So I’m shopping for a new car. I have narrowed it down a while back to the 335i, a Mercedes Benz C-350 or an Audi S4. All of them are roughly in the same price range, but there’s quite a “power gap” between the least and most powerful. Of course, the 335i slots neatly into the middle of this trifecta. I have driven the MB and the 335i, but the 335i was not equipped the way I wanted it; no iDrive, automatic transmission and so on so the comparison may not be totally fair. Yet. The MB I pretty much eliminated immediately because it didn’t feel like a $50K car. In fact, the interior of the MB felt like a Camry to me, despite some nice touches. It drove nice, but it definitely wasn’t me. It’s also not available with a stick… and though for the right car I’d drive an auto happily (the 335d springs to mind), in the Mercedes I just felt it was at odds with the car’s mission and mine.

I have not really written up my impressions of the 335i yet because I’m waiting to drive a stick… and it’ll belater thisyear before I buy because I want to do a European Delivery and would rather do thatin thesummer!

OK, so lastrecently I decided to go out and test drive an Audi S4. I have looked at the specs, and it is a damned impressive car on-paper. The Audi is of course a gorgeous car, and while I DO like the current 3-series since the sedan facelift (I’m looking at sedans, by the way) I still sometimes look at them on the street and feel that they’re a little overstyled. I still love the look of my E46 330i; I think the look of the E36 and E46′s were timeless and beautiful… the E9x? Hmm… well, I DO like it, but not the way I like my aging 2001 330i. I also find the styling of the Audi S4 to be minimalist and beautiful… smooth without being bland. The LED’s on the lights I can take or leave, but there’s no denying that it is striking. BMW’s stylists could learn a thing or two from Audi in style, if nowhere else.

Anyway, I took a few hours out of my day, and the sales guy at Bommarito Audi in Ballwin, MO handed me the keys and told me to enjoy. I don’t know if it’s my age or something, but it’s been a long time from I’ve had a sales guy ride with me on a test drive. I don’t like it, because more often than not I’m alone in a car. For comparison purposes though I should note that I did have one 115lb passenger for this test drive. The car in question is a 2010 Audi S4 Prestige (pretty much loaded) with a 6 speed manual transmission and the complete Audi Drive Select system… so this means the adjustable suspension and the much-vaunted electronic rear differential.

Now, the first thing you see on stepping into the Audi is of course the interior. Quite frankly; it’s gorgeous. This one had the black silk nappa leather which is oozes quality from the moment you slip into the seats. The seats themselves are really supportive, especially around the shoulders (where I think the 3-series sports seats lack a little), but side bolstering is not nearly as pronounced. This might be good for bigger drivers… me, my 170lb frame felt a little “loose” around the waist after being used to being “hugged” by my E46 seats when I drive, but the shoulder support felt nice.

The car in question had the Audi equivalent of “ComfortAccess”, so all I had to do was sit down with the key in my pocket and hit the start button. This doesn’t have any “wow” value to me because my 18 month old Kawasaki Concours 14 has the same thing, but it’s still nice. It DOES have its problems though because of transponder battery life, or loss of a transponder… I once lost one of my transponders out of my riding jacket pocket and never did find it again… but these kinds of losses are no worse than a loss of keys except perhaps replacement cost! Also, the fact that you’re in a car somewhat mitigates this problem. I think a system like this makes sense for cars, but I’m still not totally sold on it beyond the “cool factor” for motorbikes.

Anyway, I digress. I hit the start button and at first nothing happened. Then it occurred to me to push the clutch all the way to the carpet and try again. Voila… she started right up. OK… into neutral and release the clutch… lovely. So the car’s running… but wow it’s quiet. I remember driving a much older S4 with the last gen V8, and it had a lovely burble when sitting at idle that is just… missing. The exhaust note also doesn’t seem as deep as the 335i when I fired that up, and certainly not a patch on my 330i that has one of the best exhaust sounds I’ve ever heard. Well, this is a bit different for me, but not unpleasant. With the doors closed, I find myself enclosed in a very quiet but beautifully laid out cabin. The center console strikes me most… loads of buttons and a rotary controller for the Nav/MMI system. At first it seems a little information overload, but as I settle in and play with the buttons and move around screens I find it quite simple. The first thing that strikes me though is the rotary controller. Being an iPod user for years, I’m used to a clockwise turn to scroll down… this requires a counter-clockwise turn for the same. I’m all for different, but this could take a bit of getting used to. Does the iDrive do this? Dunno… not used that… yet.

I’m not going to bore with the details of the first 15 minutes I spent sitting there familiarising myself with the car, but I will say there was a lot to like, here. The nav screen was clear, simple and well laid out… the Bang and Olufssen sound system was just awesome (and light years better than the stock sound system in the 335i… still haven’t heard the Logic7 yet), and I loved the rotary sunroof control. In general at a standstill the entire car was perfectly laid out… so then I got to drive.

Settling into the seat positioned how I wanted it, the first thing I noted was the backup camera when I went into reverse. Nice. The next thing I noticed was how long the travel on the clutch was. I almost had to bury my left foot in the carpet to get the thing disengaged, and only half and inch (or so it felt) above the carpet was the “bite point”… and then there was only minimal travel to fully engaged. As a result, my first few shifts were extremely hard. Next up… well, that shifter is a LONG way forward, and has a long throw… and feels sort of rubbery. Not sure I’m too impressed. I’m used to an easy to modulate clutch and a shifter that my arm naturally falls onto when I’m driving… not to mention just falls into each gear with a light push with only two fingers guiding it. This feels stiff… might be because it’s new but those long throws alone are a bit disconcerting. I don’t miss a shift, but sometimes I feel like I have to grip the shifter and pull or push it with my entire hand instead of my fingers… so fine control appears to be lacking.

So I pull out onto Manchester road and head off to the East. I have an idea of where I want to take the car; a few twisty roads and turns, some easy highway… a bit of everything on a nice test circuit.

So, ADS (Audi Drive Select) in Comfort for the cruise down Manchester… and I’m in a Mercedes. You can feel it. The steering is light and easy, but there’s almost no feedback. It’s definitely comfortable and easy… I can see myself driving this on the highway on those days when I wake up and decide I just don’t feel like a sporty ride. The only thing that destroys this somewhat is the shifter, which is definitely intended to be on the stiff and sporty side rather than the comfortable. Well, that’s not adjustable by ADS. This adjustable suspension is truly awesome. Acceleration is easy and the car does seem unflappable. It’s not comfortable in the sense of “1990 Buick” comfy, but definitely right there with the C-350 I drove (sport, not luxury). So then I turn South down New Ballwin Road. This is a mostly residential street with stop signs… I wanted to get a handle on stop and go driving, so this seemed like a good mix. Put the ADS in “Auto” and I can feel a subtle difference in the steering as it firms up, and the throttle response becomes a little better. Nothing perceptible on the suspension, yet but I’m also not pushing the car. As a I accelerate up that hill on New Ballwin Road I can feel there’s a rear bias to the AWD… it makes a difference in feel as I accelerate. However, the car still doesn’t feel FAST… it feels… zippy.

So I stop at a stop sign and try a few standing starts… partly to get a feel for the acceleration and partly because I want to get used to this clutch and shifter. The car definitely accelerates with gusto… but it just doesn’t feel as powerful as the 335i even though on paper it has an extra 10% on the 335i. I attribute part of this to the AWD, and presume that the 335xi would be a similar amount of loss through the drivetrain… and also the extra weight of that system. I am still struck by how far I feel I have to push the clutch from fully up to disengaged… it feels far too long for truly sporty driving, but I also feel myself getting used to the short bite to fully engaged. I know it’s just a matter of what I’m used to, and this is still much better than most clutch/shifter combinations. I could get used to this…

I switch the ADS into dynamic, and almost immediately I can feel the suspension firm up as well as the steering become MUCH heavier and more like my Bimmer. I turn onto Kiefer Creek Road to try some twisty-road driving. For those that don’t know, there are some light twists at the start of the road coming from New Ballwin Road… and some hard turns later. So with no-one around, I throw it hard into the turn at the stop under power (there’s a stop with a yield to turn right… hey, I yielded… sort of…) Under power, the back end kicks out a bit like you’d expect from a rear wheel drive car, but the electronic nannies quickly reign that in and the car tracks cleanly through the turn with nary a hint of body roll. Nice… I can definitely get used to this. I could also feel the electronic diff guiding the back end around the corner… like all wheel steering almost. Very slick.

So far, very impressed. I swear when I switched to Dynamic ADS the car lost about a foot in length… the car feels much smaller all of a sudden… more like the car I want to drive. There’s still that shifter and clutch, though… still not sold on that…

So now I turn on the heated seats. Oooh… geeky! Press the button and the level setting window slides out of the side of the nav screen… 6 levels of heated seat. Oh hell… all the way up. Toasty. Takes a while to warm up, but is very nice on this chilly Saturday. I’ve also found that navigating around the MMI has become a lot easier without taking my eyes off the road, and I definitely like the rotary volume control on the steering wheel. That’s nice and far better responsiveness than a pair of volume buttons.

So I get to the tighter corners on Kiefer Creek Road, and thankfully there are no other drivers around. I turn off the traction control (REALLY off… held in the button) and took it into the corner under power in second gear. Even without the electronic nannies, I can REALLY feel that electronic diff now. The back end kicks out a little but it feels like it would take harder cornering than I’m comfortable with in a new car that’s not mine to really make it lose composure. Quickly, the rears regain traction and I can feel the back end being pulled gently back into line even as I switch direction quickly and hard. Feedback through the steering wheel is very good… I can’t feel every groove the way I do through the wheel of my 330i, but it’s pretty damned good for such a large sedan. As I pull the car back straight, I know there’s a grin on my face… this is quite addictive.

Out onto Route 100, and head West. The ADS back in Auto and I feel there’s a nice balance there for just daily driving duties. I already know the car can play… now I want it to feel like it would if I were driving it every day. Under throttle, the engine does get loud and playful sounding… it feels a little tinny, but I attribute that to the fact that it’s a V6 with a supercharger instead of the last generation V8 that ROARED under throttle. I’m still finding my shifts a little harsher than I’d like because of the quick uptake of the clutch… it just doesn’t feel PROGRESSIVE enough compared to my E46… but yes, I can get used to it.

Running at 60mph, the car is a great highway car. It is quite predictable, and tracks easily on the road. With ADS in Auto it seems to be just a really nice premium sedan with an easy character that’s also easy to live with. OK, time to take it for a bit more play.

ADS in Dynamic, out onto State Highway T for some acceleration runs. Again, no-one around… and wow. This car gets up and goes and is doing 75mph before you can blink. 75-100 seems to come up incredibly quickly, and I ease back off, and just enjoy cruising down T for a bit. There are some nice, sweeping turns which I take at decently high speed and the car just laps it up… at least at one point acting as though to say “Is that really all you’ve got?”. Finally turn in at St. Albans golf course to stop in the car park and give the car the walkaround I would’ve given it earlier, except that I don’t like hovering salesdroids.

The hood popped, man that engine looks SMALL. OK, I’m used to the 330i’s inline six, which for a small car just looks ridiculoulsly massive under the hood. It’s obvious comparing the S4′s engine to mine how much more compact the V6 packaging actually is, and it’s nice. The plugs are right there on top and easy to reach, as are all the fluid bottles. And hey, what’s this? Looks like a dipstick… but it’s not. However, it DOES look like a plastic cover over a dipstick tube… could it be that I can actually buy a dipstick and check my oil the old fashioned way while I put gas in my car? I can’t find any definitive information on this… the jury’s still out…

The engine’s also a long way forward… though I have to be honest that I’d probably have to go far beyond my own personal driving skill levels before that weight out front would really make a significant impact. I drove the car so far the way I drive my 330i, and I’m comfortable that the weight distribution and traction are a decent enough match for my own skills and abilities. Would a professional driver feel that engine hanging out there in front of the front wheels? Oh yes, almost certainly… but I am not a professional driver and rarely track my cars. For my self-assessed intermediate driving level, it’s good enough.

The lines of the car look just as good close up as they do from a distance. Fit and finish is just beautiful, and nothing looks out of place. I jump into the back seat behind the drivers seat and am completely blown away with the space, and the comfort of those back seats. True, they wouldn’t get used most of the time with me, but I use back seats often enough that space and comfort back there DO make a difference. I’m 5’10″, and I feel quite comfortble in there.

The trunk… wow. Even equipped with a spare (no run-flats here!) the trunk is absolutely ridiculously huge. It’s also well equipped with tie-downs and cargo nets. BMW could certainly learn a thing or two, here; the lack of a spare tire in the recent 3-series has been a constant source of contention with the enthusiast; BMW saying run-flats are the future but enthusiasts less than convinced. I’m on the fence; in 20 years (or thereabouts) of driving, I’ve had a TOTAL of four critical punctures that caused loss of pressure while driving. Even then, the last of those was almost a decade ago… I guess I just don’t drive much in places where I could pick up something that’d shred a tire. This is a discussion for another day…

So I look in every nook and cranny, and find much to like in the S4: The cup holders are FAR better than the 3-series (whose cup holders feel like an afterthought)… and though I don’t drink or eat often in my car, I do like my coffee on a morning commute. The SD card slots for music for the MMI… genius! I love it. I could see myself using that more and more especially as my aging 5G iPod Video starts to fail… 99% of the time I only use it in my car anyway. Being able to throw music onto 4 or 8GB SD cards and then just throw them into my car seems like it just makes sense. Comments have been made that the MMI screen is smaller than iDrive. Not having driven an iDrive car, yet I have to say that I can’t comment… except that the MMI screen is small enough that it doesn’t distract or detract while driving. Also, when you DO refer to it, it’s clear, clean and well laid out. The interface seems like it was designed by Apple with a touch of KDE 4 (yes, I do Windows for work, Apple at home and Linux for an hobby!) I like it… it’s simple, it’s effective and it’s intuitive. Still, the counter-clockwise-roll for down throws me a bit… but it’s cool.

I close her back up again, open the windows and roof and we head back onto Highway T to take the S4 back to the dealership. I notice that even after shutting off the engine, the car remembers my heated seat setting… that’s slick! Of course, I don’t even HAVE heated seats in my E46, though I used to have them in some of my older cars and do miss them on those winter mornings! The exhaust sound is OK… it doesn’t have the depth of my E46… of course, the 335i doesn’t, either. When I buy a new car, I’ll probably miss that most of all. With the windows open under throttle the engine can sound like it wants to play, but it’s definitely no V8. I’d compare it (favourably) to the note of the Pontiac Grand Prix GTP I owned 8 years ago… also a supercharged V6. I loved that car despite its flaws, and it’s still the only new car I have ever bought. I would probably still own it had my (now ex) wife not hated that car so much. No, she’s not an ex because she hated the car.

I get the car back to the dealership and even as the sales guy tries to get my to make a deal today, I look at the car and think. I point out to him that despite being equipped almost exactly as I personally would equip it, I would be ordering it in Sprint Blue. What can I say? I want a blue car. The one I drove is white, and though it looks nice in white it’s not as “wow” as the 3-series in white. Yeah, white is white… but BMW has always had cars that look awesome in white… not sure why exactly… but they add a depth to the colour that no-one else quite manages. The Audi looks good, but if I spend close to $60K on a car I am going to get a car I want with no compromises. Besides, I still want to do the European Delivery. So I leave the dealership with a brochure and a quick conversation with the sales guy… who really (unlike the sales guy at the BMW dealership I went to) actually converses with me like one car guy to another. He seems to really love cars, and love Audi in particular… but he never tries to bad-mouth BMW. I like that. So +1 for the sales experience at the dealership, too. BMW had an epic fail on that one, but I’m going to try a different dealer when I drive a stick 335i.

So as I drive away, my passenger and I talk. She had been with me in my test drive of the 335i and the Mercedes as well… so her opinion mattered, too. She commented that the fit and finish of the interior was easily the best in the Audi… and the interior styling was just beautiful. Since that’s where one spends all your time in the car, it’s the part you see most… the interior is far more important to long-term happiness with the car than some might think. The BMW’s interior was second… and though it was good it just didn’t seem like a decade of evolution over my E46… in fact in many ways it was extremely similar, and the radio display just screamed out “1999″. No, it wasn’t broken… just seemed… old. Of course, I’ll reserve judgment on that until I drive a Bimmer with iDrive.

She made one comment that struck me as extremely true: “When you drove the Mercedes, it seemed to just be there. The BMW seemed to excite you, to tingle your nerves every time you hit the gas pedal. The Audi seemed to ENGROSS you, and you seemed like you were more involved with it.” This was true… again part of that could have been the big engine with the stick… that is easier to get more involved with the entire process of driving instead of being along for the ride and merely directing the car.

Overall, both cars I’m seriously considering (335i and Audi S4) are VERY similar cars on paper but are quite different when driven. The Audi wasn’t as “explosive” as the 335i when you went to accelerate and seemed to make less fanfare about the acceleration. That’s not a slam on the 335i… it just FEELS faster and more powerful than the Audi. However, the Audi just seems to acclerate effortlessly to super-legal speeds. I’d say that if you grade your cars according to the “butt dyno” then you’re going to go for the 335i simply because it feels like it’s leaping up to speed, whereas the Audi “whooshes”. The numbers on paper put acceleration as almost identical between the two cars, and I have to say that I agree with it… but it’s how it gets there that makes the difference. With the ADS in Dynamic (which I consider to be the fairest comparison with the sport-package equipped 335) there’s really not much in it; the steering is a tad more numb in the Audi than the Bimmer, even at full dynamic setting… but in truth the only time that’ll become a problem is at the track. The 335i is definitely the more “trackable” car, while the Audi is definitely more “roadable”.

The S4 also has the advantage that it has some features that just aren’t available on the 335i like the ADS. That changes the game quite a bit because it can mean effectively owning distinct cars with distinctive personalities and being able to switch at will. In Comfort ADS mode, it becomes a long-legged GT that feels like it could drive for hours without making you tired. I don’t often do it, but I can see myself appreciating that mode a lot on the occasion (annually, recently) when I drive to Chicago up I-55. I enjoy that drive in my 330i as well, but it DOES get wearing around Springfield… and that’s not even half way!

Controls in general in the Audi are well laid out and simple to understand. There wasn’t a moment (once I’d familiarised myself with their location) that I wondered how to do something, or “What does that button do?” Sometimes in the Bimmer they can be a little opaque and sometimes fiddly, but again it’s a matter of experience and time in the car. I think in general the difference in philosophy on the interior can be summarised as “BMW are focused on the driver, Audi are focused on the occupant.” While the two are one and the same most of the time, the Audi feels more like it welcomes everyone into the car… to a passenger the BMW can be somewhat stark and obtuse.

So is it a slam dunk for either car? No. If I were to make a decision today, I’d probably go with the 335i, but I do feel a lot of that is familiarity. I feel glad I still have my little 330i to carry me until I made the decision. If I HAD to buy one of these two cars (say my 330i was gone)… again I think I’d need more time in both cars to make a decision. The Bimmer is all the car I’ve ever wanted, and feels like an evolution on a car I already love (my E46)… and all of that’s a good thing. But the Audi is more than one car, each with its own distinct personality… at least with ADS (which the more I think about it, the more I think it’s vital because that differential alone adds so much personality to the car). It’s not the hard-edged sports car you get with the Bimmer, but it comes REALLY damned close… so close that I think only a professional driver or someone who tracks his car monthly would notice the difference. I barely noticed it, and I was looking for it! However, the Bimmer can’t come close to the level of refinement and comfort you can get when you switch the ADS into Comfort mode. It means that no matter the mission of the day, the Audi can do it… I know that in the time I’ve owned my E46 there have been mornings when I just want to be coddled in my car and find the sporty ride obnoxious on Highway 40… granted they’re the exception rather than the rule, but in my Bimmer I don’t have a choice… in the Audi I do.

I don’t know which I am going to go to in the end, but these are my thoughts a week later (with the help of some voice notes on my phone from last week). I daresay before I make a purchasing decision I will waffle back and forth a few times. I loved both cars for different reasons, and really I think the final decision will come down to the question of what I consider the “mission” for my next car is going to be for the next 10 years of my life; the time I want to keep that next car.

For anyone else trying to make the same decision I am, I hope this all helps.