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E46 M3 (2001-2006)

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Old 01-12-2007, 12:34 AM
sayemthree's Avatar
sayemthree sayemthree is offline
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Mein Auto: 2008 M3
S4 Avant 6MT vs e46 M3 6MT (long)

my take on it - having owned both and seeing the subject here below.

M3 vs. S4
I am slightly afraid to bring up this topic on a BMW or Audi Internet board due to the extreme controversy, web rage, and comments such as "my car is the best and don't you ever question it". And possibly get "flamed". But here it goes. My 2001 M3 and 2004 S4 Avant are two very different cars yet the M3 and S4 are always compared and cross-shopped. We bought the S4 Avant (i.e. station wagon) last year because BMW did not offer a M3 Touring or even a 330i Touring. After having the S4 a year and having taken it to the track I thought I'd compare the two in the following categories.
Both cars are equipped with 6-speed manual transmissions. The M3 has the 333 hp sweet 8000-rpm in-line six. The S4 has a 340-hp, 5-valve, all-aluminum, 7000 rpm V8. The M3 is equipped with few options other than leather seats with adjustable side bolsters. It was ordered with no moonroof to save weight. The S4 was ordered with the premium package and a few other options. Neither car has navigation or upgraded stereo.
Engine - The M3 revs high and power peaks dramatically. The S4 pulls consistently all the way, always ready for passing without a downshift. Unfortunately the S4 has over 600 pounds more to haul around. Due to power to weight ratio the M3 really has an edge. Yet when you burble by your neighbor with that V8 sound and they come running down the street to see your new car, its something that never happened in the M3. And open the hood and look at the beautiful all-aluminum V8 tucked in there nicely and that about even things out: A tie here.
Transmission/Shifting - The M3 has a nice snick-snick, but the throws are long. The S4 has a nice precise, short-throw shifter; you can skip gears without even thinking. Edge goes to the S4.
Clutch: Both have very long pedal travel and need a clutch stop. Both have good clutch feel. Tie again.
Pedal Placement: The heel and toe in the M3 is easy. The S4 is awkward, at least with my size nines: M3 wins here.
Ride: On my favorite 100 mph sweeper with some bumps in the middle the S4 is more settled and confidence inspiring, the M3 feel a little twitchy over the bump. The S4 has a better, quieter everyday ride. S4
Handling (dry): The M3 has the sharpest overall handling traits, pure rear wheel drive, and again, less weight. However the S4 is very stable as you can go full throttle early over apex berms and in hairpins where in the M3 the back end would kick out. The lower weight really pays off though: M3
Steering: The S4 steering is nice and light in parking lots and builds up resistance with speed. But compared to the M3 the turn in at speed doesn't quite have the same nice crisp, balanced, nicely weighted feel of the M3, the resistance S4 feels a bit counterfeit and seems to change sometimes rather suddenly. M3
Handling (Wet): Three letters, AWD (or maybe I should say seven letters, QUATTRO) The M3 does great in the rain, however the S$ is more inspiring. I can go full throttle almost anytime in the S4 in the wet, but in the M3 I have to be concerned about breaking loose the rears: S4.
Handling (Snow): The S4 got us down a mountain in a surprise snowstorm on summer tires with absolutely no drama (I don't recommend you try it, get snow tires). A 4x4 Jeep on snow tires though I was holding him up so I let him by and soon after as I followed him he went off the road in front into a ditch and we passed by again. S4
Brakes: This is a little unfair because my M3 has the Euro floating rotors and Hawk pads. This combo really bites in on the track but is a bit noisy on the street. The S4 front rotors and calipers are huge. For everyday use they both are more than adequate. However, again here the weight hurts the S4; it's more prone to fade on the track. Both cars need aftermarket pads for the track. The S4 is hurt by its heavy weight penalty and the heavy nose weight distribution makes it twitchier at the braking limit and at turn in. With stock pads the S4 Fades easily. With track pads it stops with no problems. M3
Fun to Drive: This is a difficult one. The M3 is razor sharp and edgy. It revs high and the response of the six individual throttles is instant. The S4 has great torque and doesn't have to rev out. Its even fun to drive at 6/10ths. Its also great fun to surprise sports cars on freeway on-ramps and pass them in a station wagon, or blow off HEMI badged trucks from a stoplight. Tie
Exhaust Note: The M3 is raspy and many don't like it, although I don't mind it, the S4 V8 rumble sound good. S4
Engine Compartment: As far as recent BMW's the M3 engine looks good, you can actually see more than a big plastic cover, although it is camouflaged in all black. The S4 engine bay treats you to the sight of a real engine, neatly trimmed complete with red plug wires, a nice surprise compared to most new cars these days: S4
Cargo: Easy one and not a fair fight. S4 Avant (wagon). But a M3 Touring (wagon) is something just not offered by BMW. And likely had the M3 Touring been available, we would have never bought this Audi: S4
Fuel Mileage: For my driving which is in a hilly area with mixed local roads and highways, I get about 16 mpg in the S4 and about 19 mpg in the M3. On long trips I can get 18-20 in the S4 and 22-24 in the M3: M3
Sound System (both standard): The base sound system in the S4 sounds better than the M3 Harmon Kardon system, and has easier to use controls. The M3 has a single in-dash CD and no tape player (who still has tapes? Well my kids do have some kids music on tapes). The S4 has an in-dash 6 disc changer and a tape player. But who really cares, turn it off and listen to the engines. S4
Seats (front): This is a really hard one. The leather M3 seats with the inflatable side bolsters are very comfortable and hold you in the seat extremely well. The leather and Alcantara S4 seats are almost equally as comfortable, the Alcantara breaths well so you never feel sweaty, they are not hot in the summer, nor cold in the winter and you don't slide around on it, and they say Recaro behind your back. For everyday comfort though the M3 seats fit me better: M3 but only by a fraction.
Safety: Both have ABS, traction control etc. Both have front-side and head airbags. The S4 has full side air-bag curtains. As far as crash safety let's pray I never get to test this. The S4 has AWD, which is touted as a safety option although any fool can still crash with it. Both the 3 series and A4 platform score 5 stars in crash tests. The S4 has full side curtains but the M3 has only head cushions. The S4 weighs more. If I had to be in a collision with my family I would feel better in the S4.
Comfort, Convenience, and Ergonomics: Both these cars are what I would call the low-tech versions, no high-end stereos, navigation or techno-goodies. The S4 has the premium package. The M3 has no moon-roof (there's that weight obsession thing again) and no all weather /heated seats. It comes down to a lot of little things as follows:
Inside storage: The M3 has the basic door pockets and glove box. There is a nice small space inside and under the armrest. The S4 has compartments everywhere. The glove box is huge and has a shelf to store 15 CD cases; it has pull out bins under each front seat, and the middle console and armrest bins. Strangely the S4 has no rear door pockets. S4
Cup Holders: The console cup holders in each car are very much the same although in the S4 you can't always use both at the same time. Yet the S4 has another more convenient location on the dash however don't expect cups to stay there on freeway cloverleaf on-ramps. M3
Turn Signal: The S4 has a bump to change lanes feature, one bump and you get three signals. You can then change lanes with full concentration and both hands firmly one the wheel: S4
Cruise Control: The M3 has steering wheel buttons that require you take your eyes off the road to make sure you press the right one. The S4 has a steering wheel stock like the e36 M3 that allows you to set, cancel, decal and accel with only a touch, and never taking your eyes off the road. S4
Trip Computer: S4 has more functions and the display is easier to read. S4
Memory Seats: The S4 requires two fingers at a time to set the memory and requires looking at the buttons to operate. The M3 buttons are out of site but can be operated without taking your eyes off the road so you can change from your relaxed memory setting to your canyon road setting in no time. M3
Spare Tire: The S4 actually has one! S4
Grab handles: The M3 has none in the rear seat! Even my old 318iti had them in the backseat. S4
Seating position: For me, I can get a little more comfortable in the M3 and I feel a little high in the S4. M3
Interior Looks: Both look great. The S4 has a little better quality look and feel in my opinion, such as the headliner; Alcantara and the Aluminum trim materials. S4
Accessory and Interior Lighting: the rear reading lights in the M3 shine into the drivers eyes through the rear view mirror. On the S4, the driver hardly knows the rear reading lights are on (important with kids that like to read). The M3 has the cool "Don't shift `till I'm warm" tach lights and the lit shift knob. The S4 has red door open warning lights, automatic pathway lighting, and below the door lighting so you can see what you are stepping out on: S4
Climate Control - The M3 has a separate hot/cold air adjustment for the air at your face level. This is very useful as you can heat your lower body; yet get cooler, refreshing air in your face. Both cars blow very hot air and very cold air. M3
Center Folding Armrest - both armrests fit well. The s4 armrest has a lot of storage in it, but when the parking brake is pulled up, the armrest is in the way: M3
Steering wheel controls: the S4 controls seem to be easier to find, they also can be used by your thumb without taking your hands off the steering wheel. S4
Horn: I real pet peeve for me on the M3, as one must remove one had from the steering wheel and place it over the airbag, not where I want my hand during an emergency maneuver. The S4 horn can be reached by a thumb without taking your hands off the wheel. S4
Acceleration: Just for fun we ran the two cars on a closed, private road from a rolling start in several gears. All the car mags have run the instrumented 0-60 and ? mile in which the M3 is usually a bit quicker, yet close enough that driver skill might be the deciding factor at the drag strip. The final drive ratios in each gear on these two cars are almost identical. From a rolling start in 2nd, 3rd and 4th Gears: The throttle response of the M3 is immediate and it jumps out in the lead. From there the M3 slowly edges away to redline, about a car length. In 5th and 6th Gear the S4 noses ahead and continues to pull a car length on the M3.
Autocross: The S4 is very heavy on the autocross course and with AWD there is no power on over-steer, which is quite entertaining and controllable in the M3. The M3 is a blast to autocross as it feels light and agile and power over-steer is always just a right foot away. M3
Road Course / Track: I ran both cars at Buttonwillow Raceway in Central California in a couple session with a friend in his stage-one e36 M3. In the M3 I can easily pull away from the e36 within a lap or two. The M3 feels very light on its feet and is easy to place it exactly where you want to on the track. In the S4 I struggle more to pull away from the e36, and some brake fade with the stock pads does not help in fact at that point we were even. With the track pads on the S4 I can edge away. On this track the M3 definitely has the edge. The S4 feels heavy in the left-right 90-degree turn 3 complex (Cotton Corner). Both cars rocket through the esses. Where the S4 shines is accelerating out of the late-apex hairpin turns. I can immediately go to full throttle and the V8 torque and AWD pull the car strongly out of the corner with no drama. In the same corners the M3 requires patience with the throttle les the rear end try to be first to the track-out. But then again the RWD that makes the M3 trickier to drive also makes it more challenging and more fun. M3
Conclusion: Both cars are excellent enthusiasts cars. They are both really different, yet always compared. Since I spend quite a few days each year on the track I prefer the M3. However it doesn't have room for my dog in the back or AWD safety for that occasional trip to the snow (In Southern California we get to choose when we drive in snow) and does have the V8. I can't wait for the upcoming e90 V8 powered M3 to appear, and hopefully it will even come in two-door, four-door and Touring versions this time around, but then again we may get luck and see a RS$ Avant come to the USA also.

2004 S4 Avant 6MT
2001 M3 6MT
1999 528it 5MT (SOLD)
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Old 01-15-2007, 11:17 PM
Jim in Oregon Jim in Oregon is offline
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Wow.....thanks for the great write-up

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Old 01-16-2007, 01:42 AM
Monizzle Monizzle is offline
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amazing write-up. two of my favorite cars! s4 in avant form is pure sex without a doubt. i don't think anyone has audi beat in terms of wagon design...and the engine growl on Audi V8's complimented by the exhaust note is quite amazing; case in point: the new RS4...dear god the exhaust is from the gods themselves. can't wait for the e90 m3!

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You may not know the hardships people don't speak of
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Old 03-27-2007, 12:22 PM
asawadude asawadude is offline
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Excellent writeup. It will be interesting to see how the 535xit 6-speed fits into the equation. The cost of admission might be around the same as a new S4 with more cargo and rear seat space.
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Old 03-29-2007, 01:09 PM
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sayemthree sayemthree is offline
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Mein Auto: 2008 M3
I only wish the 535it was avail as RWD only and with a real sports suspesnion - 6 MT of course.
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Old 04-03-2007, 02:49 AM
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wwb4 wwb4 is offline
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Nice write-up.
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Old 04-08-2007, 10:46 AM
VacMan VacMan is offline
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Fantastic comparo, thanks for taking the time.
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Old 04-08-2007, 11:30 AM
B_RASHED B_RASHED is offline
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yeah as everybody else said nice write up. but i like the m3 a lil bit more, less power or what has it its an m and i love it

2009 BMW 750LI (current)
2006 BMW 650I Convertible Sold- Dinan Stage 3, Full Throttle Body, Carbon Fiber Dual Intake, M6 Kit, LCI headlights and tailights, H&R lowering springs, 19" M6 wheels, custom magnaflow exhaust
1998 528I sold- hamann lip kit, euro headlights, custom exhaust
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Old 04-15-2007, 04:32 PM
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jcatral14 jcatral14 is offline
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Thanks for the writeup
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