Before you start sending us flaming e-mails complaining that a comparison between the 2008 Audi S5 and the 2008 BMW M3 Coupe is an obvious mismatch from the get-go, you should know a few things.
Our first full test of the $53,000, all-wheel-drive 2008 Audi S5 was a bit of a revelation. With a 354-horsepower version of Audi's direct-injection 4.2-liter V8 under its hood, the voluptuous Audi S5 ran a 13.3-second quarter-mile at 104 mph, just 0.1 second and 2 mph shy of the 420-hp 2007 Audi RS4 sedan. What's more, the S5's slalom speed is within a couple mph of the harsh-riding RS-spec sedan. "It ran a 13.3? With that kind of speed, who needs a $67,000 RS4?" we asked ourselves.
So we acquired (hastily perhaps) another 2008 Audi S5 and set it against the new 2008 BMW M3 Coupe, a car now fortified with V8 power for the first time. Speed-reading the specifications sheets of these two cars, they seem like natural rivals: the 354-hp, all-wheel-drive 2008 Audi S5 measured against the 414-hp, rear-wheel-drive 2008 BMW M3.
But as it turns out, we gave the 2008 Audi S5 a bigger challenge than we had initially intended.
Were we foolish to pair these two high-performance coupes? The test numbers recorded by our previous 2008 Audi S5 were no fluke, as this time around we managed to coax another tenth or two from the car from Ingolstadt, validating our instincts.
Once you factor in the NHRA-style 1-foot rollout that most magazines use for acceleration testing, the all-wheel-drive 2008 Audi S5 leaps to 60 mph in just 4.7 seconds (4.9 seconds without the rollout), and then crosses the finish line at the quarter-mile in 13.2 seconds at 104 mph. Exploiting its tenacious all-wheel-drive grip, we even slightly improved our previous slalom speed. As our test-driver notes, the Audi S5 is "rock-solid in the slalom, especially during on-throttle transitions." It's the kind of thing where AWD pays dividends. So capable is the S5 at distributing power intelligently that it rockets to a 69.0-mph average over the 600-foot course. Lateral acceleration measured on the skid pad remains an impressive 0.91g.
Switching cars and techniques, we backed up BMW's claims of explosive acceleration from the 2008 M3. Launching the rear-drive coupe requires prudence, but getting it right results in a 4.3-second run to 60 mph as measured with a 1-foot rollout (4.6 seconds from an honest dead stop). Continuing unabated down the drag strip, the Bavarian's quarter-mile time is 12.7 seconds at 112 mph.
Yeah, the 2008 BMW M3 is fast, all right. There was a time when such numbers belonged to muscle-bound hyper-cars like the Chevrolet Corvette Z06, Dodge Viper or Porsche 911 Turbo.
Yet the M3's talents run deeper than drag racing. As our test-driver says, "One of the fastest production cars we've tested through the slalom. Very easy to maintain control at the limit. Steering delivers excellent feel and response for the inputs given." Stitch together a run free of tipped-over cones and the result is a speed of 73 mph, a record for a car that's in volume production. Skid pad? The BMW M3 with its weight distribution of 51 percent front/49 percent rear plus a trick electronically controlled rear differential produces levels of grip you expect from a sports car, with a performance of 0.95g in lateral acceleration.
A week's worth of commuting in both cars reveals one of the reasons we like the 2008 Audi S5 so much. The S5 offers us impressive performance on-demand, yet it's not particularly demanding of the driver. Maybe this is where the Audi will outperform the BMW, we thought.
The S5's clutch uptake is smooth and linear. The shift linkage doesn't take much effort, although the throws to grab a gear are fairly long. The shift action is always easy and intuitive, even when hurried. Meanwhile, the S5's non-adjustable suspension is thankfully compliant and supple on both city streets and highways. It has a sporty well-balanced ride and not an abusive, sports car ride. While the 2008 Audi S5 feels alert and ready for action, it doesn't feel aggravated by everyday life.
In addition, variations in the road surface do little to affect the noise level inside the S5, even with its standard 19-inch wheels wearing short-sidewall, 35-series Dunlop SP Sport Maxx tires. Rough, smooth, concrete, asphalt — it doesn't matter, because the S5 remains composed and notably quiet. Wind noise generated mostly by the side mirrors does fluctuate with vehicle speed and crosswinds, however.
The 2008 Audi S5's ability to cope effortlessly with a wide range of driving seems to elude most other car manufacturers today. Yet it also suggests that the 2008 Audi S5 is more of a grand touring car rather than an all-out sports car.
Dare To Be Harsh
Once you slide your backside into the BMW, you'll sense the M3's more dedicated purpose. You won't necessarily know it from the firm (but not too firm) action of the clutch pedal. And the shift lever selects each gear as effortlessly as in any BMW, with that slight bit of resistance as the gear engages. The taut ride, though, will communicate this car's true character.
Our 2008 BMW M3 Coupe is equipped with optional 19-inch forged wheels and Electronic Damping Control, which can be either a stand-alone option or rolled into the optional Technology Package (as this car has been equipped). BMW's EDC offers three distinct levels of organ-jiggling action called Comfort (livable), Normal (firm) and Sport (track-only).
In our book, the 2008 BMW M3's damping setting of Comfort is the equivalent of a BMW 3 Series with a Sport Package suspension. In this softest setting, you'll be aware of road imperfections, but only the worst of them will be jarring. The Normal setting brings you the ride harshness of, say, a 2007 Porsche 911 GT3, a car that only gets a pass from us because it's so damned good at the track that we'll endure the occasional punishment with a toothy grin. Finally, Sport means exactly that, as it's meant for the racetrack. It's too abusive for anything but a billiard-smooth surface, which rarely occurs in nature (well, maybe the autobahn).
For the record, our acceleration test has been completed in Comfort for optimal rear-wheel traction, and then we used Normal for the slalom test and Sport for the largely flat skid pad orbit. Though we've yet to sample a 2008 M3 without EDC, it appears to be a worthwhile option.
Yet even in Comfort mode, the M3's Michelin Pilot Sport PS2 tires slapped the pavement noticeably, transmitting a booming tire roar into the cabin. On the other hand, the M3's advanced aero package, evident from one look at those side mirrors (check out the flying buttresses), proved eerily absent of wind noise.
Until we had turned a camshaft in the 2008 BMW M3's V8, we had thought Audi's 4.2-liter V8 was about as good as it gets. With its snarling, multi-octave vocal range, its broad power band and its rev-happy personality up to the 7,000-rpm redline, how much better could a V8 be than this?
A bunch better. BMW's all-new 414-hp 4.0-liter V8 has a broader torque plateau and a higher operating range, not to mention 85 hp more from about 5,000 rpm on up to the redline of 8,400 rpm.
In terms of aural pleasure, we give the Audi a few points for its sexier exhaust note. But for sheer power, honors go to the BMW at both low and high rpm. Unlike the M5's V10 on which the M3's engine is based, this V8 shows no such want of torque and feels full-bodied and tractable at any rpm.
We've attached an analysis of a visit to a dynamometer with our test cars, and you can see for yourself why the Audi earned our respect, but the track-ready BMW transcended our expectations.
Both cockpits exude the kind of exclusive ambience reserved for purpose-built cars. The interiors feature highly legible gauges and prominent tachometers and properly bolstered and adjustable sports seats. The interface with satellite navigation is high-tech, and the audio systems are suitably high end (Harman Kardon/Logic7 in the BMW, and Bang & Olufsen in the Audi). As flawless as it might be, the BMW M3's interior reminds us that BMW interiors in general are starting to look austere and could stand a freshening. The Audi's interior comes off as more interesting because it's a little more visually challenging.
Both cars feature their own version of menu-driven control knobs for the infotainment systems, but Audi's MMI system shows us that BMW's iDrive stands alone atop our list as the most aggravating electronics-aggregating system ever made compulsory by a manufacturer. We've grown to know its idiosyncrasies over the years, yet still find ourselves scrambling for an ice pick on occasion.
Rear seating is surprisingly good in either four-passenger car, but the advantage belongs to the BMW with its obvious advantage in headroom. Squeezing yourself past each car's motorized front seat is also easier in the M3 because it's got a grab handle fixed to its headliner. We also appreciated the BMW's arm that presents the front seatbelt. The Audi still relies on the age-old man-scratching-his-own-back yoga pose to reach the belt, which gets old.
Included in the BMW M3's $3,250 Technology package, you'll find the seemingly innocuous M Drive button. It's actually magic, as it allows you to save your preferred settings for the suspension dampers, throttle mapping, steering effort and level of assistance from the dynamic stability and traction control systems. Tap the button and the M3, like a weapon, goes to locked and loaded. By the way, these preferred settings may also be programmed into various ignition keys to suit a number of tastes or abilities of multiple drivers.
While a talented driver may disable all the M3's electronic traction aids for track use, we found the M Dynamic Mode function for the stability control particularly useful for public roads. It allows enough wheelspin to produce tire smoke and a pretty thrilling yaw angle before reeling in the car. It's so good that you might think you're an extraordinary driver when, in fact, M Dynamics was doing all the work in the background.
The Audi S5 has a similar three-tier stability control system, and it also proves to be an excellent tool for dispatching a canyon road while ensuring the car can still bring itself home in one piece. Yet there's far less ability to perform gratuitous tail-out antics in the all-wheel-drive Audi S5. In an attempt to minimize the inherently awkward dynamics produced by a nose-heavy weight distribution of 60 percent front/40 percent rear, the S5 distributes 40 percent of its power to the front and 60 percent to the rear, hoping to replicate the balance of a rear-wheel-drive car.
It works, but only to a point. Last time we checked, Newton's well-educated hunches regarding objects in motion are still in effect. When shove comes to push, the nose-heavy S5 does indeed begin to understeer on the limit, though far less so than any Audi we've driven with the exception of the midengine R8.
The Status of Our Comparison
We love the 2008 Audi S5. We love its elegance, its hidden performance potential and especially its bargain pricing. Nevertheless, the extroverted 2008 BMW M3 Coupe wins both for its undeniable dominance on the test track and an incongruous ability to do so while remaining perfectly capable as an everyday car. Toss in a track day or an afternoon on any of the roads of which we're so fond, and the Audi S5 begins to feel slightly out of place.
The new 2008 BMW M3 possesses a range of talent that few other automobiles can rival. On one hand, it drives like any other BMW 3 Series. But pull its hair, and the M3 transforms itself into a 400-hp hypercar. Like a champion barrel-racing horse, the M3 responds favorably to having its butt whipped once in a while. But if you try this with the S5, it might buck you off.
Through its own engineering magic, BMW has somehow managed to give this everyday coupe the feel of a low-volume specialty car like the Porsche 911, only with a $50,000 discount. The M3 coupe makes us wonder what BMW could do if it decided to build a midengine sports car like an Audi R8.
Sure, the 2008 BMW M3's exterior is a little forced. It's rockin' a satellite antenna faux-hawk atop its look-at-me carbon-fiber roof, and some say the gratuitous power bulge on its hood looks like a pilot whale's fleshy forehead. But we simply cannot hide our unwavering enthusiasm for the way this car connects with its driver.
The manufacturers provided Edmunds these vehicles for the purposes of evaluation.