise that the M3 was the most fun to throw around on secondary roads. A close-ratio gearbox with short (if slightly rubbery) throws and perfectly placed pedals made downshifts a pleasure. In the normal mode, the steering felt a bit light and numb, but in the sport setting, the power assist backs off and gives a bit more heft. Unfortunately, there isn’t any more feel to be had. Strong brakes with a firm and reassuring pedal kept us out of trouble.
The M3 wins because it is the best—the most sporting and emotionally appealing car in this group. It’s not the fastest, but its relatively light weight and deft handling, and the relationship it fosters with the driver, are the most compelling. And by the way, it is the least-expensive car of the three.
THE VERDICT: The M3 grows up, but not to worry—it still thinks it’s a race car.
2008 BMW M3
414-hp V-8, 6-speed manual, 3571 lb
Base/as-tested price: $62,000/$70,000 (est.)
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 4.3 sec
100 mph: 9.8 sec
1/4 mile: 12.8 @ 113 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 156 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.91 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 14 mpg
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