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You could call a comparison between the 2018 Audi RS5 and 2018 BMW M4 Competition a battle of ethos. A battle, if you will, of two different ways of solving the same problem. Which problem? Delivering a blindingly fast, somewhat affordable track weapon that needs to be used every day.
It’s not an easy conundrum to solve either. Seemingly every manufacturer’s fascination with the Nürburgring has delivered countless track weapons that in many cases are a little (or a lot) too edgy for the road. This pair could easily run perilously close to that line. We know the numbers then, we know how quick this pair can be around a skating-rink smooth ribbon of tarmac, but the cut and thrust of the daily grind is an entirely different discipline.
Tradition… You can define tradition as ‘the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation, or the fact of being passed on in this way’. Cut it however you like, but an M4 (so bloody stupid calling this an M4 too, this is and always will be an M3), should be front engined, rear-wheel drive, and powered by an inline six. Tradition dictates thus.
BMW switched to a V8 and the fans screamed. How dare you leave the amazing six-cylinder behind. It switched back to an inline six and the fans screamed. How dare you leave such an amazing bent eight behind. Turbos have now added savagery to the performance numbers, and the days of the wailing atmo six are long gone – and still the fans are probably screaming.
Meanwhile, up the autobahn at Ingolstadt, Audi has plugged away with an AWD platform in the face of drifting, tyre-smoking debauchery from the competition – albeit also replacing a bent eight with a six. ‘This is how we do things.’ You can imagine an engineer reiterating that statement in a management meeting. Tyres losing grip in corners? Not if we can help it, no.
Which brings us to this most obvious shootout… My co-tester for this one is resident German and lover of all things performance, Rob Margeit. He and I will try to dissect two modern greats, two future legends, two mighty performance coupes with the weight and heritage of two very simple badges – ‘M’ and ‘RS’.
What’s this about then?
Trent says: This test for me is all about liveability. I know how fast these are based on the numbers. I know how quickly they can lap all manner of different circuits around the world. 0–100km/h times don’t mean anything when it comes to getting settled every morning and driving to work, or loading your partner and kids in for a weekend drive along the coast.
Traffic, ride comfort, turning circles, all the mundane stuff, that’s where these two need to excel. I can count on one hand the number of new RS5s and M4s I’ve seen being thrashed at a track day. Bragging rights matter, sure, but so does being able to actually use the bloody thing.
Rob says: For me, this is about a blend of practicality and performance, somewhat of an oxymoron, I know. But, as someone on his second mid-life crisis, the lure of a performance coupe is strong. That it needs the practicality of being able to haul kids is also a factor.
Yes, there are better options, options with four doors and similar levels of performance and at a similar price. But there's something about a two-door that is enticing, sexy even, to my mid-life addled mind, at least.
Pricing and Specifications
The 2018 Audi RS5 TFSI quattro starts from $156,600 before on-road costs. Standard equipment highlights include: Nappa leather RS sports seats with diamond stitching, flat-bottomed RS steering wheel, RS-specific 12.3-inch Virtual Cockpit driver’s display, 20-inch alloy wheels, LED headlights, panoramic glass sunroof, privacy glass, gloss-black exterior styling package, red brake calipers, quattro sport rear diff, RS sport exhaust system, dynamic ride control with adaptive dampers, Audi connect with smartphone interface, DAB+ digital radio, and a Bang & Olufsen 3D sound system. Like the BMW, the RS5 gets a carbon-fibre roof.
The 2018 BMW M4 Competition starts from $156,900 before on-road costs. Standard equipment highlights include: LED headlights and tail-lights, new interior trim, iDrive 6 infotainment system, DAB+ digital radio, 8.8-inch display, M Sport front seats, gloss-black highlights for the M4 bottled badge, tailpipes, exterior gills and front grille, 20-inch alloy wheels and firmer, adaptive M suspension. There’s also the carbon-fibre roof, and various swathes of carbon-fibre trim inside the cabin.
Audi’s autobahn annihilator is powered by a hairy-chested 2.9-litre, twin-turbo V6 engine mated to an eight-speed tiptronic transmission. The exceptional AWD system can direct up to 40 per cent of the drive to the front wheels, or up to 85 per cent to the rear wheels depending on available grip.
The engine is no slouch either, hammering out 331kW and 600Nm, matching the Beemer for power and trumping it for torque. The RS5 can get from 0–100km/h in 3.9 seconds, while using an ADR-claimed 8.8L/100km on the combined cycle.
In our experience, the quality and precision of the AWD calibration is such that you’d be able to get perilously close to that time in the real world, regardless of the road surface, it’s that damn good. On test, with plenty of enthusiastic right-pedal action of course, we used 13.1L/100km.
The BMW, on the other hand, gets a 3.0-litre twin-turbo inline six-cylinder engine backed by a seven-speed, dual-clutch automatic transmission. The M4 is, of course, RWD, meaning you need your brain engaged at all times and need to know what you’re doing to get it off the line and even remotely close to the claimed 0–100km/h capability.
The six-cylinder is, likewise, a performance weapon, knocking out the same 331kW as the Audi but slightly less torque at 550Nm. The M4 will traverse the 100km/h sprint in 4.0 seconds, with that 0.1-second deficit almost entirely explained by its propensity to erupt into clouds of (expensive) tyre smoke. It also uses an ADR-claimed 8.8L/100km and on test averaged 13.2L/100km.
It’s actually difficult to pinpoint exactly why, but the Audi’s cabin feels more premium and more accomplished, almost from the minute you thud the door shut. Virtual Cockpit is a huge addition in terms of what it brings to the table – the ability to customise the view, the whopping satellite-navigation display, it all adds up to feeling a notch above the BMW in terms of tech and driver interface.
Strangely, and somewhat annoyingly, there’s no touchscreen for Apple CarPlay, which makes using the system more difficult and less intuitive than it needs to be. The RS5’s cabin feels more like a luxury cabin with a hint of ‘race car’ mixed in, strengthening the daily driver case.
When you do wind the wick up a little on a twisty road, though, the RS5 feels sporty enough to justify the performance numbers and ensures you feel at home barrelling into and out of corners. The seats are excellent, and the driving position is likewise near-perfect.
The BMW raises the smartphone connection up a notch with wireless Apple CarPlay, and also touchscreen functionality, although we had numerous issues during testing with the touchscreen not wanting to play ball. We went back and tested it again post this week with the two cars and it was fine. Strange.
The BMW menu system isn't especially easy to decipher straight up, nor is it intuitive once you have worked it out. In fact, iDrive feels a little fiddly to operate if you're used to a modern smartphone.
The BMW cabin feels decidedly more race car-like than the RS5, though, so if you prefer that harder-edged approach to cabin design, the BMW is the winner. It’s still comfortable and versatile for both driver and passenger, so don’t think you’ll miss out on that factor, it just feels more track-focused than the Audi.
In short, both cabins and boot spaces present themselves as excellent daily driver propositions. There’s more than enough storage for a weekend away, and back seats that (while not being especially easy to get into) are comfortable and roomy enough once in there unless the driver is especially tall.
On the Road
Trent says: This tussle is impossibly close just about everywhere – until you start a road drive after a rain shower that is… We’ll often joke that too much power is never enough, but the truth is that it can be too much. If a chassis and tyre package can’t harness the power on offer, it’s not ideal on the road. Lairy oversteer and smoky burnouts might be fun on-track, but not so much on a public road.
The Audi RS5 is shod with sticky 275/30ZR20 Pirelli P Zero rubber all round, and from the outset you’re entitled to expect prodigious grip. Quattro is renowned for delivering on any surface, wet, dry or otherwise, and you head into a spirited drive in the RS5 with this fact in the back of your mind.
Dynamic mode feels more accomplished than either Sport or Sport Plus in the M4, such that driving rapidly is a much more confidence-inspiring undertaking in the Audi. It’s effectively on a different planet to drive quickly, with more grip everywhere, no wheelspin at all on the same damp roads back to back and a sense of composure; you are actually encouraged to push a little harder.
The steering is still excellent despite not being perfect, as we’ve seen with most Audi products recently, and still has that reassuring, meaty feel you want from a sports car. Chassis balance is near perfect, and perhaps most importantly here the ride is significantly more comfortable than the M4, no matter the quality of the surface beneath. In fact, the RS5 strikes a perfect balance between what it should be capable of at the limit, and how it delivers day to day in the real world.
The Audi’s gear shift is rapid but not as snappy or sharp as the M in either conventional Drive or full-attack Manual mode. Another factor to weigh up here is the overall sense of theatre and soundtrack. The RS never sounds as thrashy, urgent or on edge as the M4, even when the exhaust is in full banzai mode. If you prefer the theatrics on offer, the BMW will be your pick.
I’d describe the RS5 as having a better switch between mild and crazy – when you want that switch to occur. Whereas the M4 is always crazy, the RS5 can be the wolf in sheep’s clothing performance-wise if you prefer an understated personality.
In contrast to the Audi, BMW has opted for 265/30ZR20 and 285/30ZR20 Michelin Pilot Super Sport tyres front to rear respectively. With that much rubber at the outer edges of the rear axle, you’d be entitled to expect the M4 to get its power down with some measure of composure, and yet lean on the throttle with even the gentle touch of a heart surgeon and the rear tyres erupt in a cloud of smoke.
My first attempt at a roll-on overtake before we even started our proper testing resulted in the tail stepping out and the wheels spinning up – in Comfort mode with all the nannies firmly engaged.
On a wet road, the M4 is akin to the trigger of a sniper’s rifle. There’s no doubting its prodigious ability on a perfect section of track, but on a bumpy road, damp with the sheen of a fresh rain shower, it’s way too sharp and twitchy. That feeling translates onto dry public roads too, where it never feels settled and always feels like the power will comprehensively overwhelm the 285s out back.
Countering the power delivery and the chassis’s inability to properly harness it, the steering and brakes are exceptional even in the wet at faster speeds. The M4 feels lighter over the nose than it is, and the steering has that solid, precise feeling we’ve always admired from BMW. Point the nose where you want it to go, and assuming you can keep the rear end in line, the front end is razor sharp.
The M4’s throttle is simply too sharp and trigger-like even in Comfort mode, let alone once you move to Sport or Sport Plus. Granted the wet roads (which did dry into the middle of our test day) didn’t help the M4's cause, but this isn’t about perfect conditions. Rather, this test is a real-world comparison on imperfect roads and under changing conditions.
The M4 is too powerful and can't handle the power even on dry roads, to be fair, and because it can be so sharp and nasty when the power comes on, you're not confident to drive it fast anywhere other than a racetrack, unlike the Audi. There is undoubtedly more theatre and noise than the Audi in any mode, though, and the M4’s shrieking exhaust note at redline is evocative.
I’d call the ride near perfect in Sport for the purpose and what it should feel like, but it’s otherwise too firm around town and on bumpy country roads. Like my point about the cabin, if you prefer your daily driver to feel more like a race car than a passenger conveyance, you’ll almost certainly love the firm ride of the M4, but for us around town, the Audi is the winner in the comfort stakes.
Rob says: The M4 is too much car for everyday driving. It is, as Trent has already alluded, unhinged. It’s not a matter of having too much power (it has the same outputs as the RS5), but in the way that power is delivered. There’s little linearity. It’s a case of almost all or nothing. Even modest throttle application lights up those fat Michelins at the rear. And not in a good way. Instead, it fills you with a cautious dread.
I’m as far removed from a lead-foot as you can possibly be (in 33 years of driving, I have yet to score a speeding ticket… Touch wood), but even my gentle right foot found it pretty easy to spin the rears, even at speeds well below the speed limit.
It’s at once unnerving and unsettling. Instead of enjoying that glorious sound of BMW’s inline six, you are forever tense just waiting for the back end to step out (before it’s caught by the car’s traction control).
Out on the open road, on a damp to drying stretch of twisties, I simply could not enjoy what should have been an enjoyable day on some of greater Sydney’s best winding roads. And really, isn’t that the reason you would buy a car like this?
The RS5, on the other hand, lacks the theatre and aggressiveness of the M4. And that’s no bad thing, certainly not for this tester. Sure, the AWD surety provided by Audi’s quattro underpinnings is always going to be better than the twitchiness of a rear-wheel-driven monster, and what that surety offers is an altogether more enjoyable driving experience. With the possibility of calamity removed from the equation, you are left to link corners together with a linear surge of speed.
The RS5 simply hunkers down and propels you forward at speeds approaching stupid, and it does so with a planted assurance lacking in the M4. You feel, and just know, you can push that little bit harder. Whereas the M4 requires circumspection, the RS5 is more playful without overstepping your personal boundaries or limitations.
The Audi is softer around town too, but not so soft that you feel you’re cruising in a cushioned limo. The ride is supple, swallowing up imperfections and Sydney’s rough road surfaces with ease, whereas the M4 is slightly jarring in the same application.
The RS5 is the embodiment of a grand tourer: comfortable when it needs to be, yet offering a level of, while not exactly maniacal, aggressiveness when called upon.
Following a week with both vehicles and a solid day of ‘proper’ driving on wet roads that dried out over the course of the day, it’s the Audi RS5 that edges the BMW M4 to win our road comparison. Its slightly more premium cabin, significantly superior ride comfort on average road surfaces and all-round grip and composure are irresistible.
The M4 is, and remains, an epic performance coupe, but it simply can’t get the power on offer to the ground often enough to be usable in the hands of mere mortals. Despite the prodigious rubber under the rear end, you’ll be frying it often enough to either make you tear your hair out, or turn it grey – whichever comes first.
The RS5 is such a competent all-rounder that unless you genuinely do attend regular track days, it’s the only choice here. AWD wins on this occasion, and Audi has stolen a jump on its German competition – if only just.