We keep hearing that regardless of the winner, the age-old BMW/Audi rivalry is closer than it has ever been. Case in point: the 335i xDrive and the S4 for 2010, both packing force-fed six-cylinders and all-wheel-drive into well-appointed, unassuming ensembles for around fifty grand. Five years ago if we had done a comparo involving the S4, we would have certainly put it up against BMW’s M3. Problem was, even with a V8 and all-wheel-drive, the old S4 fell short in the thrills department. When BMW introduced the twin-turbo 335i, however, the S4 suddenly had a more sensible counterpart than the balls-to-the-wall M3, especially when buyers checked the xDrive option box. To get a better sense of just how close these two cars now are, we paired them up for a late-winter drive near Starved Rock State Park in north-central Illinois.
Before you get all worked up, we’re well aware that what you see before you is an S4 sedan going up against a 335i coupe, and that a proper comparison would involve replacing one of these with either a 335i sedan or Audi’s S5 coupe. Since the S5 still packs a naturally aspirated V8, we insisted on placing the supercharged V6-powered Audi against the venerable Bimmer.
Unfortunately, the only xDrive-equipped 335i we could arrange for the same time happened to be a coupe. Fear not — the coupe and sedan share the same 108.7-inch wheelbase; their overall dimensions are very similar and the coupe weighs in just 55 pounds lighter than the sedan. Besides, the cars were both on winter tires and we weren’t throwing instruments on them for all-out performance numbers. In short, our comparison of the 335i coupe to the S4 sedan is valid. You should instead join us in being upset that Mother Nature wasn’t in the mood to throw us some late-season snow to slide around in.
Audis have always been known for being a bit nose-heavy, and indeed that trait has always detracted from the S4’s appeal. For the fourth generation of the A4 range (eighth if you count its 80/90 models that came before), the car got an updated chassis that shifted the engine rearward for better balance. In addition to this major architectural change, the S4 also offers adjustable suspension and a torque-vectoring rear differential to aid handling, delivering on the promise of a more serious driver’s machine; in the name of keeping cost and equipment comparable for this comparison, our test car featured neither bit of tech-trickery.
Without the heft and forward-most pair of cylinders from the outgoing V8, the Audi’s new supercharged V6 offers some advantages over its predecessor without even talking about power. Luckily, it’s better in that department too, with almost equal power (333 hp versus the V8’s 340) plus greatly improved torque (325 lb-ft versus 302.) The new powerplant is a real winner, with incredible response, a box-shaped torque curve, and greatly improved NVH over Audi’s naturally-aspirated six. That’s fortunate, because there’s a part of us that misses the rolling thunder of the V8’s exhaust. The V6 has a decent rumble, but we have to give the edge to the energetic vibrato of BMW’s straight six.
Paired to our tester’s supercharged six was more modern technology in the form of Audi’s new seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. It’s one of the finest of its kind, making telepathic shifts and letting out manly burps from the exhaust between full-throttle upshifts. In normal drive mode, it’s a relaxing transmission that spins low, efficient rpms at highway speeds. In sport mode, it does a fine job of choosing the most athletic gear for the situation, and in manual mode, shift paddles allow a decent level of driver involvement. In all modes, it’s one of the least jerky dual-clutch boxes out there. BMW will be playing catch-up by moving its seven-speed down from the M3 with the introduction of the 335is this spring, and we’re excited to see how that transmission gets along with a six-cylinder.
In terms of ride comfort, the Audi has a definite edge over the 335i, being both quieter and more composed at high speeds. The S4’s seats are also more comfortable for the long haul, although both of these cars have some of the finest thrones in the business. Each company’s multimedia interface has its own following of loyalists and enemies, so we’ll leave that subject be.
The S4 falls behind the 335i, in our eyes, in two aspects. The Audi’s brakes have great stopping power, but the pedal is difficult to modulate smoothly — it’ll sink a bit without anything happening, and there’s a very short range before the pads bite hard. It makes matters worse that BMW engineers some of the most linear brakes in the world.
Additionally, while Audi’s ironed a lot of its stereotypical wrinkles out of the S4, the steering is still overboosted and feels artificial. The optional Drive Select system changes the steering weight among other traits, but it costs $3950 and even on the sport setting, our past experiences have proven that even the heavier steering still feels disconnected.
We aren’t afraid, however, to call this S4 the best handling Audi sedan ever. The early understeer of past generations is gone, as is the initial floatiness of the suspension. The 2010 S4 is an absolute bullet through what might be northern Illinois’ only interesting driving road, Route 71 through the park. It doesn’t leave the 335i xDrive in the dust, each car clawing forward with all four feet, but the BMW can’t escape it, either. It’s a head-to-head grudge match for the ages.
Yes, the BMW still trumps the Audi in a few regards that will be important to true driving enthusiasts and weekend track-day junkies, but the Audi is finally a truly competent, decently efficient performance machine that can make Joe Average feel like a hero, while also delivering the comfort and convenience that’s valuable to any driver.
Meanwhile, as Audi beats its quattro drum rather proudly, BMW quietly sells nearly as many all-wheel-drive vehicles, much to the surprise of most people. BMW’s first all-wheel-drive system arrived in 1987 with the 325iX, just three years after Audi introduced the world to the idea of such a system on a premium car. The current hardware is far more advanced than that first torque-sensing system, using electronics to determine wheel slip and reapportion power accordingly.
Given that its entire model range is based on rear-drive architecture, BMW’s all-wheel-drivers feature a more neutral bias than the front-drive-based Audis. This is obvious within the first mile of driving the 335i xDrive. The setup pairs well with BMW’s current line of engines, particularly the 300-hp, 300-lb-ft twin-turbo six that sits under the hood of the 335i. As we’ve already stated, this combination can be had as a coupe or a sedan, with a choice of six-speed transmissions, one manual and one automatic.
The torquey twin-turbo delivers soulful performance, getting the 3759-pound coupe to 60 mph in 5.2 seconds by the company’s own account, at least a tenth of a second quicker than the rear-drive 335i, which has issues connecting the power to the asphalt effectively. The engine makes great noises in the process, with a deep grunt that masks any hint of turbo whine as it makes its way to the two rear pipes that poke out through the bumper. The six-speed manual seems like a natural companion, offering a more engaging experience than the otherwise brilliant automatic.
Our coupe was equipped with BMW’s ubiquitous Sport Package, adding 17-inch wheels and sport seats, as well as blacked-out window trim. Eliminate our Audi test car’s optional navigation system and the dual-clutch seven-speed, and our two cars are priced right on top of one another, at just north of $49,000 nicely equipped.
On a rear-drive 3er, the sport package would also get you a lower, stiffer suspension, but not so on the xDrive. Nevertheless, the chassis is endowed with a decidedly sporty attitude, firmer than the S4’s. Balance, as with most BMWs, is key to the sense of satisfaction the car delivers. Its engine sits well within the boundaries of the wheelbase for optimal weight distribution; steering effort is noticeably firmer than the Audi’s at low speeds, but it’s perfect under way, sending reliable data directly to the three-spoke wheel in the driver’s hands. The substantial power offered by the smooth, supremely balanced six-cylinder is countered by strong, responsive brakes.
The most undeniable fact of driving the 335i xDrive is this: it feels exactly like a regular 335i. There’s no tendency to push through fast corners, and there is a complete absence of the annoying differential binding that tarnishes low-speed maneuvering in the Audi. The rear end feels nearly as lively as any rear-drive 3, except that it continues to stick at higher limits, due to the fact that all of that 300-lb-ft of torque is being split in four directions instead of two. Divvying up the twist makes for a quick little car, but it severely limits the car’s ability to wag its tail except when traction is at its absolute worst.
The Audi’s cabin has the upper hand in interior refinement, though the 335i’s cockpit is a bit more business-like in its starkness. Equipped with wood trim and light-colored leather, the 335i is more of a luxury coupe than a backwoods rally machine, which is one of the reasons it compares so well against the mild-mannered but exceptionally capable S4.
And that brings us back the whole point of both of these cars. While a turbo engine and all-wheel-drive are usually the Holy Grail to performance enthusiasts, these two cars have evolved far beyond the WRX mentality. In 2010 the 335i xDrive and the S4 represent a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too solution to real-world drivers who want the comforts of a luxury car, the driving excitement of a sport sedan and the assurance of all-wheel-drive all in one package. The winner here? Anyone with those needs and $50K to spend.