The start of this comparison felt like we’d gotten away with something. Paul and I each flew into Los Angeles and went to different airport parking garages. He drove out with a $50,000 M235i, and I drove out with a $50,000 Audi S3. Neither of us paid a dime to have these cars, and we promptly used the provided tank of gas to drive two hours out of town to a moonscape area outside Palm Desert. This was one of those moments when the privilege of getting press cars was impossible to ignore.
Mid-sized performance sedans from BMW and Audi have been available forever. But their traditional examples (the 3 series and A4 class respectively) have grown in size and cost enough to create a space beneath for new offerings. The price hardly makes these “entry-level”, but the 2 series and A3 are the smallest and least expensive cars these brands offer in the US. These two, the M235i and S3, represent the hottest versions of these cars.
Winding up out of Palm Desert, the Palms to Pines Highway lives up to its name with high-speed switchbacks and panoramic views of the valley. Most of the area is a dusty-brown moonscape of boulders, so our two red Germans stood out every time they blurred past. Over the course of our shoot we got the chance to know the road well and acutely feel the differences between these two cars. In fact, what had begun as two small red sedans at night in LA, was revealed as two very different cars wearing unique colors and bringing different strengths.
The Audi S3, like its platform-twin the Golf R, is a freeway commuting pleasure. It moves through traffic mostly unnoticed while demanding very little from the driver. When a gap appears, the S3 can blast through the opening with surprising speed. Though I personally fought with the seat for proper headroom, most will find the cabin quiet and comfortable. The gauges and MMI system, the best parts of this interior, shine in the tactile half-glance world of navigating traffic. For owners whose driving consists of on-ramp blasts and darting between SUVs, this hotted-up A3 is a short list candidate.
The problem arises when you climb out of the S3 and immediately into the BMW M235i. The balance and rear-wheel-drive rotation of the BMW reveal themselves in the very first corner. On the aggressive switchbacks of our test road, the gap in driver confidence was even more apparent. The S3 remains fast and capable, but the BMW feels like a dance partner you’ve known for years. Compared to some of the larger and more muted BMWs we’ve driven recently, this M235i stirs up memories of the E46 M3 and the cars that spawned the “ultimate driving machine” moniker.
Paul was smitten. In fact, he was so taken by the communication of the BMW that he began to discuss it with a fascination he normally reserves for Porsches. He took every opportunity to get more time behind the wheel, and began to drive the S3 less and less. I understood his fascination, as the BMW seems to rise above its stats and offer a conversation in hard corners, thrusts of throttle, or crushing brakes.
The S3 reveals its drive-train when pushed on a road like this. The back becomes light and a bit uncertain with hard-braking corner entry, and the weight feels just up under the dash instead of in the center of the car. The haldex engages when accelerating out of the corner and a subtle shift can be sensed as wheels change their grip and power levels. None of this feels wrong or poorly executed, but it adds a layer of distance and clinical interaction that isn’t present in the BMW. To torture the dancing analogy, it’s the difference between doing all the steps in the S3, and dancing them with abandon in the M235i.
As with the Golf R, I find myself most intrigued by the S3 when we have to leave our fun shooting location and grind across Los Angeles. In the mundane slog of freeways, with sudden bursts of speed and miles of cruising, it’s hard to find fault with the S3. With my phone streaming audio into the silence of the cabin I don’t mind the long drive back to the airport. The S3 easily executes everything required by a metropolitan life. It can be ignored, or it can be flogged, genuinely enjoyable in stop and go or a freeway cloverleaf. Then if the owner finds themselves on a back road, the S3 will still offer fun.
But like the girl you can't get out of your head... the M235i exists. And it moves so well that it’s seductive.
I have to go with the BMW.