German car makers are forever foiling each other’s moves. In a battle of penultimate performance models, we pit Audi’s S4 against the newly devised Mercedes-AMG C 43.
As has been mentioned in the pages of NZ Autocar recently, but it bears repeating, you no longer need to pay $160k to secure a compact premium sports sedan like the Mercedes-AMG C 63 S or the RS 4 because you can purchase an almost as quick C 43 or S4 for $40k less instead.
We came to that realisation ourselves a couple of years ago at the world launch of the C 63. Good and all as that was, a brief foray in the preproduction C 43 showed that, to all intents and purposes, the AWD machine was all but as quick on serpentine roads. And on the straights we’ve since found there’s not much between them either; anything that accelerates to 100km/h convincingly below 5sec is not to be sneezed at. If you back to back the two Mercedes, it’s under half a second, and it’s the same story for the RS 4 over the new S4, but the critical question is this: should you be paying in excess of $40k more for the Alpha compact, especially when the hard core machine is, well, harder cored and rowdier on New Zealand roads?
If you’ve decided the top dogs are indeed just too expensive, and hard to live with on a daily basis, then which should you choose between S4 and the AMG C 43? This, on the face of it, is a a bit of a conundrum because while they’re from different companies, they’re almost twins when it comes to price, specification, dimensions, and, well, most aspects bar styling. One suspects Mercedes took a good hard look at the S4, given there has always been one beneath the RS 4 whereas, until now, there has always been a gulf beneath the C 63 and the next model down.
Both of these vehicles are AWD, packing 3.0L turbocharged V6 engines, and they have similar levels of fitout, explaining their overlapping sticker prices, both close to $120k, before cost options. They even weigh much the same.
There are a few differences, the S4 uses an eight-speed automatic, the Merc gets an extra gear and it has a pair of turbos while the Audi has a single, twin-scroll snail. Power outputs are similar, but favour the AMG by 6kW (270vs 264kW). Ditto for torque, the C 43 offering slightly more at 520Nm versus an even 500 Newts for the Audi. Given the Mercedes weighs just a touch more – something you’d never guess as the doors of the S4 feel much heavier – then power- and torque-to-weight figures are virtually identical, suggesting similar performance figures in store. We shall see.
The other noteworthy difference is that the Mercedes-AMG can be had in sedan, estate, coupe and convertible formats, the S4 in just sedan and estate. However, if you want the coupe look, merely opt for the S5 with the same powertrain, while the convertible will be along soon too. On styling, Audi people will prefer the S4, AMG folk the C 43. The latter is arguably a bit more aggressive, the former perhaps a touch anonymous. More importantly, how do they go?
Built to thrill
Before going there, what exactly do you get for your $120k? As mentioned, both of these models, in this case estates, come with AWD as standard. In the case of both there’s a nominal rear bias torque split, only in the Mercedes that’s fixed at 33:67 F:R; in the S4 it is more variable (up to 70 per cent to the front, 85 per cent to the rear). Moreover, the S4 offers a torque shuffling sports differential that will set you back $3000 but is designed to quell understeer to keep you on track. Should you decide that’s money you’d rather spend on, say, variable ratio steering or matrix LED headlights, there’s still torque vectoring by brake on both axles.
The list of spec that both share is lengthy, and includes smart key, privacy glass, climate air, sat nav, 10Gb music registers, 19-inch wheels, head-up display, flat-bottom sports wheels, mouse online controllers, active LED lighting, 360-degree cameras, brushed aluminium trim, and sports exhaust systems. They each have adaptive damping, while at the rear are powered tailgates, diffusers and a quartet of tailpipes, faux on the C 43, and twin pipes per muffler on the S4.
The Audi also has heated sports seats with quilted leather, whereas the C 43 has them as part of an option pack. The latter also gets blacked out AMG styling, along with a 13-speaker Burmester sound system and performance brakes (drilled and vented) as standard whereas the black gloss styling package is a $1500 option on the S4. A Bang and Olufsen sound upgrade adds $3250 to the Audi. Metallic paint is a no-cost option on the S4, whereas on the C 43 the special white paint, performance ergonomic package, and seat comfort package took the cost from $119,400 to $127,670. The Audi, with its optional sports diff, dynamic steering, matrix LED headlamps and red brake calipers ended up slightly dearer at $129,550.
Which is quicker?
One has an eight-speed auto, the other a nine-speeder which in Sport+ mode is optimised for faster shifting. There’s pretty much nothing in it between them; in the all-out sprint to 100km/h, the Audi is meant to do 4.9 and we got 4.85sec, while the Mercedes is rated at 4.7sec and did 4.75sec, with an almost identical difference in the overtaking times (3.24 vs 3.16sec). You’d not pick it at the wheel, even driving them back to back. But the braking performance was a bit of a surprise. We expected the performance set-up of the AMG C 43 to be a bit special but its best 100-0 emergency stop of just under 36m paled against the 33m stoppie of the Audi. Perhaps the fact the latter ran slightly more rubber all round made the difference but it was also apparent at the pedal, the brakes easier to modulate and with more tactility than those of the Mercedes. Overall though, you’d rate these two as pretty close.
So, almost too hard to pick thus far but there are definite qualitative differences when driving this pair. Everyone who drove it felt the new Audi engine was gutsier at moderate revs than the Mercedes mill. Both turbos are on the case from low revs, around 1500rpm, but by 2000rpm the twin-scroll unit of the Audi is just fizzing whereas the Mercedes likes a few more revs on the clock, around 3000rpm out of built up areas, before it really starts to kick in earnest. By this time the Audi is positively onto it, and runs hard from there; in fact using 2500-3500rpm out of town progress is pretty decent. Need a bit more urge momentarily, just click back a gear at 100 and it pulls hard in seventh. Even in the Comfort setting of Drive Select, the S4 is willing and feels up for anything.
The AMG is a bit more demanding, requiring more revs and a different approach. In the Comfort mode, it is almost too relaxed in the way it goes about things, so we found ourselves selecting Sport mode in town instead, and leaving the adaptive dampers on Comfort.
And bend swinging?
Again these two separate themselves slightly. Both have quick steering, with 2.2 turns lock to lock, so carve into corners with gusto. With its slightly lower profile rubber the C 43 offers a bit more feedback, but is only ever neutral in its approach. The S4 with its sports diff you can force into oversteer under power so it offers more cornering options. It reminds of an RS 4, only feels lighter and more dynamic with a V6 over the prow rather than a V8. Naturally in the Auto and Dynamic settings there’s better body control but for the most part in everyday driving, the Comfort setting is fine for a sweet mix of ride comfort and composed handling. Moreover, you can select Sport transmission mode independently – just haul back on the spring-loaded lever – for extra zip.
In some ways the AMG is similar, in that the Comfort damper setting still works admirably on back roads providing you’re not going hell for leather. Only the ride comfort isn’t as plush, and progress is also noisier, again likely the result of lower profile rubber. Both have excellent, encompassing seats and given stellar grip levels they’re appreciated. They each have intermediate ESP settings too, but given how hard it is to induce any intervention on full, you’d need track time to assess the effect of ESP backed off.
What caps off the win for the Audi is the interior layout. Okay, so the start button and volume control are in less accessible places, but the lever of a sporty machine should emerge from the centre console, and the S transmission mode is so convenient for bursts of speed for overtaking. Moreover, the Audi instruments offer more info at a glance; the permanently displayed distance to empty reminder is gold. Furthermore, one can view instantaneous fuel use and speed simultaneously whereas you need to scroll through trip settings on the Merc.
With the Virtual Cockpit, two instrument views are possible in the Audi, only one in the C 43. And on that, you see more out of the internal rear view mirror in the Audi because of its lower profile headrests. The C 43, however, has a superior luggage area layout, its cargo blind much easier to remove and replace. But the Audi has a real spare under the load bay, the Mercedes a pando kit.
Buyers will no doubt have their brand loyalties, but for us, the S4 is the more rounded offering. That the AMG C 43 runs it close right off the bat is impressive though.
|Model||Audi S4 Avant||Price||$119,900|
|Engine||2995cc, V6, T/DI, 264kW/500Nm||Drivetrain||8-speed auto, all-wheel drive|
|Fuel Use||7.5L/100km||C02 Output||179g/km|
|Model||Mercedes-AMG C 43 Estate||Price||$119,400|
|Engine||2996cc, V6, T/DI, 270kW/520Nm||Drivetrain||9-speed auto, all-wheel drive|
|Fuel Use||8.3L/100km||C02 Output||190g/km|