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Audi A4 3.2 FSI vs BMW 530d - Fuel for thought

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Recession does funny things to people. When Warren Buffet decides to buy a company manufacturing Recreational Vehicles at a time when everyone is too busy saving their pennies, you can bet that a turnaround is not too far away. After all, if the world’s most famous investment guru can do something diametrically opposite, he’s sending out a message. That we need to move on and bring the house back in order. At a time when every luxury car manufacturer is staring into the deep end of the credit crunch abyss, Audi announce yet another positive sales number, selling more than a million units in 2008. This, when BMW reports 4.6 per cent lower sales, its first drop in decades. You know something is wrong when BMW, the enthusiast oriented car company, can’t control the slide. Has the enthusiast made that transition to Audi or should the Buffets of the world still hold on to their shares in BMW? Answers to some of those questions just needed to be found out.

At this point you are probably wondering what an Audi A4 is doing in the same frame as a BMW 5 Series, but trust me, ‘finding’ weapons of mass destruction in Iraq appears more sinister than this comparison. Both these cars are the best performance petrol and diesel saloons available in the country respectively, if you discount the Ms, RSs and AMGs, which are of course imported and not even assembled here. Fully kitted, the A4 3.2 Quattro with all the kickers finds itself floating in a segment that’s one higher. Get a load of this – the A4 3.2 Quattro with the WCI options package costs Rs 48.5 lakh, on-road, Mumbai. The BMW 530d Highline we have here stays just under Rs 53.7 lakh. Both can kick the century mark in under eight seconds and both top out somewhere around 240 kph. Both go like stink, handle like heat seeking missiles and look a million bucks. And if you buy one of them, you will probably kick yourself for not having the wherewithal to buy the other. Because the two are so good at what they do that the deficiencies of one are the strengths of the other and vice-versa.
 
Bulgarian beard or kidney grille?
Admit it at once that you can’t tear your eyes away from the red number and you have your answer. But since I have to give you 2,000 words of ‘wisdom’, allow me to explain. Designed to be larger than its predecessor, the A4 is one hot mama. The long 2,808 mm wheelbase, the athletic stance, those large 18-inch options and the way the waistline merges into the rear lights are the relatively subtle features of the design. It’s the LED daytime running lamps and front diffuser that really grab all your attention. Heck, it’s one of those few cars where elements like these don’t seem like after-market slap-ons but an integral part of the design.
 
It may be six years old in international markets, but the BMW is showing very little signs of ageing, if at all. We genuinely believe that the standard set by BMW is so high, it’ll be a challenge for Bangle GmbH to better what is already a perfect design. This, after I believed the previous generation E39 was the last of the best looking BMWs, but I think I have been proven wrong. And I have no iota of doubt, BMW will stun us once again in 2010 with the all-new 5 Series. From the eyelash like headlamps to the raised bonnet, the sharp waistline and organically designed tail lamps, the current E60 just looks stunning when viewed standalone. Only when it’s placed next to the A4 does it really lack some of that ‘youth’ factor – the BMW suffering somewhat from a mid-age crisis.

  MMI or iDrive?
Undoubtedly the sportiest interior on an Audi saloon in production, the A4 lends its exterior appeal to the interior as well. The four-spoke steering, the slightly angled dashboard, the supportive seats and those oh-so tempting drive select settings are hints that your next stop should be the B8 RS4! There are tons of goodies and buttons to fiddle around with, especially MMI that somehow found a place on the centre console rather than the tunnel on our test car. A sweet Bang & Olufsen system keeps you occupied while you negotiate slow-mo traffic, while the MMI itself has added some more buttons to its repertoire. What has somewhat dampened some of that luxury feel is the quality of plastics across the cabin. The dashboard appears to be covered in shiny plastic while some of the buttons feel slightly low rent – something we’ve not come to expect from Audis in recent times.

You don’t feel the same about the BMW, because hard times and the need to make better profits haven’t dented its ability to build quality interiors just yet. It’s all high quality stuff inside, with the dark wood panelling on our test car adding to the richness. While the dashboard is block-ish, the dials are as easy to read as on the Audi. What is particularly nice is the three-spoke steering and the ease with which one can negotiate through iDrive and the associated trappings, such as Night Vision. The seats hug you so nicely that you don’t want to get out of them when wifey dear asks you to help her with the shopping bags. The only missing detail on this car? The sport button!
   
Stratified injection or common rail?
It really boils down to whether you like fuel being directly injected into your cylinders at 100 bar pressure or at 1600 bar pressure. That’s the difference between the Audi and the BMW. The Audi uses its FSI or fuel stratified injection system to deliver the goods, with the BMW relying on third generation common rail tech, linked to a variable geometry turbocharger. The end result is the kind of specific outputs that could pretty much rival mid-90s supercars. Yet there are more differences than what meets the eye.

Audi’s enhanced 3.2 FSI uses a combination of a two-stage variable intake system that alternates between providing better pulling power to increased horsepower and a double overhead camshaft with Audi’s own variation of variable valve tech. The BMW, on the other hand, uses piezo injectors and a variable geometry turbo to eke out the necessary horsepower and torque that it develops. It also uses an aluminium crankcase that helps reduce the engine’s weight by a good 20 kilos.
 
Conceptually though, the two differ in the way the engines are constructed. The Audi uses a 90-degree V6 linked to a 6-speed Multitronic system, while BMW utilise their tried and tested straight-six heart that is driven by a six-speed automatic. While the Audi delivers its 265 bhp of peak power to all four wheels, the BMW transfers all its rights to the rear wheels, some 232 hungry stallions. The BMW counteracts this loss of power by developing a staggering 50.5 kgm of torque from as low as 1750 rpm, whereas the Audi makes do with just 33.6 kgm from 3000 rpm.

By utilising all that torque to its advantage, BMW storms to the head of the timing sheets. Not only is it quicker to 100 kph by more than half a second, it hammers the Audi in every single field across the board. It’s quicker off the line, as the torque develops far lower and therefore allows it to build momentum quicker. The difference up to 60 kph is about a second, but with the Audi starting to stay more in the 3000-5000 rpm range and all that horsepower eventually kicking in, the difference starts to drop as speeds start to rise. Both have equally devastating mid-range performance and given a chance, the Audi will stay at a car length’s gap, up to 160 kph. The difference rises by another car length post that, with the Audi registering about 232 kph on our timing equipment and the BMW, 234 kph.
 
It eventually becomes a case of sheer horsepower versus torque and in this case, torque wins the day for BMW. Despite all that horsepower and better power to weight ratio, the Audi still weighs in at 10 kg more than the 530d. That, and the delivery of power to all four wheels, negates some of its advantages, but it moves very smartly for a petrol saloon. It becomes more apparent in Dynamic mode on the drive select system where the gearshifts become quicker, the steering sharper and the engine responds quicker to throttle inputs. Put into action, the car starts to sound more like the last-gen 4.2 V8 on the RS4, albeit with slightly less bass. The BMW on the other hand relies on good ol’ stomp the pedal action and greets you with some turbo whistle and diesel clatter to drown out wind and tyre noise.   40:60 or 0:100?
The eternal debate continues – has four wheel drive finally got the better of rear wheel drive? Audi, who’ve staunchly stood by Quattro, found much to their dismay, that the 50:50 torque split wasn’t working in their favour. No matter what they tried, understeer was a perpetual partner during cornering. So a couple of years ago, they adopted a 40:60 torque split for their Torsen Quattro unit to make it more rearward biased. So has it delivered the results? For that, we shifted to our Performance Evaluation Track.

Around our PET course, the A4 set the fastest time of the two, a staggering 48.64 seconds, a good second quicker than the BMW 530d at 49.70 seconds. So how did the Audi manage to do it? Despite producing slower times on our acceleration sheets, the Audi manages to scramble all its power and put it down cleanly on the PET course. Not only did it accelerate quickly on the lightly strewn gravel on the track, it also braked with authority at the end of the straight. The BMW on the other hand found itself a little slow on the uptake, thanks to the spooling of the turbo at one end and the slightly slow autobox at the other. While it eventually builds enough steam, it feels a mite less confident while braking and by our third run, there were signs of brake fade. Whether it was the single piston callipers is a matter of debate.
 
Flick both cars around and enter the cones and both cars behave very, very differently. Where the BMW relies on keeping the front wheels free to steer, the quattro equipped Audi relies on traction provided to all four wheels. Despite the longer wheelbase and the hefty diesel engine at the front, the BMW felt the most chuckable, attributable to all that power being directed to the rear wheels. It was very easy to keep a tight line and dispatch the cones, with the more precise servotronic steering providing ample feel to be in control of the situation. The A4 on the other hand behaved more like an F-16 fighter jet where the control surfaces are ‘controlled’ by on-board computers. With Quattro allowing for more speed through the cones, it relied on the power split and grip from its 18-inch tyres to save the day. The light steering, with its lack of on-centredness, did not inspire as much confidence as four-wheel drive. What it does however do is shift weight balance rather well and it feels a tad more agile than the BMW.
 
It was the last section where the BMW really lost all that time. The 360 degree circle before the start-finish straight really tests how well a car can put its power down, especially given that it has its fair share of gravel. Which means a car with four-wheel drive does have some advantage and in this case it did. Where one had to stay off the power and encircle the solitary cone in the BMW, one could use part throttle on the Audi to quickly complete the circle and go past the chequered flag. In the real world, under real world conditions, the Audi suffers on account of its low ride height, which means it will ground its nose on every possible extrusion on the road such as speed breakers and ramps. No such problem for the BMW that will glide over everything, except bad patches of road where the run-flats don’t feel as supple as the ones on the Audi.

Four rings or propeller badge?
If there were a demographic survey, here’s the kind of person who would fit the persona of the A4 3.2. A couple in their late twenties or early thirties. No commitments towards a family. Young, dynamic, maybe even brash. Generally been through a host of fast cars before graduating to the A4. Drive hard and party harder. But the one for a BMW 530d might be a bit different. A couple in their late thirties or early forties with sweet offspring and a penchant for ‘balance’ in life. Maybe, the man of the house is someone who rode a Yamaha RD350 in his college days and longs to experience some of those moments again, but with his family. Such an answer probably suits Buffet’s prodigies to get a fix on where the market is moving and who will be the next big thing. At this point the suits can stop reading, while enthusiasts can continue.

You just can’t ignore the value that the Audi A4 3.2 brings in terms of the sheer driving experience, the way it sounds and the focus towards minute details. Its dual personality of mixing the sedate with the insane is a thoroughly rewarding experience, yet somewhat artificially saccharine.
 
When things are not looking up and you want to scare yourself silly, there’s nothing like the beauty of yanking the handbrake, praying that your car stays in one piece as you switch off the traction control around a set of bends and still enjoy the fresh air and the turbo whistle playing sweet nothings in your ears. Ears that over the years have heard why a straight six can be better than a V6, why rear-wheel drive is so much more fun over four-wheel drive and why BMW still makes the most entertaining cars. Why do I get this feeling Mr Buffet is still reading?