2001-2002 Audi S4 Avant, 2001-2005 BMW M3, and 2002-2005 Mercedes-Benz C32 AMG

Richard Newton
0105 S4 M3 C32 05

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).

0105 S4 M3 C32 07

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.

0105 S4 M3 C32 09

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.

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