Since the dawn of the new millennium, in the luxury game, one name has certainly stayed king: BMW. Their non-stop dedication to balancing well-equipped cars with a pursuit to be the, “ultimate driving machine,” as their ads say, has made them the favorite amongst many buyers, and even though the latest 7 Series and 5 Series may make us question their design choices, we can’t help but love them ourselves. However, it seems to be that most luxury automakers have said, “Enough,” and are really chasing down that roundel and they’re hitting hard, too. So, that’s why we gathered two of Germany’s other finest in a three-way match with the BMW M3 to see if maybe BMW isn’t all its cracked up to be. M3, meet the S4 and the C32.
While all three brands here have certainly been chasing down the crown in the sports sedan segment, Mercedes-Benz’s efforts mostly feel rather recent in comparison to the other two. While their AMG brand is most-certainly not a new thing, for the largest part of the 20th century they were reduced to aftermarket tuning of Mercedes’ finest models. It wasn’t until just a few years ago when Mercedes officially slapped an AMG badge on a tuned C-Class and sold it through dealers. The old C36 was a cracking car, and now we’re onto the latest generation, coded W203, the C32.
The C32, on the surface, looks no different than any bargain basic C-Class, which means that AMG certainly has the sleeper aesthetic done right. It sports the baby S-Class looks that we loved while testing a C320 back in ‘00, as well as the smart-looking interior that looks about $20k more than it feels. Heads will certainly turn if you drive one of these down the street, and mere Kia Sephias and Toyota Corollas will bow out of your way when you belt down the highway.
And belt down a highway it most certainly can do. Powering the C32 is a supercharged 3.2-liter V6, sporting 350 bhp and 332 lb ft of torque, mated to a five-speed automatic. The use of an automatic is quite solemn, but it’s nothing new for AMG, and it does sprint the car from 0-60 in approximately 5 seconds which is nothing to scoff at at all. But while the Mercedes may be the fastest in a straight line, it dips severely when you come to a corner.
There’s two modes to the C32. If you turn traction off, it will slide around corners like crazy, leaving a powerful trail of smoke in its wake. If you turn it on, it will plow into corners as if the front wheels straight up refuse to turn. This creates quite a headache, as either way makes you feel sickening like you’re driving a car that’s 5x the size and 3x the weight, even though you know you aren’t. This is due to the fact that the C32 is basically structured the same way as a base C-Class, it features an architecture that doesn’t really support such power going to the wheels. It also doesn’t help that the Mercedes only offers an optional limited-slip diff, which of course our car did not have. Basically, handling is no bueno.
Honestly, such imbalance just makes this car not worth its $50k, and couple that with the rather weak build quality than what Mercedes is known for, the C32 becomes a bit of a sour buy. It definitely receives the 3rd place pick here, even though all it would take was a bit of a re-work to get it back up the ranks. It’s weird when you expect better out of Cadillac’s upcoming CTS-V than what you’ve got out of a Mercedes.
The S4 has been Audi’s answer to everything involving an M badge for just over a decade now. The original S4 wasn’t quite what it is today, being basically a trim level on the Audi 100, later named the S6 when the 100 became the A6. It was powered by a choice of either Audi’s 2.2L Inline-5 or a 4.2L V8. It wasn’t until the actual Audi A4 debuted in 1997 that the S4 as we know it today arrived, a small, performance sedan featuring all of Audi’s best technology, the car that cemented the S4 as Audi’s best selling performance model.
Audi’s latest S4, which was revealed just last year, is a completely different thoroughbred all around. It’s smarter, sleeker, and feels far more professional and up to the job than the generation before. Audi seems to be keen on capitalizing on this new era of “Vorsprung Durch Technik,” as along with the sedan and Avant (wagon) models, they’ve added a convertible to the mix, basically to create an S4 for everyone.
Audi certainly talks a big game, but all this supposed complete reworking only really comes into view when you get the S4 on the track. It feels far more complete and intuitive than the previous generation, far more balanced. Cornering is flat with only a slight tinge of that infamous quattro understeer. You can competently flick the S4 around a track in solemn comfort and not have to worry about meeting a wall, which is certainly an improvement.
Also an improvement is the powertrain: gone is the 2.7L twin-turbo V6, replaced by a new, healthy version of Audi’s 4.2L V8, producing 339 bhp to all four wheels through a 6-speed manual transmission, the only manual we were blessed with today, with a 6-speed automatic available for those who want something more on the comfortable side. All this together sprints the S4 to 60 faster than 5 seconds, making it quicker than the C32 and about on par with the BMW. Nothing to scoff at indeed.
Upon your first drive in the S4, it becomes hard to really justify only putting it in second place until you really look at some of the details. The interior, while smart and quite handsome, does suffer from some dodgy Volkswagen quality issues, and there is that small nibble of long-term reliability that we could be considered, “worried,” about. But the S4 is definitely a wise choice to consider if you’re not too affected by those basic complaints. For the price, you couldn’t get a better all around package.
It also becomes quite clear why the S4 is in second when you get behind the wheel of the undisputed king of the small sports sedan market, the BMW M3. We’re coming into the third year of this generation of the M3, and it’s still smiles for miles, no matter if you get the coupe or the convertible version.
We’ve covered the M3 time and time again, so we’ll only go over a small rundown as to why it is near automotive perfection. On the outside, it’s familiar, but it’s still attractive, clean, and head-turning no matter who you ask. It looks good both cruising down a street at night and hitting the corkscrew at 120 on Laguna Seca.
If you had to rank the C32 and the S4 as ranging from, “Completely unbalanced,” to, “Nearly in the middle,” the M3 is definitely right at the edge of balanced in corners. The FR architecture, coupled with the beautiful suspension work done by BMW’s M position provides such a well-sought out distribution of weight and power that makes cornering such a breeze. You can simply flick the M3 through corners with such great response, any driver can feel nearly professional behind the wheel.
Helping the car along is a tried and true variant of BMW’s famous I6 line, producing 333 bhp to the rear wheels through either a 6-speed manual or BMW’s SMG sequential manual gearbox, which our car was equipped with. While it is a smart transmission, we would much rather prefer a proper manual for extra enjoyment. But even a strange and odd transmission can’t ruin the fun the M3 provides.
When you drive the M3, everything becomes perfectly clear when it comes to this segment. It is the purest of definitions of, “Ultimate Driving Machine,” which explains why it’s the leader in sales, and the favorite of so many enthusiasts around the world. BMW knows exactly what they’re doing, and even though some brands might give their best shots, it’s undoubted that the roundel will hold the crown for a long time, and it provides us with a lot of hope for the future.