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Power struggle

Bitter rivalry has always been a constant in the BMW and Audi relationship. And the launch of the new A4 3.2 FSI, was almost an invitation for a rematch with the Beemer 325i.

autos Updated: May 26, 2010 13:02 IST
Ouseph Chacko

Ouseph Chacko
Ever since Audi launched the A4 3.2 FSI, BMW’s range-topping 325i has been shy of a huge grin. With 700 cc and 50 bhp less, the BMW was a full second slower to 100 kph and didn’t have the sheer grunt or broad spread of talents as the Audi. What’s more, Audi was offering a drive select system which allowed the driver to set suspension, gearbox, steering and transmission to comfort or sport mode, whatever his mood dictated.

The badge on the bootlid reads 330i, which is BMW speak for 3-series with a 3.0-litre engine. The 258 bhp in-line six is from the bigger 5-series and while it still falls short of the Audi V6’s 265 bhp, the BMW makes up by being a whole 115 kg lighter than its rival from Ingolstadt. And, Audi is no longer offering the drive select system with the A4, so the two are really stepping on each other’s toes now.

We saw the makings of a perfect rematch and an excuse for a few fantastic days out of the office. Here’s the story of a classic power struggle.

Looks
Audi should have sent us a red A4 with the 18-inch wheels it used to come with. In this colour and on smaller 17-inch wheels, the A4 looks as interesting as a beige suit, a fact that’s highlighted when you park the taut lines of the 3-series alongside. The BMW looks like Zorro, while the Audi looks like Clark Kent.

On its gorgeous 15-spoke alloys, low profile rubber, aggressive chin and classic proportions, the BMW looks good from any angle while the Audi relies heavily on its aggressive nose and LED lamps to grab your attention. To the untrained eye, this flagship A4 now looks exactly like its lesser diesel siblings and that’s not exactly a good thing.

After what you’ve seen on the surface, you would expect the BMW to be better on the inside too. It is. While the cabin feels distinctly narrower than the Audi, it’s the build quality and simple, functional layout of the switches that get your attention. The message is clear — focus on the driving, everything else is for the passenger. Grip that thick- rimmed, small diameter-sized steering wheel, feel the cold metal of the perfectly formed paddleshifts, adjust the seat to exactly how you want it, feel the nicely weighted throttle and brakes and you just know you’ll enjoy driving this car.

Interiors
The Audi is not bad either — the dashboard looks stunning with the red and white lighting and the numerous buttons and switches on the centre console look very technical, but you get the feeling that the car wants to dazzle you rather than quietly impress you. Some of its functions are complicated too — adjusting the fan speed or air-con mode is a two-step process. Some of the plastics aren’t what you would expect from a car like this.

Where the Audi has a clear advantage is with the front seats. They are hugely accommodating; a size wider than the BMW’s seats and are cooled/heated.

At the rear, it’s the BMW which has better thigh support and cushioning. The Audi has a lot more space and feels airier, but the noticeable lack of thigh support lets it down.

Power
Let’s talk power to weight here — the BMW’s 172 bhp per tonne looks a lot better than the Audi’s 165 bhp per tonne. This advantage is only on paper. Like all BMW in-line six petrols we’ve tested, this one has good initial responses, a weak mid-range and a sublime top end.

To accentuate, if you need to know what a serious urge feels like, you need to keep your foot planted. Keep it planted till the direct-injection petrol crosses 5000 rpm and hang on as it homes in on the 6900 rpm limiter. It’ll yowl past the 100 kph mark in 8.1 seconds (0.9 seconds faster than a 325i) and you’ll find an involuntary grin plastered across your face faster than it gets to 200 kph.

But, on our roads, you’re relegated to the lower half of the rev band most of the time and this highlights the BMW’s weaknesses. While it’s perfectly okay when you are not in a hurry, you need to use the paddleshifts to get the engine to its eager zone when you need a quick burst of power. The Audi’s direct injection V6, on the other hand, is responsive, has a broader power band, feels gutsier almost everywhere and so is a lot more usable. In the BMW, you need to find the right road to fully exploit its capabilities; in the Audi, any half-decent stretch of road will do.

Shifting gears
In flat-out acceleration tests, they are neck and neck, but that’s only half the story. In normal driving conditions, the Audi’s gearbox is a lot quicker to kickdown. The six-speed auto will jump down gears and growl past traffic while the BMW’s electronics are still undecided about allowing a downshift.

This is the most frustrating bit of the 330i. The gearbox plays spoilsport a lot of the time. You can punch the paddleshift all you want, but if the over-protective nanny decides against it, it just refuses to downshift.

The Audi’s gearbox, on the other hand, is far more willing and when you stick it in sport mode, any tap on the throttle gets the gearbox to jump down a gear. In fact, in sport mode, the Audi won’t shift into sixth even when you are cruising — that shows commitment. We did miss paddleshifts on this car though.

Ride and handling
Around corners, the BMW is like a snug-fit racing glove while the Audi feels like its strapped for a boxing match. Where the BMW is all about precision, feedback and ballerina moves, the Audi simply muscles its way through corners using brute force and the tremendous grip generated by the Quattro system.

It really does feel like Mike Tyson on a rampage. But, it’s the BMW that feels better to drive. It changes direction like a paper plane, allows you to revel in the purity of its handling (thanks to the 50:50 weight distribution) and rewards you the harder you drive it.

The Audi’s four-wheel-drive system is set up for a 40:60 front/rear power bias, but most of the time it feels nose-heavy. Charge into a corner too fast and it wants to head straight. You need to muscle the steering and feed in more power to get it to go where you want to. The steering feels numb and doesn’t bristle with the same feedback as the BMW’s, which is a letdown. We really did miss the wider tyres and the sport setting on the drive select system here. The BMW is more confident on the brakes too. They are easy to modulate, bite hard and strong and are less prone to fade than the Audi’s.

Tyre at work
That said, the Audi rides better. It’s got a more rounded edge in the way it deals with bumps and tackles expansion joints better than the BMW. Helping it along are the higher-profile tyres and the marginally softer suspension setup. With the comfort setting on the earlier car’s dynamic drive system, Audi could get away with the lower-profile tyres that came with the 18-inch wheels.

We suspect the non-adjustable steel springs are the reason Audi has played it safe with the 50-series profile tyres on 17-inch wheels.

As always, the BMW’s run-flat tyres let it down. It crashes over expansion joints and generally tells you more about the road you are driving over than the Audi.

When you have cars as accomplished as these two, it makes picking a winner very tough. We love the BMW for its unwavering driver focus. Now that it has more power, it simply makes what is one of our favourite cars, even more appealing. That it’s priced the same as the now-defunct 325i means the extra urge doesn’t hit your wallet all that hard either.

Yet, it’s the Audi that wins this test. It wins it in a fashion similar to the way it drives — sheer brute force. Forget the engine for a second and look at its other merits. It is bigger, rides better and comes with more equipment. Its engine is more flexible, its power is more accessible and it is fun to drive in a way that is completely different to the BMW.

At the end of the day, our hearts went with the BMW but our heads strongly ruled in the Audi’s favour.
Autocar India