Feeling tired? Achy? Out of sorts? According to recent studies, you may be doing time in the wrong car. BY PATRICK BEDARD PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAVID DEWHURST May 2003 Important question from C/D’s crack team of medical specialists: Are you getting your Recommended Daily Allowance (U.S. RDA) of adrenaline? Studies show that excessive yawning, droopy eyelids, pallid skin, loss of muscle tone, falling hair, and lack of consortium may be caused by adrenaline deficit. May we suggest a compact adrenaline-delivery system (CADS)? Don’t worry about installation. Due to relentless competition in the new-car market, a few automakers are now offering special models with CADS built in at the factory. For this comparison, we’ve been testing a trio of fast-acting units guaranteed to brighten your eyes before they have a chance to blink. The gold standard of this group is surely the BMW M3, a 3-series coupe patiently transformed into a g-machine at the M spa deep in Bavaria. We chose the coupe version, although a convertible is also available. The M3 gets a lusty 3.2-liter in-line six amped up to 333 horsepower at 7900 rpm, in part thanks to six separate throttle valves, one in each intake stream, positioned down close to their respective intake valves. This arrangement, more common on racing engines, shortens throttle-response time. Throughout the M3, components from other BMW models are brought into play, either for strength or to tune for performance. For example, the M3 wears the heavier differential from the even more powerful M5. All this tweaking costs money, of course. Our Imola Red test sample hit the pavement at $50,270, ready to run. Another approach to adrenaline flow, fabled since the early days of automobiling, is the supercharger. It compresses intake air, forcing more flow into the cylinders. More air is more power, when done correctly. And it sure works in the C32 AMG from Mercedes-Benz. This is the small Benz, the C-class four-door, energized with 349 horsepower and all togged out for speed. The Kompressor, as the Germans spell it, is a positive-displacement type, which means no waiting for boost. Therefore, a small engine can be thoroughly convincing as it acts big. Chassis muscles include 17-inch wheels, 7.5 inches wide in front and 8.5 inches in back, wearing low-profile Z- and Y-rated tires. The bad news is $54,370, including $655 for extra-snazzy metallic paint. And now for the news: Minutes before we loaded up our test gear, Audi turned over a European-spec S4 for review. As before, the S4 is the sporting version of Audi’s A4 sedan line, with Quattro all-wheel drive, electronic differential locks front and rear, a six-speed manual, grippy rubber, and form-fitting driver’s quarters. But no more twin-turbo V-6. This new one inspires (compels?) adrenaline with an all-aluminum 4.2-liter V-8 that sings to 7000 rpm. Think of this comparison as a cardiac stress test. Can you stand it? Please fasten your seatbelt and let the adrenaline flow. ----- Third Place - Mercedes-Benz C32 AMG Highs: A Niagara of torque right now, on-rails handling in the daily commute, peaceful at interstate velocities, good-fitting driver’s quarters. Lows: Uncommunicative at the handling limits, clattering engine, lengthy boot-up time on starting, dinky dashboard “PRND,” meager array of instruments. The Verdict: A sweetie when you’re running 8/10ths. If this adventure is a daring daylight probe into the upper reaches of a driver’s pulse rate, which it is, then it sets up the expectation that the most civilized entry will finish last. It did. For the purest adrenaline jolt, you need a manual gearbox. The C32 AMG comes in five-speed auto only. Not a good start. Still, not every enthusiast wants his juices stimulated to a full-bore gush all the time. This Benz has an appealing way of butting out of the conversation at just the right times. Planning an interstate jaunt? The C32 is easily the smoothest and quietest of the group when you need a transit capsule, with the least abusive ride. Straight-ahead stability is excellent. You can click off miles by the hundreds without pain. And don’t forget those times when it’s your turn to drive the foursome off to dinner. Back-seaters never share the adrenaline, only the abuse. This Benz tops the others for space and comfort, and it won’t beat up on your friends (if the roads are decent). Moreover, it’s really quite endearing in the way it goes about your daily rounds. The steering is quick and sharp, and the suspension, which resists cornering roll as if it had taken a solemn vow, resists brake dive, too. The seat is shaped exactly right to hold you in place. You find yourself grinning as you carve your path. Want to nail that Starbucks cup as it rolls toward the ditch? No problem. With the front tire or the rear? You really feel a gymnast’s confidence about maneuverability. Just one little problem—this is a gathering of extremist cars. It’s about pushing limits, and doing so with cool aplomb. What’ll she do? And the civilized little C32 loses its poise under pressure. Tire grip, as measured on the skidpad, is less than the others, 0.81 g versus the Audi’s 0.85 and the BMW’s 0.87. But that’s a minor concern compared with the way the Benz feels when pushed. First, the computer stability control won’t let you anywhere close to the edge. It kills the power in a big way when lateral g ramps up beyond “brisk.” Push the ESP button to cancel, and the previously polite C32 goes incommunicado. The brakes bring on huge understeer as you go deep into turns. And the fast-ratio steering gives very little sense of slip in the front tires. This is a car in which you cautiously edge up and up toward the limit and hope you never quite get there. Maintaining control during our lane-change test was iffy, too, with many screaming-tire skids off the course. This car hates our test procedure, which requires ESP off. With ESP on, it’s stable and slow. With ESP off, the C32 was quicker than the Audi on a lucky run. But most runs were cone whackers. For road emergencies, we’d leave the ESP on. When the path is straight, however, the C32 really lays its ears back. The engine is an AMG adaptation of M-B’s 3.2-liter V-6, supercharged to 349 horsepower. The crank-driven blower is a Lysholm-type using meshed screws to give positive displacement. In other words, big torque at low revs. Thrust tracks your right foot exactly. Acceleration is as thrilling as it is easy to produce. The Benz was a fraction behind the others to 60 mph, fastest at the end of the quarter-mile, and tied with the others for time to that distance, clocking 106 mph through the eyes. You won’t confuse the C32 with a civilized car when the hammer is down. It screams a hard yowl toward the 6200-rpm indicated redline. Idle is remarkably clattery, too. The automatic clicks off snappy shifts. It learns quickly of your moods (the computer is smart when it wants to be) and does well at anticipating when to change gears when you’re hustling. We very much like the manumatic shifter. Nudge the lever left for down, right for up, or hold right for a prompt default to D when you’re done playing. Done? Are you ever done? The C32 ends up third because, as a playmate, it’s always a bit aloof. ----- Second Place - BMW M3 Highs: Makes expert shifting seem easy, no holes in the output curve, big power when you let it rev, blue-chip cred in any crowd. Lows: Raw rather than refined in its noises, pounding ride, heavy clutch, 50 grand and cloth seats? The Verdict: Packing a magnum caliber is not about smiles. The BMW M3 is one of those legends that every car guy salutes. Even Camaro pilots give it the eye on the street. Years of heroic numbers on test tracks and torrents of superlatives from magazine scribes add up to swaggering cred. How could a legend finish second here, back from first place by a wide six-point gap? The short answer is, competition keeps everybody honest, even legends. Audi came up with a better answer. That said, the M3 remains a machine to be reckoned with, as distinct from the S4 as cabernet is from zinfandel. This is a strongly flavored choice, muscular and deliberate, ferociously powerful, and not at all shy about its performance compromises. It always acts like the automotive jock it is, every mile of every day. The M3 checks in at a trim 3394 pounds, less than the S4 by 470 pounds, and 257 pounds under the C32. The engine is an undeniably heroic in-line six; it’s powerful and flexible, willing to rev to 8000, yet strong all the way up, with no soft spots in the output curve. Variable valve timing really works here. What about the M3’s adrenaline output? In its 4.8-second sprint to 60 mph, it showed taillights to the others, and it stayed ahead all the way to 150 mph, albeit with a tight margin; quarter-mile time is the same for all at 13.6 seconds. You must work the six-speed to stay ahead, however, as shown by the top-gear 30-to-50 and 50-to-70 bursts, where the larger-displacement Audi had a significant advantage. Unlike other BMWs, the M3 is never the silky, whirring machine. It’s raw in its engine noises, interior booms, gear whines, tire songs, and pipe-organ resonances. Raw and quite loud. Always the jock. And sometimes rude. We noticed an odd “death rattle” from the engine room each time the ignition was switched off. And the bixenon headlights sound a bad-mannered grunt as they rotate through their alignment ritual on startup. A hormone-injected 3-series BMW sounds as if it would be a frisky, flingable sportster. In fact, the M3 feels heavy and reserved. Steering effort increases very little as you bite into a turn. Some drivers read that as “effort too low.” All agree that communication is a bit aloof. The M3 also needs more turning of the wheel than the others, so direction changes seem less eager. The clutch is a workout. Some of us complained mildly about the driving position; for example, the left-foot rest seems too close to the driver relative to the pedals. The cloth bucket seat, with numerous mechanical adjusters including one for height, seemed rather stingy at the $50-thou mark, but it’s very effective at holding the driver in place when the scenery starts to blur. On the skidpad, grip topped all the others at 0.87 g. This car is reliable for its understeer, and it’s not at all twitchy as you probe for its limits. It always feels trusty, but hardly spirited. Don’t expect the famous BMW ride. Few road cars are as stiff-legged as this. And the seat is alive with vibrations at interstate speeds. Even though the M3 thankfully lacks the extroverted wings, spoilers, and spats that other makers reach for to mark their sporting cars, it’s still easy to spot. The nose-down posture and the combination of wide 45-series tires in front and even wider 40s in back, on wheels that fill the wells, along with a bit of sculpting under the front bumper and chrome vents on each front fender, are enough to tip off even Mustang men. Interior detailing is distinctive, too, while remaining nicely understated. The dials substitute gray backgrounds for the usual BMW black. There are M Sport logos on the speedo and shifter, and red-and-blue stitching sets off the leather-covered wheel. Look, too, for the “sport” button down near the console. It quickens the response of the electronic throttle, making the M3 seem livelier to the touch, yet not jerky in the manner of some Detroiters. Interesting. But regardless of switch positions, the M3 is never less than intensely sporty. ----- First Place - Audi S4 Quattro Highs: Hooray for V-8 rumble, Nureyev moves when the going gets twisty, frictionless controls, curvaceous sheetmetal pulled as tight as spandex. Lows: Rock-hard ride, blue headlights make blotchy pattern, lots of rolling and whirring sounds when in motion. The Verdict: An everyday car went to the gym and came back an Olympian. A big V-8 changes everything. This new S4 makes the deep-throated rumblings you just don’t expect from smaller cars—and that famous burble on decel. Who needs Bose? Turbos, as in Audi’s previous S4, can be plenty fast, but they never have the no-waiting torque, nor do they ramp up in a trusty way as you dip into the power. And they never have the magic burble, either. This new S4 gets the company’s 4163cc, five-valves-per-cylinder, all-aluminum V-8 rated at 340 horsepower at 7000 rpm. It has a bottomless reservoir of torque—adrenaline delivery, no waiting—and great flexibility. Nothing loafs along like a substantial V-8. This one, Audi says, is no heavier than the twin-turbo 2.7 V-6 of the previous S4. It mates to a six-speed manual gearbox (an automatic is available) and Quattro all-wheel drive with a Torsen center differential. Lots of machinery has been tucked under the A4’s pretty-much-unchanged skin, including 8.0-by-18-inch wheels with 235/40 tires and 13.6-inch vented front brake discs. All these details work together in tightly orchestrated harmony. The controls are light to the touch, including the clutch. The shifter snicks through its pattern happily, and the steering feels lively and quick. Effort increases nicely with speed. Out on the twisty roads, the S4 quickly became the favorite. The firm Recaro bucket keeps the driver in place without straining. The stability control is so subtle in its operation that you never feel it intrude (unless you’ve made a big mistake). Chassis dynamics are simply superb. As you brake deep into a turn, the S4 puts its belly to the ground and maintains amazing stability as you pick up the arc toward the exit and squeeze on the power. Roll angles are tightly controlled. The shocks keep body motions on a short leash. You can feel the tires scratching and straining for grip as the front and rear electronic differential locks respond to the V-8 torque. The Quattro’s stern discipline keeps redistributing the driving forces, allowing you to get the throttle open early yet cling confidently to your intended line. This is a car that’ll work with you! Few sporting cars are this open in their communication, and so disinclined to mischief. Of this trio, the S4 is in a class by itself, scoring the full 10 points in our handling rating, two above the M3 and three above the C32. It also earned a 10 in fun to drive, decisively above the others. Would the throaty motor music be worth a point all by itself? It might. There is a downside to the taut chassis muscles, however. The ride quality is darn stiff. The S4 would find jolts on glass roads. Ride impacts may be marginally sharper than the M3’s, although the tires are somewhat quieter over texture. Cockpit noises are less than in the M3, but both are similar in the vibes they put through the seat on the interstate. Interior style follows Audi’s tasteful approach, black with thin chrome bezels and textured sweeps of metal in place of the wood trim of other models. The gas pedal is tight against the tunnel, meaning that the driver’s knee gets a good polishing. The brake pedal is high, adding to the challenge of heel-and-toe operation. The HVAC controls are low, and they mostly go invisible when you’re wearing sunglasses. The fat wheel rim and high-sided Recaros work together to make wide guys complain about entry and exit. Tilting the wheel helps, of course. But a confining driver space is inherent to sporting cars. It’s a part of the S4’s authenticity. And it pays off when you’re cooking. Unfortunately, the rear-seat space is sporty, too. The cushion is deeply contoured for two occupants, which means passengers three across will all be sitting in the wrong places. But who cares? This four-door is all about mainlining adrenaline to the left front seat, and it delivers three bags full. We predict the S4 will soon become famous for the trusty way it carves up the back roads. The V-8 rumble and its generosity of torque just add to the joy. Here’s your chance to catch a rising star.