The three coupes head to Yorkshire for an in-depth on-road assessment
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.
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
AU D I RS 5 v BM W M 4 CO M P ET IT I O N PAC K AG E v ME RC E D ES - AM G C6 3 S
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