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Audi RS 4 Avant vs BMW M3 Touring: hot performance estates go head-to-head

Updates have transformed the Audi RS 4 Avant before it bows out for good, but can it beat the BMW M3 Touring?

High-performance estates have always been hugely appealing, thanks to their accessible performance, fine quality and – to those in the know – a seriously high level of cool. 

But times are changing, and as the German big three of Audi Sport, BMW M and Mercedes-AMG readjust to new tastes and regulations, so the lines between them have never been so blurred. This is perhaps best illustrated in the mid-size fast-estate class, a sector that was once ruled by Audi and occasionally threatened by AMG, but is now commanded by BMW M and its brilliant M3 Competition Touring

As a retort, Audi has revealed its own Competition model, a more focused version of the existing RS 4 Avant. As it stands, the regular Audi simply couldn’t compete with the BMW, so this limited-run variant starts this test as the underdog, with BMW’s bigger, brawnier, but heavier M3 Touring ready to once again attempt to overshadow 30 years of fast Audi estate heritage. 

 Audi RS 4 Avant Competition quattroBMW M3 Touring with xDrive
Price:£84,600£86,570
Powertrain:2.9-litre V6 twin-turbo petrol, 444bhp3.0-litre 6cyl twin-turbo petrol, 503bhp
0-62mph:3.9 seconds3.6 seconds
Test efficiency:23.6mpg/5.2mpl26.0mpg/5.7mpl
Official CO2201g/km234g/km
Annual VED:£560£560

Audi RS 4 Competition

The Audi RS 4 Avant Competition is an extremely rare car in the UK, with only 75 units being sold, all in Mythos Black and all with an identical specification. It costs £84,600, which adds £16,010 to the price of the basic RS 4.

Tech highlights 

To lift the performance of an already-focused car, Audi has worked on the suspension, cabin insulation and transmission software. 

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The Competition replaces the standard RS 4’s adaptive dampers with mechanically adjustable coilover suspension. You can set the ride height, compression and rebound, but more importantly, the damping is of a very high quality whatever the set-up. The spring rates themselves are higher and therefore firmer, and work with stiffer anti-roll bars and a lighter set of 20-inch forged alloy wheels

The new suspension hardware gives the Competition far more control and composure than the standard car, helping it glide across challenging road surfaces with more confidence than any RS 4 before it. It also highlights the continued work that Audi has done with its Sport Differential, which actively vectors torque to an outside wheel under hard acceleration. 

Performance

Changes to the eight-speed automatic gearbox make its shift times noticeably more prompt and aggressive, shaving a further 0.2 seconds from the 0-62mph time, which is now 3.9 seconds. Select the auto’s sports manual mode, accessible via the gearlever or steering wheel-mounted paddles, and there’s a further level of engagement and response, especially under full throttle. 

More sound from the twin-turbocharged, 444bhp 2.9-litre V6 engine can reach the cabin, too, thanks to a reduction in insulation. 

On the road

The RS 4 in its current B9 generation has never quite been a class leader for precision, instead favouring a more rounded approach to speed. 

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Around town: An RS 4 Avant isn’t any more taxing or difficult to drive at low speeds than any other A4, and the same can be said for the Competition. The coilover suspension does have a firm edge to it, but its movements are controlled and it never feels brittle or fragile. 

The engine is exceptionally smooth and refined, even with the reduced sound deadening. Left in automatic mode, the transmission is easy to live with and well calibrated, despite the potential for sharper changes when driving flat out.

A & B-roads: Fast and flowing roads are where the Competition’s new suspension really comes into its own; this is a superb car for making fast progress over challenging routes. Even with the extra width of the RS 4’s bodyshell in comparison with a standard A4, it still feels relatively narrow and easy to place, thanks in large part to good visibility and very accurate steering. 

This is another area that has been tweaked in the Competition, coming with a faster fixed ratio that, although light, feels perfectly in sync with the chassis, powertrain and brakes. The standard-fit Pirelli Corsa tyres are also worth a mention, because they help an agile car produce colossal mechanical grip when they’re warm. 

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Motorway: The flipside of removing some of the insulation and those sticky tyres is that motorway noise is a bit more pronounced than in the standard RS 4. It’s still not a burden, mind, and thanks to the extremely comfortable sports seats with lots of adjustment, the car is also very comfortable.

Ownership

For this top-end Competition model, Audi has thrown all of the standard tech and options that you could wish for at it. It’s a shame that the interior hasn’t been perked up with the fabulous bucket seats that are fitted to cars destined for European markets, but the standard units are still comfortable and supportive, and they sit within a cabin that’s as fabulously well put together as ever. The rotary dials for the climate controls click with a superb sturdy feeling that hints at a level of build quality that just can’t be replicated with a touchscreen.

The RS 4 Competition is singled out with a flat-bottomed steering wheel trimmed in Alcantara, and a smattering of extra silver stitching on both the wheel and centre console. The driving position is great, and the steering wheel has plenty of adjustment, especially for reach.

As a brand, Audi will be disappointed with its overall result in our 2023 Driver Power customer satisfaction survey. A lowly 30th-place finish meant that only Fiat and MG fared worse, and Audi owners were disappointed with their cars’ value and practicality. Of those who completed the survey, 23 per cent of owners said that they experienced a fault in the first year, which is largely similar to the experience of BMW drivers, 22 per cent of whom noted problems.

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All new Audis come with a three-year, 60,000-mile warranty as standard, and this can be extended to four or five years for £590 and £1,335 respectively. Three years’ breakdown cover is also included.

Storage: The Audi’s cabin is fairly well specced when it comes to storage. The centre console contains a couple of deep cup-holders, plus a small compartment just ahead of the gear selector that is a convenient spot to leave the key. Elsewhere, the door pockets are deep, and the glovebox is large.

Practicality

The RS 4 compromises next to nothing in terms of practicality relative to a standard A4 Avant. This means it’s a superbly versatile and spacious car, considering the incredible performance it delivers. 

Rear space: The Audi benefits from excellent rear headroom, so even tall adults will have few complaints. The seats themselves are comfortable, and there’s decent foot space beneath the front seats.

Boot: Few cars can accelerate from 0-62mph in less than four seconds while delivering 500 litres of boot space, but that’s exactly what the RS 4 achieves. The space is almost perfectly square, which makes it easy to load, and there are useful pockets to each side for smaller items. The seat backs don’t lay flat when folded, but they offer a 40:20:40 split, so it’s possible to strike the best compromise between carrying passengers and bulky items.

What to buy?

Which engine and trim we’d choose

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  • Engines: Only one engine is available in the RS 4 Competition. Its hot-V turbocharger layout helps reduce (if not entirely eliminate) turbo lag but it can produce its full 600Nm of torque between 2,000 and 5,000rpm.
  • Trim: The Competition is set apart from other RS 4 models with matte-finish carbon-fibre trim for the mirrors and inserts on the bumpers and side skirts. 
  • Options: There are no extras, and key features such as adaptive cruise control are missing. The RS 4 Vorsprung gets more kit but not the trick suspension.
  • Our choice: The Competition is the best RS 4 yet, if you’re one of the lucky 75 to order one.

BMW M3 Touring

The M3 has never been more exciting to drive, and thanks to the option of four-wheel drive and this Touring bodystyle, there’s plenty of variety in the line-up, too. At £86,570, the M3 Touring is priced very closely to the Audi, but you’ll need to tick some costly option boxes to get the high-end toys. 

Tech highlights 

Under the bonnet of the M3 Touring is BMW’s S58 twin-turbocharged, 3.0-litre straight-six petrol engine producing 503bhp and 750Nm of torque. It features lots of hi-tech features, such as 3D-printed internals within the cylinder heads and forged aluminium conrods and pistons. 

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This is connected to an eight-speed automatic gearbox and a rear-biased four-wheel drive system, with the further ability to decouple the front driveshafts entirely. Engage launch control and the Touring will sprint from 0-62mph in 3.6 seconds, 0.3 seconds faster than the RS 4. 

At the rear end, there’s an electronically controlled limited-slip differential with active torque-vectoring. Beyond all the powertrain hardware, BMW M’s state-of-the-art traction and stability control systems are also the best in the business at giving drivers as much or as little support as they want, featuring lots of track functions, including one to assist in pulling off TV-worthy powerslides.

Chassis

The platform is no less complex than the M3 saloon’s, and features bespoke suspension geometry. It doesn’t have mechanically adjustable dampers like the Audi, instead using electronic control. Under the engine bay and mid-body structure is a range of braces and shear panels, but unique to the Touring is a rear underbody brace borrowed from the M4 Convertible that makes up for the estate’s lack of a rear bulkhead.

On the road

All M3 Competitions are fundamentally firm-riding cars, and the Touring is no different. But the pay-off for that is incredible roadholding at speed, making this a very confidence-inspiring car at the top of its operating window. 

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Around Town: Low speeds and town driving are where the M3 is at its least comfortable, because the firm springs and dampers – even in their softest mode – can cause the body to crash into potholes or land hard on speed humps. It’s never brittle, though, thanks to both the quality of the dampers and the relatively high sidewalls of the smaller 19-inch front tyres.

A & B-roads: As with the Audi, this is where the BMW is at its most impressive. With increasing speed and load, the suspension settles and the ride improves immeasurably. The steering is light but very precise, and its fast rack makes the car feel more agile than it actually is – only something that you can discover when you’re able to exploit the very limits of grip. 

However, there’s so much of it across the front axle that there’s never a moment that you’ll come across any understeer on dry roads. The M3 is a wide car, and feels it on smaller British back roads, especially when compared with the Audi. 

Motorway: Refinement and comfort on the motorway are good, but the wide Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tyres and aggressive suspension make it less comfortable at a constant cruise than the Audi, and road noise is a little more pronounced. 

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The optional carbon-fibre-backed seats look uncompromising, but are in fact very comfortable over long distances. Stability is completely unflappable at high speeds.

Options: Extras are largely grouped into packs that can raise the M3’s total price to over six figures. These include the Pro Pack, which bundles together carbon brakes and a higher top speed.

Ownership

While the RS 4 is based on a generation of A4 that first launched in 2016, the G21 generation of 3 Series Touring was launched two years later. This, combined with an update last year that introduced significant changes inside, means that the BMW feels more modern. The curved twin-screen set-up sits on a slim dash integrating one of the best user interfaces in the business, but the RS 4’s physical controls are still easier to use. 

The optional carbon-fibre-backed seats offer superb support when the driver is subjected to the sort of stunning cornering forces that the M3’s chassis can conjure up, but they’re not to everyone’s tastes. Those using the car every day will find the firm and high thigh bolsters a pain when getting in and out, while the central hump between the driver’s legs gets in the way for keen drivers who use left-foot braking.

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BMW fared better than Audi in our most recent Driver Power survey, but even so, a result of 21st out of 32 isn’t something the firm can be too proud of. Despite this lowly position, owners were big fans of their cars’ engines, gearboxes, handling and infotainment systems.

The BMW’s standard warranty is a match for the Audi’s, and as with its rival, a three-year breakdown package is included from the moment you take delivery.

Storage: Roomy door pockets mean that the M3 Touring is a performance car with plenty of everyday usability. The front bins are split so that they can securely hold a bottle – but there are more spaces for drinks beneath the large covered compartment at the base of the dashboard.

There is further room for a smartphone behind this door, and a wide but fairly shallow cubby beneath the front centre armrest. Go for the optional carbon-fibre sports seats, and you’ll miss out on map pockets or storage on the seat backs.

Practicality

The M3 Touring is closely matched to the RS 4 when it comes to overall usability.

Rear space: Against the tape measure, the BMW holds a narrow edge over the Audi for rear kneeroom, but there’s less foot space under those carbon-fibre seats. The Audi also has a narrow edge when it comes to headroom. 

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While the M3 is wider than the RS 4 across the cabin, it’s less comfortable for three people; the centre seat is firm and high, while a big central tunnel means you have to fight for foot room. On the plus side, the Isofix mounts are easy to reach behind plastic covers. 

Boot: At 500 litres, the M3’s boot is about the same size as its rival’s. The opening is wide and the load lip low, so it’s easy to lift large items inside, while the separate glass tailgate is perfect for quickly loading smaller items.

What to buy?

Which engine and trim we’d choose

  • Engines: As with the Audi, there’s only one powertrain option for the M3 Touring. But it’s a stunner, with an extra 49bhp and 150Nm of torque over its rival.
  • Trim: Standard interior colours include black or ivory, but for only a small increase you can specify a wide palette of options, including M3-specific silver, orange or even a teal-and-yellow combo.
  • Our choice: We’ll take the M3 Touring as it comes; the options are to personal taste.

Results

Which car comes out on top?

Winner: BMW M3 Touring

An M3 Touring was a long time coming from BMW, but its first attempt has absolutely nailed the mark. It’s thrilling, precise and stunningly quick (both at going and stopping), and the Touring body adds loads of practicality into the mix, too. 

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Some buyers will prefer the Audi’s more forgiving ride, but the BMW’s firmness proves to be a worthwhile trade-off, given just how great the M3 is to drive. You’ll have to choose those optional extras wisely, though, or the total price can climb to eye-watering amounts.

ProsCons
Thunderous performanceGearbox could be quicker
Sharp handlingCan feel its weight and size
Driver feedbackExpensive options
Stunning brakesToo few physical switches

Runner up: Audi RS 4 Avant

What’s clear from the off is that this is the most competent RS 4 in years; not since the B6 generation has a fast Audi run its BMW rival so close. In some ways, it’s even ahead; its agility can be felt on road or on track, while its gearbox and in-car quality are also superb. 

There’s very little to separate them, but the BMW’s performance, precision and grin factor win out. Still, if you’re one of the privileged 75 Competition owners, you’ve got yourself a magnificent fast estate.

ProsCons
AgilityLacks the M3’s precision
Superb gearboxEngine short on character
RefinementInfotainment isn’t as slick as BMW’s
Build qualityDated cabin

Rivals and other options

The M3 Touring wins our twin test, but what else is out there?

The great debate

What the Auto Express test team would do…

Alex Ingram, chief reviewer: “The Touring really feels like the most rounded version of the current M3 and M4 line-up. It’s obviously more practical, but it doesn’t feel any less sharp or engaging when you’re really pushing it to its limits, either. I’m still not a fan of that grille design, though.”

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John Mcllroy, editor-at-large: “Taking a rapid German estate car to a track even 20 years ago would have been daft – cars such as these wouldn’t hold up to the strains of such committed driving for very long. It’s a testament to the engineers of both Audi and BMW that these two acquitted themselves so well.”

Dawn Grant, picture editor: “As well as being a fitting send-off for the current A4 range, this model is set to be the last of its type, because the Audi line-up is undergoing a significant rebrand. From now on, even model numbers will be for full EVs, so the next generation of this car will carry A5, S5 and RS 5 badges instead.”

Steve Fowler, editor-in-chief: “What we’re looking at here could be the pinnacle of internal combustion-powered performance wagons. With the Mercedes C 63 moving to plug-in power, it’s only a matter of time before BMW and Audi follow suit. We just hope they can maintain the finesse and excitement of this pair.”

Dean Gibson, senior test editor: “We’ve yet to be convinced that an EV can deliver the thrills to match the likes of the M3 Touring, but the Porsche Taycan Sport Turismo combines estate practicality with all the precision and sophistication we expect from the sports-car maker.”

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Which would you buy? Let us know in the comments section below…

 Audi RS 4 Avant Competition quattroBMW M3 Touring With xDrive
On the road price/total as tested£84,600 / £ 84,600£86,570 / £111,765
Residual value (after 3yrs/36,000)£43,899 (51.89%)44125 (50.97%)
Depreciation£40,701£42,445
Annual fuel. cost (10k/20k miles)£2,930 / £5,860£ 2,659 / £5,319
Ins. group/quote/VED50 / £1,205/ / £56050 / £1,324 / £560
Service costs (3 years)£549 *2 years£2,289
Length/wheelbase4,782 / 2,826mm4,794 / 2,857mm
Height/width1,414 / 1,866mm1,446 / 1,903mm
PowertrainV6 twin-turbo / 2,894cc6cyl / 2,993cc
Peak power444 / 5,700bhp / rpm503/ 6,250bhp / rpm
Peak torque600 / 5,000Nm / rpm650 / 2,750-5,500Nm /rpm
TransmissionEight-speed auto /4wdEight-speed Auto / 4wd
Fuel tank (litres)5859
Boot capacity (seats up / down)495 / 1,495 litres500 / 1,510 litres
Kerbweight / power-to-weight1,729kg / 257bhp / tonne1,940kg / 259bhp / tonne
Turning circle11.7 metres12.6 metres
Basic warranty/recovery3yrs (60k) / 3 yrs3 yrs (unlimited) / 3 yrs
Driver Power manufacturer position30th 
Euro NCAP: Adult / child / ped. / assist / starsN/A97 / 87 / 87 / 76 / 5 (2019)
0-62mph / top speed3.9 secs / 180mph3.6 secs / 155mph
Test economy / range23.6 / 301 miles26 / 337 miles
WLTP combined (MPG)28.2 mpg27.2mpg
WLTP combined6.2mpl6.0mpl
Actual/claimed CO2/tax bracket277g/km / 201g/km / 0.37251 / 234g/km/ 0.37
Number of airbags / Isofix pointsSix / TwoSix / Two
Parking sensors/cameraF&r / 360F&r / yes
Lane-keep assist / blindspot / AEBYes / yes / yesYes / £708 / yes
Climate control/adaptive cruise ctrlYes / yesYes / yes
Leather / heated seats / wheelYes / yes / yesYes / yes / £1,040*
Metallic paint/LED lights£0 / yes£0 / yes
Keyless entry & go/powered tailgateYes / yes£1,040* / yes
Sat-nav/digital dashboard/USBsYes / yes / fourYes / yes / four
Online services/wireless chargingYes / yesYes / yes
Apple CarPlay/Android AutoYes / yesWireless / yes
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Senior staff writer

Senior staff writer at Auto Express, Jordan joined the team after six years at evo magazine where he specialised in news and reviews of cars at the high performance end of the car market. 

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