Sports executives

BMW’s new, fourth-generation M3 has been unveiled We took Audi’s RS4 to the launch to find out which really is the ultimate driver's car...

It’s the small badge that’s a big deal for car enthusiasts. Ever since the famous M emblem first appeared on a 3-Series in 1986, it has become recognised as the mark of a true driving machine.

Each generation of M3 has raised the performance bar further – although what has remained consistent throughout is the model’s reputation for delivering superb handling involvement and dynamic excellence.

It’s no surprise, then, that the arrival of an all-new M3 is a big event. The straight six-cylinder engine that powered the previous two generations has now given way to a V8 as BMW’s quest for power continues.

With a 4.0-litre capacity, the unit develops 414bhp. Meanwhile, a raft of innovative technology – including active dampers, three-level traction control and an active differential – means the newcomer follows the lead of its bigger, V10 brother, the M5, in showcasing the immense engineering abilities of the Munich firm’s M division.

The M3 is due to arrive in UK showrooms in September, and BMW dealers are already filling their order books. So we headed out to the car’s international debut to find out just how it compares with its key competitor.

Audi’s RS4 is a stunning sports saloon that’s also powered by a V8 – and its engine delivers an identical 414bhp. The top-of-the-range A4 is equipped with the brand’s quattro four-wheel-drive set-up, too, while muscle-bound lines and supple suspension have helped to ensure it’s our favourite model in this class.

So we put the pair head-to-head on some of Europe’s finest roads to see which takes the crown in one of the most tightly contested performance car battles of the year.

Verdict

BMW obviously had only one rival in mind when it created the M3. The similarities between these two machines are remarkable. Both have identical power outputs, very closely matched performance figures and equally aggressive styling, while there’s little to separate them on price, either. In the end, it’s the minute differences between the M3 and RS4 that decide this test.

The BMW is unquestionably the better option on a track or an empty road. The trouble is, the sheer technical efficiency of its active damping and adjustable steering – plus the long throw and notchy shift of its six-speed box – means it’s not as involving as previous generations. Put simply, it’s become too complex.

That’s not our only criticism of the M3. While the cabin is very well built, it lacks excitement.

The BMW is a sharper driver’s car, but it’s the Audi that’s more fun day to day. Its performance and handling are so accessible, and it has a feelgood factor that the M3 struggles to equal, plus a great interior and that mighty V8 engine. So the RS4 wins this test by the narrowest of margins.

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