A bleakly bucolic and somewhat dusty aerodrome baking in the late summer sun was the chosen venue to answer a question we have been asking for some months now: Is Audi's recently-launched S3 Sportback a worthy challenger for the explosive BMW M135i hatch?
In a word, yes. And it's a combination of factors – not the least of which is the Audi's grippy all-wheel drive system – that make a convincing argument in a segment that is delivering some astoundingly rapid vehicles right now.
IN THE BEGINNING... WHEN WE WERE WINNING
When BMW announced its previous-generation M-fettled version of the 1 Series coupe in 2011, it seemed almost embarrassed to admit the little 250kW/450Nm twin-turbocharged two-door was every bit as quick as the mighty M3. The cynic in us says the quoted zero to 100km/h figure of 4.9 seconds seemed calculated to sit just above the 4.8 claimed for the M3.
Today, the M-enhanced version of the 1 Series BMW is available only in five-door M135i hatch form. It uses a slightly de-tuned 235kW/450Nm 3.0-litre six-cylinder with a single, twin-scroll turbo to deliver on the original 1 Series M Coupe’s promise: Zero to 100km/h in a claimed 4.9 seconds, along with commensurate handling and road-holding abilities that give it monumental status in the small prestige class.
BMW didn’t have the segment to itself for long: Mercedes-Benz joined the ultra hot hatch fray in August 2013, when it retaliated with the A 45 AMG version of the all-new A-Class hatch.
Toting what was described as the most powerful 2.0-litre series production engine on the planet – with no less than 265kW and a torque figure of 450Nm – enabling zero to 100km/h acceleration of 4.6 seconds, the small all-wheel drive Benz was as quick as what we would have once deemed a supercar.
And then came Audi, later in the same year, with its third-generation S3 Sportback, also with four-wheel drive. Although the new four-cylinder turbo engine came with less imposing power figures (206kW and 380Nm), it still promised a similar drive experience to BMW and Benz, backed up by the claim that, in six-speed dual-clutch form, it could accelerate to 100km/h in five seconds flat – only one-tenth of a second in arrears of the M135i.
A gob-smacking list of possibilities indeed; and a promising subject for a comparison test.
And that was our plan, until our hopes were partly dashed by the inability of Mercedes-Benz to come up with an A 45 AMG to match our schedules. We had to settle, this time around, for a duel between Audi and BMW.
ALL IS NOT WHAT IT SEEMS
We were far from disappointed: The upshot of our two-car tête-à-tête was a scintillating week on the road backed up by a day on the airstrip where we uncovered strengths and weaknesses that were not entirely expected.
Checking the specs, the BMW is clearly in front of the Audi in terms of power-to-weight ratio. Both cars quote the same 1445kg kerb weight (the new generation Audi S3 has been on a diet), giving the M135i what had looked like a substantial edge.
With our ability to run side-by-side acceleration figures on the airfield we were given the perfect opportunity to measure the effectiveness with which both cars transferred their not insignificant power to the ground.
And it didn't take long, after our first quarter-mile (400m) run in which the BMW jumped to and maintained a car's length lead over the Audi, to establish that even on a sealed surface, traction is all when it comes to getting off the line quickly and efficiently.
With the bitumen surface collecting a growing patina of small stones that prevented the BMW's Michelin Pilot tyres gaining full purchase, the potent Bavarian was left scrabbling in the Audi's wake on every other succeeding run.
Powering down the runway, the Audi pounced on the BMW from half-a-car's length back after initially bogging down (because of the inevitable lag caused by the combination of solid road grip and the brief time required to spool up the smaller engine's turbo), then composing itself to streak through and leave the M135i in its wake.
Even with its virtually lag-free power delivery and activation of the (easily understood) launch control system, the M135i was simply unable to get purchase on the deteriorating surface, snaking its spectacular but ultimately less efficient way down the strip with a delightful six-cylinder bark from the exhaust and a series of short, reverberating upshifts from the eight-speed ZF automatic transmission.
The S3 Sportback was just as aurally stirring, with the deep rasp from the quad exhausts accentuated by a loud blatt that accompanied each upshift of the six-speed dual-clutch transmission.
The bottom line was that the S3 Sportback was by much faster in off-the-mark acceleration: It came close to Audi's officially claimed times, reaching 100km/h in a consistent 5.2 seconds and crossing 400 metres in 13.5 seconds with a terminal speed of 166km/h.
The M135i on the other hand recorded erratic times, snatching a best of 5.8 seconds to 100km/h, almost a full second short of BMW's claim. At 14.2 seconds and 165 km/h, the best standing 400-metre time was well behind the Audi’s too.
Of course this is only one aspect of effective power delivery. Intermediate acceleration times, once the cars were rolling, were virtually identical. Both took 1.1 seconds to sprint from 50 to 70km/h and the BMW was only 0.1 of a second behind the Audi as it accelerated from 80 to 100km/h in 1.5 seconds.
We should add at this juncture that the M135i completed its stint at the ‘dragstrip’ without a whimper. The Audi, on the other hand, flashed a warning that the proceedings would be toned down automatically as the transmission began to feel the effects of operating at its limits in the high ambient temperatures... not a good sign in a climate as hot as ours.
OFF THE STRIP AND ONTO THE ROAD
All this had much significance because both Audi and BMW, despite their dramatic driveline differences, were similarly competent (that's understating the case) on the road.
Both demonstrated a gratifying compromise between ride and handling abilities, as well as the braking power needed to haul in the velocities so easily achieved. Both have hi-po braking: The BMW’s performance-oriented M Sport system was well up to the task, as was the Audi’s meaty, all-ventilated disc setup.
The M135i’s steering, with 2.2 turns from lock-to-lock, was a tad more informative and better-weighted than the similarly-geared Audi system (2.1 turns), while ride quality, though staying short of terse in both cases, tended to favour the M135i which had less of a tendency towards bucking on deep, sharp undulations.
In terms of grip, the all-wheel drive Audi with its S sport suspension and 225/40R18 tyres was definitely more your go-kart type, with a tenacious grip and a tendency towards neutrality. Given an unsettled surface, there was no doubt the Audi was more comfortable and accelerative when it came to applying throttle out of corners.
The BMW, albeit beautifully balanced and also sitting on sport suspension with mixed tyres measuring 225/40R18 at the front and 245/35R18 at the rear, could be made to understeer slightly on entry, then exit with a touch of throttle-induced oversteer.
In terms of bulletproof road grip, the vote unquestionably goes to the Audi.
The same applies to fuel consumption and emissions figures: The BMW claims a combined average of 7.5L/100km, while the Audi is quoted at 6.9, with CO2 emissions listed at 175 and 159g/km respectively.
Needless to say we didn’t achieve those averages on test, with both cars using more than 10L/100km overall (one tester did, however, manage a one-off, eco-mode figure of 7.2L/100km in both cars on identical freeway trips).
Both had inappropriately small fuel tanks for high-performance cars: 55 litres for the Audi and just 52 litres for the BMW.
Packaging, strangely, tends to slightly favour the M135i, despite its longitudinal engine, rear-drive configuration. BMW quotes a boot capacity of 360 litres, extending to 1200 litres with the 60:40 split-fold back seat folded, which is more than the 340 litres/1140 litres quoted by Audi for the S3 Sportback. They are both pretty useful as hatchbacks though.
There's something else to consider too: Value for money.
The M135i, up front, is the more expensive (less than the A 45 AMG, however) at $64,900 before on-road costs, and before you even start thinking, and you will, about adding any options.
For that money, you get six airbags, super-effective M Sport brakes, sports suspension, the usual range of dynamic safety aids, dual-zone climate control, brake-assisted cruise control, bi-xenon headlights, rain-sensing wipers, sports (manually adjusted) front seats, leather upholstery, sat nav and a multi-function leather-clad steering wheel.
The Audi, at $59,900 before on-road costs, comes as standard with seven airbags, all the requisite electronic stability aids, keyless start, voice recognition, Bluetooth telephony and audio streaming, dual-zone climate control, sat nav, power adjusted and heated front sports seats, leather upholstery, bi-xenon headlights, rain-sensing wipers and a leather-wrapped flat-bottomed multi-function steering wheel.
In short, there’s not a lot of difference in standard equipment, unless you prefer electrically adjusted and warmed front seats... kind of makes the $5000 price difference seem questionable.
Add all of this up and it's hard to ignore the strong case presented by the S3 Sportback.
It’s comparable in almost every way with the M135i in terms of equipment, yet is actually quite a bit more affordable. The fact that it is also able to deliver maximum performance in a wider variety of conditions, and is almost as aurally and addictively exciting to drive, begs the question: What else, apart from more instantly accessible power delivery, does the BMW have to offer?
This is no reflection on the M135’s brilliance, but it’s not an easy one to answer.
The fact is that both the Audi and the BMW present a stirring small-car performance experience. But in the end, our vote goes to the cheaper, grippier S3 Sportback, if only by a nose.
|2014 BMW M135i pricing and specifications:||2014 Audi S3 Sportback pricing and specifications:|
|Price: $64,900 (plus on-road costs)||Price: $59,900 (plus on-road costs)|
|Engine: 3.0-litre six-cylinder turbo-petrol||Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo-petrol|
|Output: 235kW/450Nm||Output: 206kW/380Nm|
|Transmission: Eight-speed automatic||Transmission: Six-speed dual-clutch|
|Fuel: 7.5L/100km (ADR Combined)||Fuel: 6.9L/100km (ADR Combined)|
|CO2: 175g/km (ADR Combined)||CO2: 159g/km (ADR Combined)|
|Safety Rating: Five-star ANCAP||Safety Rating: Five-star ANCAP|
|What we liked:||What we liked:|
|>> Tractable around town||>> All-condition capabilities|
|>> Brilliant six-cylinder engine||>> Explosive acceleration|
|>> Efficient eight-speed auto transmission||>> Redefines bang-for-bucks|
|Not so much:||Not so much:|
|>> Harder to extract maximum performance||>> Transmission suffered heat exhaustion|
|>> More expensive than Audi||>> Slight initial turbo lag|
|>> Small fuel tank||>> Slightly harsh ride|
|Audi S3 Sportback ||BMW M135i|
|0-60km/h: ||2.5sec ||3.1sec|
|0-400m:||13.5sec @ 166.3km/h||14.2sec @ 165.1km/h|