If you’re looking for the most visceral journeys, short or long, from a practical mid-sized performance sedan, should you look to Alfa Romeo, Audi Sport, BMW M or Mercedes-AMG?
Versatile yet visceral. Audi’s RS5 Sportback coupe-sedan crossbreed is the latest model to promise well-heeled petrolhead parents and ambitious executives a rare vehicle purchase that’s both rational and emotional.
The fastback-style Sportback is a first for the RS5 range that has previously been coupe and convertible only.With its concoction of practical five-door, five-seater body style, sophisticated technology and potent twin-turbo V6 engine, it aims to be a family car, executive car and sports car all in one.
Audi’s German rivals BMW and Mercedes-Benz have been creating fast sedans for even longer, with familiar foes the M3 and AMG C63.
With a new regular 3 Series only just released in Australia, this is an M3 in its twilight years and due for replacement in 2020. A 2017 update, however, introduced a Pure model with upgraded mechanicals at a sharper price.
The C63 fends off segment attacks with a recent update featuring new interior technology and a nine-speed auto.
For our final mid-sized luxury sports sedan competitor, we switch from Teutons to Turin for the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio. Bearing the white-and-green cloverleaf that’s adorned the Italian brand’s raciest cars since the 1920s, the Quadrifoglio is the flagship of the Italian brand’s Giulia range.
What do you get?
While these models could be viewed as a three-cars-in-one package, don’t expect a bulk-buy-style deal.
Nope, the BMW isn’t yet in runout phase. We’re testing the M3 Pure variant, saving $15,000 over the regular Competition version.
The Pure loses Competition features such as Merino-leather upholstery, Harman Kardon audio, heated front seats, rear side blinds, adaptive LED headlights and 20-inch wheels, though crucially, performance wise, it’s otherwise mechanically identical.
Carbon fibre is a car maker’s ‘racey look’ material of choice and none here uses as much as the Alfa. It’s in the construction of the bonnet, roof and rear spoiler, while also featuring on the side skirts and trimaterial steering wheel with Alcantara and leather (a new addition for 2019 along with a heated rear bench that now accommodates three rather than two).
RS5 buyers can go crazy on the expensive black weave material, too, though several thousand dollars are needed for a carbon-fibre roof and engine cover. Or just focus on the interior with $1000 carbon inlays.
Our Sportback also features an RS design package ($3300) that brings a plethora of red stitching, red-striped seatbelts, Nappa leather door trim, and Alcantara for the centre console sides, gear-shifter and steering wheel.
The RS5 wears the biggest standard wheels in the group: 20-inch items compared with 19s elsewhere. The C63 S shares much of its blackwood-and-metal interior trim with the V6 C43, though gains include full Nappa-leather upholstery and a Nappa leather/microfibre steering wheel.
Its exterior features the most advanced headlights – Benz’s multibeam LEDs. Audi’s equivalent Matrix lighting system is available for $1900. The Alfa makes do with Bi-Xenons and the M3 Pure loses the adaptive LED headlights standard on the Competition.
The Quadrifoglio and RS5 provide the sportiest driving positions with their lower-set seats. The $7150 Sparco carbon-fibre racing buckets fitted to our Alfa test car are manual adjust only where its rivals offer seemingly unlimited electric adjustment (including bolstering for the RS5 and C63).
There’s also a contrast between the cabin presentations of the Alfa and Audi.While the Italian’s interior isn’t short on style or even harmonious design – such as the touchscreen integrated neatly into the dash – its materials don’t elicit the same expensive, sophisticated feel as the Audi’s.
To be fair to the Alfa, neither the BMW nor Mercedes, as decently smart as they are, can quite match the RS5 cabin’s perception of quality.
Audi’s clever, fully digital instrument cluster is now matched by the updated C63, though we also like the M3’s predominantly analogue gauges and the Alfa’s hybrid approach.
The M3’s rear seating is the tightest for knees and toes, though it’s not cramped. Headroom honours go to the Alfa, though it shares the firmest bench.
The RS5 Sportback’s practicality literally gets a lift with its tailgate, providing unrivalled boot access. Its boot also has the greater depth (107cm) and the Audi shares splitfolding rear seats with the BMW and Mercedes (40-20-40 for the RS5). The Alfa’s boot is the least practical, with the narrowest aperture, least depth and fixed rear seats.
Mercedes gives the C63, which offers the widest boot at 108cm, an electrically operated bootlid, release levers for the rear seat folding, and a ski port.
Under the bonnet
Normally aspirated V8s were not so long ago the domain of the mid-sizer performance segment, though emissions regulations have prompted everyone except Mercedes-AMG to opt for twinturbocharged six-cylinders.
The C63’s V8 still features dual turbos, though, and the 4.0-litre is two-thirds the capacity of the previous model’s 6.2-litre.
It also has to share 375kW peakpower honours with the Giulia’s V6, which produces more kilowatts per litre of engine capacity than even a V8-powered Ferarri 488 GTB (a suitable comparison considering engineers from the supercar brand worked on the Giulia project).
Audi’s V6 and BMW’s straight-six are both 331kW though the M3 is the only sedan here producing maximum power beyond 7000rpm (7300rpm). It also has the widest peak torque curve, its 550Nm spanning 1850-5500rpm.
That figure just leaves the BMW 50Nm shy of the Giulia and RS5, and 150Nm short of the 700Nm C63. With performances very much defined by their turbocharged midrange shove rather than high-rev potency, it’s no surprise the muscular Mercedes feels like the quicker car on the move, pulling hard seemingly from anywhere in the rev range, and seemingly in any gear.
In the standing-start sprint, however, the C63 had to settle for joint slowest with the M3 – 4.2 seconds, according to our timing equipment.
The other rear-wheel-drive member of this group, the Alfa, aided by the group’s best power-to-weight ratio, clocked 4.0 seconds dead.
The RS5 Sportback, though, used Audi’s trademark all-wheel drive for a predictable advantage – at least half a second quicker to 60km/h before registering a tape-tearing 3.8 seconds.
The C63, M3 and RS5 are all quicker than their non-turbocharged predecessors, though the Audi and BMW sixes lack the evocative noises of older V8s. The RS5’s engine, codeveloped with Porsche, is surprisingly short on character, though enjoyable belches and crackles through the exhaust system remain.
The M3 can also sound a little bland at lower revs, though it gets snarlier at higher revs, rewarding drivers who take the engine towards its 7500rpm redline.
At low speeds, the Alfa’s V6 is relatively anonymous, though that’s easily changeable if you select Race mode (just be mindful this switches off stability control) where the engine becomes suitably sonorous.
While lacking the drama of the old 6.2 V8, the latest C63’s 4.0-litre V8 cements its status as one of the great engines of the modern turbo era with a fabulously entertaining collection of noises.
The V8 burbles with intent at low revs – especially in Sport or Sport+ modes, or with the dedicated Exhaust button pressed – before becoming thunderously raucous as speed builds.
And, now paired with a nine-speed multi-clutch auto, the C63’s engine is also the most relaxed at freeway speeds, spinning at just 1500rpm at 110km/h. The short-geared Alfa was operating at 2250rpm with the Audi and BMW in between.
These are not cars you buy if you’re concerned about fuel bills, though for the curious the C63 is the thirstiest on official figures (10.4L/100km) or via our testing calculations (about 20.0L/100km during 260km of mixed driving).
On the road
Adaptive suspensions and drivetrains are the norm across the board here.
So, turning each into their optimum set-up for a thrilling tourist road requires the turning of a dial or a press of a button to heighten aggression and responsiveness.
The Mercedes has the most driver-friendly dial, attached conveniently to the bottom-right of the steering wheel.
Alfa’s DNA Pro selector, on the centre console, also gets an ergonomic tick, while the BMW provides individual suspension and drivetrain buttons on the console – as well as two ‘quick access’ M buttons on the steering wheel.
The Audi frustrates with its Drive Selector button that is biased towards left-hand-drive markets, requiring a distracting reach from the driver’s seat.
We’re not testing these cars on a racetrack, so we leave alone the Race modes available in both the Alfa and AMG (as well as ignoring the C63’s new selectable nine-stage traction control system, left in default). So it’s Dynamic for both the Alfa and Audi, and Sport+ for the BMW and Benz.
And Ferrari DNA proves to be more than just PR blurb, because the Alfa comes closest to offering bonafide sports car dynamics.With the most instantaneous directional changes of the group, the deftly balanced Giulia is a pure joy along the twistiest roads. The steering’s sharpness off centre takes some adjustment, mind.
There’s also a caveat to it being declared the best driver’s car here, because the Alfa’s brake-by-wire system struggles to deliver the requisite confidence during quick driving.
Converting the driver’s brake pedal pressure into stopping force via electronics rather than a physical link, the Alfa’s braking is tricky to modulate and can lack bite. (The latter is at least improved with optional carbon ceramic brakes we’ve tested previously on the Giulia Quadrifoglio.)
Brake feel and performance is far more consistent on the Alfa’s rivals, and the BMW’s stoppers are particularly brilliant – the choice for the last of the late-brakers.
The M3 is the lightest contender at 1565kg, though doesn’t feel as fleetfooted as the Alfa – itself only a holiday-suitcase heavier at 1585kg.
This is chiefly down to the BMW’s steering, which tries to compensate for a shortage of communication with artificial heaviness.
Putting the steering setting in Sport rather than Sport+ improves matters, though it remains the M3’s core dynamic disappointment – and will be notable to owners of any previous M3.
Where you have to take the M3 by the scruff of the neck through tighter corners, the C63 and Audi are as fluent as the Alfa, though with better brakes allow the driver to get into an easier rhythm.
The AMG’s steering is well weighted if not brimming with feel, and there’s plenty of poise even if we sensed a touch more body roll compared with the pre-updated version.
The RS5’s handling is aided by that unrivalled traction out of corners where the rear-drive trio require a later application of throttle.
However, the Audi’s steering wheel feels like it’s been injected with anaesthetic, its numbness compounded by a weighting that feels too light even in Dynamic, and the RS5 turns into corners with less conviction when pushed.
Dial things back and all our contenders revert to highly effective long-distance tourers when in Comfort mode (or Natural, as the Italians prefer to call their setting).
Freeway cruising is comfortable and effortless in each, as are flowing open country roads, with the Comfort/Natural settings providing sufficiently relaxed suspensions.
On 60-80km/h town and country roads, the BMW and Mercedes produce the most noticeable tyre rumble, and the C63 has the noisiest suspension, which is particularly brittle in ride on urban roads.
The Audi’s ride comfort is excellent around city suburbs and almost as consistently good as the Alfa’s, with only our four-up testing on lumpy inter-town roads revealing annoyingly busy suspension movement.
This is such a strong group that each car ended up being selected as a personal choice by one of our four testers.
Yet, with objective assessment, there was a unanimous verdict.
The M3 Pure is a veritable performance-car bargain at sub- $130K, and there’s much to appreciate about its racey gearbox, meaty engine, superb brakes, and muscular stance. It just isn’t the complete driver’s car likeM3s of old, and its ride was the busiest and noisiest here.
The Giulia Quadrifoglio seduces like Alfas of yore, a fabulous machine with a terrific V6 and a chassis that somehow delivers both the sharpest handling and consistently smoothest ride.
Italy’s chances of upsetting the Germans, though, were largely undone by its underdone interior, limited boot practicality, and braking that failed to provide sufficient confidence in hard driving. Reliability also remains a factor that Alfa needs to prove with its new-generation cars (we’ve had issues with two Giulia models, including one we own).
If commuting comfort and a cabin that best blends sportiness and sophistication are highest priorities, then the RS5 Sportback fits the bill. Its exclusive all-wheel drive also pays dividends in wet or dry.
But its numb steering and relatively lazy turn-in in this company count against it when the going gets truly quick, and the Audi’s V6 is the least characterful engine here.
Mercedes-AMG’s C63 S isn’t perfect, either. Its exterior styling is too subdued, and its brittle urban ride can be noisier than a five-year-old on a drum kit. But, in this comparison, we set out to find the car that, through its practicality, sophistication and performance, can make its owner feel special regardless of motoring scenario.
And with its flamboyant V8, hilariously effortless performance, and smart, spacious cabin complete with updated tech, the C63 is satisfying and rewarding on multiple levels