Payne: Teutonic sedan showdown, BMW M3 vs. Audi S4

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

My biggest complaint with the latest “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation” action thriller is that the BMW M3 doesn’t get as much screen time as Tom Cruise.

In its memorable appearance the ferocious four-door rampages through the cramped streets of Morocco variously chasing BMW sport bikes, dodging bullets and vaulting staircases. It’s a fitting product placement for the ultimate driving machine. Like Cruise’s ripped Ethan Hunt character, life with the 2015 M3 is never dull. The exhaust growls. Rivals challenge you at stoplights. Police lurk around every high-G corner.

But is this any way to live? The Audi S4 offers a simpler, quieter life.

Germany's luxury small performance sedans drive like sports cars while maintaining practical platforms. BMW's M3 features aggressive styling and ferocious horsepower, while Audi's S4 maintains more subtle design cues while offering its quattro all-wheel-drive.

Since the dawn of the luxury small performance sedan, one question has been constant: How crazed do you want your four-door to look? Low-slung sports cars telegraph their intentions. Performance sedans can be more subtle. Practical transit one moment, howling heathen the next. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Germany’s BMW birthed the segment in 1986 with the (E30 chassis) M3. Built to meet European touring car racing production rules, it was all Hyde hair and sharp teeth. Boy-toy wings and flared fenders. But with market success, the M division and its Mercedes AMG and Audi S German imitators smoothed the rough edges to expand the buyer demographic. Jekyll didn’t necessarily want the world to know he was Hyde.

I fit that demo. In 2001 I bought the third generation (E46), 333-horsepower M3, which had shed the Red Baron wing for a more cloak-and-dagger look. In the morning I was a respectable father dropping the kids at school; in the evening I mauled unsuspecting Porsches on the way home from work.

Fast forward to 2015 and the small sport sedan stable has never been more deviant — er, diverse. Options include the superb, metal-mouthed Cadillac ATS-V, the Darth Vader-masked Lexus IS-F, and the muscular Mercedes A63 AMG. But it is the Teutonic twosome of fifth-generation (F80) M3 and Audi S4 that offer the biggest contrast.

The BMW M3 is the big, bad wolf. The Audi S4 is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

I spent a week with a matched pair. Both white. Both four-door. Both powered by sixes. Both manuals. Two albino predators cruising Michigan’s byways.

The twin-turbo, 425-horsepower M3 looked hungry just sitting in my driveway. I swear the critter population in my neighborhood declined while it was there. This is not my 2001 M3. This is a four-door Corvette.

The M3’s external accents aren’t subtle. The eyes are slanted, snake-like. A hood bulge betrays the muscle underneath (the engine is actually strapped down with a boomerang-shaped, carbon-fiber brace, as if it might escape and devour a passing Prius). The wheel wells are engorged with wide, hurricane wheels. Gold, six-pot calipers on 15.7-inch carbon-ceramic rotors lurk within. Huge front and side gills feed air to the massive mill. A shark-like fin (antennae housing) atop the black, carbon-fiber roof completes the menacing image.

Just a mile from my home, a Challenger R/T pulled alongside itching for a fight. So begins another day in the life of Ethan Hunt.

The Audi is less dramatic. Outside it’s a typically understated VW product. You wouldn’t know it from a base A4 but for the red S4 badge in the grille. No hood bulges or spoilers. No exposed carbon fiber.

Its quiet, 333-horsepower engine is civilized too — and not just because it has 92 fewer ponies than the M. Audi chose to supercharge its V-6 for instant pull right up to 6,500 RPM redline. It’s a predictability that complements Audi’s signature AWD system.

On track at Autobahn Raceway outside Chicago, I found the drivetrain combo a blast with the car rotating into corners with little understeer — then evenly putting down power to all four corners under acceleration. Typical of the Audi/VW/Porsche stable, the manual box is best in class. Foot pedals are nicely spaced for heel-and-toe (though rev matching is available).

Push the M3’s starter button, by contrast, and the four exhaust pipes awake like a poked bear. At low speeds, it burbles along impatiently. Hey, buddy, when can we play?

Punch the throttle and the straight-6 delivers nice pull — but when the turbos fully kick in just shy of 3,000 revs, well, hold on darlin’. The 406 pound-feet of torque is startling. Too much thrust and I overwhelm the rear gummies. Every interstate clover leaf is the Carousel at Road America Racetrack. Washboard stiff, the car plants, but you feel its 3,500 pounds move under the G-loads. Mommy, I want my old M3!

Enter the highway, and the car’s passing power is astounding. The upshifts bark and the car launches to 120 mpg effortlessly. Zero-60? Its 4.1 seconds leaves the S4 behind at 4.9.

True to the luxe performance sedan, both car’s feature sumptuously tailored inner sanctums. The Germans sport similar dashes with clean buttons and an eccentric, rotary-dial console controller. The M3’s racier pretentions are in evidence here too with carbon fiber accents (the S4 is brushed silver) and 200 mph speedo.

Rear leg room is a revelation at 35 inches — though the M3 felt bigger. I could sit behind myself with headroom to spare. At Autobahn I packed three friends into the rear of the S4 for multiple, nausea-inducing hot laps. But once on the road, the backseat is a comfortable lounge with climate control and plenty of quiet to enjoy the Bang & Olufsen sound system.

Truth be told, I never turned on the stereo in the M3. The roaring six-holer was all the music I needed. BMW actually pipes in engine sound in addition to the natural, four-flute symphony. Rev-match downshifts. Upshift barks. Glorious. I kept the car in Sport Plus mode for maximum volume.

Par for German makes, both cars upcharge for extras that are standard on lesser vehicles (rear view camera, for example, which is standard on a $22K Mazda 6). But like its plainer wrapping, the S4’s bottom line is less outrageous than the M. My loaded S4 topped out at $55,475 — nearly 7 grand under the M’s base price. Most will prefer the AWD A4’s all-season practicality.

Marrying a movie star is another matter with the M topping out at $81,425 (if you want those $8,100 carbon ceramic jewels). Mission impossible for many. Even the gas is premium. The hungry M3 demands 93 octane high test. Or you can feed it small rodents.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Email him at hpayne@detroitnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @HenryEPayne. See all his work at HenryPayne.com

2015 BMW M3

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, five-passenger sedan

Price: $62,950 base ($81,425 as tested)

Power plant: 3.0-liter, twin-turbocharged, inline 6-cylinder

Power: 425 horsepower, 406 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Six-speed manual (as tested); seven-speed, dual clutch automatic transmission

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.1 seconds, manual (manufacturer); 3.9 seconds, auto transmission

Weight: 3,540 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 17 mpg city/26 mpg highway/20 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: Dressed to kill; breathless acceleration

Lows: Ticket magnet; stiff as a board over rough Michigan roads


Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★

Good ★★★

Fair ★★

Poor ★

2015 Audi S4

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel-drive, five-passenger sedan

Price: $49,325 base ($55,475 as tested)

Power plant: 3.0-liter, supercharged V-6

Power: 333 horsepower, 325 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Six-speed manual (as tested); seven-speed automatic transmission

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.9 seconds, manual (manufacturer)

Weight: 3,869 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 17 mpg city/26 mpg highway/20 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: Rail-like all-wheel-drive; notchy manual shifter

Lows: Distracting rotary console knob; shouldn’t a performance car have a manual parking brake?


Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★

Good ★★★

Fair ★★

Poor ★