I have spent significant time in M3's in recent years (120,000+ miles
in an E36, and 40,000+ miles in an E46), but recently I purchased a
2007 Audi S4. After nearly 3,000 miles in this car, I have some
First, this is NOT an S4 versus M3 "which is better" rant. It's just
to point out what I have noticed as differences in the two cars...
For background, the cars have been as follows:
1) 1999 M3, purchased new. Ti silver with silver interior (silver
sport "vader" seats, manual adjust), OBC, and sunroof.
2) 2002 M3, Purchased 2005 (thanks, Katrina) as a certified car. 6sp
Carbon Black over black leather and Ti beltline trim, MkIII nav, seat
heaters, sunroof, BiXenons.
3) 2007 S4, Purchased new. 6sp Black pearl over black/silver
alcantara. Nav, Bose, DTM pkg, park control, BT, and the rest of the
For background, about me: I'm 38, and a systems engineer by trade. I
like to drive fast. A lot. I do not race in any sort of formal
sense, though I have had more than my fair share of triple-digit
encounters with other vehicles on the street. I don't have all
weekend every weekend to take down and modify my car. And, even if I
did, I have little or no desire to make severe mods to cars like
these, anyway (with the possible exception of an exhaust or a remapped
ECU), as I feel that a team of German engineers spending 7 years at
the design table really do have more automotive knowledge than I do,
and thus the final compromise might actually be better than what my
shadetree butt can come up with.
That may make me seem to be less of gearhead than some, and that may
be true, but the fact that remains is that I love my cars, and I think
I am in a unique position to honestly compare the vehicles as a
relatively normal driver.
Now, on to my observations...
First, the non-functional stuff:
The S4, by and large appears to have an overall better build quality
than the either M3, at least as far as the interior goes. (The
exterior appointments are essentially equal across the board for these
The E46 BMW had numerous interior trim pieces, most of which were
finished in some sort of coating which was given to peeling upon
extended exposure to heat ( I live in New Orleans, and the cars do
tend to bake in the summer ). I replaced 3 of 7 of the interior
beltline trim pieces, at an average cost of about $100 apeice (I
replaced both armrests, which are also coated in the beltline
material). Not a huge deal, but on a mid-50K car, it was just
something that shouldn't have happened. Also, the interior window
trim, while very attractive, was a separate piece of fabric-covered
rubber, and very given to delaminating from the door/window frame.
Once again, how good can you feel about a relatively expensive car
when you're driving down the street with part of the interior hanging
in the window?
The E36 BMW had better trim than the E46, even though it wasn't as
flashy. The trim was solid all around, with no esoteric coatings to
peel, and the finish was a little more durable on the plastic. There
were far fewer pieces to the fabric trim at the headliner and pillars,
and those were apparently built better than their more modern
My S4, by contrast, has carbon fiber trim that is really very durable
looking, and the polished resin that makes up the bulk of the trim
pieces appears to be very resistant to scratching. The whole setup is
molded-through, not a coating, so I'm not worried bout peeling or
nicking, etc. The pillar and window trims are integrated with the
headliner, and the fabric appears bonded to the rigid structure of the
headliner. All in all, it seems to be a more durable approach. The
cleanability of this setup has yet to be determined.
Creaking armrests... From the moment I got the E46, the armrests, both
door and center, creaked in a very plasticky way when any pressure at
all was applied. This was eminently annoying, and really should have
been worked out before the car saw the light of day. Yes, the
replacement armrests creaked in exactly the same way. Now, I admit,
this is not part and parcel to the performance of the car, but I use
the armrests in some way EACH AND EVERY time I use the car. They
should do their work silently.
The E36, on the other hand, had zero in terms of armrest creak. It
was just nice in this way.
The S4 has rock solid armrests, but the center armrest does creak a
little. I plan to take the armrest apart, and apply paraffin lube to
the plastic joints in an attempt to quiet that down. The difference
with this armrest is that it will creak a little as you first lay your
arm on it, but it's quiet after that.
As far as the window and feature controls, the E36 really had the best
of the lot. The center mounted push-only swtches were heavy-duty and
positive feeling, and the pushbuttons and knobs throughout the rest of
the cabin were equally solid feeling.
The E46's push-pull window switches are notoriously weak, and I
replaced three units in the console (two driver and one passenger) in
the two years I owned the car. I was not happy, overall with the
switches and such in the E46 steering wheel, and did not appreciate
the move of cruise control from a stalk on the lower right of the E36
wheel to the wheel spoke-mounted buttons on the E46. I thought that
the stalk was virtually perfect for its task, and required exactly
zero in terms of looking at the control to use (I did spend three
years driving 120 mile round trips to work, so the cruise was, indeed,
an important feature for me).
The S4 has its cruise on a stalk, as well, but on the left side, so
it's slightly harder to use. And what the hell's with putting the
markings on that stalk such that you can't read them from the driver's
position if you were to need to do such a thing? The window push-
pulls are much beefier in the Audi than the E46, and I expect them to
outlast my ownership of the car. I am not as confident in the top-row
buttons that make up the small number of controls in the center
And as for the six buttons in teh instrument cluster? Well, let's
just say that reaching them while driving might be a dangerous
exercise, and thus, they will probably neer be used.
The S4 has pretty damned good seats. The recaros are forgiving, but
very laterally supportive. And the Alcantara is gorgeous both to the
touch and to the eyes. HOWEVER...
Both the E36 and E46 had better seats, overall. The E36 Vaders were
very supportive with huge bolsters, and were at that time the best
seats I'd ever sat in. The E46 was even better. despite all the
electric controls, the E46 M3 seats have to be the most body-hugging,
comfortable, confidence inspiring factory seats in any car. At least
that's my personal experience. Man, I miss those seats. (AND I miss
the bolster-width adjustment!)
People talk about how unimpressive the Bose(tm) audio setup in the A4/
S4 is, and maybe it's not the Levinson system. I encourage THOSE
people to try spending an extra grand on the Harmon/Kardon from BMW,
and THEN tell me how much better they feel about the Audi.
one) was the single most unimpressive feature of the car. It was, to
be kind, worthless. MB Quart makes a ton of money selling upgrade
drivers to these systems, and for good reason. It REALLY pissed me
off when I got in my girlfriend's Accord ( V6 with the 6sp manual...
if it's going to be an Accord, might as well be one with some juice! )
only to find that its audio system was so much better as to be
noticeable even by my lousy ears.
Yes, I know, the M3 is a performance car, and the focus should be
there. Fine. But, at this price point, it's really a LUXURY
performance car, and any creature comforts BMW has gone to the trouble
to add should reflect that.
Do you know how pissed I was when I found out first hand what a
useless piece of work the M-mobility "System" was on the E46 M3? My
E36 had a full-size spare and so does the S4. BMW, what gives? Gimme
a damn wheel!
Along those lines, I'll tell you this... I loved the look of the
staggered wheels on the M3's, but I'm really kind of looking forward
to a real tire rotation for the first time in 9 years :)
And let's just talk exhaust note here... I know it's a little quiet
for all of your tastes, but I zip through my parking garage at work
and I roll down the windows EVERY time just to hear the car. It's
really truly a gorgeous sounding engine.
Now, on to the performance...
This is the part the Audi guys are not necessarily wanting to hear...
I place the overall performance of the B7 S4 on par with the E36 M3,
and marginally better, but not as confidence inspiring (from the
inside) as the E46, but the car FEELS more modern and mature than
either of the two at speed.
The acceleration of the E46 was simply brutal when you wanted that
(Not Z06 quick, mind you, but as quick or quicker than 99% of cars out
there). The S4 is strong and silky smooth, but lacks the neck
snapping response that I really loved about that E46. The E36 was the
same way... Not to say there is no power - quite the opposite. Just
the delivery is different. In the S4 and the E36 both, it feels as if
at any point, in any gear, you could step into it and it would pull
you strongly right up to the red line. And, if you hit a downshift
right, they will always push you squarely into your seat.
But the E36 and the S4 both have a rev-response delay that the E46
never had. I don't know if that is due to a heavy flywheel in the
Audi, or what, but it takes (relatively) FOREVER to spool that V8 up.
The E46, on the other hand, would bump its redline way before you were
ready, if you weren't paying attention... I mean it would spin up
Right... Freakin... Now.
Of course, each of these cars is artificially limited in top speed,
but I don't actually care about that, since I rarely bump that
territory. Oh, I have definitely pegged both M3's (several times for
significant lengths of time) but I have yet to have the S4 above 125.
The M3's both had better bodyroll characteristics than the S4 does,
and both were essentially flat in 95% of turns, whereas there is
limited bodyroll in the S4 in all sharper-than-sweeping turns. (the
roll is always there, but it's always of very limited magnitude) BUT
the S4 holds a line in a turn better than either of the BMWs. This is
probably a direct result of the Quattro system. Both the E36 and E46
tended to push in a turn, and I think that the S4 will, as well, when
pushed harder, but the front wheel pull on the S4 helps keep that in
check by providing that correcting force vector.
All that said, I think that I would rather be driving the M3s on
smooth mountain roads. They just seem slightly more telepathic in the
turns than does the S4. The S4 has an overly light steering touch
that keeps the driver a little too out of the loop, feedback-wise.
Note I said "light", not "inexact." The car does *exactly* what you
tell it to. (I expect I will get used to it after a while... And if
not, maybe I'll just sand my fingertips)
The E46, like the E36, was very comfortable as a smooth-surface car.
If you were on any sort of rough pavement, though, you could
essentially read it with your butt like braille. Both the E36 and the
S4 are somewhat more compliant, with the S4 being much closer to a
standard sedan ride. In almost any other environment, I would say
this puts the S4 at a disadvantage, but *I* live in New Orleans.
These roads are the worst in what can still be called the civilized
world, and I am somewhat crazy for driving any sort of tightly-sprung
vehicle on them. For this reason, I like the S4's ride here better
than the M3s.
Now having said that, the M3's track over road irregularities with
disturbing aplomb. They made a lot of racket when you inadvertently
hit a bump or crack, but contact with the road was seemingly never
lost. The S4 behaves a little less predictably under these
conditions. There are a couple of spots of light washboard on my way
to work every day, and the M3's tended to get real loud and would
essentially shake your fillings loose over them, but the car never
lost its vector. The S4, in the same territory, gets a little
"squirrely" instead, and floats a little over the irregular surface,
despite being somewhat more comfortable and quieter in that situation.
In the end, it may sound like I prefer the M3 over the S4... That's
simply not the case. I absolutely LOVE the S4, and I have no regrets
about making the change. I sometimes wish the S4 had the Camaro-
crushing quickness, or the incredible seating of the E46 M3, but not
often enough to make me want to go back. And, I LOVE THE QUATTRO!
(Did I mention it rains more here than in Seattle?) But, conversely,
I wish the M3 had the quattro system, creature comforts, and the fit
and finish of my S4.
Oh, did I mention... I also happen to like the way my Audi looks a
good bit more than either M3.
Will I wait and see about the E92 M3? Sure. Am I ready to switch
back? Not really.
Excellent report that is sure to tweak lots of people for various reasons.
The most 'challenging' street car I've ever driven is a recent M3. It was
lots of fun, and if I were to take a car to the track it would be my first
choice. For everyday driving pleasure, and various other reasons, I'll have
Well, to be honest, the only electrical problem I've had in any of
these cars is a failed resistor pack for the climate control in the
E36 M3, which was a known problem (imho, this means it should always
be taken care of by BMW, which it wasn't). It was a relatively simple
fix, and the part was relatively cheap. Only issue was it died in...
anyone? Right... July in New Orleans. which means the swap was a
sweaty, sweaty affair.
On second thought, that's not entirely true... The passenger mirror
on the E46 lost the pitch (up-down) axis movement around 40000 miles,
which was very annoying. I attribute this to the feature where
putting the car in reverse causes the mirror to look down. I think
the mirror motors are actually only specified for very minimal duty
cycle since most folks only rarely adjust their mirrors, but this many-
times-a-day operation is far in excess of that spec. Needless to say,
the motor for the mirror cannot be had without the rest of the
assembly, which requires paint. Overall, had I actually fixed it, the
repair would have cost around 500. About 260-275 for the part, about
100 for the paint, and about 100 for labor. I probably would have
opted to install it myself, so maybe 400 is closer to reality. Either
way, it should have never died. The "look-at-the-curb" feature of
these cars' mirrors should be factored in when choosing a motor
assembly in the design phase.
reliable. I really had zero direct engine problems with them. The
problems I had were non-engine related and relatively minor. Just
they were more than I expected.
The sole MAJOR issue I had was the driver's rear shock tower tearing
out in the E36. Twice. This was also a known problem, and many many
E36 owners got pretty pissed at BMW for underspec'ing the rear tower
structure, then not owning up to the fix when the failure happened.
The only real upside to this failure was that it did not present a
life-threatening handling change at normal speeds. And, the fix was
on the order of $300, because there was no finish paint work required.
Do you all know if the Audis have any similar recurring issues that I
should look out for or can prevent?
I have both of these cars. They are a bit old (-00) so minor errors
are not any suprices. Both are very hard driven compared to average of
this kinds of cars due to speed, average 100 mph or more, not much on
autobahn in Germany but this is on small and winding roads with a lot
of the milage on gravel surface roads.
Both my BMW and AUDI have needed some replacement parts but nothing
unusual compared to how I use the cars.
But my AUDI needs new front pads twice a year and once a year new
front discs and bearings. I have tested several brands of pads but
harder pads seems only to reduce lifetime of the disc. For the BMW do
I mount new pads every year and have newer replaced the discs or
bearings. Shock absobers have I destroyed severals on both cars but it
is mainly due to bad roads.
Regarding electrical problem, here is my view:
A typical electrical fault in AUDI causes engine in limp mode, you
need vag-com to get 5 errors, all hard to understand, and every error
costs 100$ at least and even after that you are not sure what the
original problem was.
A typical electrical problem in BMW is a faulty switch for rear
defroster. Can be bought at any junkyard for ~ 2$.
AUDI is in my mind a more complex car overall and specially the engine
I agree that it is a nice car on rainy/snowy roads as long as you
drive straight forward at a highway, even at high speeds.
High speed on snowy winding roads, with that I mean such speed that
you need all four wheels to give tracktion in prefered direction
before and through the bends, then is my S4 at best useless and even
dangerous if I have forgot to inactivate the electronic stabilty
BMW is as good as the driver is able to handle. I general do I have
shorter time between work and home with the BMW but I am also
perspiring more compared when I arrive compared to when I drive the a
lot more comfortable AUDI. The few times I have been sweaty in the
AUDI, have been caused by that the ride not have been under good
I have heard that RS4 is much better to handle on slippery roads but
it is too expensive for me.
Given the exhuberant driving style (100mph on rural roads!?!), I can
understand rapid turnover on pads. And new rotors every other pad change
seems reasonable. But new front wheel bearings annually? Hawthorne vice
More in line with most drivers' experience.
R / John
Clutch and pads on the M3's: E36 had a total of 3 sets of pads, one
of which was brand new when she was prematurely killed, and at 110,000
I replaced the clutch. But I only did that because the throw-out
bearing was gone, and I wasn't about to drop the tranny twice. When I
got the disc back, it still had a good bit of the friction material
still left on it.
The E46 was running on the first set of pads AFAIK at almost 60K, and
definitiely the first clutch.
I am hearing rumblings that I cannot expect the same life out of the
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