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The $64,000 Question

Eric TingwallwriterA.J. Muellerphotographer

Three 400-plus-hp coupes jostle to occupy the same space and win the same buyers. They exist in an automotive sweet spot, delivering luxury, performance, style, and excitement at an attainable price. Spend more money, and you'll face diminishing returns. Spend less, and you'll have less of a car.

Although the similarities are unmistakable, each is concocted from a unique formula with its own set of attributes. The Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG taps into man's innate lust for the thrust and roar of a big-displacement V-8. New to the States for 2013, the Audi RS5 elevates expectations of sophistication and speed. And the legendary, long-standing king, the BMW M3, has established itself as a rarefied driver's car.

To this mix of thoroughbred coupes, we also added a ringer, the Porsche Boxster S. With a folding roof, a mid-mounted engine, and space for just two people, the Boxster is nothing like the other cars, yet it lands in the same space when it comes to price and performance.

Just what do you get for your money? These cars all manage 60 mph in the mid-four-second range and blistering track times for an average base price of $64,719. So Porsche, BMW, Audi, or Mercedes-Benz? That's the $64,000 question.

Fourth Place
Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG

There's a reason AMG's two most important ambassadors cling to this 6.2-liter V-8. Whereas every other eight-cylinder AMG Benz adopts a twin-turbo 5.5-liter, the SLS AMG and the C63 AMG exist in a niche where character means more than numbers. The C63 isn't simply 451 hp of car. It's manic.

This Mercedes can be tame, even benign, if you're asleep at the wheel, but feed in enough right pedal and you might imagine a nitromethane tap opening somewhere under the hood. At full throttle, the thick rim in your hands becomes less like a steering wheel and more like an Alcantara grab handle. And that turn ahead? This car has a knack for sideways drifts.

Yes, the C63 can be hazardous to your health. Not only does it pressure you into gross acts of power-on oversteer, it leads to addiction. To the thunderous exhaust note. To 443 lb-ft of torque. To matting the gas pedal, over and over and over again.

You (and we) want the good stuff, so order the $6050 development package that swaps in lighter, stronger engine internals; adds 30 hp; and juices the top speed to 174 mph. Launch control (apply brakes, set stability control to sport, dial transmission to RS, pull right paddle, stomp gas, release brake, go fast) will propel this hulk to 60 mph in 4.4 seconds, but get the sequence wrong and you'll be treated to a 4500-rpm clutch dump that immolates the rear rubber in a smoky scene that would make Michael Bay envious.

Hell of an engine, dog of a transmission. The C63 uses the same seven-speed automatic found in every other Mercedes with fewer than twelve cylinders, except that AMG unbolts the torque converter -- that's the source of the "slush" in slushbox -- and installs a direct-acting clutch pack in its place. Trading fluid for friction leads to crisper, quicker launches and more precise downshifts. Still, the Mercedes' gearchanges feel a skosh slower than those of the dual-clutch automatic gearboxes used by every other competitor here. We wish that was our biggest complaint.

Instead, we're dealing with straight-up insubordination. Even with the transmission controller twisted to manual, the paddle shifters retain the authority to overrule -- or at least ignore -- the driver's commands. Far more egregious on a not-especially-hot August morning at Michigan's Grattan Raceway, we couldn't log more than three laps at a time before the C63 called it quits. The computers booted us out of manual mode and into a limp mode that yielded barely enough power to accelerate the 3804-pound Mercedes. After less than five minutes of flat-out driving, the $83,845, 481-hp AMG had the motive energy of a Honda Fit towing a school bus.

That's too bad, because the C63 didn't need to come in last in this test. In those first couple of laps, with full power, we were able to record a time just 0.01 second behind the BMW. There's no hiding the weight of that big engine over the front wheels and a tendency to push in corners, yet there's a lot to like about the AMG on the racetrack. There's a natural heft and precision to the steering, utter control in the suspension, and gobs of torque no matter where the tach needle is pointing.

The C63 is even more fun on the road, where the roguish exhaust, on-demand thrust, and capable chassis make it an attraction whether it's sitting at a stoplight, painting black stripes in a straight line, or tearing through a corner. There's no shortage of street cred here. Once-stuffy Mercedes looks more like an attention-seeking adolescent with this particular C63, accessorized with a vivid red interior and an exposed carbon-fiber lip spoiler. Those details strike us as a bit tawdry and at odds with the C-class's otherwise conservative styling, but what do we know? Of the three coupes, the Mercedes drew the most looks and comments wherever we went.

It's easy to get caught up in what AMG has done with this car, but we also love that it is still very much a Mercedes. The C63 AMG is civil enough for the workaday world of urban and suburban commuting but can transform itself instantly when an open stretch of road presents itself. Just don't expect too much if that road leads to a track.

Third Place
Audi RS5

Talk about confidence. The RS5 is the new guy here, and yet Audi has the moxie to strut in with the highest base price by a $4860 margin. We're sold, though, because the RS5 justifies the premium before you even start the engine. The cabin strikes the best balance of upscale, stylish, and tasteful. The optional Google Maps navigation is now joined by Google Street View, which shows a ground-level image of your destination. The underhood presentation is immaculate, with red valve covers, a small composite manifold cover, and handsome badging. Both the seats and the steering wheel are perfectly shaped and placed. And you can't put a price on beauty. The broad shoulders, meaty wheels, and fierce headlights look aggressive without being tacky. We just wish the snub-nosed, slack-jawed face were more elegant.

The RS5 also earns accolades for its 4.2-liter V-8. Arguably the best powerplant in this test, it straddles the line between the burly Merc engine and the peaky BMW mill. The 450-hp unit builds fury all the way to the 8500-rpm fuel cutoff, yet the long 3.7-inch stroke gives it a 22 lb-ft of torque advantage over the M3. The best of both worlds, the RS5 combines instantaneous responsiveness with high-end drama. Ask it to perform, and the RS5 delivers with silky power and an equally honeyed exhaust note.

Yet, other than when you rev the engine to the top of the tach, drama is hard to come by. The all-wheel-drive system, unique in this group of rear-drivers, takes some of the edge and excitement out of accelerating and cornering. The seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission is so proficient that it neither detracts from nor defines the driving experience. Rather, it moves between gears so smoothly, so quickly, and so reliably that its actions often go unnoticed. Our test car's standard steering setup was far more natural than the optional variable-ratio steering we've previously driven, but it still pales in comparison to the directness of the Porsche, BMW, and Mercedes systems. There's a wide range of effort between Drive Select's comfort, auto, and dynamic modes, yet none feels quite right.

The sport rear differential, on the other hand, can do no wrong. By sending more torque to the outer rear wheel in a turn, it keeps the car from plowing to the outside of corners. More precisely, it allows the driver to point the car into a corner at a sane speed, get on the gas early, and exit at a velocity approaching reckless driving. The car rotates so precisely under throttle that there's a whiff of the same calculating, computerized machinations that are the essence of a Nissan GT-R. The differential is not quite as effective on the track, however, where the RS5's nose-heavy weight distribution is too much for the trick diff to overcome and understeer becomes apparent.

Contributor Marc Noordeloos called the RS5 "the least impressive car on the track," aggravated by the distant steering, the inherent understeer, and the overwhelmed brakes. Yet the numbers say something very different. The RS5 walked away with the quickest lap time by more than 0.6 second, putting more than 1.5 seconds on both the Mercedes and the BMW. The Audi is unbelievably quick -- literally. "There is no way the RS5 was that fast," Noordeloos gaped. But the numbers don't lie. Every single lap we recorded in the RS5 was quicker than anything the other cars could muster.

This leaves us with a moral dilemma of recognizing achievement or rewarding personality. The Audi and the BMW could have easily swapped places in the final standings. Yet we can't in good conscience put the RS5 ahead of a car that we find more desirable. Before we had a clear picture of the lap-time pecking order, it was the M3 that we were fawning over in the pits. Attractive, comfortable, and wickedly fast, the RS5 is lovable for everything it does on the road, but we don't lust after it because of what it does on the track.

Second place

The M3 for so long was pretty much the only game in town. Audi and Mercedes armed four-doors to poach M's customers, but they never succeeded in achieving greatness. You either bought the BMW or you bought the wrong car. That's hardly the case today, with both of the M3's direct competitors -- the C63 AMG and the RS5 -- offering a credible and compelling alternative. Yet the BMW M3 still sets the standard for the class, even as the oldest member of the group.

Its age does show, however. The high-strung 4.0-liter V-8 was magnificent five years ago. Today, it's merely great, overshadowed by the stronger and more extroverted personalities of the Mercedes and Audi engines. The gearbox shows shades of SMG, the automated manual of the E46-chassis M3 that was phenomenal on the track and fussy in the city. Compared with its competitors, the M3's dual-clutch automatic exhibits lazier shifts in auto mode. On one occasion, we pulled away from a red light with the lurch-and-buck launch of an absolute novice driving a three-pedal transmission. Early on, we seriously wondered how far back the BMW might finish in this test.

And then, after a long day of schlepping around for photos, we finally escaped the tourist-packed summer towns and our plodding photo car for a chance to attack the wide sweepers of northwestern Michigan's M-22. Deputy editor Joe DeMatio was the first to fall for the M3. "Forget any of the negative things I might have said earlier about this car," his voice crackled over the two-way radio.

It may not be the placid daily driver that the Audi and the Mercedes are, but the M3 sets itself apart from those two cars with every hard and fast mile you drive. The eight individual throttles follow every twitch of your right foot. Behind the fiddly gear selector, there's a rocker switch with an odd icon that might be mistaken for a volume control. It actually alters the intensity and the speed of the shifts. In manual mode, the gearbox interprets every up- and downshift before you've finished pulling the paddle, and the M3 can deliver the hardest and quickest shifts of any car here. We wouldn't have it any other way, except, of course, with a true manual transmission -- and the M3 is the only car of the three coupes to offer one.

After driving the Audi and the Mercedes, the BMW reveals a lightness and agility that you might otherwise take for granted. Its svelte chassis is beautifully complemented by surprisingly light steering that guides the car with pinpoint accuracy, while the suspension is planted but supple. The M3 is the embodiment of everything that BMW stands for: a potent engine, a balanced chassis, clairvoyant steering, and -- the key differentiator -- how they're all seamlessly integrated together.

At the absolute limit, the M3 does reveal some dicey manners. Add throttle in a corner, and the speed-sensing rear differential will suddenly shift grunt to the outside wheel, inducing snap oversteer. "The M3 was the only car that was difficult to drive quickly. I had to work the hardest for my lap time in this car," Noordeloos reported. He also set the brakes on fire. Fortunately, there's a distinct line between toying with the M3 and provoking its aggression, and you can have a blast on either side of that line.

Although the base prices of these cars average about $64,000, it's only the M3 that avoids sticker shock when the options are added. With an as-tested price of $69,595, the M3 is a stripper of sorts, with a no-frills interior devoid of navigation and power seats. We're OK with that, though. The manual sport seats are infinitely adjustable and fit any driver just so, and the sterile interior amplifies the feeling that you're in a purposeful, specialized machine.

That's exactly what makes the M3 our pick over the Mercedes-Benz and the Audi. It's not just a faster 3-series, it is a totally different car. A better car. While AMG and Quattro add speed and sound, M adds emotion. We're feeling it.

First place
Porsche Boxster S

The ringer wins. It is perhaps not surprising that a lightweight, mid-engine roadster won out against three heavier coupes, but it wasn't a given, either. The Boxster's competition was universally more powerful, quicker in a straight line, more practical on the road, and cheaper off the dealership lot. So how'd it win? By engaging and thrilling the driver in everything it does.

For one, the Boxster is striking to look at. Porsche's design studio has put some muscle and presence into the Boxster's traditionally delicate design. We also love the rich lime-gold paint but not the fact that it's one of several four-figure additions that lead to the incomprehensible cost of $28,685 for optional equipment. Try to filter out the extras and strip the Boxster down to its basics, because it's this Porsche's very core that is so very good.

The Boxster S is quick and its 315-hp engine sings a special flat-six song on the climb up the tach, but it's easy to become power hungry when every other car has about 100 hp on you. We're not so delusional to think that Porsche will up the output as long as it's selling the 911, so we propose a compromise: shorter gearing. In several turns where the other cars were content with third gear, the Boxster required second. Numerically higher gearing would quicken acceleration, increase torque at the rear wheels, and create more opportunities for using the ideally placed paddle shifters behind the steering wheel.

The PDK dual-clutch automatic transmission clicks through its seven gears with the speed of a firing pin, and the punch of every shift hits harder as you tap into Sport and Sport Plus modes. This gearbox falls just short of perfection. With Sport Plus activated and the gear selector pushed into manual mode, the computer still retains some control. The transmission will downshift to the lowest possible gear or upshift at redline if you've pushed the gas pedal through its kickdown switch, and on the track, a right foot in pursuit of full-throttle acceleration can't be bothered with a wimpy detent at the end of the pedal travel.

These are petty gripes; the Porsche is driving bliss on the road and the track. It is poised and planted, with puttylike grip and unflappable handling. The perfect steering -- not too heavy and not too light, great on-center action, and excellent feel -- makes the M3's seem ho-hum. And it's more than 400 pounds lighter than the other cars. Added together, these qualities instill a confidence that leads to superlegal cornering speeds on the road.

Our lap jockey deemed it "the only car here that could run at the track all day without breaking a sweat." Credit that to the most robust brakes in this bunch. Whereas every other car exhibited some fade during timed laps, the Porsche's brake pedal remained firm as it laid down faster times than the M3 and the C63 AMG. Part of the Boxster's allure is that it is so easy to drive so quickly. It takes a concerted effort or an unforgivable mistake to bring the rear end around. Instead, the Boxster gives off only the faintest whiff of understeer in what is quite possibly the industry's most neutral-handling car. With a more experienced driver piloting the faster Audi, one of our younger staffers shadowed the RS5's every move (save his brief disappearance on the long straight) for a full lap before the Audi driver relented and waved him by. It isn't the fastest car here, but there's a good chance the Boxster is the car that you would be fastest in.

If you've been paying attention, you've noticed that we can't quite separate the coupes from their shortcomings. The M3 is an edgy driver's delight that can be high maintenance on the street. The C63 and the RS5 are capable on the track but truly excellent on the road. Choosing the Boxster S means not having to choose sides. It is just as livable on well-worn roads as it is fierce on a track. Skip the pricey options, and it can be the answer to your $64,000 question, too.

Lap Times
Grattan Raceway
| 2.2 miles

Audi RS5 1:28.48
Porsche Boxster S 1:29.10
BMW M3 1:30.05
Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG 1:30.06

2013 Audi RS5

BASE PRICE: $69,795

32-valve DOHC V-8
DISPLACEMENT: 4.2 liters (254 cu in)
POWER: 450 hp @ 8250 rpm
TORQUE: 317 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm
TRANSMISSION: 7-speed automatic
DRIVE: 4-wheel

Electrically assisted
FRONT SUSPENSION: Multilink, coil springs
REAR SUSPENSION: Multilink, coil springs
BRAKES: Vented discs, ABS
TIRES: Pirelli PZero
TIRE SIZE: 275/30YR-20

L x W x H:
183.0 x 73.2 x 53.8 in
WHEELBASE: 108.3 in
TRACK F/R: 62.4/62.3 in
WEIGHT: 4037 lb
WEIGHT DIST. F/R: 57.8/42.2%
EPA MILEAGE: 16/23 mpg

0-60 MPH:
4.6 sec
0-100 MPH: 10.8 sec
1/4-MILE: 13.0 sec @ 110 mph
30-70 MPH PASSING: 4.5 sec
SPEED IN GEARS: 1) 42; 2) 68; 3) 98; 4) 130; 5) 167; 6) 174; 7) --- mph
CORNERING L/R: 0.97/0.95 g
70-0 MPH BRAKING: 152 ft

BASE PRICE: $62,295

32-valve DOHC V-8
DISPLACEMENT: 4.0 liters (244 cu in)
POWER: 414 hp @ 8300 rpm
TORQUE: 295 lb-ft @ 3900 rpm
TRANSMISSION: 7-speed automatic
DRIVE: Rear-wheel

Electrohydraulically assisted
FRONT SUSPENSION: Strut-type, coil springs
REAR SUSPENSION: Multilink, coil springs
BRAKES: Vented discs, ABS
TIRES: Michelin Pilot Sport
TIRE SIZE F, R: 245/35YR-19, 265/35YR-19

L x W x H:
181.8 x 71.0 x 55.8 in
WHEELBASE: 108.7 in
TRACK F/R: 60.6/60.6 in
WEIGHT: 3576 lb
WEIGHT DIST. F/R: 51.2/48.8%
EPA MILEAGE: 14/20 mpg

0-60 MPH:
4.6 sec
0-100 MPH: 10.6 sec
1/4-MILE: 13.0 sec @ 111 mph
30-70 MPH PASSING: 4.0 sec
SPEED IN GEARS: 1) 44; 2) 71; 3) 97; 4) 124; 5) 150; 6) 155; 7) --- mph
CORNERING L/R: 1.00/0.99 g
70-0 MPH BRAKING: 141 ft

2013 Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG coupe

BASE PRICE: $64,935

32-valve DOHC V-8
DISPLACEMENT: 6.2 liters (379 cu in)
POWER: 481 hp @ 6500 rpm
TORQUE: 443 lb-ft @ 5000 rpm
TRANSMISSION: 7-speed automatic
DRIVE: Rear-wheel

Hydraulically assisted
FRONT SUSPENSION: Strut-type, coil springs
REAR SUSPENSION: Multilink, coil springs
BRAKES: Vented discs, ABS
TIRES: Continental ContiSportContact
TIRE SIZE F, R: 235/40YR-18, 255/35YR-18

L x W x H:
185.3 x 69.7 x 54.6 in
WHEELBASE: 108.9 in
TRACK F/R: 62.4/61.5 in
WEIGHT: 3804 lb
WEIGHT DIST. F/R: 53.8/46.2%
EPA MILEAGE: 13/19 mpg

0-60 MPH:
4.4 sec
0-100 MPH: 10.0 sec
1/4-MILE: 12.3 sec @ 117 mph
30-70 MPH PASSING: 4.4 sec
SPEED IN GEARS: 1) 41; 2) 63; 3) 94; 4) 131; 5) 174; 6) ---; 7) --- mph
CORNERING L/R: 0.94/0.94 g
70-0 MPH BRAKING: 165 ft

BASE PRICE: $61,850

24-valve DOHC flat-6
DISPLACEMENT: 3.4 liters (210 cu in)
POWER: 315 hp @ 6700 rpm
TORQUE: 266 lb-ft @ 4500 rpm
TRANSMISSION: 7-speed automatic
DRIVE: Rear-wheel

Electrically assisted
FRONT SUSPENSION: Strut-type, coil springs
REAR SUSPENSION: Strut-type, coil springs
BRAKES: Vented discs, ABS
TIRES: Pirelli PZero
TIRE SIZE F, R: 235/35YR-20, 265/35YR-20

L x W x H:
172.2 x 70.9 x 50.0 in
WHEELBASE: 97.4 in
TRACK F/R: 60.1/60.6 in
WEIGHT: 3133 lb
WEIGHT DIST. F/R: 44.6/55.4%
EPA MILEAGE: 21/30 mpg

0-60 MPH:
4.8 sec
0-100 MPH: 11.9 sec
1/4-MILE: 13.3 sec @ 106 mph
30-70 MPH PASSING: 4.5 sec
SPEED IN GEARS: 1) 42; 2) 71; 3) 99; 4) 125; 5) 151; 6) 172; 7) --- mph
CORNERING L/R: 1.02/1.01 g
70-0 MPH BRAKING: 137 ft