Given all the praise heaped on the BMW 3 Series over the years, we can't blame you for thinking there's more to the story. We've heard all the conspiracy theories, most of them involving checks in large denominations from Munich.
This might seem believable to a certain segment of the population, but there's a far less interesting truth behind all those wins: The BMW was the best car. Sure, certain rivals often upped their game in one area or another, but the 3 Series always put it all together in a way that made it better.
So now the 2010 Audi S4 is here to take another shot. It's all-new this year and the old V8 is gone. There's now a supercharged V6 in its place, along with a lower price designed to better align the S4 with the BMW 335i.
The BMW 3 Series received a face-lift of its own last year. It was mostly minor trim changes and the like, but we're told that iDrive thing was tweaked again, too (oh, lovely).
Sounds like a fair fight, no?
Hope You Got a Bonus This Year
Probably best to get the cost issue out of the way up front. These are not the entry-level sport sedans their names might suggest. The BMW 3 Series may start just below $34,000 on the low end, but once you add the 300-horsepower twin-turbo 3.0-liter engine — and you do want to do that — the base price jumps to $40K.
That doesn't include much in the way of features, either, so our 2009 BMW 335i test car includes extras like a Sport package and a Premium package and a Cold Weather package and various other options. Final sticker price: $49,320.
And if that number sounds steep, then consider that the 2010 Audi S4 is just getting started at nearly $46,000. Of course, Audi likes to point out that the S4's base price includes a long list of standard features, and it does, but our test car also had a Toyota Yaris worth ($12,425) of additional features, which pushes the grand total to over $59K.
All this makes for a considerable price difference between the two cars, but on paper they actually match up quite well. Both use 3.0-liter engines with forced induction and both get standard six-speed manual gearboxes. The Audi also adds all-wheel drive, of course. There's an all-wheel-drive version of the 335i, too, but you can't combine it with a sport suspension, so the standard rear-wheel-drive version is a better choice for performance.
And Now for Some More Interesting Numbers
At those prices these sedans better do something special, and they don't disappoint. Say, for instance, you like to go very fast in a straight line. These sedans do that quite well. We know; we tested them.
The BMW is the slower of the two, yet it still turns in a 0-60-mph time of 5.3 seconds (4.9 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) and runs through the quarter-mile in 13.5 seconds at 103.8 mph. That's what 300 hp and 300 pound-feet of torque in a 3,607-pound sedan will do for you.
The Audi is saddled with an extra 377 pounds, so it helps that its new supercharged V6 produces a healthy 333 hp and 325 lb-ft of torque. This is enough to deliver a 0-60-mph time of 4.9 seconds (4.6 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) and a 13.2-second quarter-mile at 106.1 mph.
How impressive are these numbers? Consider that the quickest of the new American muscle coupes, the 426-hp Chevrolet Camaro SS, turns about the same numbers down the drag strip as the Audi.
Fast in a Nice Way
You don't spend $50K on a European sport sedan to embarrass Chevys at stoplights, though. OK, maybe you secretly dream about doing just that, but for the other 99 percent of the time you want an ultra-refined, indestructible engine that makes all the right sounds.
We've noted in the past that BMW's twin-turbo inline-6 is just such an engine. Surprisingly strong at low rpm and dead solid all the way to its redline of 7,000 rpm, BMW's force-fed straight-6 has no real faults. Or at least, it feels that way until you drive the S4.
The Audi V6 is also staggeringly refined and full of torque, yet it delivers its burst of power even quicker than the BMW. It jumps off idle thanks to its fast-acting supercharger and doesn't fall flat once all the boost is dialed in. Instead, it charges all the way to its own redline of 7,000 rpm on a big flat mountain of torque. There's no buzzing or coarseness along the way, either. It feels like the BMW engine, only with an aftermarket chip already installed.
Couple the nearly flawless engine with the S4's nicely weighted clutch and finger-light shift action and the Audi couldn't feel more perfect running through the gears. OK, a deeper and less raspy exhaust note would be nice, but we're nitpicking.
Getting a Handle on All That Power
Since any old Camaro can go fast in a straight line, we tested both sedans through the slalom and around the skid pad, too.
The results are a bit closer, as both cars register 0.92g around our big circle. They do so in different ways, however. The S4 goes faster with the stability control left on, while the 3 Series makes its best run with it off. Seems as though the S4's computer is able to do a better job of moving the torque around than our test-driver. (He didn't take it too hard, though.)
The S4's big advantage here is its torque-proportioning rear differential. It's able to send power to the outside wheel to help get the car turned and eliminate understeer. It works well through the slalom cones, too, as the S4 is slightly faster with a 68.8-mph run compared to the BMW's 68.4-mph sprint.
Our test-driver eventually managed to finesse both cars through the cones with no help from electronic aids. He found the Audi surprisingly willing to bring its back end around thanks to the sport differential, yet it is easily controllable. The BMW has no such help, but is more predictable and stable and only fractionally slower.
On the street, it's a slightly different story. Both cars have high limits thanks to the sticky rubber included in their respective sport packages: Bridgestone RE050As on the BMW and Dunlop SP Sport Maxx GTs for the Audi.
Getting the most out of such tires takes a more skilled hand in the BMW. It's still a lenient partner for the most part, with precise steering and predictable handling. But as you get closer to the limit it feels more on edge than the sure-footed Audi.
The S4's all-wheel-drive system is the difference here. You simply feel more confident when you know that an ill-advised stab of the throttle won't send the rear end sideways. The sport differential makes such a sideways cornering attitude possible if you have the skills, but to the average driver it simply feels like the car is tracking better and more planted.
Audi's Drive Select adjustable dampers help here, and Dynamic mode dials out what little softness is left. You can then throw it around as hard and fast as you want, yet it never gets out of shape. The BMW isn't too far behind, but push it too hard and even the sport suspension starts to feel just a little soft.
They Go Slow Well, Too
Keep in mind that so far we've been talking about only the most aggressive driving here. Go easy and these cars are still immensely rewarding to drive. Even with their big wheels and tires and sport suspensions, both cars ride comfortably and cruise quietly.
We still prefer the more natural feel of the BMW's steering to the S4's responsive but slightly over-boosted setup. Both have incredibly powerful brakes. The Audi stops from 60 mph in just 109 feet, while the BMW only requires two additional feet. Pedal feel is light and precise on both cars.
For your sizable chunk of cash, you would probably expect a healthy dose of luxury with your sport sedan. Both these sedans deliver, but the Audi's extra cost gives it an advantage. Included in its pricey Prestige package are extras like a Bang & Olufsen audio system, keyless ignition, voice-activated audio and telephone controls and a navigation system with video game-style graphics.
All this comes in addition to the S4's standard features like sport seats, a sunroof, xenon headlights, heated power seats, Bluetooth connectivity and an iPod hookup. In other words, at $60K there's nothing left to add to this car.
It all sounds overwhelming, but once you're behind the wheel the S4's layout doesn't look complicated. All the electronic gadgets are easily accessed through the MMI controller and none of the protocols take much time to figure out. Like the fancy suspension, though, you probably wouldn't miss much if you left most of it out.
The BMW didn't have a navigation system or a high-end audio system and it still looked expensive inside — solid construction, quality materials and a simple layout. Both sedans have that typical German austerity that's traditional but hardly warm. Neither car has much of an advantage over the other in terms of front seat comfort, but the Audi's more spacious backseat makes it reasonably comfortable for four adults.
S4 for the Win
So the 2010 Audi S4 finished well ahead of the 2009 BMW 335i this time around. Have our biases changed? Did we want to shake things up? Are we partial to canary yellow cars? Not a chance.
Like every comparison test before it, this one comes down to which car puts it all together in the most compelling package. We drove the cars in every imaginable situation, and every time someone got out of the Audi he was struggling to find a flaw. It was much the same way with the 335i, but driven back to back, the Audi feels a step ahead.
Slightly faster, easier to push hard and more comfortable on the inside, the 2010 Audi S4 is as good as it gets when it comes to sport sedans in this price range. It's a lofty range, but if you're going to spend that kind of money, you might as well get what you pay for.
The manufacturers provided Edmunds these vehicles for the purposes of evaluation.
When it comes to sport sedan features, we considered a mix of performance items first and convenience features second. Keep in mind that anything that's standard on both vehicles isn't eligible. Obviously, options like an iPod connection and keyless ignition are worthwhile features, but we consider equipment like a limited-slip differential to be a little more essential. Each car received points based on whether our chosen features were standard or optional, and no points if it wasn't available at all.
|Limited-slip rear differential
O*: Optional but not equipped on test vehicle
N/A: Not Available
Limited-slip rear differential: Power is useless if you can't put it down to the ground. With a limited-slip differential, torque is directed to the wheels that have the most traction, a useful feature when you're powering out of a corner. The Audi's optional Active Sport Differential actually works to steer the car into turns by sending torque to the outer wheels. Although BMW has a similar type of differential in the M3, it's not offered in the 335i.
Adjustable suspension: We're not always fans of adjustable suspension setups, but since these are performance sport sedans, we figured it's worth the cost. As capable as both cars are with standard setups, they start to get a little wobbly when pushed close to their limits. The Audi's Drive Select system offers individual control of the steering, throttle sensitivity and damper settings. Again, the BMW M3 offers a similar system, but it hasn't trickled down to the 335i options list yet.
All-wheel drive: This is no longer only an all-weather option. Audi's all-wheel-drive system has progressed to the point where it's equally effective on perfectly dry pavement, and it's standard on the S4. BMW's xDrive system is similar, but optional on the 335i.
Navigation: Not essential, but certainly nice to have, a full-features navigation system should be standard at this price level. It's optional on both cars. The S4 had one, the BMW didn't.
iPod integration: This is quickly becoming a default feature for just about any car these days. Plug in your iPod and your whole playlist is instantly available through the factory interface. It's standard on the S4, optional on the BMW.
Keyless ignition: Clearly this has nothing to do with performance. This is one of those relatively simple features that we've grown to appreciate now that the various systems have been refined. No fumbling for keys; just pull the door handle, push the start button and you're gone. It's optional on both cars and they both had it.