The 2006 BMW 3 Series and the 2005 Audi A4 are the two greatest cars in the world. No, make that the universe. They're both so perfect in every imaginable way, instead of wasting time evaluating their awesome abilities and timeless style we should be celebrating their excellence, building monuments in their likeness and naming our children in their honor.
There, that should keep the lunatic fringe of the BMW 3 Series Extremist Society and the maniacal membership of the Militant Audi A4 Owners of America off our backs.
Now let's get to the business at hand, which is crowning the ultimate sport sedan. Is it the completely redesigned new BMW 3 Series or the almost completely redesigned new Audi A4? Read on.
Two emails went out. The first to BMW of America located just outside the city that never sleeps and the other to Audi USA headquarters just outside the Motor City.
The first one said: "Dear BMW, Send us the sportiest 3 Series ya got. Sincerely, Inside Line." The response was the delivery of a bright red 330i with a six-speed manual transmission, a sport package, a premium package, assorted other sundries and a sticker price of $41,390.
The second email read: "Dear Audi, send us the sportiest A4 ya got. Sincerely, Inside Line." The response was the delivery of a bright red 2.0 T quattro sedan with a six-speed manual transmission, a sport package, a premium package, assorted other sundries and a sticker price of $35,995.
Savvy readers have just noticed that BMW sent over a much more powerful car. "The 330i," the savvy are saying, "is powered by a 255-horsepower normally aspirated 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder, while the A4 2.0 T is motivated by a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder rated at 200 hp."
And the savvy are right. Fact is a BMW 325i, which is powered by a 215-hp, 3.0-liter inline six is more in line with the 2.0-liter Audi. But remember, we asked each for the sportiest version of their vehicle.
"Then why didn't Audi," the inquisitive savvy readers will ask, "send an A4 powered by its new 255-hp, 3.2-liter V6?"
The answer is the six-speed manual gearbox, which is a must-have in a true sport sedan. Audi only pairs its V6 with an automatic. It's a Tiptronic automatic with a likable manual gate, but it's an automatic just the same. Besides, if you're dying to read about that drivetrain, we tested a so equipped A4 Avant not that long ago.
Audi also probably figured that the lower sticker price of its smaller engine model would give it a value edge in this two-car showdown. After all, the $36,995 base price of the 330i is a thousand bucks higher than the Audi's as-tested sticker.
Grueling is the only word for it.
First, we drove each as any normal consumer would. We carried our families, drove to work, hit the dry cleaners, the drive-thrus and the dog groomers. We threw too many kids in their backseats and too many bottles of bottled water in their trunks. We drove them in anger and in traffic. In the city, in the 'burbs and through the woods. And then we got serious.
At the test track we ran them through our usual battery of instrumented testing and then we maliciously flogged them through the endless canyon roads north of L.A.
For two weeks we prodded, probed and poked about. Notes were taken. Opinions were pooh-poohed and conclusions were concluded.
The End Result
Honestly, as wonderful as both cars are, choosing between the two wasn't as hard as we thought it would be. The BMW proved to be superior in nearly every way. Sure, it's a good bit more expensive, but it's also faster, it handles better, has superior brakes, is roomier and, to our eyes, is more attractive.
The Audi's lower price point, high content and finer interior appointments kept it close, but the new BMW 3 Series is without question the king of the sport sedans. As good as the 2005 Audi A4 is, the 2006 BMW 330i, is unequivocally better.
Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Militant Audi A4 Owners of America.
First Place: 2006 BMW 330i
Our notes from the logbook say it all:
"Driving — BMW wins. It's faster, handles better, and has better body control and better balance. Plus it's quieter and feels tighter."
"The BMW has higher limits and is more rewarding to drive quickly."
"The Bimmer is very smooth and pampering, but still visceral and rewarding to the driver. It reminds me of the last-generation 5 Series in that ability."
"Audi is a 9. The BMW is a 10."
"The inline six is liquid smooth and sounds like a high-performance engine."
"There's plenty of passing power in sixth gear."
"BMW has awesome high-speed stability, Audi gets a bit floaty."
"BMW has a larger trunk and the bigger more comfortable backseat."
"BMW wins for seat comfort."
"Awesome car. Still sets the standard for 'sport sedan.'"
"Accurate steering, flexible engine, friendly shifter, stable yet compliant ride, rigid construction — it's all here."
It's About the Drive
This is the fifth generation of the 3 Series, and like its predecessors, it's all about the drive. Its dynamics and interaction with its driver set a new standard for anything with four doors.
Drive for only a mile and it's clear how special the new 3 Series is. It's a quick get. And that mile doesn't need to be on a racetrack or twisty section of road. It can be on crowded city streets, a clogged freeway, heck, it can be in a parking garage. If it is on a racetrack or twisty section of road, you'll get it in a matter of feet.
This car talks to you. It speaks through the steering, brakes and seat in a language so clear you can't help but respond. You drive faster, farther and more frequently. You drive.
Our test car didn't have the optional Active Steering with Servotronic vehicle-speed-sensitive power assist, which is a good thing. We've experienced the system in the 5 Series and don't care for it.
Part of the car's spell is its superior performance. It walks away from the Audi, no, make that runs. With 55 more horsepower and a larger set of wheels and tires, this wasn't surprising, but it proved to be fun.
The BMW's 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder, which is rated at 255 hp at 6,600 rpm and 220 pound-feet of torque at 2,750 rpm, isn't exactly a big-block Chevy, but after driving the 2.0-liter Audi it feels like one. Power is right there off idle but comes on hard around 3,500 rpm and up. The redline is a lofty 7,000 rpm, and the engine likes to head for it.
In fact, this engine, which is packed with such cutting-edge technology as the world's first contemporary magnesium/aluminum composite construction, is so smooth, it's easy to merge onto the highway in fourth gear and forget to ever upshift. You look down and realize you've been cruising at 80 mph for 15 minutes in fourth. This doesn't happen in the Audi. This may also be why we recorded significantly better fuel economy in the A4. Sorry, BMW.
At the test track the numbers weren't even close. The BMW blitzed through the quarter-mile in 15 seconds flat at 97 mph and squirted from zero to 60 mph in 6.6 seconds. In both tests the Audi was well behind.
In the slalom the BMW's tighter suspension, larger tires and superior balance ruled the day with a speed of 66.4 mph. That's about 2 mph faster than the A4 and only about 2 mph slower than the BMW M3 Competition Package we tested not long ago.
Those runs were made with the stability system turned off, but the system actually has three settings: on, halfway off and off. Even without it, the BMW changed direction better than the Audi, which became tail happy in the slalom with its electronics shut down.
Drive both hard on a mountain road, and both understeer first, but the Audi's front tires give away much earlier and its steering picks up a crude kickback that makes it feel like a front-wheel-drive car.
The rear-wheel-drive BMW never feels flustered, in fact, it feels so good it can fool you into going too fast. You think there's more grip left, but there isn't. You've found the car's limits, but you found them so easily you think there's more. Thankfully, the BMW allows you to take a step over that edge without dire consequences.
Part of that comfort zone is the 330i's amazing brakes, which can handle as rapid a pace as anyone should ever attempt on public roads. Fade is not an issue, and pedal feel is right as rain. Stopping distances at the track were simply fantastic at 110 feet from 60 mph.
A Few Rough Edges
OK, we've been gushing, but the new 3 Series isn't perfect. Although nicely built, sufficiently ergonomic and without distaste, the BMW's interior is stark and cold compared to the Audi's. Thankfully our test car did not have iDrive, so we don't have to spend time complaining about it, but its décor also lacks the artful touches and warmth that make the Audi's interior the standard.
Real complaints are limited to small radio display, too small cupholders and the worst radio reception since Marconi's first try. We also had to constantly fiddle with the BMW's air conditioning, which wasn't an issue in the Audi. The A4's climate control was like that Ronco oven thing — you know, set it and forget it.
The BMW, however, did gain a few points for its rear A/C vents (which the Audi doesn't have), the most perfectly shaped shift knob we've ever felt, and the cool nightlights it has on each exterior door handle. We should also mention that we figured out how to set the clock on BMW's sound system in only a few minutes without ever going for the owner's manual.
All Hail the King
Small chinks in the armor, nothing more. As one of our editors wrote in the car's logbook, "The 2006 BMW 330i is just about perfect to drive."
And that makes it the ultimate sport sedan.
Second Place: 2005 Audi A4 2.0 T Quattro MT6
Although the Audi has come in second, we have nothing but nice things to say about this little sedan. It's a favorite around our offices and we really believe that anyone ever blessed with the opportunity to drive one, much less own one, should feel lucky.
And the above isn't more cotton candy for the maniacal. We mean it. This is a great car. It's just not quite as great as the new 3 Series.
Fact is, the Audi coming in a close second wasn't a real surprise. While BMW started with essentially a clean sheet of paper when it began to dream up the 2006 330i, Audi says its 2005 A4 is only 60-percent new. Its platform, interior and overall dimensions remain basically as they have been since the previous generation was introduced in 2002. That means things like the cargo space and rear-seat room are unchanged.
New stuff includes the 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine which is rated at 200 hp at 5,100 rpm and 207 pound-feet of torque at 1,800 rpm. The engine, which replaces the very likable 1.8T engine that has powered everything from Volkswagen's Jetta to Audi TTs, is the world's first use of direct fuel injection in combination with turbocharging. Audi says injecting the fuel directly into the combustion chambers makes more power. It calls the system FSI (Fuel Straight Injection). It idles like a diesel and is weak under 2,000 rpm but flawless from there.
The six-speed manual is a carry-over unit, as is the mechanical quattro all-wheel-drive system, which has been evolving now for 25 years. Audi did, however, spend some time tweaking the A4's suspension, and the benefits are unmistakable.
The A4's high-speed stability and steering response have been improved by Audi simply adopting several mounts front suspension hardware from the high-performance V8-powered S4 model. Audi also retuned the shock absorbers and mounted them with large rubber bushings to better smother suspension noise before it reaches the cockpit.
Great Around Town, but
Around town that reworked suspension gives the A4, even with the optional sport package, a better ride and quicker response. It has a newfound smoothness, and no longer crashes over expansion joints. The steering feels better, too, less polluted, like it would in a rear-wheel-drive car.
Understeer is still the A4's most common cornering attitude, but its limits are now higher. And the Electronic Stabilization Program (ESP), which is standard, works without eliminating all of the A4's sporting personality. Plus it can be shut down with the push of a button.
Climb out of the BMW 330i and into the A4, however, and suddenly the Audi isn't so astounding. The BMW has more grip, better body control and purer steering. After a stint in the BMW, our A4 test vehicle, which wore Dunlop tires, would all of a sudden feel loose and even a bit sloppy. Slow, too.
But check this out. Since we performed this comparison test, we've driven another identically equipped A4, only it wore Continental tires. We may be a bit nutso, but the car felt 10 times better. The problem is we don't know if it felt better because of the different rubber, or because we weren't driving it immediately after driving the 330i.
Either way, if we were buying an A4 with the sport package, we'd play it safe and request a car with the Continentals.
Fun, but Not That Fast
In our slalom test, the A4 cut through the cones at 64.6 mph, which is slower than the 330i, but a whole lot faster than the A4 Avant we test recently, which was without the optional sport package.
Audi has also increased the size of the A4's brakes, but not by enough. Although they felt great around L.A., at the test track we measured a stopping distance from 60 mph of 122 feet. Again, this is significantly better than the A4 Avant's performance a few months ago, but not nearly as good as the BMW's stopping distance of 110 feet.
It's the same story at the drag strip. The A4 needed 7.7 seconds to accelerate from zero to 60 mph after a clutch-killing high-rpm, all-wheel-drive launch. In the 3.2-liter Avant, which weighs 300 pounds more, we ran a 7.9, and in the 330i, which spins its rear tires off the line, we ran a 6.6.
The A4 sedan's 15.8-second quarter-mile elapsed time and 90-mph trap speed are also short of awesome.
Still Great Inside
As good as the A4 is the only category where it truly trounces the Bimmer is interior appointments.
Despite being essentially unchanged since 2002, with the exception of its newly shaped steering wheel, this interior still sets the standards for the class in fit and finish, warmth and usability. It's perfect, from its clear dials to its abundant chrome accents, and the BMW's interior is cold, plasticky and an ergonomic miss by comparison.
It's for the Less Hard-Core
If you're hard-core, buy the BMW. Its drivetrain and its chassis are ready to handle whatever you can throw at it, no matter how radical.
The A4, on the other hand, appreciates a lighter touch, a slower lick. It'll hang with you, and it'll reward you along the way, but once you reach 10/10ths — that all-out pace reserved for the hard-core — it starts to feel strained.
And that is why the BMW 330i, and not the Audi A4, is the ultimate sport sedan.