FEATURES: 2009 BMW 335i vs 2010 Audi S4

By - November 13, 2009
Nearly a year after its debut in Europe, the new Audi S4 has finally come to North America, and more so than ever, this new S4 should be cause for trepidation at BMW. That's because this generation of the S4 is more changed than ever before: Its reconfigured powertrain moves the engine rearward for better chassis balance. The all-wheel-drive system now sends a majority of the thrust to the rear wheels and also can actively apportion torque across the rear axle. The new, supercharged V-6 is lighter and more economical than the previous V-8. Oh, and it's had an almost three-grand price cut (plus shed its gas-guzzler tax).
0912 01 Z+2009 BMW 335i+2010 Audi S4
That pricing move, in particular, has allowed Audi to realign the members of the A4/S4 lineup as they face off against the genre-defining BMW 3-series. The rather milquetoast A4 V-6 is gone, so while the A4 2.0T pairs off against the 328i, the S4 now matches up against the turbocharged 335i. The old eight-cylinder S4 and RS4 previously bracketed the BMW M3, but for now Audi is leaving that player uncovered - presumably until the arrival of a new RS4 sedan and/or an RS5 coupe.
We have to admit that the minute we fired up the new S4's ignition, we missed the throaty rumble of the old 4.2-liter V-8. The largely muted V-6 has none of the eight's aural presence. But the V-8 always did feel like overkill here, and we're certainly happy with the 37-pound weight loss and the dramatic increase in fuel economy, which goes from 13 mpg in the city and 20 on the highway to 18/27 (18/28 with S tronic), which also betters the rear-wheel-drive BMW by 1 mpg.
The best part is that the efficiency gains don't extract a penalty in performance. Whereas the 4.2-liter made 340 hp and 302 lb-ft of torque, the 3.0-liter's power output is virtually identical, at 333 hp, and its torque output of 325 lb-ft is actually greater and is available across a wide rev range (2900 to 5300 rpm).
0912 03 Z+2009 BMW 335i+2010 Audi S4
The supercharged V-6's output eclipses that of the 335i's turbo six - with 300 hp and 300 lb-ft - but the BMW's lighter weight negates that advantage. Both cars are bristling with everyday, usable power, and our testing had the Audi and the BMW neck-and-neck from 0 to 60 mph (5.2 and 5.1 seconds, respectively) and even on to 100 mph (at 12.6 and 12.7 seconds).
The two cars' acceleration was a dead heat, but what of the difference in feel between supercharging and turbocharging? In this instance, there really was none. Both sixes masterfully integrate their respective boost systems, so throttle response is linear and you're never left waiting for a kick in the pants. With the engines' absence of supercharger whine and turbo whistle, and their tremendous flexibility across the rev range, an owner could drive either one of these cars for a year and never suspect that his engine was anything but normally aspirated.
0912 02 Z+2009 BMW 335i+2010 Audi S4
The new S4 now offers a seven-speed S tronic dual-clutch automatic, while BMW continues with its six-speed automatic. But we wanted traditional six-speed stick shifts for our test cars to provide the purest sport-sedan driving experience. The 3-series' gearbox is a known quantity, with rather long throws but silky shift action and a beautifully weighted and calibrated clutch. It's no wonder the 3-series historically has enjoyed a higher take rate for its manual transmission than its competitors. The Audi offers shorter throws, but its shift action isn't as fluid as the BMW's.
Of course, the S4 has Audi's Quattro all-wheel drive as standard; BMW offers all-wheel drive as an option, but the 3-series is still a car whose identity is intrinsically wrapped up in its rear-wheel drive - the same way that Quattro is emblematic of Audi.
The most surprising discovery we made after repeatedly swapping back and forth between these two cars is how little the drive wheels mattered. For the longest time, the BMW's rear-wheel drive and its balanced chassis were seen as key components to its eager turn-in and throttle-adjustable cornering attitude. Audis, meanwhile, were nose-heavy, and their all-wheel drive, while great for taming slippery tarmac, did nothing to mitigate their terminal understeer.
0912 07 Z+2009 BMW 335i+side View
For the 335i, that conventional wisdom pretty much still holds. We recorded a 51/49 percent front/rear weight distribution in the 335i, and as always, the sport-suspension-equipped BMW turned in with alacrity and felt neutral through the corners. But ever-wider tires, in staggered sizes no less, mean that the days of gently power-oversteering your 3-series through the esses are mostly just a memory.
The revelation was how similarly the S4 handled. We hammered down lumpy, narrow New York two-lanes with quick curves, sudden dips, and sharp crests. Through it all, the Audi reacted just as quickly, and it carved corners every bit as enthusiastically, as the 335i. We could even feel the push from the rear as we powered out of tight turns. Credit the combination of the slightly lighter front end (although the front wheels still carry 55 percent of the car's weight) and the Quattro all-wheel-drive system's 60 percent rear-biased torque split. Interestingly, our car did not have the S4's new torque-vectoring rear axle - which is included in the Drive Select package ($3950) or available as a stand-alone option ($1100) - but given what we experienced, its absence hardly seemed to be a handicap.
Nor were we terribly sad to skip the Drive Select package, which, along with the torque-vectoring axle, includes adjustable damping, dynamic steering with selectable effort, and a choice of throttle mapping. In fact, during our hardest driving over the worst roads, the S4 with its standard suspension configuration - which is firmer than that of the A4 - displayed even better body control than the already exemplary 335i. And unlike some past Audis with sport suspensions, the S4 doesn't beat you up over bumps. The S4, like the 335i, was adept at absorbing impacts without transmitting any harshness. Again, both cars impressed us tremendously with their ability to blend agility and a relatively comfortable ride. (As it happened, both were riding on eighteen-inch wheels. They're standard on the S4, with nineteens optional - and fitted to the car that we tested against the clock. On the 335i, eighteen-inch wheels are an upgrade over the base seventeens.)
0912 05 Z+2010 Audi S4+side View
The one area where Drive Select might have helped was in steering effort, as we found Audi's standard Servotronic setup too speed-sensitive. Although it firms up pleasantly at higher speeds - and even offers a bit of road feel - it's overly light and artificial at low speeds, and transitioning between the two is off-putting. In contrast, BMW is brave enough to let the 3-series live with relatively high steering efforts at low speeds, and the reward for its consistency is that the steering feels absolutely natural and never contrived, with great feedback as well.
The driver's compartment is all business in the 335i, even rather plain, with a mostly black dash face that is relieved only by a splash of wood trim. Ordering navigation gets you iDrive, but the system has gone through enough iterations that it's now no harder to use than Audi's MMI. The sport package includes upgraded bucket seats, which are firm and comfortable. The driving position is above reproach, but the rear seat is still a bit tight for a six-footer. Still, the BMW's more upright greenhouse makes for a slightly more livable back seat than one finds under the Audi's sloping roofline. The Audi's more stylish cabin largely lives up to the brand's billing, and the S4 indulges in a good deal of flash with aluminum and (in our test car) carbon-fiber accents. High-back sport seats are standard. The upholstery is leather and Alcantara - in all black - or you can spend $1000 for full leather, in black or three two-tone combinations.
0912 10 Z+2009 BMW 335i+cockpit
Outside, it's a similar story, with the BMW looking almost dowdy next to the sleek Audi. Whereas the 335i has little to visually separate it from the base 328i, the S4 is far less likely to be confused for a run-of-the-mill A4. The S4 brandishes marks of distinction that include its eighteen-inch wheels, a lower ride height, a unique grille, aluminum mirror caps, and a rear diffuser.
0912 09 Z+2009 BMW 335i+top View
Even with this year's price cut, the S4 still starts out nearly $5000 dearer than the 335i (or, comparing the all-wheel-drive Audi to the all-wheel-drive version of the BMW, almost $3000 more than the 335i xDrive). But BMW charges extra for a lot of the stuff that's standard on the S4, and once you add that all in, the pricing proposition is reversed, with the Audi more than $1000 less than the 335i and more than $2000 below the 335i xDrive sticker.
These two cars are standouts in their ability to blend size and comfort, power and efficiency, fun and practicality. Of course, performance lies at the heart of their appeal, and in this arena, it's essentially a dead heat. Maybe our findings would have been different on a racetrack, but on the most challenging public roads we could find, Audi scored a remarkable achievement with the S4, as its engineers have finally been able to get their all-wheel-drive sedan to handle as well as the benchmark BMW.
Nonetheless, it's hard to vote down the 3-series when it has, in our judgment at least, superior steering, a slightly more pleasant gearbox, and a bit more soulful engine note. For those who focus purely on driving dynamics, it's unassailable. But the S4 is its equal in objective measure and its near equal in the subjective ones - unless we're talking about the subjective arena of styling, both interior and exterior, in which case the Audi is not only fresher and more dramatic but more distinctly sporty. And comparably equipped, it's also less expensive. At that point, we suspect that for a lot of people, the BMW's finer bits of subjective superiority begin to wear away.
2009 BMW 335i
0912 02 Z+2009 BMW 335i+2010 Audi S4
Base price $40,925
As Tested $50,570
Powertrain
engine: 24-valve DOHC twin-turbocharged I-6
displacement: 3.0 liters (182 cu in)
horsepower: 300 hp @ 5800 rpm
torque: 300 lb-ft @ 1400 rpm
transmission: 6-speed manual
drive: Rear-wheel
Chassis
steering: Power-assisted rack-and-pinion
suspension, front: Strut-type, coil springs
suspension, rear: Multilink, coil springs
brakes: Vented discs, ABS
tires: Bridgestone Potenza RE050A
tire size f, r: 225/40WR-18, 255/35WR-18
Measurements
L x W x H: 178.8 x 71.5 x 55.9 in
wheelbase: 108.7 in
track f/r: 59.1/60.2 in
weight: 3560 lb
WEIGHT DIST. F/R: 51.1/48.9%
EPA mileage: 17/26 mpg
Performance
0-60 MPH: 5.1 sec
0-100 MPH: 12.7 sec
0-120 MPH: 18.6 sec
0-140 MPH: 28.2 sec
1/4-MILE: 13.6 sec @ 104 mph
30-70 MPH PASSING: 6.5 sec
70-0 MPH BRAKING: 150 ft
CORNERING L/R: 0.94/0.94 g
SPEED IN GEARS
1) 40 mph
2) 68 mph
3) 104 mph
4) 138 mph
5) 150 mph
6) 150 mph
2010 Audi S4
Base price $46,725
As Tested $52,050
Powertrain
engine: 24-valve DOHC supercharged V-6
displacement: 3.0 liters (183 cu in)
horsepower: 333 hp @ 5500 rpm
torque: 325 lb-ft @ 2900 rpm
transmission: 6-speed manual
drive: 4-wheel
Chassis
steering: Power-assisted rack-and-pinion
suspension, front: Multilink, coil springs
suspension, rear: Multilink, coil springs
brakes: F/R Vented discs/discs, ABS
tires: Michelin Pilot Sport (driving comparison)
tire size: 245/40YR-18 (driving comparison)
tires: Dunlop SP Sport Maxx GT (performance testing)
tire size: 255/35YR-19 (performance testing)
Measurements
L x W x H: 185.7 x 71.9 x 55.4 in
wheelbase: 110.7 in
track f/r: 61.1/60.6 in
weight: 4020 lb
WEIGHT DIST. F/R: 54.9/45.1%
EPA mileage: 18/27 mpg
Performance
0-60 MPH: 5.2 sec
0-100 MPH: 12.6 sec
0-120 MPH: 18.2 sec
0-140 MPH: 27.2 sec
1/4-MILE: 13.7 sec @ 105 mph
30-70 MPH PASSING: 6.1 sec
70-0 MPH BRAKING: 156 ft
CORNERING L/R: 1.00/0.95 g
SPEED IN GEARS
1) 40 mph
2) 69 mph
3) 98 mph
4) 131 mph
5) 155 mph
6) 130 mph
0912 11 Z+2010 Audi S4+cockpit

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