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BMW M3 vs Audi S4 – Which German car is SUPERIOR?

Do you want a car with a respectable badge that’ll make your in-laws think you’re moderately successful, while still being able to gap anything that happens to pull up next to you? Do you want a precision machine built for some no-nonsense nonsense? Then you my friend have a choice in front of you. Do you go with the DTM hero the icon of BMW the M3? Or do you go with the all-wheel drive, all-action powerhouse, the Audi S4? This is the BMW M3 vs Audi S4.

They’re pretty comparable, but choosing a winner is a tough decision and a decision that only you can make. So, we’ve put together a bunch of research showing the pros and cons of each. And hopefully, by the end of this article, you can decide which is the one for you. Once we’ve gone through all of that jump into the comments section so we can see what everyone’s favorites are. We are gonna look at their history in Motorsport, their Performance off the track, the Technology that went into them, how much Reliability they don’t have, and just how crazy they can get when you build them out.

Comparison:

AspectBMW M3Audi S4
Motorsport Heritage– Born in motorsport (E30 M3)– Benefitted from Audi’s motorsport experience and Quattro system
– Multiple world championships– Quattro all-wheel drive system
– Success across generations– Audi’s dominance in IMSA GTO
Road Car Performance– Competitive horsepower numbers– Competitive horsepower figures
– Consistent power increase– All-wheel drive for traction
– Lightweight options (e.g., E36 M3 Lightweight)– Low-end torque for quick acceleration
– Current F80 M3 with powerful twin-turbo I6 engine– High power in certain models (e.g., B5 with V8)
Technology– Evolved with technology, including electronic adjustments (iDrive)– Advanced all-wheel-drive systems (Quattro)
– Some purists find it less responsive due to added tech– Handling benefits from tech advancements
Reliability– Various recalls over the years– Recalls, including engine fire-related issues (2011/2012 models)
– Issues with transmissions, engines, and components– Oil and carbon buildup issues (e.g., B8 S4)
– Repairs can be costly– Complex engine and tech systems
Buildability– Popular for modification projects, including engine swaps– Engine options cater to various power preferences
– Versatile base for drift builds, track builds, and more– Known for high power potential with modifications
– Active enthusiast community– Exceptional all-wheel drive for drag racing (e.g., C4 S4)

 

Motorsport:

In this section, we’re gonna take a look at the achievements in motorsport of these two cars and the motorsport heritage that built them in the first place. One thing I know about motorsport is, you can’t spell it without M.

The M3 was literally born in motorsport. It was a homologation car for the group DTM racing series in 1986 this meant that it was a road car that was basically the same as the race car BMW was using. Even though the original M3 was running a naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine, it was still competing against and beating turbocharged and larger displacement engines.

Before the Audi S4 even hit show floors, the M3 had won 17 different world championships in nine classes. The E30 M3 was a track monster there’s no denying it’s one of the most successful cars of its time. The original S4 wasn’t directly involved in motorsports the same way the E30 was. But it benefited from Audi’s motorsport experience. Every S4 since its launch in 1991 has come with the Quattro all-wheel drive system that made Audi a two-time Constructors Championship in World Rallycross.

“If I have some emotion, of course, it’s a noise of the Quattro” (Michelle Mouton – Audi rally team driver).

The Quattro was also a three-time overall winner of the Pikes Peak Hillclimb and the Audi 200 had been so dominant in the IMSA GTO class they were basically asked to leave because other teams were threatening to quit.

“We don’t have the advantage of the all-wheel-drive Audis”.

The S4 had the Quattro all-wheel-drive system and a version of that same 5-cylinder turbo engine from these race legends. Are these the S4’s achievements, No. The S4 is a direct result of those race programs, and it was the inclusion of these race-winning elements that got people so hyped on the announcement of the S4.

The Second Gen brought about the E36 M3, which won the IMSA GT Championship in 1997. After the success of the E30 though, race teams and enthusiasts alike were clamoring for a homologation version of the E36. Europe got the M3 GT, Australia got the M3 R, Germany got the M3 GTR, and in the U.S. We got the M3 lightweight. Without a radio AC or top-speed limiter, it was a race car for the road and it was 200 pounds less than the standard M3. It may not have sold well when it was new but today the hundred or so ish light weights that were produced can sell for $100,000.

The second Gen S4 the B5, much like the first didn’t see much track time. Audi was using the more powerful RS4 in most cases. But the little S4 started to get some more support and the B5 S4 one the GT World Challenge America title or as it was known in 2001 the Speed Vision World Challenge. Once we were into the 2000s the S4 and M3 were on a little more of an even playing field in terms of motorsport.

The Audi S4 won the SCCA World Challenge GT in 2001 and again in 2002 and about the same time the E46 M3 was competing in the American Lemans series GT. The M3 GTR won in 2001 but there’s a big disagreement on whether it had met homologation standards. BMW needed to build 10 for sale, and they kind of only ever made 7 and sold them for 250 grand each. The M3 also hit the track with the 4th gen. The E92 won the GT2 endurance category at 24 hours of Nürburgring in 2010, and the 12 hours of Sebring in 2011, and it marked BMW’s return to DTM racing in 2012.

But even though the current M3 isn’t a homologation special like it started out it’s had race wins and championship trophies for almost every generation. The Audi S4 isn’t much of a racer but it’s got a few SCCA wins and the trickle-down engineering of a much more successful race car.

Does that help you make your decision? Do you know which one you want more? Well hold on because these are not just racing cars next section, we’re gonna take a look at them on the road.

Road Car Performance:

Race wins give us some great numbers to look at. But where the rivalry really hits with these two cars is on the road. In this section, we are gonna look at the performance and specs of the consumer models of these two cars.

The M3 was first made available in 1986 with BMW’s dominant race-bred s14 engine that revved to the moon and back and made 197 horsepower. Even though it was a homologation special, people loved them so much, that BMW ended up making over 17,000 of them. 5 years later the first Audi S4 was released in the U.S. and it kicked the M3 butt with a turbocharged I5 engine making 227 horsepower and 258 foot-pounds of torque.

From then on, these two cars would trade horsepower numbers back and forth. 1992 us E36, 270 horsepower. V8 S4+, 276 horsepower. And M3 1995 facelift, 315 horsepower. BMW’s approach was consistent and methodical. Each generation they’d add more cylinders or more displacement. By the time the E90 was released in 2007, the M3 was making over 400 horsepower from a 4-liter V8. The S4 started with a 5-cylinder turbo which already… What? But its turbocharged engine was so well engineered that when the first gen came out, it out-accelerated the lighter E30 M3 at a 60.

Did I mention that the E30 M3 was a homologation car? And it just got beat by a sedan that was over a thousand pounds heavier. After that five-cylinder, Audi took a more inconsistent approach. The S4 went to a twin-turbo V6, then to a naturally aspirated V8, then to a supercharged V6, and finally to the current turbo V6. Audi was always trying different things. And while that is cool, the power numbers don’t grow as consistently.

In 2003 the B6 S4 was the first compact executive car in the U.S. To have a V8. Compact executive car sounds like a category that the Germans made up but regardless the B6 is a 4.2-liter 40-valve dual overhead cam V8 was making 339 horsepower which was more than the E46 M3 was making at the time with its 3.2-liter I6. How much more…. um one… one more…. More horsepower since then the stock S4 has only gained about 10 horsepower but the M3 has gained almost a hundred.  The M3 is also still lighter than similar S4s especially since the S4 was never offered as a coupe but the S4s are like trained acapella singers. They can hold the tune.

Audi left a little on the table, especially with the B5, B8, and B9 S4 with just a simple flash tune you could pull 80 horsepower out of thin air. With the B8 S4 versus the E90 M3, this was a big deal. The naturally aspirated V8 of the BMW was great but it didn’t respond to tuning as well as the Audi supercharged V6.

All this goes out the window when you add the newest M3, the F80 M3 into the conversation with its 3-liter twin-turbo I6. It’s got more power stock than an S4 does on a stage one tune and it’s like 300 pounds lighter. This is a departure from the normal M3 method it’s the first time the engine has gotten smaller and it’s the first time the M3 has been boosted from the factory but you can build up a V8s for much…. Much higher than just that basic tune, you swap the pulley out on that supercharger and you could be tickling the underside of 500 horsepower.

But performance isn’t all about horsepower is it even though moving from the V8s to the supercharged V6 the S4 lost 10 horsepower, it actually had a faster 0 to 60 by over half a second. The S4 was always improving and giving the M3 a fight the M3 had stiffer more performance-oriented suspension for better grip but the all-wheel-drive system in the S4 could launch it out of the corner as long as you’ve got it to turn in in the first place. The S4 gives the M3 a good challenge but it has always kind of been the underdog. Throughout the years that has played catch-up with the M3 and that has made them both better cars.

So now you’ve got a little bit of a better idea of the performance of these cars both on track and off track but that is not where the comparison and rivalry end there’s more going on in the next section.

Technology:

Raw power isn’t all that makes a car. As cars advance there’s more and more clever tech that goes into making them fast. In round 3 we are gonna look at the tech that propels these cars forward.

In the beginning, the M3 was a very analog car with hydraulic steering and rear-wheel drive naturally aspirated. All of this is cool and makes a great driver’s car. Eventually, BMW made the switch to turbocharging and electric steering for fuel economy and weight savings. One of the big complaints with the M3 is that in every generation it got softer but faster. This is due to BMW’s push for technological solutions to costs and restrictions.

The iDrive system in the M3 is designed to electronically tune suspension dampening, differential response, and in the current car steering response. As a result, many purists say the car doesn’t feel as responsive. But apparently, it’s responsive when it needs to be because each generation of M3 has been faster than the previous on track and in a straight line the big thing that makes the S4 stand out in any crowd is the POW DS Quattro all-wheel drive system this is more than your average all-wheel drive system that uses wheel speed sensors.

The quattro system uses a Torsen center diff, which means that it can sense when it’s losing torque and adjust power output before there’s any wheel slip. What I’m saying is that this system can basically predict the future and that’s not where Audi ended it in 2008, they added the vectoring quattro system basically if you got the sport differential the S4 can not only anticipate torque needs of front and rear but also of each individual rear wheel.

With this tech, most cars look like wheelbarrows in comparison. But if that’s true then maybe the nicest wheelbarrow you ever did see is the M3. In 1992 the E36 M3 was the first car to be sold in the us with a sequential manual gearbox. That is a straight-up race car.

In 2006 the M3 got the third version of the BMW SMG system which, at the time was the fastest-shifting gearbox in the world. With all of this quick shifting and clever automatic adjusting the M3 was still a slower car to 60 than the S4 for everything but the current Gen.

You might think the naturally aspirated BMWs would have an advantage off the line, and the turbocharged cars like the b4 and b5 would suffer from turbo lag. But Audi designed those engines for low-end torque. The b5 makes peak torque at a diesel-like 1800 rpm. This thing doesn’t have a torque curve. It has a torque… One of those. Combine this with the traction you get from the Quattro all-wheel drive system, and this is the closest you can get to feeling the off-the-line grunt of an electric car while still burning dinosaurs.

Both cars have active dampening. Both cars have some version of variable valve timing, and a bunch of other clever things from different model years but when you distill it down these two cars are really evenly matched it’s hard to choose a favorite.

If you haven’t chosen a favorite yet don’t worry, we’ve still got two more sections to go.

Reliability:

We know that these cars are great when they work. But since they’re German sedans eventually they won’t. In this section, we are going look at what can go wrong with these cars, how much of a pain it can be to fix them, and how likely you are to have an issue.

With all the tech that has gone into developing the M3, each year gets more and more points of failure remember the SMG transmission I mentioned earlier? While it is revolutionary tech it is notorious for breaking and it’s an expensive fix, the pump alone can be over three thousand dollars new.

For the V8 in the e90 M3 valve seal failure was not uncommon. And because of all the bits in the way, this is an engine out job that you could get charged more than 30 hours of labor for. But the Audi S4 isn’t exactly an icon of reliability the b8 S4 is known for oil issues due to rocker cover leaks or bad PCV valves. They’re also known for carbon buildup on the valves that could cause a rough idle the E46 M3 is known for timing chain issues which can be a big deal but the b5 and b6 s force have a really similar issue the e30 and E36 M3s and the c4 S4s are simpler, more robust cars in general.

In later model years though neither of these cars are great for reliability. And on top of that their performance models, so they get driven hard and on top of that repairs aren’t cheap in the first place. I’ll give you an example both the S4s and the M3s are known to have water pump failures around a hundred thousand miles. That’s not uncommon. I just replaced a hundred-thousand-mile-old water pump on a Toyota not too long ago. The difference is in the cost of the OEM part and the cost of the labor.

We called our local Audi and BMW dealerships to get quotes on replacing the water pump on a 2018 model and here is what the costs were $1900+Tax for BMW and $1650+Tax for Audi.

BMW M3 vs Audi S4

now that’s just one random part of one random year. On average though M3s and S4s have about the same annual repair cost.

Over the course of production, the S4 has had nine recalls. Most of those were electrical issues and airbag-related stuff which is not uncommon. But there’s one little recall for the 2011/2012 models that had something to do with the small issue of engine fires. Apparently, the fuel line feeding the fuel rail was prone to leaking. Huh, that is bad. But the M3 has had 21 recalls, including brake issues, driveshaft failures, and my personal favorite rear subframe bolts that would just like to loosen on their own. It’s an actual recall you can look it up.

I am blown away by the variation in these cars if you count the upcoming 2021 M3, these cars have had six generations in 35 years. For the Mustang it took 50 years to get to Gen 6. I knew these cars had their issues going into this, and I was kind of hoping our research would turn up a glimmer of hope for one model or another. But it just didn’t. Because of their relative simplicity and roots in racing both the first-Gen M3 and the first-Gen S4 are much more reliable than the others. But it’s still really even between them. But if you don’t care about reliability because you are a mechanic, and you are gonna build something crazy, then the last section is all for you.

 

Buildability:

The M3 is a capable car right out of the box, some might even say the ultimate driving machine. But it hasn’t stopped people from modifying the shit out of it. People do all kinds of things. But the most common projects for the M3 are drift builds, track builds, engine swaps, and sometimes all three in one car.

In the formula drift pro division, there were four M3s entered in 2019. The M3 is a capable car. And because of its suspension dynamics and balance, it makes for a good starting point for a project. You’ll see a lot of crazy engine swaps especially LS is in 2J’s but part of that comes from necessity the BMW engines themselves are comparatively more expensive to maintain and have so much tech interfering that most people find it easier to just pull it out.

Also, if you’re gonna do a big build where you’re gonna pull everything out, strip the chassis down, and drop in a new engine, you might want to base your build on a cheaper three series with the same chassis rather than an actual M3.

The S4 is a little different. Because of its all-wheel-drive, it’s not as popular as a swap chassis apart from getting a Volkswagen VR6. The engines that Audi provided mean that there’s probably already one that you’ll want anyway. With the B7, you can get a big V8 with the B8 you can get that supercharger one. And with a B5 you can have turbo noises. S4s aren’t drifters or track cars. They’re usually built for one thing and one thing only big power.

Street S4 can get built to the 500, 600 horsepower range while still being a dailyable car. On the drag strip, the all-wheel drive and low-end torque can absolutely smash. USP Motorsports from the East Coast has a VR6-powered B5 that can run an 8.68 quarter mile at 166 miles per hour. That’s a whole second faster than a dodge demon.

The fastest time we can find for an M3 is this e30 which ran an 8.76 quarter mile. And even then, that’s with a 2JZ up front. If you want some numbers for non-swapped cars, well what about this C4 S4, still running the 5-cylinder turbo they did a top speed run at Bonneville reaching 260 miles per hour. This thing makes over a thousand horsepower at the crank from an I5 turbo. I’m sure most of you have your final opinions in place by now.

But I’ve got one more point of comparison from a race team that actually used both cars.  BulDre racing has set 2 records at the annual Swedish Speed Week for top speed on ice. That’s the most awesome thing I’ve ever heard. They set the record once with a B5 Avant, 202 miles per hour. Then they broke that record with an E30 M3 at 212 miles per hour. But the big difference was the S4 was running the 4.2-liter V8 engine that had come with it from the factory built and turbocharged to within an inch of its life, but still the factory engine. The M3 had been swapped with a 1,300 horsepower 2JZ.

Final Thoughts:

You know I personally have never really been into German cars. But after this article, I totally get the appeal. It’s like having the best of an American muscle car and a Japanese chassis balance. As long as it’s working it’ll put a smile on your face. But which one puts a smile on your face? Are you an S4 fan or an M3 man let us know in the comments. But remember the real points that matter are the ones in your heart.

 

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