The three coupes head to York­shire for an in-depth on-road as­sess­ment

Evo - - DRIVEN -

THIS IS SHAP­ING UP TO BE A BRUIS­ING en­counter. The new Audi RS5 has not long ar­rived in the UK (see Driven, evo 238) and al­ready it’s spoil­ing for a fight. Lighter, faster and more ag­ile than be­fore, it’s got the re­cently re­vised BMW M4 Com­pe­ti­tion Pack­age and hard-hit­ting Mercedes-amg C63 S Coupe firmly in its sights. The last RS5 was de­press­ingly un­der­whelm­ing. Its glo­ri­ous nat­u­rally as­pi­rated engine and el­e­gantly en­hanced shape promised much, but it was un­der­mined by a chas­sis that de­liv­ered the sort of poise and grace you’d ex­pect from an Ed Balls Strictly Come Danc­ing rou­tine. Audi’s ri­poste has been to shave 60kg from the new model with the help of the firm’s scal­able MLB ar­chi­tec­ture, while a heart trans­plant means a new, 444bhp twin-tur­bocharged 2.9-litre V6 re­places the V8. It’s mated to an eight-speed au­to­matic gear­box and a faster-re­act­ing four-wheel-drive sys­tem.

The 2018 model-year BMW M4 looks much the same as be­fore, with a body that’s ripped with barely con­tained mus­cle and a stance that says ‘come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough’. There are re­pro­filed head­lamps and new light sig­na­tures for the tail lights, but in all other re­spects this su­per­coupe’s looks have been left well alone.

Our test car here has the £3000 Com­pe­ti­tion Pack­age, which adds 19bhp to the fa­mil­iar blown straight-six for an Rs5-equalling 444bhp and also brings stiff­ened and low­ered sus­pen­sion, thicker anti-roll bars, adap­tive dampers and an ad­di­tional front split­ter.

It’s the Mercedes-amg C63 S that ex­udes the con­fi­dence of be­ing the cur­rent evo su­per­coupe choice. Bulging arches and an el­bows-out wide track make it ar­guably the most in­tim­i­dat­ing of our trio when spied in a rear-view mir­ror – an im­pres­sion that’s re­in­forced when you run the numbers. Its 4-litre twin-turbo V8 has the up­per hand when it comes to ca­pac­ity and cylin­ders, while the head­line fig­ures of 503bhp and 516lb ft leave the Audi and BMW looking a lit­tle un­der­nour­ished.

How, then, are we going to settle this heavy­weight bout? The an­swer is with our first ever evo Supertest. The plan is fairly sim­ple on pa­per, but it prom­ises to be gru­elling in prac­tice. Deputy ed­i­tor Adam Towler, con­tribut­ing ed­i­tor John Barker and I will first hit the road for a two-day tour of some of the most test­ing tar­mac York­shire has to of­fer, then we’ll visit Mill­brook Prov­ing Ground to run per­for­mance fig­ures, be­fore finally head­ing to Bedford Au­to­drome for some timed laps of the quick and chal­leng­ing West Cir­cuit. By the time we’ve fin­ished, we’ll have logged 1000 miles (al­most ex­actly, as it’ll turn out) in each car and have all the data we need to name a win­ner. And a loser.

IT’S A 5AM ALARM CALL FOR DAY ONE AND WE set our sat­navs for the North York Moors. First up for me is the C63; I want to reac­quaint my­self with the bench­mark.

It’s an in­stant-grat­i­fi­ca­tion ma­chine, the Merc. The V8 barks into life with an an­gry flare of revs and set­tles to a

chug-chug idle that’s part canal boat and part Amer­i­can mus­cle car. Boot the throt­tle and the tim­bre turns rich and bassy. And loud – this is the car to drive if you want to get no­ticed.

Yet you don’t have to work the engine par­tic­u­larly hard to make de­cent progress. In fact, you could use no more than 4000rpm and leave most traf­fic for dead. The seven-speed MCT trans­mis­sion – es­sen­tially a con­ven­tional au­to­matic but with a wet start-up clutch in­stead of a torque con­verter – shuf­fles ra­tios as smoothly as the Audi’s torque-con­verter auto, while both of these au­to­mat­ics feel slicker when left to their own de­vices than the BMW’S DCT ’box. How­ever, there is a nig­gle with the Merc in that when the revs stray too close to the lim­iter there’s an ag­o­nis­ing pause be­fore the next ra­tio en­gages.

The steer­ing is di­rect with a re­as­sur­ingly meaty weight to it, cre­at­ing a sen­sa­tion of be­ing planted on the road from the out­set; even at two-tenths you can feel this is a car that means busi­ness. In their soft­est set­ting the dampers still have a res­o­lutely firm edge, with sharp ridges and bro­ken tar­mac send­ing shud­ders through the car’s struc­ture, but it’s far from un­com­fort­able, and when you’re sim­ply mooching it’s lit­tle more chal­leng­ing than a C220d.

Yet there are con­cerns. While the cabin looks great, it doesn’t feel as solidly screwed to­gether as other mod­els bear­ing the three-pointed star. As Barker re­marks: ‘Bloody hell, it squeaks and rat­tles like it’s done 100k miles, not a cou­ple of thou­sand.’ It’s not the first C63 (coupe and sa­loon) we’ve driven that’s suf­fered from so many noises, so we can’t just put it down as a char­ac­ter­is­tic of this example.

The con­trast with the Audi couldn’t be more stark. The RS5’S ex­te­rior won’t be to all tastes, with its fake vents be­side the lights and its fussy (op­tional) al­loy-wheel de­sign de­tract­ing from an oth­er­wise hand­some pro­file, but in­side, it is an ex­er­cise in pre­mium per­fec­tion, with high-grade plas­tics, slick TFT screens and drum-tight con­struc­tion – the BMW is equally solidly built, but its more tra­di­tional lay­out is start­ing to look a touch dated.

How­ever, the Audi also lacks drama. There’s a smat­ter­ing of RS5 lo­gos and some cos­set­ing high-backed seats, but that’s about it. The engine fu­els the low-key feel, be­cause apart from a showy bark from the ex­hausts on start-up, the Audi’s V6 is a vir­tual mute com­pared with the bom­bas­tic Mercedes and snarling BMW pow­er­plants. Even squeez­ing the throt­tle to its stop fails to turn up the au­ral ex­cite­ment. You can se­lect Dy­namic mode for a deeper and rortier sound­track, but it’s still the most vo­cally timid of our trio.

My word it’s fast, though. Max­i­mum twist of 442lb ft is avail­able from just 1900rpm, which in com­bi­na­tion with four-wheel-drive trac­tion means dev­as­tat­ing pointto-point pace, as our fig­ures at Mill­brook will later prove.

Fully pin the throt­tle in third gear and the Audi’s abil­ity to med­dle with your sense of space and time is ad­dic­tive. Yet there’s no sud­den ex­plo­sion of ac­cel­er­a­tion or a frenzy of revs; it’s far more lin­ear and con­trolled than that.

In its de­fault mode, the steer­ing is lighter and slower than both the BMW and Mercedes set­ups, plus there’s lit­tle in the way of feed­back, which is a worry for the York­shire switch­backs. Still, I revel in the sup­ple ride and hushed cabin on the long haul north along the M1 af­ter an early car swap – this is eas­ily the qui­etest and most com­fort­able of our trio.

We ar­rive on the Moors to find that Fe­bru­ary has ar­rived early in North York­shire. The clouds have de­scended so low that you can barely see be­yond the end of the bon­net, while rain is com­ing in hor­i­zon­tally. Pho­tog­ra­pher Andy Mor­gan is try­ing to look chip­per, but this is bad. The four of us hunch over a road map and fran­ti­cally con­sult weather apps, which are say­ing that west is best for sun­shine to­day. With fin­gers crossed, we plot a route to Hawes, 80 miles away, where we can fuel and wash the cars be­fore pick­ing up the B6255, which snakes across the Dales and leads to the fa­mous Rib­ble­head rail viaduct. It’s time to try the BMW, which de­spite its same-as-be­fore looks prom­ises to have ironed out the flaws that made the orig­i­nal such a frus­trat­ing de­vice.

You feel in­stantly at home in the M4, thanks to its hugely sup­port­ive seats and – hal­lelu­jah! – a com­pletely cir­cu­lar steer­ing wheel. There’s no flat-bot­tomed non­sense here.

Ini­tially the M4 has more in com­mon with the C63 than the RS5. There’s the same taut­ness to the ride, even with the dampers di­alled back to Com­fort – al­though the BMW

does a bet­ter job of round­ing off the more jagged road im­per­fec­tions. This could be down to our car’s 19-inch wheels – a smaller, no-cost op­tion – be­cause mod­els we’ve sam­pled on 20-inch rims have a sharper low-speed ride.

That straight-six is also an ever-present com­pan­ion, emit­ting a deep me­chan­i­cal growl un­til 4000rpm, at which point it be­comes even louder and an­grier as it races to­wards the red line with an al­most nat­u­rally as­pi­rated zeal. More en­cour­ag­ingly, it sounds more au­then­tic than be­fore, evok­ing the snarling six of the E46 M3. Bet­ter still, the seven-speed DCT loses its clunk­i­ness and de­liv­ers fast, crisp shifts when you take con­trol via the pad­dles.

Off the main route and onto the twist­ing roads that duck and dive to­wards Hawes, up­ping the pace in the M4 re­veals that the M divi­sion has worked over­time on the 2018MY car’s chas­sis. You can tweak the sus­pen­sion, trans­mis­sion, engine and steer­ing to the nth de­gree (there are Com­fort, Sport and Sport+ modes to choose from, plus three gearshift set­tings), but a bit of fid­dling finds the best com­pro­mise is Sport for the engine and Com­fort for ev­ery­thing else. Set up like this, the re­vised M4 feels like a dif­fer­ent car to the one it has re­placed. The spiky power de­liv­ery and knife-edge balance be­tween grip and slip have gone. In­stead, you can re­ally lean on the BMW on the exit of a cor­ner and trust the mes­sages you feel through the seat of you pants. ‘It couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent to the old car,’ raves Towler. ‘I felt re­ally com­fort­able driv­ing around with the ESP switched off – just en­joy­ing the chal­lenge of mea­sur­ing out the engine’s de­liv­ery.’

Be­fore you know it, you’re prop­erly di­alled in to the BMW, rev­el­ling in its com­po­sure and mar­vel­ling at the new­found con­nec­tion be­tween car and driver. A sig­nif­i­cantly lower kerb weight than its rivals here and a near-per­fect 53:47 weight dis­tri­bu­tion both play a part, help­ing give the car an ag­ile and alert feel. Barker is a real fan, too. ‘I still shiver slightly re­mem­ber­ing my first go in the orig­i­nal tur­bocharged M4,’ he says. ‘There was a car with a power de­liv­ery that didn’t match the han­dling… How dif­fer­ent things are now. The BMW now man­ages that trick of be­ing bal­anced enough to have con­sis­tent, con­tain­able over­steer.’

I swap to the the C63 S. Crikey it’s rapid. (Fast starts give the trac­tion con­trol a thor­ough work­out, though.) That twin­turbo V8 de­liv­ers a sledge­ham­mer blow the mo­ment you get into the throt­tle, par­tic­u­larly in the sharper Sport and Race modes, while out­right pace is the same as the M4’s, but you have to work that car harder to keep up with the Merc. Once you’re rolling there’s good trac­tion, too, al­low­ing you to use more of the engine’s prodi­gious shove than you’d think pos­si­ble. Yet un­like in the M4, the soft­est sus­pen­sion set­ting is all at sea over these un­du­lat­ing roads, fail­ing to keep the Merc’s claimed 1725kg (the re­al­ity is a lot more) in check. ‘You need to firm things up to go for it,’ ex­plains Barker. ‘Sport firms up the dampers, ramps up the shift and throt­tle re­sponses and loosens the sta­bil­ity con­trol but doesn’t turn it off – that’s as far as you’d want to go on the road.’

Turn­ing all the sys­tems off in the Merc is only rec­om­mended on the track, be­cause at the edge of its

per­for­mance en­ve­lope, the car’s mass starts to tell. Once the rear end starts mov­ing there’s a sense you’ll be grab­bing heart-pound­ing arm­fuls of lock un­til you’re well into the next county. The weight also shows over mid-cor­ner crests, where the AMG’S in­er­tia causes a catch-your-breath hop side­ways to­wards the white line, and oc­ca­sion­ally be­yond.

This be­hav­iour makes you grate­ful for the £4285 car­bon­ce­ramic front brakes with mas­sive 390mm discs, which ef­fort­lessly slow the C63 with a pedal ac­tion that is firm and pro­gres­sive and free of any of the snatch­ing that can un­der­mine sim­i­lar set­ups.

Like the M4’s, the AMG’S steer­ing is quick and well weighted, but there’s lit­tle in the way of feed­back. The rate of re­sponse is natural, how­ever. And with so much front-end bite, it’s easy to trust that the Merc won’t wash wide as you com­mit to a cor­ner. The C63 can’t come close to match­ing the lighter BMW’S agility, but take a slow-in and (very) fastout ap­proach and it sim­ply de­mol­ishes roads like these.

So, can the all-wheel-drive Audi match these rear-driven en­ter­tain­ers? Guide the RS5 through the first few cor­ners and you’d have to say the an­swer is ‘no’. As Towler notes, ‘The ini­tial im­pres­sion is that it’s not much more than a go-faster S5; it sounds and feels sim­i­lar. Ob­vi­ous re­ally, given the un­der­pin­nings, but if you’re looking for an ex­pe­ri­ence that im­me­di­ately catches the imag­i­na­tion, there’s a real dan­ger you might be un­der­whelmed.’

The lighter, slower steer­ing, muted engine, smooth ride and de­cep­tively lin­ear power de­liv­ery leave you think­ing this is just an­other fast Audi that flat­ters to de­ceive. How­ever, delve into the driver modes, push a lit­tle harder and the RS5 re­veals it has a much more ag­gres­sive al­ter ego.

That lighter V6 in the nose means the Audi turns in with an alacrity that’s as sur­pris­ing as it is scalpel-sharp. And

‘ Like the M4’ s, the AMG’S steer­ing is quick and well weighted but there’s lit­tle in the way of feed­back’

with the front wheels on a seem­ingly laser-guided aim for the apex, the Sport rear dif­fer­en­tial can do its work more ef­fec­tively, sub­tly over­driv­ing the out­side rear wheel to de­liver both sting­ing ac­cel­er­a­tion out of the bend and a neu­tral balance. Out of slower cor­ners, the RS5 eas­ily pulls a car length on the pur­su­ing Mercedes and BMW.

What leaves the big­gest im­pres­sion, though, is the car’s damp­ing. With Dy­namic mode en­gaged, the RS5 hun­kers down and picks apart these tor­tu­ous roads with breath­tak­ing poise and pre­ci­sion. ‘The agility is re­mark­able for an Audi,’ says Barker. ‘There is some magic in this car’s chas­sis; in Com­fort it rides well, in its most sporty mode it is well con­trolled and oc­ca­sion­ally bril­liant.’

The raci­est driver set­ting also adds some ex­tra noise to the twin-turbo V6’s crush­ing straight-line speed, while the eight-speed ’box re­sponds crisply to the pad­dles and rips through ra­tios. No, it can’t match the BMW for im­mer­sive driv­ing thrills or the Merc’s drama, but the RS5’S abil­ity to up its game when nec­es­sary is a real eye-opener. As Towler notes, ‘It doesn’t mat­ter what sur­face, un­du­la­tion or cam­ber you throw at the Audi, it can re­spond.’

We’ll have to see whether the Audi has any other sur­prises up its sleeve at Mill­brook.


Bot­tom: with 503bhp, the twin-turbo Mercedes mon­sters its rivals in this test for out­right power; hand­ily, this example is fit­ted with the op­tional car­bon-ce­ramic brakes. Be­low: in­te­rior looks pretty but its build qual­ity is open to ques­tion

Left: M4 offers an ex­cel­lent driv­ing po­si­tion and su­perbly sup­port­ive seats; 19in wheels are a no-cost op­tion, and yield a more com­posed ride than the stan­dard 20s that we’ve also ex­pe­ri­enced; straight-six good for 444bhp in Com­pe­ti­tion Pack­age spec

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