What’s the fastest performance car you can buy for under $100,000? That’s the question we keep getting asked over and over again. The number of contenders is rather varied and the argument remains that you can certainly buy a $50,000 car and spend another $50k to make it supercar fast, but ultimately, there are only three cars that have the credibility to make it to this test.
They also all happen to be from Germany; the Mercedes-AMG A45, Audi RS3 and the new BMW M2. If you’re wondering why we don’t have a local hero in there with a big V8 up front, it’s simple, cross shopping of these high-performance European cars and a big Aussie sedan is extremely rare and relatively irrelevant.
The idea for the test came from our last comparison of the Audi RS3 and Mercedes-AMG A45, in that test the A45 certainly felt like the fastest car but we concluded the RS3 was more liveable as a daily driver. Now that the BMW M2 has arrived, it was time to hand the keys over to a professional driver and find out which of these three cars can claim the title of the fastest track car.
For our test we came to Norwell Motorplex, a 2km circuit that provides a good mix of long straights, twisties and hairpins to even out the characteristics of all three cars. Our Mercedes-AMG A45 had the optional front-axle differential lock ($1990) while the RS3 had the RS performance package ($6490, but the Magnetic ride can be had as a stand alone for $2080) that adds the magnetic ride control. Despite our best attempts at begging for an auto, BMW Australia sent us an M2 manual, which we felt was an unfair compromise against the other two German’s quick-shifting dual-clutch transmissions.
To even out the disadvantage of the manual gearbox and also in order to run the laps in the same manner as an FIA-sanctioned qualifying event, we agreed to make the test consist of only flying laps, meaning that cars went past the start line at full pace for timing.
Knowing full well that if one of us at CarAdvice was to set the lap times the number of comments suggesting that ‘we couldn’t drive RWD’ or ‘you don’t know how to get the best out of an AWD’ – depending on who wins – would basically break the internet, we brought in Australia’s most successful rally driver, former-WRC hero Chris ‘Atko’ Atkinson, who would still put some current pros to shame.
The idea was pretty simple. Atko knows Norwell almost as well as the track’s owner, V8 Supercars legend Paul Morris, so we warmed the track up with numerous laps in other vehicles and then sent Atko out to perform three flying qualifying laps in each car, one after another.
We also measured the track temperature (which remained identical for that period). After that was done, to remove any doubt in the lap times, we then allowed the cars to cool down (same period for each after having finished their track session) and sent out Atko out again to do one final flying lap in each car.
The good thing about using someone of Chris Atkinson’s calibre is his consistency, and the fourth lap times proved just how accurate the first three were. But before we get into winners and losers, let’s take a closer look at the cars.
The AMG’s turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine (the most powerful factory 2.0-litre in the world) has 280kW of power and 475Nm of torque. The RS3 manages 270kW and 465Nm from its 2.5-litre five-cylinder unit. Both use seven-speed dual-clutch transmissions.
The car that seems to have the most under-tuned powertrain here is BMW M2’s 3.0-litre six-cylinder twin-scroll turbocharged engine, which generates 272kW of power and 465Nm of torque, though in reality that’s actually 500Nm for those few precious seconds when you ask it to go into overboost. Both the BMW and Audi engines appear to be under-stressed, while the A45 seems to be near the peak of power output from an engine its size.
The Audi RS3 had an as tested price of $89,265 while the A45 came in at $80,390 and the manual M2 was $89,990. Full option lists are at the bottom of the review.
Before the session started, we asked Atko which he thought would be the winner and he said straight out that if he can maintain traction to the rear wheels of the BMW M2, it would be the fastest. Even so, I had never been so confident that one car was going to dominate over the others, although our tip was the A45 AMG.
Prior to the track testing, Paul Maric set out with the VBox to perform standing start acceleration timing, along with braking tests. Our standing start acceleration test was from standstill to 100km/h, while the braking test was performed from just over 100km/h to zero.
All vehicles were tested both with their native launch control function and without, with the fastest time recorded. While the results are barely surprising, do they translate to winning track times?
Both the Mercedes-AMG and Audi performed best using their launch control feature. The AMG could only manage two attempts before it needed time to cool down, while the RS3 managed four acceleration runs without fuss.
The BMW on the other hand was fastest without using launch control. The six-speed manual’s clutch was slipped off the line with a quick shift into second gear. Second gear was then held to the 100km/h marker, shortly after reaching the rev limiter.
BMW’s official 0-100km/h sprint time is 4.5 seconds, which would be achievable with a more aggressive shift from first to second gear.
First on track was the Mercedes-AMG A45, it managed a best time of 1:04.92 with the second best at 1:05.04. The Audi RS3 went out next and set a best time of 1:04.60 with a second best lap of 1:04.92, which was rather surprising for all of us, it should be noted.
Last but certainly not least the M2 went out on track and immediately it looked the fastest. Despite being a manual, it was evident watching the car dance around the track that the M2 felt the most at home out there. Atko first tried to set a lap with no driver aids on and it came out at 1:04.16, beating its competition easily. However his best lap came with all driver aids on, at a 1:03.80.
To give some perspective of track times, Atko had previously managed a flat 1:06 in a Renault Megane RS265 while in 2014 Mark “Frosty” Winterbottom set a 1:04.74 in his V8 supercar around the track – demonstrating just how quick the three Germans are.
At this stage there was some form of riot going on in the timing pits from the CarAdvice staffers and other helpers. Some were gloating with that ‘I told you so’ face while others, like myself, were just a little shocked. It’s worth noting that we all believe, Atko included, that if the M2 wasn’t a manual, it would’ve been at least another half a second faster (if not more).
After much debate and the allocated cooling time, we sent them out again. One, because the time difference between the RS3 and A45 was so damn close it was hard to find a definite winner, and two, to give the all-wheel drive cars a chance to run again in case the M2 laps were some sort of freak event.
First out, the A45 set its best time of the day at 1:04.76, RS3 followed with an identical best time of 1:04.60. The M2 went out next and again, showed its superiority with a 1:04.56. Just 20ms separated the three cars in the final stint, showcasing just how bloody close these three cars are on track.
Ultimately though, we are going with the best lap times of the day and at 1:03.80, the BMW M2 was the clear winner with nearly a second ahead of the A45 and RS3, and considering at least a 100ms deficit in shift time for a manual car, per change, the results were very convincing.
Talking to Atko after the test, he had some rather interesting comments. On the A45, he mentioned that the understeer on track was hard to deal with and that he had no way to work around it but to slow down enough to regain traction. On the contrary, according to Atko, the RS3 -which showcased significantly more body roll – proved to be the easier hatch to drive fast.
He added that the RS3 “felt more like a proper rally car, which rolls into a corner and allows you to use that weight to swing the back in”, while the A45 is so stiff that understeer can’t be treated any other way but to either drive through it or slow it down.
On the M2, Atko said the car felt the most at home on the track of the three but that the nanny-aids could be very intrusive. In addition, the M2’s Michelin Pilot Super Sport tyres lasted the longest in terms of repetitive laps while the A45’s Continental Contisportcontact 5ps faded after just a few laps. The RS3’s shoes were wrapped in Pirelli P Zero tyres.
Putting all those comments and times into perspective, there’s no doubt that the M2 is the winner but it would be foolish of us to say the RS3 beat the A45 convincingly, as the time difference between both car’s best laps was just 16ms. On average it takes your eyes between 100-150ms to blink.
So we have a winner, but it’s important to point out a slight caveat here. An argument can be made that an amateur racer likes yours truly, would find driving the A45 easier than the RS3 or M2 on track. While the A45 is a point and shoot weapon, both the RS3 and particularly the M2, require expert levels of driving skill to maximise performance. It would take a pro that is super confident with dealing with oversteer at speeds of 150km/h+ to get the M2 to put its best foot forward.
Nonetheless, there are no excuses here, only a winner and losers, and considering the M2 was a manual and it still managed to be nearly a second faster than its two automatic rivals, it can now claim the title as the best and fastest track car for under $100,000.
Audi RS3 Options:
As tested – $89,265
Mercedes-AMG A45 Options:
As tested – $80,380
BMW M2 Options:
As tested – $89,900
Photos by 820 Automotive Photography .