The Swabian Alb, Germany - Between Stuttgart and Munich, the Swabian Alb is a driving heaven, with wonderful roads, very little traffic, stunning scenery, and patchy law enforcement. It's the perfect playground for the Audi S4 Avant, the BMW M3, and the 2002 Mercedes-Benz C32 AMG--the ultimate batch of compact supercars. All three offer driving pleasure in abundance, despite having dramatically disparate design and engineering. The S4 Avant is a wagon, for instance, the M3 is a coupe, and the C32 AMG is a sedan. Audi believes in turbocharging and all-wheel drive. BMW's credo is a high-revving, normally aspirated in-line six-cylinder engine. And Mercedes-Benz breathes fire into its V-6 via an AMG-prepared supercharger.
The C32 AMG is the new kid on the block here. In the current German automakers' locker-room contest, its main mission is to beat the M3, the S4, and Audi's Europe-only RS4. To accomplish this mission, its supercharged V-6 engine makes 349 horsepower, sixteen more than the M3 and almost a hundred more than the S4. This puts the car from Affalterbach, home of AMG, on the provisional pole position for our drive from Reutlingen to Ulm. Like all AMG-tuned Mercs, the C32 relays its torque via a five-speed manu-matic transmission to the rear wheels. A welcome innovation pioneered by this model is the standard SpeedShift feature, which instantly selects the lowest possible gear when you nudge the lever to the left and hold it briefly in that position. As you would expect with Mercedes, the C32 is the costliest car here, with an expected price in the United States of about $52,000.
The BMW M3 is the sports car in this group, despite its untypically high seating position and luxurious standard equipment. The 3.2-liter engine relies on high revs and fine-tuning to deliver 333 horsepower. It drives the rear wheels via a six-speed manual transmission, and if it wasn't for the standard stability control, the somewhat nose-heavy BMW would slide sideways through most corners, especially in the wintry conditions we're encountering. The M3 is just going on sale in the United States, priced at $46,045.
The current Audi S4 won't be around much longer, because the A4 upon which it's based is about to be replaced; the 2002 sedan is due shortly, and the new A4 Avant wagon will arrive at the end of the year in Europe. A fresh S4 won't debut until early 2003. Priced at only $40,500, however, the S4 Avant is the bargain of the group.
The Mercedes is a true sledgehammer on wheels. Redlined at 6200 rpm, the supercharged V-6 doesn't need high revs to deliver. On paper, maximum torque of 332 pound-feet is unleashed at 4400 rpm, but what counts more in real life is that it musters no less than 290 pound-feet all the way from 2300 to 6100 rpm. On dry tarmac, the 3597-pound five-seater can accelerate from 0 to 62 mph in 5.2 seconds. It's an experience that will push you firmly into your seat, and it's a treat for your ears, because the supercharged V-6 has a loud, steely, and unashamedly full-bodied exhaust note that brings back memories of the classic 1950s racing cars. The C32 delivers this explosive performance in a Mercedes-like way: The throttle response is brisk but not ultra-sharp; upshifts are quick but by no means brutal; and the electronics ensure that you stay on your chosen path. Of our trio, the C32 was the thirstiest, recording 15 mpg in our hands.
The BMW is much more high-strung than its AMG rival. Its hoarse but melodic engine needs to be whipped to 7900 rpm to produce its peak of 333 horsepower. If you insist, it will briefly rev to 8000 rpm, albeit with protesting valve-spring clatter. Although the drive-by-wire accelerator works with telepathic spontaneity, there's a zero-lag Sport button for even more prompt throttle response. The six-speed transmission is geared for ultimate progress, not for cruising, so it's possible to run out of revs in sixth on a fast downhill stretch of empty autobahn. Although the 3246-cc straight-six has to turn 4900 rpm before reaching its 262-pound-feet torque plateau, the Bavarian engine never feels short of breath. Quite the contrary: The BMW reels the horizon in at an astonishing pace whenever you put your hoof down, even if the shift lever is in fifth or sixth. The M3 will sprint from 0 to 62 mph in 5.2 seconds. Moreover, we observed a respectable 17 mpg, the best fuel economy in our trio.
Although it falls short of the BMW and the Mercedes in terms of displacement and power, the Audi is hardly a sluggard. Helped by a close-ratio transmission and Quattro four-wheel drive, the S4 Avant will hurtle from 0 to 62 mph in 6.0 seconds. The top speed is, of course, electronically limited to 155 mph for all three cars in Europe. The Audi's twin-turbo 2.7-liter V-6 spreads its maximum torque of 258 pound-feet from 1850 to 3600 rpm. Although the V-6 is capable of revving to a strained 7000 rpm, its understated, almost pessimistic 250 horsepower is delivered at just 5800 rpm. If you keep the turbochargers wound up, you'll be rewarded by truly amazing midrange acceleration--from 40 to 65 mph in fourth, the portly wagon is one full second faster than the muscular M3 coupe, and from 50 to 70 mph in sixth, the gap widens to an even more impressive 1.8 seconds. Thanks to this flexibility, you don't have to change gears all that frequently--which is an asset, because the shift action is rubbery, and the indifferent clutch is heavily spring-loaded. Fuel consumption? A middling 16 mpg.
At first, the Audi is less rewarding to drive than either the C32 or the M3, which are more chuckable and decidedly tail-happy. But it doesn't take long to adjust to the S4's engine and handling and to start enjoying the grip, the tractability, and the bottom-end grunt. The Avant doesn't respond well to late, violent inputs--even with the skid control deactivated, such behavior provokes excessive understeer and lots of wasteful mid-corner wheelspin. The S4 is at its best in the hands of a calm, committed driver who chooses his line carefully, turns in smoothly, and is back on the throttle as soon as the nose starts changing direction. Going ten-tenths in the Audi entails very little drama, but the Avant can carry enough momentum out of a bend onto the following straight to give its rivals a run for their money.
The M3, by contrast, wants and deserves your full attention, especially when the stability system has been turned off. In this form, the M3 is as uncompromising as a cobra. As soon as the rear end loads up and the front end rises in sync with the tach needle, the BMW can be thrown off-line and into a slide that is smooth and progressive--as long as you time and weight your inputs well. Making the steering, throttle, and chassis work in rhythm and harmony through a series of second-gear bends is a truly memorable experience. But, although the M3 has super-sweet handling and magnetic roadholding, it fails to excel in two other dynamic areas. The directional stability at speed suffers when conditions deteriorate; the BMW definitely dislikes stormy weather and heavily cambered pavement. The suspension setup is overly taut as well, resulting in a substandard ride and an irritating restlessness on broken surfaces when there is simply too much kickback through the wheel. This suspension is great for playing, but it also makes you work hard where you don't want to; I've seen stability control come to the rescue at 135 mph in sixth gear.
In stark contrast, the C32 is a gentleman's express, displaying impeccable manners. As you would expect from a car that can accommodate a whole family plus luggage, the Mercedes rides rather well, holds the road with aplomb, and puts the power down in an unambiguous, sure-footed fashion. Its steering is not as quick or communicative as the BMW's, but the car with the star on the hood has, somewhat surprisingly, the best brakes. It takes only 118 feet to decelerate from 62 to 0 mph, which beats both the BMW (125 feet) and the Audi (135 feet).
When it comes to driving pleasure, the Merc is awesome. With stability control off, the C32 will duly obey the laws of physics by letting the driven wheels describe a beautifully geometric arc from the entrance of a corner all the way through to the exit. Modulating a slide is not as natural in the C32 as it is in the game-for-anything M3, but the AMG car executes all driver inputs promptly and accurately. The new C-class is a formidably competent automobile, even in top-of-the-line, 349-horsepower guise.
After two days and 550 miles, picking a winner turned out to be more difficult than expected. If you need space, if you place a strong emphasis on active safety, and if you are upgrading from a front-wheel-drive car, you can't go wrong with the Audi. It deserves praise for providing year-round mobility through its four-wheel-drive system and for making speed so accessible, so controllable. The S4 is a perfect all-arounder.
The C32 is clearly a more modern machine, laying on more power, more standard equipment, more luxury, and more fun at the limit. The SpeedShift box is one of the best manu-matics we have ever tried, the engine produces all the torque the rear wheels could ever hope to put down, and the chassis combines a high degree of refinement with astonishing ability.
In this company, the M3 feels a little raw-edged and comparatively cramped and coarse. Although it went on sale in Europe only six months ago, its performance edge already has been neutralized by the newcomer from Mercedes-Benz. Only one key element gives the BMW a wafer-thin advantage: driver involvement. The BMW is a more tactile car, more responsive and fractionally quicker. It's a bigger challenge to drive, and that, ultimately, makes it a more rewarding purchase. But the margins are tiny, and all three of these cars can offer their owners sports car performance accompanied by everyday useability. It's a compelling formula.