It’s not always body style or driveline specification that defines a good twin test — it’s also price. And on that count, the Audi S3 Sedan and BMW 228i Coupe are very similar indeed.
The all-wheel-drive Audi is a classy compact sedan with a 206kW punch that retails for $62,200 plus on-road costs and without options. The rear-wheel-drive BMW coupe – less powerful at 180kW but smaller again – rolls in at $64,400 before additional charges.
So if you’re looking for something small, fast and premium – preferably German, of course — that is also comfortable enough for the daily grind, and priced at about $70K drive-away, then here are two different answers.
Practical and definitively more upmarket S3, or the 228i that offers a cohesive and visceral experience that for many makes it — alongside its M235i big brother — the modern BMW most in-line with the Bavarian classics of yore.
With both models sitting alongside each other in the CarAdvice garage by happenstance, it was a personal choice we couldn’t resist trying to make.
The BMW 228i is the newer of these two models, though both launched locally inside the past eight months.
Getting the Audi’s obvious advantage accounted for early, its four doors will make it a shoo-in for many buyers. Its rear seats are pretty pokey in terms of head-shoulder and knee room, though it’s nevertheless the one to go for if you have more than one friend to carry. Even loading gear becomes that much easier.
In the BMW’s defence, its rear seating area, while harder to access, does come with map pockets, air vents, nice leather elbow rests and adjustable headrests. There are also two child-seat anchors, though loading an Isofix seat back there requires some gymnastics.
Comparing interior quality, however, is a different matter.
In proper Audi fashion, the design of the S3 cabin is subdued, but its execution and use of premium materials pushes into the realms of art — something the ergonomic but plainer BMW cabin behind its nifty frameless doors cannot match.
Every dial, switch and contact surface in the S3 feels weighty and premium, and touches such as the 7.0-inch dashtop screen that rises at startup, the heavy silver-ringed vents and the genuinely upmarket flat-bottomed leather steering wheel differentiate it suitably from rivals from inside the VW stable (Golf R) and outside (Subaru STI).
By comparison, the BMW’s front feels a little low-rent, given its plastics feel cheaper, its colours are darker and more dour (though the no-cost Sport Line pack with contrast stitching alleviates this), and its red dials and its instruments look half the price of the Audi’s.
Upper: Audi S3. Lower: BMW 228i
That said, its driver-focused fascia and general ergonomics are spot-on — you really feel at ‘one’ with the car before you drive it — and its iDrive multimedia system is easier to use than the S3’s toggle-operated system, with more intuitive menus. Maps are detailed, can be placed in a split view, and zooming in and out is performed by rotating the iDrive dial.
Its segmented door pockets and general cabin storage are also superior, and its boot accessed like the Audi via 60/40 folding rear seats is about on par.
The Audi takes the edge in equipment, given it alone offers parking assist with a rear-view camera — a $1000 option on the BMW. It should be standard.
The Audi S3 also comes standard with MMI sat-nav on a 7.0-inch screen, and a 20GB hard drive, though no standard USB point. The regular 6.5-inch screen on the BMW likewise has standard in-built sat-nav, though our car had a $2300 Professional Multimedia Package that takes the screen out to 8.8 inches, adds a matching 20GB hard drive and Harman Kardon speakers and DAB+ digital radio.
Upper: Audi S3. Lower: BMW 228i
Both of our test cars also came with optional seats. The BMW’s $2400 Comfort Package adds heated electric leather seats and keyless entry, while the Audi’s S Performance package ($4990) adds magnetic dampers but also diamond-stitched hard-backed bucket seats (grippier but less cushy than the BMW’s), LED headlights, a 705-watt Bang & Olufsen sound system and 19-inch alloy wheels.
Add $1150 for metallic paint on the Audi and our test car tipped in at $68,340, while the BMW with its options would cost $70,100. The Audi feels significantly more worthy if you base that on spec, space and a premium feel. The 228i appears overpriced. (update: Audi has bumped the price $1200 for MY15 models while increasing power, see add-par further down).
Under the snubbed bonnet of the BMW sits the 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder used on a range of Bimmers including the 5 Series. It produces 180kW of power between 5000 and 6500rpm, and 350Nm of torque between 1250 and 4800rpm.
This is matched to a sublime eight-speed conventional automatic transmission sourced from ZF, with power sent to the rear wheels.
Upper: Audi S3. Lower: BMW 228i
By comparison, the Audi S3 Sedan uses the same 2.0-litre turbo four-cylinder as the S3 Sportback, which is also familiar to anyone who has driven a new Golf R. Despite being detuned for Australia, it still outguns the BMW unit with 206kW between 5100 and 6500rpm, and 380Nm between 1800 and 5100rpm.
Update: As part of some MY15 A3 range updates, S3 models now going on sale instead get 210kW, while the price jumps $1200 to $63,400 plus on road costs. The car we tested was MY14.
Paired to this is a six-speed S-tronic dual-clutch automatic gearbox and a quattro permanent all-wheel-drive system with a multi-plate clutch, electronic control module and hydraulic activation that is front-biased in regular applications but funnels a portion of torque to the rear axle when traction is lacking.
Both engines belie their capacities with their exceptional torque delivery that make them feel more muscular and lag-free than you might expect.
The Audi, though, which surprisingly weighs in at 20kg lighter than the BMW (1460kg versus 1480kg) through the use of aluminium in the body and subframe, has the better power-to-weight ratio, and is therefore faster from 0-100km/h: 5.0 seconds dead versus the BMW’s 5.7s.
Neither engine is particularly raucous, though in its sportiest driving mode the Audi’s unit takes on a gruffer edge and its gearbox prompts some ballsy blips on upshifts. The BMW’s husky drawl is distant and controlled, but it’s also not carry a sporty badge like the S3.
The S3 does indeed feel faster off the mark (AWD helps, of course) and moderately more dramatic, though the BMW’s wonderful eight-speed auto is smoother than butter in town, but capable of lightning-fast decisions as well, though it lacks the Audi’s continually active primary and secondary clutches.
The BMW also makes up ground courtesy of its superior basement-end torque delivery (at its peak across an even wider rev band) makes it just as sprightly and willing in most day-to-day scenarios.
Both Audi and BMW offer a system of adjustable driving models to give each car alternating characters, most notably in general commuting.
The Audi comes with a five-mode Drive Select system that adjusts the shift points, throttle response and steering resistance to better suit either subdued or aggressive driving styles. The BMW’s four-mode Driving Experience Control does similar. The extra one on the Audi is a configurable Individual Mode.
Our test Audi S3 went one better – fitted with the company’s optional but outstanding ‘magnetic ride’ adjustable dampers.
Tick the box, because only in Comfort mode does the S3’s general ride comfort stack up against the lively BMW, which defies its stiff-walled 18-inch run-flat tyres over corrugations. And even then, it’s notably worse at shutting out road roar from its optional 19-inch wheels than the BMW.
In the daily grind, while the S3 has a nicer cabin to immerse yourself in, the BMW is commendably quiet and comfortable. Given it isn’t an out-and-out performance variant like the Audi, this is perhaps not surprising.
Throw both cars at a challenging piece of tarmac and the differences in personality you’d expect after glancing at the spec guides take effect.
As we’ve repeatedly found, this generation of S3 is a demonstrably sharper and more involving tool than its predecessor. It sports a wonderfully balanced chassis, and though it feels more like a grippy front-driver than anything else (which it basically is), it’s nimble and far from inert, capable of holding on through some serious corner speeds.
We’d appreciate a little more rear bias built into the AWD system, which would allow you to get the power on earlier, but you’d have to be really hooking to push the nose wide. The ESC system is also happier nudging than biting, which is welcome.
The electrically assisted steering system is progressive, meaning the required inputs diminish the faster you go. It’s more clinical than visceral, but some feedback trickles through.
That said, it’s the BMW that takes the chocolates in the areas of driver engagement and thrills.
It may be moderately heavier but it feels that little bit more agile and incisive than the Audi. It’s a harmonious and pure experience, and that’s not just down to its simpler single-mode dampers and less adjustable engine, gearbox and steering modes.
It’s nose is just that little bit more amenable, its variable electric-assisted steering that little bit more involving, organic in feel and responsive from centre, its chassis a smidgen more balanced. The Audi skates but the BMW dances.
It’s supremely adjustable on throttle, and in some way feels even more cohesive somehow than even the M235i which we’ve noted can struggle to appropriately allocate torque at the rear unless you fit the optional limited-slip diff (LSD).
It feels somehow harmonious in the same vein, albeit at a lesser level, as an entry Porsche Boxster and belies the sum of its parts. Flick the driving mode into Sport+ and the relaxed stability control system opens to door to some tail-out fun.
So it’s the Audi S3 sedan for value, tangible quality and practicality, and the BMW 228i Coupe for thrills yet also ride insulation. The S3 earns admiration, the 228i maybe something stronger.
It’s a draw on paper for two commendable sporty circa-$70K Germans; the CarAdvice team’s heart just leans a bit more toward the BMW.
For those where drivetrain and number of doors isn’t a factor, it’s over to those buyers to make their call.
Click the Photos tab above for more images by Tom Fraser.