VIDEO: B5 Audi RS4 Avant takes on E46 M3 CSL in Carwow test

Last week, Carwow conducted a test between the original Audi RS2 Avant and the E30 BMW M3, both of which were the first of their kinds. Now, Mat Watson and his team are back for another Audi/BMW comparison but this time the cars are a bit newer — the B5-generation Audi RS4 Avant takes on the E46 BMW M3 CSL.

Admittedly, this isn’t the fairest of comparisons, as the RS4 Avant is really just designed to be a very fast wagon, something to haul the family in during the week and blast canyons on the weekend. The E46 M3 CSL is a hardcore, stripped-out driver’s car designed as a scalpel sharp precision machine with no mind for the health of its driver’s spine. Still, it’s an interesting test between two classics.

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Under the hood of the E46 M3 CSL lies a 3.2 liter naturally-aspirated I6 engine with 365 hp. Powering the B5 RS4 Avant is a 2.7 liter Biturbo V6 with 381 hp. So the Audi is more powerful. It also has the traction advantage of Quattro all-wheel drive. Though, the E46 M3 CSL gets a quick-shifting automated manual and the RS4 makes do with a good ole fashioned six-speed. So which is faster in a drag race?

Off the line, we expected the Audi RS4 Avant to lunch the M3. Not only is it more powerful but it has more low-end torque, thanks to its turbochargers. Plus, its all-wheel drive traction should theoretically make it much faster on the jump. However, the M3 fires ahead of the Audi right off the line and continues to build its lead until it finishes the quarter-mile drag race in 13.5 seconds, compared to the Audi’s 14.4 seconds.

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What about in a rolling drag race? With both cars side-by-side at 50 mph in third gear, they take off and the Audi RS4 pulls ahead a bit. Its extra power and torque help it gain the lead. But the M3’s ability to rev out past 8,000 rpm helps it eventually pull ahead for the win. Having said that, Watson admits that by the time the Bimmer takes the lead, both cars are already well past illegal speeds. So the Audi RS4 is probably the faster car in the real world.

After that, Watson takes both cars on track to see which is best. And it’s not hard to guess the outcome, although it’s closer than expected. The E46 M3 CSL is by far the sharper track car, as it’s lighter, more agile and rear-wheel drive. Its steering is also better and more communicative. However, the B5 RS4 Avant is better than expected and Watson seems to enjoy driving it a lot. It has a ton of grip, a great Cosworth-tuned engine and a fantastic manual gearbox that’s better to use than the BMW’s auto-manual.

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Still, while Watson claims he likes the RS4 Avant a lot, it’s the M3 CSL he’d want to take home. In fact, he claims the BMW to be one of the best cars he’s ever driven.

Nico DeMattia

I've been in love with cars since I was a kid, specifically German cars. Now I get to drive them talk about them on the internet.