While arguably not direct rivals, there’s something quite reassuring about comparing the Audi RS6 Performance and BMW M3 CS. With electrification looming, we have a monstrously fast, twin-turbo V8 Audi Avant - just as it was 20 years ago - and a BMW Motorsport 3 Series with a 3.0-litre straight-six up front and (via a couple of buttons) rear-wheel drive. Yes, they’re more complex, more expensive and heavier than ever - but both ought to boast at least some of the attributes that made these nameplates so iconic in the first place.
Moreover, the 630hp Performance and 550hp CS are based on probably the most talented and most capable versions of the RS6 and M3 yet, which bodes well. The C8 may not have transformed the RS6 experience as the previous car did, but it remains an astonishingly fast and capable estate car. The M3 can currently do little wrong for those lucky enough to drive one - it’s just everybody else it needs to win over.
So which practical, hugely fast, limited edition six-figure model should you buy with Monopoly money? Well, with the CS already driven in the UK, it makes sense to start with the Tango Red Audi. Even four years after launch and even in the presence of the wantonly aggressive BMW, there’s a magnetism to the RS6 Performance that’s impossible to ignore. It’s a villainous fast estate to look at, the arches, wheels and exhaust so muscular to be almost cartoonishly steroidal.
Indeed the Audi even looks like it rides a bit high to accommodate massive 22-inch wheels at each corner, and can look a little bulbous from certain angles with bodywork so pumped. But it’s hard not to raise a smile as you approach the thing. Most would probably agree that, compared to BMW's divisive approach, this is a preferable way to do OTT. If we’re being really picky it’d be nice to have silver rather than grey accents, and it’s a shame that Tango Red has already (or at least temporarily) been taken away as a colour choice. It’s so much more interesting than the usual dark greys and blues the RS6 is seen in.
It's clear from the off that the Performance is rather more than just a 630hp RS6, however appealing just that prospect sounds on its own. Notable in the press release, both to look at and to read about, were the 22-inch wheels coming for the Carbon Black and Vorsprung models. As well as the spectacular appearance, with ultra-thin spokes that further expose (and help to cool) the chunky brakes, there's the claimed weight saving of 5kg per wheel. That’s against the standard wheel, also a 22, for some idea of how much lighter they are. This RS6 is a standard Performance, but the wheels have been optioned on, and they feel like an extra well worth having.
In both steering and ride, this feels a less heavy-handed RS6 than before; lithe would probably still be a stretch for a two-tonne tank, but it's actually not too far off the mark. Despite the sheer size of the rims, the Performance derivative seems notably less keen to thump into imperfections, steers with less unwanted resistance and is generally just a more pleasant car to interact with. Seriously - this is an RS on preposterously large wheels that passengers will likely compliment for its comfort levels and that can even be enjoyed in Dynamic mode. Wonders never cease. Presumably, it’d be even better with the ceramic brakes shaving another 34kg from the unsprung weight. But whether speccing now or looking for one down the line, check for the fancy wheels - they seem to make a difference.
Even without the special rims, however, it is a 630hp RS6, and that’s as riotously endearing as might be hoped for. Audi has actually employed a similar approach to BMW in the process of liberating the additional power, fitting the Performance with new, boostier turbos rather than using the standard ‘chargers. Now at 2.6 bar rather than 2.4, there’s a similar feeling to the power delivery of the Performance as has been found in the CS and CSL; chiefly that’s a fraction more delay before the main event (the Audi’s rollicking along by about 2,250rpm), followed by an absolute torrent of power to 7,000rpm. The official numbers are 630hp and 627lb ft, representing an extra 30hp and 37lb ft over standard, but such is the unbridled nature of the RS6’s acceleration that it feels closer to 650 points for both.
It’s so fast even the guy who dropped it off felt compelled to comment. Even moderate, I-just-need-to-overtake-briskly pedal inputs - of the sort that only last a few seconds - will typically result in incredulous glances at the speedometer. And while taking away eight kilos sounds negligible on such a burly machine, it was 8,000g of sound insulation removed, and that sounds quite a lot. While there’s still not a surfeit of induction noise, somehow and somewhere there’s more V8 bluster reaching your ears, often a proper barrel-chested war cry that feels entirely befitting of a car that looks this combative. It’s a timely reminder, even if this isn’t the most authentic-sounding V8 around, that the M3 doesn’t make a soul-stirring sound. The Audi does, and that matters.
Car journalists like to identify additional, undisclosed changes in new cars because a) it gives them more to write about, and b) it makes them look like better vehicle assessors than they are - but Audi has made no claims of updating much of note in the Performance (all of them get rear-wheel steering with a standard RS Dynamics Package that’s often added). Nevertheless, and there really is no other way to say this, you're looking at a fundamentally better RS6 than merely a faster one. It isn't, perhaps, the kind of transformation Audi wrought on the RS4 Competition, a model that features a reworked quattro driveline and expensive coilovers, because it doesn't seek to make your connection to the road anymore real - but, that being said, this is the most satisfying C8 RS6 yet by a distance.
Specifically, it retains that feel of an epic, mile-munching mega estate, but the intangibles are back, too. It feels about 40 per cent more likeable. In a similar fashion to something like the old Aston Martin DB11 AMR (bet that wasn’t a mention expected here, feel free to sub your own choice) it completely makes sense that the Performance replaces the old standard offering in the RS6 lineup. Everything that made that car a convincing choice as an imperious fast wagon is retained, except now, every time you get to where you're going - usually much quicker than expected - you tend to get out thinking 'wow' and looking back at it in wonder. That's new.
The prospect of a £115k 3 Series is new, too - and it also takes some getting used to. Just as unfamiliar, but rather more positive, is just what a huge car the M3 now is, for those in the front and behind. It’s hard to imagine needing an M5 (the more conventional rival to the RS6) beyond a need for the badge. Similarly, the driving environment now feels more expensive than that in the Audi - partly thanks to its newer, larger screens, but also a better layout. And we’ll continue to applaud the fitment of a physical infotainment controller for as long as it's absent elsewhere - it really does make a difference. Especially when, to be frank, dealing with cars where it’s all too easy to be going much too quickly. A screen-based distraction is the last thing required. While age plays its part, the M3’s is the superior interior, especially with those fantastic seats that make the Audi’s feel a bit too much like office chairs.
Do we need to talk about how the CS looks anymore? Given it’s a G80 3 Series, probably yes. If the add-ons - the carbon fibre bonnet, CSL grille, gold wheels, red highlighted badges - aren’t what everyone would call stylish, there’s something unconventionally appealing about BMW turning the dial up to 11. Or perhaps that’s just an apologist talking. Whatever our individual views, we can hopefully all appreciate the subtler details - yes, they do exist on this era of M3 - found on the CS, including some naughty negative camber up front and a just-so ride height. Viewed from the rear three-quarter (and the side that doesn’t show the badge), the majority would say this is a great-looking M3. Probably. Maybe.
Honestly, though, this M3 CS could look a whole lot more contentious and still remain not far short of fantastic. If the Performance feels usefully lighter than a standard RS6, this feels another half a tonne slimmer again, if not more. (The official difference is 335kg.) As discovered back when we pitched standard M3 xDrive against E63, it’s these comparisons with larger cars that show off what the G80 can do better than any other. Because it can do swanky and accommodating luxury saloon, but on the other hand it can also be a razor sharp and wildly entertaining M car, to a level the bigger, heavier cars can’t match.
Moreover, where the Performance experience makes it a natural replacement for the standard RS6, the CS is patently more focused than both the Audi and a regular M3. Don’t mistake that for punishing: the suspension tuning is expertly done, and the refinement is there when required. Granted, when driven back-to-back with something as vast and assured as the RS6 you're going to notice a difference in bump absorption, but there are always little cues in the CS - some extra steering fizz thanks to more rigid engine mount, the blare of a titanium exhaust - that hint at its potential. The Audi will absolutely tolerate being driven faster than it really ought to be driven; it’s the BMW that really, really encourages it, however.
It'd be a fascinating drag race between these two, to see whether less weight, short ratios and a crisper transmission could offset almighty power (officially, there's almost nothing between them). Both are supremely quick, the BMW perhaps more rewarding of revs but the continental shelf-shifting torque of the Audi (basically another 150lb ft over the M3) is fairly irresistible as well. They’re great to compare and contrast merely as powertrains, the fizzy and frantic straight-six S58 against this mild-hybrid powerhouse of a turbo V8, each with their own distinct personalities as they go about similar aims. Let’s hope that discrete characters can be maintained into the future, as both are wonderfully beguiling engines to spend time with.
It’s the way this CS drives that really elevates it above the Audi, however. Above a lot of things, in fact. Up to a point, the Audi is pretty damn great: accurate, composed, entertaining even. Occasionally silly, too, if there’s been a recent downpour. But you’ll know when it’s finally at the edge of its comfort zone, as lots of mass and lots of momentum encourage you to calm down a bit. Which is exactly the point where the CS absolutely shines, the masterful management of its weight, its wheels and its ferocious performance all the more startling because it wants more speed, not less. Despite half as many steering axles as the Audi, it’s the BMW that has the pointier, more confidence-inspiring front end, with absolutely no slack between input and response. Braking composure is fantastic, the balance supreme and the damping just a different gravy altogether. How a car can ride like this and handle like this remain pretty baffling; you can forget it’s in Comfort and demolish a B road, while also leave it in Sport + and amble through town. By any measure, it's a special M car, this one.
It won’t be lost on some, however, that the CS really shows off its star quality in those situations that seldom present themselves on UK roads. It might feel unnecessarily epic for a four-seat, four-door luxury car when the RS6 does such a fine job of any-weather-any-time awesomeness, but once the ultimate xDrive M3 has been experienced it would be extremely hard to go without that additional ability to flabbergast. Especially given its mostly inconsequential impact on everyday usability.
Of course, it’s the very usability of the RS6 being an Avant that will swing the decision irreversibly one way in some cases - it’s properly massive, and handy in ways an M3 could never be. Obvious, but true. However, there's a postscript to even this point: not only is there the RS7 Performance to think of - a forgotten Audi RS if ever there was one - there’s also what seems to be an M3 CS Touring on the cards. Between them, it's possible we might be talking about one of the best non-Avant RS Audis ever, and perhaps the greatest fast estate yet seen. Here’s to many, many more years of BMW and Audi being as good as this.
SPECIFICATION | 2023 AUDI RS6 PERFORMANCE
Engine: 3,993cc, twin-turbo V8
Transmission: 8-speed torque converter automatic, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 630@6,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 627@2,300-4,500rpm
Top speed: 174mph
Weight: 2,100kg (unladen weight without driver)
Price: £112,890 (OTR price as standard; price as tested £119,640, comprising 22-inch five-spoke Y-style matt grey alloy wheels for £2,250 and Technology Pack Pro (Park Assist Pack with remote park assist plus, Panoramic roof, Night Vision assistant, Rear heated seats, Convenience Key, Rear USB C charging ports x2) for £4,500
SPECIFICATION | BMW M3 CS (G80)
Engine: 2,993cc, twin-turbo straight-six
Transmission: 8-speed auto, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 550@6,250rpm
Torque (lb ft): 479@2,750-5,950rpm
Top speed: 188mph
Weight: 1,765kg DIN, 1,840kg EU
Price: £115,955 (price as standard; price as tested £123,250, comprising M Carbon ceramic brakes, red calipers, for £7,295)
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