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.