If you’re looking for a new car at the premium end of the small-ish coupé segment, two of the stand out choices are the Audi S3 and the BMW 135i. The current generation S3 has been in Australia since 2007, while the 135i was launched here about 12 months ago. The MY09 S3 range brings with it a minor facelift which consists of mostly cosmetic changes, although the engineers have had tinker as well. There is also the addition of a new five door Sportback option for those wanting improved practicality.
In the time since the 135i was launched it has swept all before it, earning a raft of praise from the world’s motoring media. The S3, on the other hand, seems almost invisible by comparison. At least, it certainly hasn’t generated the hype the 135i has enjoyed.
So, which is best—the fancy pants Golf wearing Audi clothes, or the little Beemer that could? AUSmotive took both cars out on its preferred test route in a back to back comparo to find out.
Let me start by saying that both cars are fantastic and owners of either car are likely to very satisfied customers. That said, the results of this comparison were both surprising and unexpected to this reviewer.
We’ll start with the rudimentary stuff, the money. For small cars these two are not cheap. Adorned with Audi and BMW badges I guess this comes as no surprise. The S3 Coupé opens the bidding at $66,403 (Sportback $68,310), while the 135i starts at $72,230. However, those familiar with German marques will know a few ticks in the options column will take both cars well beyond entry level pricing. Indeed, ending up with driveaway retail figures in the mid-high $80,000 range requires fewer ticks than you might think. That said, with some keen negotiation there can be some good savings made when you’re ready to hand over your hard earned. Be prepared to bargain as hard as these feisty cars are willing to be driven.
Taking a look inside, the interiors of both cars are pleasant places to be and well put together, as to be expected. They are not without fault though. The S3 is based on the same platform as the Golf V. When the Golf V was launched there were many who found the use of materials a step backwards from the Golf IV. Having owned both a Golf IV and Golf V I find such comments picky in the extreme. The point being, it comes as a surprise then that the Audi’s upper dash is a rather hard plastic feeling affair, and from what I can see, is a step down from the materials used its cheaper Golf GTI cousin. Elsewhere inside, however, the S3 doesn’t disappoint and the switch gear and feeling of quality is exemplary. The climate control layout may not be the most ergonomic result, but, crucially, the driving controls are all well placed and it is easy to settle into a comfortable seating position, ready to explore the car’s potential.
The 135i interior is a clinical, some might say, characterless affair. Although, if you’re like me, you will find its uncomplicated nature and generally well executed design a joy to use. The test car was fitted with the professional navigation system which uses a revised iDrive system and a pleasantly large screen. The nav used in earlier 135i models employed a foldaway screen, this new system, though, simply protrudes from the top of the dash permanently. For a cabin so well put together in most other aspects this is a bit of a let down. So too the seating position. At 5’7” I shouldn’t be posing too many problems in this regard, but I was not able to find the ideal position for pedals and steering wheel. This was not so bad that it was a major issue and certainly would not prevent me from buying the car, more an observation that the ability to find a comfortable position was a clear tick in favour of the S3.
(Note: this is a 125i interior shot, but is the best I could find to illustrate the new nav layout.)
The steering wheel of the 135i is nicer to hold than the S3’s flat bottomed wheel which, while stunning to look at it, is simply too thin. That the Golf GTI steering wheel is nicer to hold and use than anything in the Audi range—yes, including the R8 et al—is a bit of a surprise.
I don’t think you could say the S3 Coupé is a pretty car to look at. It’s not an ugly duckling by any means, and in side profile view, at least, it does look quite sharp. Of course, looks are always a subjective thing. Overall, though, I prefer the look of the 135i Coupé. Its sweeping creases and curves blend together to form a result that suit its raison d’être almost perfectly. The 135i is tough, aggressive, svelte and pretty all at the same time. A somewhat odd combination of adjectives, I agree, but the 135i just works. It’s a great looking car, from any angle.
Enough about the pretty pictures, what are these two like to drive? Plant your right foot in the 135i, pretty much anywhere in the rev range, and you’ll be greeted by the sweet and famous sound of a BMW 3-litre straight six. With a pair of turbos aiding progress you’ll also quickly get to where you’re going and find no reason at all to dispute the 225kW power claims. It takes even less time to appreciate just how accessible all that power is, courtesy of a very healthy 400Nm of torque at your beck and call from a measly 1300rpm. Put simply, this is a stunning engine. It possesses a delightfully smooth and linear power delivery that makes it easy to potter about at city speeds and a genuine joy to take towards its 7000rpm redline.
The S3, too, has a great engine. But the window of greatness in the S3 offers a much narrower experience. It is the more eager of the two to be left hovering around redline and it is here the 188kW four pot is most willing. When higher in the rev range the S3 offers instant power and once spooled up the Audi gives a push in the back of the seat that is closer to the BMW than the stats would suggest.
So, the S3 is down on power and with a maximum torque figure of 330Nm, from a higher 2500rpm, the S3 also leaves a big gap between it and the 135i. If those numbers don’t mean a hell of a lot to you, what they are saying is the S3 possesses noticeable turbo lag compared to the BMW. In fact, such is the nature of power delivery in the 135i, if you didn’t know any better, you would swear it was a normally aspirated engine.
That said, the S3’s 2-litre TFSI is still very useable around town and when I refer to my notes from an earlier test of a pre-facelift S3 it appears as though some tweaking has been done to lessen that feeling of lag. Nothing is immediately available to confirm this in the press material available from Audi. However, the official fuel consumption figure has dropped from 9.2l/100km pre-facelift to an impressive 8.5l/100km in the MY09 release. Also, the facelifted S3 does have a revised Gen IV Haldex system behind the quattro badge, so despite little in the way of detailed information, Audi’s engineers have fiddled around a bit underneath the skin.
After experiencing the addictive joys of straight line performance in the 135i I was keen to see how it would handle tighter mountain roads. So far in this comparison, the 135i is ahead of the S3 in a points decision. Can the twisty roads deliver a knockout blow in favour of Munich’s master blaster?
After AUSmotive’s first taste of the 135i expectations were high. The ability to punch out of tighter corners is a strong point of the BMW, but, to my unexpected surprise the list of positive aspects on the chosen test route were not as numerous as the negatives.
Until now the suspension and ride quality of the 135i was fine. Even the much criticised run flat tyres were not posing too many concerns. But, as I pushed harder into tighter corners the more the Beemer lost its previously charming composure. String a series of tight flowing esses together and the 135i became floaty and less willing to change direction. Throw the 135i at a longer radius corner with a less than ideal road surface and the steering bordered on vague and the expected confidence from this much heralded quasi-M car just wasn’t there. This is not to say the 135i was poor, but I would be lying if I said it met my lofty expectations. To be fair, the more time I spent in the car the more comfortable I became.
In contrast, though, over the same route the S3 was lithe, exciting and left me full of confidence. According to the spec sheets the S3 is 30kg lighter than the 135i (1455kg to 1485kg), but the way it was able to change direction in comparison you would think it weighed much less. In isolation the BMW didn’t feel too heavy, in direct contrast, though, it felt cumbersome and less inspiring.
Push either car too hard into a corner and both will understeer. Although this aspect is not a major detractor for either. The driver aids, such as stability control (Audi calls it ESP, BMW calls it DSC), were pleasantly out of sight on the drive. Their respective lights certainly got a workout on the dash, but neither were intrusive to the driving experience.
Both cars have very capable brakes, with the BMW’s six-pot calipers up front providing the advantage here. The S3 has a shorter gear shift compared to its lesser models in the A3 range and changes are slick and precise. So too the 135i which has an even shorter throw six speed box. While changes in the Beemer are notchier, they are no less precise or easy to engage.
Through the twisty stuff the seats in the 135i do a good job of holding the driver in position and are very comfortable in all other situations. The S3 tested had the $4500 optional Audi exclusive bucket seats, so its no surprise they did a better job of keeping the driver held tightly. While superb when pushing on a mountain pass, the racing style seats are surprisingly comfortable during daily commuting too. Although, with a higher back and clumsy controls they make access to the rear seat more awkward than should be the case. Side airbag protection is also lost with the bucket seats, so you’d have to really want them to pay the asking price.
In conclusion then, the 135i held some clear advantages over the S3. The BMW has a superior engine that never feels anything but refined and smooth. And the engine note is sublime. The straight six offers greater power, too, and useable power at that. As noted earlier, I also think the 135i Coupé is the better looking car. It can’t be denied that the 135i is a great car to drive. It is immensely capable and one can see why it has been labelled a future classic by so many. These comments are not revelations and nor do they come as a surprise.
For me, though, the S3 was just more fun to drive. When a series of flowing corners presented themselves, the S3 ate them up and spat them out leaving me with a massive grin on my face. As good as the 135i was, it just couldn’t match that feeling.
If ever there was an example of a car being greater than the sum of its parts then the S3 is it. On paper there is barely an area where the Audi hits a clear winner against the 135i. Once behind the wheel and pushing towards their limits it was the S3 that stood up and demanded my attention.
Earlier in this review I declared the 135i ahead on points. In the end, the S3 has managed to turn the tables. It may not have done so by delivering a knock out blow, but by technical knock out, the S3 is the car I would take home if offered the choice.
That this is the conclusion I have come to is not a huge surprise, although I did expect the 135i to come up trumps. However, it is the ease with which I have been able to come to this conclusion that has left me genuinely surprised.
Thank you to Rolfe Classic BMW and Audi Centre Canberra for their assistance.