Top 5 Compact Luxury Family Sports Sedans and Coupes
A few of you might have read my article regarding my personal favourite list of current compact super-cars; so I thought I'll write more about my ingrained passion for wheels and write about premium and compact family saloons which have been beefed up to provide as much on the track as they're brilliant to drive everyday.
When I talk about a compact premium sports car, I essentially mean anything within the $50,000 USD to $130,000 USD bracket (or the $100,000 - $250,000 AUD tags down here in Australia). Cars which typically fall in this category are the high-powered BMW's, Audis and Mercs and these are exactly the machines I'll be writing about in this article - including the Mercedes AMG C-Class,the Audi S4 and the famed and very sort after BMW M3; cars which can make minced meat of other family sedans on the track and yet don't look too conspicuous on the road.
So, let's see what's what :)
Viewed by many auto-experts and petrol heads as the ultimate performance coupe (including myself), the BMW M3 began its journey in 1986 when BMW decided to make a performance version of its popular 3-series 2 door coupe and a cheaper alternative to the already respected M5 Sedan.
Since then, the enthusiasm and demand for the M3 has only gone north, and with 4 incarnations of the car have been born since its debut nearly 30 years ago, the M3 truly has cemented itself as a petrol-head's ultimate dream machine for the fraction of the price of an Italian super-car.
In my opinion, the M3 really began growing on me since the year 2000, when the then new E-46 2-door coupe and cabriolet were released - Auto enthusiasts still rate this particular shape and its colour combination (especially the rare and coveted 'Laguna Seca Blue') as a classic and given the money, I'd still choose an E46 over the current E92. The E46 M3 was also the last to feature BMW's signature straight-six engine (with this series mated to a 3.2 litre 300+ BHP setup) before the E9x M3 adopted a V8.
In its current setup (the E90 Sedan, E92 Coupe and E93 Cabriolet), the M3 is available in a wide-range of colours (including limited-edition Orange, White and Black with Carbon-fibre roofs) and a high-revving but thirsty 4 litre V8 Engine producing 400 BHP and rear-wheel drive - In Australia, they retail to the max of $210,000 AUD (for a fully optioned E93 convertible) however a very decent used model from the same series can be available for half the price!
It has now been confirmed that BMW's new M4 will return to the Bavarian car-maker's heritage of choosing straight-cylinder engines over the V8 and will be mated to a tri-turbo setup! However the M4 won't be available until late 2014 and until then, the E46 and E92 M3's will still remain the unofficial kings of the premium compact family sports saloon market.
Tiff Needell reviews the E92-M3 on Fifth Gear-UK
Just like the LF-A, Lexus decided that it was time for them to land a punch in a world dominated by the Germans and offer consumers a wider choice when it came to the luxury sports saloon market.
In 2007-08, just when people were shocked as it is that they were making a supercar called the LF-A to compete against Ferrari and Lamborghini, they seemed to go even more berserk when they decided that their standard and fairly good-looking IS-250 Sedan was going to be injected with steroids and will be called the IS-F.
When I first saw the car on a suburban Sydney street, I was truly amazed at how visually striking the car is as against its little sister - It looks brilliant in white or the signature 'Flame F-blue', has a mammoth 5 litre V-8 Engine (which in terms of sheer power despitechurning out around 311 KW actually borders on the BMW M5 level of engine capacity and sheer power) and has a tuned quad-exhaust system (although I must say those tail-pipes are patially fake). The 0 to 100 kph times (or 0 to 60 mph in countries like USA and UK) are under 5 seconds (similar to its German rivals) and the car bears a very soothing and melodious engine-note as compared to the more brutal sounding V8's of the M3 and the AMGs.
Price-wise, it is almost a 3rd cheaper than a comparable BMW M3 and for that you get more options as standard including satnav, hi-fi stereo, bluetooth the lot etc. (in fact from what I see the only option is a sun-roof)a more futuristic cockpit, better acceleration (although the 8-speed automatic transmission runs a tad too much interference from time to time) and since Lexus is part of the Toyota group of companies, maintaining the thing's a lot cheaper and parts are more readily available.
Honestly, I rate the Lexus IS-F high as unlike the LF-A, you won't have to explain why your car is so special as Lexus is already a name associated with luxury (if not power) and it has always been considered the world over in auto-circles as 'Japan's Mercedes'.
For at least the past 20-25 years, Mercedes tirelessly tried to compete and match the benchmark status of the BMW M3 when making sporty luxury family sedans and coupe's - From the Genesis-like 190E-Cosworth from the 1980s to the super-luxurious and sleek CL-55 and CL63/65 AMG's of the modern era but alas to their own bad luck, they simply couldn't shake off the image of the 'grown up' or 'sophisticated' car for the suave and capture the thrill which the M3 has always offered.
Nevertheless, since the early parts of the 21st century, Mercedes have really stepped up their game thanks to a whole new level of engagement by their tuning company AMG (similar to Quattro at Audi and M-Division at BMW), and boy have they really gone mental!
Unlike BMW and Audi who specifically tune their engines as per the model its fitted into, Mercedes uses a common engine with either a V8 or a V12 setup with only two displacements, either 5.5 litres or 6.2 litres (There used to be, until very recently a CL-65 AMG which was also the world's most powerful production car, but that version has now been discontinued).
The C63-AMG is no different and out of this lot, it is (as Jeremy Clarkson from Top Gear-UK put it), "a complete animal" - With a maniacal 6.2 litre V8 under the hood and equally garish looks (especially on the coupe), the C63 was born to tell the performance-car world that Mercedes had the capability to equally insane as BMW and Audi (if not more).
Evolving from the already sort after CLK-63 AMG (and CLK-63 Black Edition), the C63 was initially only sold as a 4 door sedan (until the CLK was still around) before the bonkers looking coupe was born. Forget the Laguna Seca Blue E46 BMW M3 or the white E92 M3 with black carbon-fibre tinsel, the Mercedes with its striking diamond-white or flame-red colour with equally loud interiors and a black roof (with a sunroof!) will surely turn heads wherever it goes. 0-100KPH is achieved easily in under 4.5 seconds and the engine spits out at least 451bhp, which makes it quicker than the current M3 while costing the same - although the fuel consumption in this mad compact Benz is significantly higher than its rivals.
Mercedes also released a limited edition C63-Black Edition (only 40 came down to Australia costing the same as a BMW M5 i.e. $250,000.00 AUD) which had all kinds of gizmos fitted in the cockpit (including a track-performance analyzer) and a fish-tail spoiler and anytime someone looked at a car it seemed like Need For Speed had vomited one of its characters on the street.
It is rumoured that the next generation C-63 will come with Mercedes' '4-matic' All-Wheel-drive system which will further put pressure on the BMW M3/M4 releases (especially for their off-road/gravel handling) and unless BMW up their game and stop being obsessed about hybrid super-cars (like the i-8, which is quite beautiful by the way), Benz will literally eat them alive in this segment.
Lexus IS-F vs BMW M3 (E90 Sedan) (With some pretty ladies as passengers ;)
Off late, Volvo's mid-size sedan has been getting quite a lot of attention from the international press after it was completely overhauled in terms of looks, equipment and driving-agility and even managed to outrank its German and British rivals to win major European car-awards.
Of course, not all people (especially those who don't really follow the auto-world) still believe that Volvo's got anything to do with 'speed' or 'handling' or 'performance' however nothing can be further from the truth! Whether its the 2.5 litre hot hatch, the C30 or the tough 4WD the XC70, Volvo's certainly come a long way since the 1960s and 70's when they truly were nothing but boxes on wheels.
Since the collapse of Saab and Koennigsegg taking the helm in the 'hyper-car' segment in Sweden, Volvo's gone great lengths to fill in the gaps in Sweden's (and as such in Scandinavia) consumer car market and now make excellent cars across all segments - and now, looks like they've moved in for an M3 kil :) - you didn't really think they would do it especially given that the Chinese now own Volvo... did you?
'Polestar' to Volvo is essentially what AMG is to Mercedes or M-Division is to BMW but the difference is that they almost exclusively built up cars for the FIA/European GT race series. During 2011-2012, they made an experimental performance version of the C30 hatchback but refused to manufacture it off the standard production line.
It was only in 2011-2012 that Volvo decided to capitalize on the popularity of the S60 and asked Polestar to build a top-end performance version of it. Besides the brilliant Nordic Blue colour, the S60-Polestar comes equipped with permanent all-wheel drive, a turbocharged 3 litre 6 cylinder engine and space and comfort comparable to a Jaguar XF. While power's not as high as that found in the AMG or M3, the lack of it is compensated by brilliant handling and 'light-footedness' of the car.
In terms of price, the S60-Polestar is probably the cheapest among the cars reviewed in this article (with Australian prices starting at $110,000.00 AUD) however, Volvo's notorious for giving very extensive and expensive options lists and the S60R and S60-Polestar's no different. Typically, to fully kit out your Polestar, be prepared to shell out an extra $20,000.00 AUD (or around $8,000 - $13,000.00 USD in America ... assuming it will be sold there).
BMW M3 (E92 Coupe) vs Mercedes C63 AMG Sedan vs Audi RS4 Sedan on Top Gear-UK
When it comes to all wheel drive luxury performance compact saloons, nobody in modern times has really done it better (or at least begun the trend of it all) than Audi. Granted that a true petrol-head would almost certainly prefer an M3 to an S4 or an RS4, nobody who's followed the history of performance saloons would deny that it really did begin with the Audi Quattro, the fire-spitting rabid machine which conquered almost all world-rally stages during the early 1980s.
While Audi never really maintained continuity of the S4 (with the S5 essentially being the 2 door version of the S4) as compared to the AMG models and the M3, its resurgence since the late 90's has certainly placed the company high in the rankings along with BMW and Mercedes and consumers are certainly spoil for choice even if they just want to buy a German luxury family sports car.
Both the S-line and RS-lines of the A4 (and A5) are built by 'Quattro Gmbh', which is the in-house tuning division of Audi (just like Polestar of Volvo, M-Division of BMW and AMG in Mercedes). The difference between the current S4 and RS4 (and consequently the S5 and RS5) lies in the levels of equipment in the car and the engine displacement - The S4 and S5 being mated to a 245 kw 3 Litre V6 Engine (almost identical to what Volvo offers in the Polestar-S60) while the 'hot' RS4 and RS5 being gifted with a 350 kw Lamborghini-derived 4.2 liter V8 (which amongst this list of machines is less powerful only than the Lexus ISF).
The RS versions also offer sport-bucket seats, magnetic ride control and ceramic brakes as standard along with a very state of the art Multimedia interface system (matched by the systems found in the AMG-Mercedes). Audi's also unique that the RS-4 and RS-5 offer a no compromise all wheel drive system (which they've also transferred down to the Lamborghini Gallardo and Aventedor) and lastly, they do offer some spectacular color combinations in their unique 'Crystal' and 'Pearl' effects.
Price-wise, they're almost the same as a comparable C63-AMG or an M3 however Audi's options lists are pricier and expensive as compared to BMW (and similar to Mercedes) and they do feel a bit heavy on the track while everyday ride on the street has been reported to be better compared to the AMG Mercs and M-BMW's. The RS4 is also available as a very beautiful and sleek looking station-wagon (the Avant, which is smaller than the RS6 Avant) while the RS5's available in both coupe and cabriolet versions, giving prospective consumers way more choice based on personal need as against what they can get amongst the other manufacturers listed here.
Volvo S60-Polestar T6 vs Mercedes C63-AMG
Audi RS4 Avant (Wagon) review by Autocar
So there you have it - my list of what I regard as the benchmark performance family saloon cars which exist today.
While I agree I might have missed out certain other machines (for example the Holden Special Vehicles from Australia or certain American cars), I hope you found this read insightful and interesting.
Please feel free to read my review about the new BMW 4 Series (which eventually will pave the way for the first ever and very sort after BMW M4 which is expected to continue being the benchmark in the compact luxury sports coupe segment!)
In another article regarding performance coupes, I've just written about full size luxury coupes where I've pitched the likes of the BMW 6 Series, Mercedes CL Class and the Bentley Continental GT etc against each other - Feel free to read it here.
Long live the petrol-head and screw the eco-mentalists obsessed with hybrids :)