Waking up to snow on the ground, the first of the season according to locals, I was glad to have keys to the RS5 in my pocket. Yet despite possessing two of Europe's greatest performance cars, it didn't prevent day two of our epic journey becoming an exercise in hyper-miling.
Thirty miles of hills and valleys to the nearest gas station, with 20 miles range in the tanks, this would be an extraordinary contrast to the 140mph dashes we'd experienced the day before and, to be honest, the reason we were in a pickle now...
We were at 7800ft, so it would be a test of nerve and agility as we selected neutral and coasted down the very steep descents to our fossil-fueled salvation. This must be what driving an electric car is like every day: I'm not sure my nerves could cope!
Equipped with the brand-new 2013 Audi RS5 and BMW M3, we needed a remarkable road trip to unravel the mysteries within. But where do you take such legendary automobiles to give them context?
Dropping a pin in the map, we headed to the Land of Giants: a 700-mile round trip to the Sequoia National Park, home to the largest trees on the planet and the second oldest park in the country.
If you ever feel life is losing perspective, take a trip to California's Sierra Nevada mountain range and check out the groves of Sequoias. Growing up to 300ft tall and living about 3000 years, these redwoods are beyond majestic. Their ancient forests provided an incomparable destination for our journey.
Taking two steroidal V8s into a tranquil paradise might seem anathema, but we were careful to observe posted speed limits within the park to protect the abundant wildlife and avoid distracted visitors. Nobody needs two hooligans racing through such an idyllic environment. But the roads into and out of the park were fair game, and the granite rock walls created echo chambers for these high-revving V8s.
Ever since the original Sport quattro was followed by the RS2 circa 1994 there has been great excitement surrounding Audi's flagship performance models. Although the RS2 was the bastard child of a relationship with Porsche, quattro GmbH took the reins for the B5 RS4 and continued the trend for exciting wagons that have included the RS6, RS3 and the new B8 RS4 Avant currently waiting in the wings.
Until the TT RS came along in '09, every RS model had at least four doors and usually space for the dog, but the 2013 RS5 is the first to come close to replicating the formula of the original Audi quattro. In fact, the RS5 shares similar blistered fenders as a nod to its roots.
Yet rather than the Ur's five-cylinder 20v turbo motor, the RS5 uses an updated version of the B7 RS4's 4.2L V8. You've only got to look at its specification to understand Audi used the BMW M3 as its measuring stick during development. Of course, that's no surprise since Munich's finest is the benchmark for the entire industry. So while we originally toyed with comparing the RS5 to the Ur quattro for nostalgic reasons, common sense brought us back to the M3.
We also considered the Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG Coupe, since it competes closer on price and horsepower. It's 6.2L V8 makes 451hp and 443 lb-ft, accelerates to 60mph in 4.4sec and costs $64935 (including destination and gas guzzler), but specified to the same level as the RS5 it reaches $69795. Yet we felt it was less focused than these finely honed machines, so was excluded.
The first part of our journey would involve several hundred miles of Southern California's congested arteries. We set out early Sunday morning to avoid the traffic and made good time.
Starting in the RS5, I was won over by the comfortable surroundings: its supportive S sports seats in Fine Nappa leather, the MMI infotainment system, thick-rimmed steering wheel and the RS carbon fiber inlays.
Audi's Google Earth navigation is a great feature of the $3550 MMI Package that also included HD radio, Bluetooth, an excellent B&O sound system, parking camera, Audi connect and voice control. We had a few glitches with the nav taking us to the wrong destinations, but otherwise it seemed instinctive to use.
Although our M3 was a stripped-down version, to achieve the same level of equipment you'd need the $1350 nav, $1900 Enhanced Premium sound system and $380 parking distance control. Even then, it's not a precise match but you can get the $250 BMW Apps that allows you to access web radio, Facebook feeds, news, etc via your phone.
For sheer opulence, though, the Audi wins this round. It's a beautifully equipped interior that BMW can virtually match in specification and quality, but the M3's minimalist approach can feel less inviting. Undoubtedly it's a question of personal preference, as we'll repeat endlessly throughout this comparison.
However, there's another very important aspect of the interior, and that's the driving environment. Both have great seats, good positioning and chunky steering wheels, but the M3 is the only car with a conventional handbrake. It's also the only one with a manual transmission option.
At the launch of the RS5 (EC 11/12), quattro's head of development, Stephan Reil, explained to us how poor sales of the TT RS 6MT meant we'd never see another clutch pedal in an RS model. And while both Audi and BMW offer magnificent dual-clutch semi-automatic solutions, BMW confirmed it will continue to offer a manual transmission to enthusiasts who want it. Having run an M3 6MT for a year, I can confirm there's something magical about the three-pedal set-up in such musclecars.
Firing up the Audi V8 elicits a loud snarl that settles into a deep rumble. The noise is omnipresent and welcome entertainment. In Sport mode, the dual-clutch gearbox performs marvelous rev-matching blips that make you feel like a racecar driver, but it's in the high speed ranges where the engine comes alive.
Its exhaust note was deeper, louder and richer than we remembered the M3's but, side-by-side, the BMW sacrificed little. It was more restrained at lower RPMs but, screaming towards its 8500rpm redline, the more mechanical voice was no less enjoyable. Side-by-side, bouncing of valley walls and piercing the crisp morning forest air, we were treated to two of the finest songs ever sung. It was spine-tingling.
Put to the vote, the RS5 is more melodious. But an aftermarket exhaust on the M3 (which you can afford with its cheaper price) would make it a tie.
Despite the soundtrack, we were surprised to discover the noise falls away when cruising.
The Audi felt more relaxed than the M3, even though it didn't have the BMW's Electronic Damping Control. In fact, US versions lost the adjustable damping when bumper regulations sacrificed the system's mounting point. As a result, the Audi's "drive select" button affects steering weight, throttle response, shift points, sport diff settings and exhaust valves.
The M3's EDC allows you to choose three suspension settings, while separate buttons control throttle response, shift speed and traction control, with the optimum setting available via the steering wheel "M" button. That said, even in its comfort setting, the EDC couldn't match the Audi.
The RS5 proves that one good suspension setting is enough. Admittedly, adjustable suspension allows you to create either bone-jarring track or soft comfort settings, but which one best suits the coil springs? Or is everything a compromise? As it happens, the M3's EDC is among the best in the business but we preferred the RS5's overall compromise in most situations.
Straightline performance is awesome, with both cars hitting 60mph in 4.5sec and seeming to stay on terms well into triple digits. However, the story was very different in the snow and rain we encountered on the second day. Under these conditions, the quattro inevitably demolished the M3 from a standstill, making it the choice for drivers who regularly experience poor weather conditions or aren't confident with RWD.
That said, the M3 is an incredibly stable chassis in most conditions, finding grip through its multi-stage traction control that permits progressively more rear-wheel slip as your confidence grows. With an experienced driver, it could keep pace with the quattro in all but the heaviest downpours and, as it turns out, in snow on summer tires!
In the dry, on smooth, flowing mountain passes, the M3 is the more entertaining drive. With 300 lb less weight, it feels more dynamic. The numbers suggest there's nothing between them, and the RS5 compensates for its bulk with a bigger engine, more power, and bigger brakes.
But it's not all about numbers. The M3 simply feels more agile, more involving. There's a purity to its driving characteristics that allow you to brake later, turn-in sharper, accelerate harder. There's more feedback from the steering and tires. It invites you to find the edge of the envelope and rewards with a satisfying drive. It's better in transition and more exciting on exiting a turn. The DCT responds more like a manual and its brakes are dazzling.
Again, there will be drivers who prefer the RS5's slightly slower responses. It feels surefooted and solid. It would probably be a more forgiving track car for a novice, but the M3 is similar, stable and reassuring. Neither car understeers to any extent and both can be prompted into oversteer. Each possesses huge levels of grip and performance.
On the other hand, both cars lack torque and need to be revved hard to find the sweet spot. Fortunately, both V8s love to spin the tacho and the transmissions assist in the process. But get caught in the wrong gear and there's a pronounced lag while the gears shuffle down.
In all honesty, in every category these cars are separated by percentage points, with the M3 being 100% and the RS5 at 96%.
However, we can't get away from the bottom line. It's a major factor, especially when the cars are separated by such a tiny margin. In this area, the M3 wins hands down with a starting price of $62295 against the RS5's $69795. Both cars have similar four-year/50,000 miles Maintenance Programs providing free servicing.
One of BMW's aims was to get people into the M3 with a cheap starting price. Our test car was a good example, since it came with a cloth/leather interior and traditional radio rather than nav, etc. The price was bumped by the inclusion of the $2500 Competition Package that includes wider wheels, reprogrammed suspension and DTC among other upgrades. However, you could drive away in the BMW far cheaper than the Audi.
It's worth pointing out that the RS5 comes with a high level of standard equipment, including the dual-clutch trans, AWD, sports diff, Audi connect, 19" wheels, power seats, sat radio, iPod connectivity, etc. The only additions to our test car were the MMI Package as described previously, a $2500 Titanium Package that included the gorgeous 20" wheels, black trim and painted mirrors, plus a $1000 Sports exhaust with black tailpipes.
More importantly, to equip an M3 to a similar specification as the RS5, it would cost about $69K, which puts it on par with the Audi's starting price. The Audi also escapes the gas guzzler tax by virtue of its better fuel economy.
Let's not pretend these cars are economical, though. If they were, we wouldn't have been coasting down the mountain to reach a gas station.
During our test, the M3 returned an average of 17mpg, with the Audi at 19mpg, which the combined EPA figures suggest. Of course, we were at full throttle whenever possible, yet these are realistic figures. Our year with an M3 returned an average of 18mpg, so prepare to pay at the pump.
As we said, many of the differences are a question of preference and there are no losers here. Neither car disappoints in any area. It's a question of priorities and taste, with our preference being for the nimbler, purer M3 by a very small margin.
The Audi is like an "M3+". It's taken the same formula and built on it with a bigger engine, more power, bigger brakes, an electric rear spoiler, 20" wheels, etc. The result is an attractive car we thought would make the M3 look dated and awkward. However, the BMW's sucked-in flanks and sculpted lines looked more purposeful and athletic in comparison.
From any angle except the front, the RS5 looks a little chubby. It could do with a diet to pull in the flanks and emphasize the flared fenders. Despite that, in its bright red paint with huge front grille, the RS5 attracted more attention.
Which would we take home? The Audi might be the more relaxing daily driver but the M3 is simply more entertaining, more of a racecar for the road. It carries its motorsport heritage more obviously than the Audi. In fact, it feels different from any other BMW, where the RS5 feels like a faster, noisier S5.
So, with clenched teeth and fingers crossed, we'd take the M3. It suits our sporting ambitions better. We'd live with its edgier performance and dynamic qualities, and welcome its cheaper purchase price and manual option.
Both these cars were a privilege to drive. After two days we stopped pointing out faults and started defending each. They'd been our travel companions, shelter, office, dining room and entertainment. They'd got us into and out of tight spots and kept us grinning for days.
You can keep your Porsches and Ferraris; in my opinion, these might be the best cars in the world. Both take you to a place few can match, with a practicality and convenience to make them genuine daily drivers. They're cars you fall in love with, rather than a means of transport. They deserve enthusiast owners who can exploit their enormous potential and neither is the wrong decision; simply one is more right than the other.
2013 Audi RS5
Layout Front-mounted, longitudinal engine, AWD
Engine 4163cc V8 DOHC FSI direct injection, Audi valvelift system
Transmission seven-speed S tronic dual-clutch with AWD
Suspension five-link front, Sports diff, electro-mechanical steering, speed-sensitive
Brakes eight-piston calipers, 14.4" wave rotors f, four-piston, 12.8" r
Wheels & Tires 19x9", 265/35 R19 Pirelli summer tires, optional 20" wheels, 275/30 R20 summer tires fitted here
MSRP $69795 (inc destination), $77320 as tested
Power 450hp at 8250rpm
Torque 317 lb-ft at 4000rpm
Top Speed 174mph
Weight 4009 lb
Economy 16/23/18 cty/hwy/comb (est)
Motor Trend Performance Figures
Quarter-Mile 12.5sec at 110.7mph
60-0mph Braking 101ft
Lateral Accel 0.96g
2013 BMW M3
Layout Front-mounted, longitudinal engine, RWD
Engine 3999cc V8 DOHC S65B40 with direct injection, double Vanos
Transmission seven-speed M DCT dual-clutch, six-speed manual option
Suspension five-link rear axle, M diff lock, Servotronic steering, speed-sensitive
Brakes single-piston calipers, 14.2" rotors f, 13.8" r
Wheels & Tires 19x9" f, 19x10" r, 245/35 R19 f, 265/35 R19 r Continental summer tires
MSRP $62295 (inc destination & gas guzzler), $69045 as test
Power 414hp at 8300rpm
Torque 295 lb-ft at 3900rpm
0-60mph 4.5sec (M DCT)
Top Speed 155mph (limited)
Weight 3704 lb
Economy 14/20/16 city/hwy/combined
Motor Trend Performance Figures
Quarter-Mile 12.6sec at 113.2mph
60-0mph Braking 104ft
Lateral Accel 0.94g
The Sequoia National Park in California is the second oldest in the country after Yellowstone. Its giant forest is home to General Sherman, the largest tree on earth, whose trunk weighs an estimated 1385 tons and counting. It stands 275ft tall and the circumference of its base is 103ft. It shelters in a Sequoia grove that was once protected from loggers by the US Cavalry.
These magnificent trees have shallow roots that cause them to topple, yet the strongest can grow for up to 3200 years and reach around 310ft. The Giant Californian Redwood is the tallest tree at almost 370ft but their mass is considerably less, with thinner trunks and shorter lives at around 2000 years.
The Sequoia park neighbors the Kings Canyon Park and is only a 4.5 hours drive from Los Angeles. It's easily reached from LA or San Francisco, but all the park roads are single-lane so expect delays in the summer.
In addition to the trees, there are caves, waterfalls, hiking trails as well as black bears to steal your picnic, plus plenty of other wildlife. The 328000 park is a National Monument and the General Grant tree is a National Shrine, dedicated by President Eisenhower to fallen servicemen. The same tree is also the Nation's Christmas Tree.
Information about the park, its features, campgrounds, etc can be found at nps.gov/seki There is limited lodging inside the park but plenty outside and lots of campgrounds. We recommend you visit this natural wonder; we were genuinely awestruck.