Comparison Test: 2015 Audi S3 vs 2015 BMW M235i xDrive

There is a revolution happening in the automotive kingdom, all thanks to fanatical environmentalists and apathetic Millennials conspiring to eliminate motoring for the sake of enjoyment. This era of increasingly stringent restrictions for fuel consumption, emissions and safety faced by the automakers threatens to squeeze the will to live from those who dare to enjoy driving.

Cars, for the most part, continue to bloat with bulk and mass as technology is introduced to protect us from ourselves and make life easier, if more boring. It’s rare to find a car that lets you shift your own gears, these days, and fearfully, it won’t be long before it’s tough to find a car that lets you do your own steering.

The automotive technological revolution is upon us and the tech is winning, but it ain’t all bad.

And yet, super cars are attaining performance numbers not fathomed by race drivers even a few decades ago. They’re doing it in spite of electric steering and with the assistance of hybrid battery packs. The automotive technological revolution is upon us and the tech is winning, but it ain’t all bad.

Through it all, there are still glimmers of hope for those who need to drive a car with compact dimensions and giant-slaying performance. The two cars we have here – Audi’s brand new S3 and BMW’s equally new M235i with xDrive – answer many prayers while still marching obediently toward robotic assimilation.

The Looks

Neither of these machines is going to attract the attention of a school bus full of children. Nor will they score the special spaces reserved for the real image cars next to the valet station. These two are based on more plebian models that result in styling constraints keeping them in the world of reality.

On the up side, they’re dimensionally practical enough to fit in urban settings, easily parked thanks to their tidy widths and lengths, and yet tall enough to provide reasonable ingress, egress and headroom to occupants.

BMW’s 235i is a considerable improvement in styling over the funky little 1 Series bulldog that the 2 Series has replaced. Both front and rear styling have been made more aggressive, while the greenhouse profile is squatter, leaving a more sporting appearance.

The S3, based on Audi’s (North American market) entry-level car, the A3 sedan, actually looks a little better in photos than it does in the flesh. From certain angles, like the rear three-quarter view, the Audi appears almost like a caricature of an S4 as its stubby tail hunkers down over giant 19-inch wheels and tires.

The scooped and scowling visage of the Audi helps it take the tiara and bouquet from the BMW in this beauty contest, but it’s the lava-hot Misano Red Pearl paint that seals the win, always making the darker (but still lovely) Melbourne Red BMW appear as if it’s in the shadows by comparison. 

The Guts

The cockpit of each of these cars is a harmonious blend of well-assembled, high quality, soft-touch materials. And yet, their styles could not be more different, lending to personal taste determining which is better more so than good or bad.

That said, there are some key points of differentiation that may help you decide which you prefer.

BMW executes the same approach they’ve been successfully honing for several years now with matte black panels wearing a multitude of small but clearly marked buttons and large round gauges, their clear, white numerals turning orange at night.

The Audi’s dash looks fresh and takes clean simplicity to new heights. The large, round HVAC vents dominate the dash when the infotainment screen is retracted into its hidey-hole, but otherwise, there are a few climate buttons and little else to clutter things up thanks to the positioning of MMI and stereo controls on the console.

Since it can be the difference between comfort and misery on even a moderately long trip, the seats ought to be a primary consideration. Audi presents some decent, leather-covered sport seats that are reasonably comfortable and supportive, notably featuring headrests that slide fore and aft as well as up and down.

BMW has been making amazing sport seats for decades that feature retractable thigh supports and electrically adjustable torso bolstering to ensure maximum comfort and unparalleled support in heavy cornering. For both comfort and support the Bimmer dominates.

The M235i also takes the prize for its sound system, with its Harman/Kardon Sound (part of the $2,500 Executive Package) taking an easy win over the Audi’s Bang & Olufsen setup. The latter lacks the ability to fine-tune the sound field and provides a glut of mid-range power compared to the HK system. The death knell comes from the B&O’s refusal to cooperate with an old-school iPod classic, relegating my driving partner to listening to overly compressed satellite radio instead. [As opposed to overly compressed MP3s…. –Ed.]

BMW’s latest iDrive system as found in the M235i is excellent. Working with a touch pad atop the controlling rotary knob, the system is straightforward to operate and features a host of fun graphics for different sport gauges and settings. The wide, high definition fixed screen is bright and crisp too.

But as good as iDrive is, Audi’s MMI system is better. The retractable screen should stifle the Internet whiners who disapprove of the sensible “stuck-on-iPad” look of good contemporary systems, while still providing a bright and cheery display high up near the driver’s line of sight. It’s the placement and shapes of the rotary knob (with touch pad of course) and accompanying buttons that help the Audi system be virtually idiot proof. The S3’s system can be figured out without consulting the owner’s manual, and without the driver needing to take his or her eyes off the road.

There are serious arguments for each of these interiors, so if you prefer the Audi, your judgment shouldn’t be questioned too much, but my preference goes to the car with the better seats and sounds.

The Practical Side

Drivers who put fuel and space efficiencies as their top priorities when choosing a car are unlikely to consider either one of these little beasties. Still, we do live in the real world and from time to time need to pick up the in-laws at the airport or meet monthly budget numbers for fuel costs. Plus, a few practical concessions help keep the anti-enjoyment revolutionists at bay.

So, to that end, for drivers needing the more practical choice, the Audi S3 is it. Four doors are better than two for allowing passengers access to the rear seat (which is surprisingly tight in either car). The Audi will seat five passengers en route to their eating disorder support groups (because three normal-sized people will not fit abreast in the back), the BMW will only seat two behind those great front seats. The M235i’s rear seat duo will enjoy slightly more head and shoulder room than they would in the S3.

The BMW will also hold more junk in its trunk than the Audi (390 L versus 348 L), but the S3 has a larger fuel tank (55 L versus 52 L) and achieves greater fuel efficiency (9 L/100 km combined for the S3 versus 10 L/100 km combined for the M235i) despite the BMW having auto stop/start and coasting mode. This means the S3 will have a greater cruising range.

Satisfied? Now, let’s get back to what really matters here…

The Drive

Both of these cars remind us that driving is about much more than simply conveying people and stuff from point A to point B. It can – and should – be about passion and enjoyment; about stimulating multiple senses simultaneously, while giving your heart a workout. It’s about sizzling acceleration, tenacious lateral grip and fierce stopping power, and these cars deliver all of that by the bucket-load.

A modern turbocharged engine is a sweet thing, and in the case of Audi’s boosted 2.0L four cylinder it presents 280 delicious, lag-free, kick-in-the-pants lb-ft of torque from only 1,900 rpm. Paired with 290 galloping horses, those torques help the S3 reach 100 km/h from rest in a claimed 4.9 seconds, while making a sound akin to an out-of-control industrial vacuum system.

The M235i is served well in this xDrive trim as its 332 lb-ft of torque threatens the grip of all four wheels clawing at the pavement from only 1,400 rpm – or essentially idle. Prodigious torque and considerably more power – 322 hp to be exact – are to be expected from an engine with 50 percent more displacement and cylinder count. BMW claims a 0-100 km/h time of five seconds flat, just behind the Audi, though the seat-o-the-pants meter suggests the Roundel company may be sandbagging their claims a bit.

And the sounds – sweet mercy, the sounds! BMW fitted this particular M235i with the $1,500 M Performance exhaust option and while pricey compared to some aftermarket alternatives, it is absolutely worth it. At startup, the flat, gravelly grumble recalls closely the M4’s growl, while rising to a surprisingly ferocious roar as the revs climb. In Sport mode on the highway, there is a bit of droning, but in Normal and Comfort mode, the M235i goes into whisper form and minds its manners.

Spreadsheet numbers may claim the S3’s S tronic dual-clutch transmission can swap cogs quicker than the M235i’s ZF eight-speed automatic, but you’d never know, even driving them back to back. The Audi’s rapid-fire gear changes are announced with a wickedly vulgar pop out the tailpipes when driven in anger, whereas the BMW’s shifts are clinically precise and swift. Both are as fun as you’re ever going to get without having a clutch pedal – and much better than many cars that have one.

It’s under normal, around-town driving that the Audi’s dual-clutch shows a few ill manners with some occasional reluctance to get going smoothly from first gear. The M235i’s transmission is programmed for hooliganism and sedate, around-town errand running with equal aplomb.

At only $700, Audi’s Magnetic Ride suspension option is a complete no-brainer and our press car is so equipped. In Comfort mode, the S3’s ride is noticeably smoother and suppler than the M235i’s, which never really settles down even in its own Comfort setting.

When it’s time to boogie, the Audi’s handling is excellent too, exhibiting direct and well-planted control in all circumstances.

Steering feel is great in both cars, but the BMW’s is heavier, yet it is always a little more frenetic in its actions due to a quicker rack. If you could have one of each of these cars in your stable, you’d use your Audi for high-speed sweepers and the BMW to tackle the tight and twisty hairpin curves.

Audi has been a leader in all-wheel-drive advancement with their Quattro system being fine-tuned for decades. BMW’s xDrive is now equally as good and either machine will provide gobs of grip and balance to elicit grin-inducing power slides in deep snowy parking lots.

And of course both of these cars sport brake rotors the size of manhole covers with calipers robust enough to slow a runaway locomotive. But it’s the S3’s brakes that offer immediate bite with smooth, constant stopping power that offers up just a bit more confidence than the Bimmer’s.

The Verdict

At around $50,000, there aren’t a lot of choices for semi-practical, totally fun cars, but the ones available are all excellent. At the low end of the price spectrum, Subaru’s WRX STI represents the raw, low-brow and somewhat childish choice that will cause the neighbours to raise their eyebrows and cluck their tongues at your midlife-crisis car.

Mercedes-Benz has the CLA 45 AMG and its GLA hot-hatch twin, four-cylinder turbo hot rods with more power than either of these competitors, yet is lacking some of the manners of the BMW and Audi.

Audi’s corporate cousin, the forthcoming Golf R, shares some mechanicals with its upscale family member and will start about five grand cheaper. Plus the Vee-dub will offer the option of a stick shift, not available on the Audi.

Any of these cars should make contemporary motoring enthusiasts giddy for fun they provide their owners, without giving up the responsible adult role when needed. These cars are the answer for those of us fearing the revolution, and will help us get through it with huge grins on our faces.

But when it comes down to decision time, it’s the car with the liquid-smooth and gloriously melodic inline-six that captivates me the most. The fluid delivery of that near-endless well of power is simply too addictive to pass up. In fact, it’s so good, don’t be surprised to find me scouring BMW’s Certified Pre-Owned listings next year for M235is.

2015 BMW M235i xDrive Coupe Warranty:
4 years/80,000 km; 4 years/80,000 km powertrain; 12 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 4 years/unlimited distance 24-hour roadside assistance

 

2015 Audi S3 Technik Warranty:
4 years/80,000 km; 4 years/80,000 km powertrain; 12 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 4 years/unlimited distance 24-hour roadside assistance

Competitors:
Ford Mustang GT
Mercedes-Benz CLA / GLA 45 AMG
Subaru WRX STI
Volkswagen Golf R

 

There is a revolution happening in the automotive kingdom, all thanks to fanatical environmentalists and apathetic Millennials conspiring... 3/10/2015 11:10:01 AM
2015 BMW M235i xDrive Coupe 2015 Audi S3 Technik
Base Price $45,000 Base Price $47,500
Optional Equipment Premium Package ($4,500), Executive Package ($2,500), ConnectedDrive Services ($500), M Performance Exhaust ($1,500), Speed Limit Info ($350) Optional Equipment Misano Red Pearl Effect ($800), Audi Magnetic Ride ($700), Red Brake Calipers ($400), LED Headlights ($1,050), 19-inch Parallel Spoke S-Wheels ($800), Technology Package ($1,400)
A/C Tax $100 A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $2,095 Destination Fee $2,095
Price as Tested $56,545 Price as Tested $54,945
Optional Equipment