Madly quick used sports coupé, anyone? We choose between the sought-after (and expensive) BMW 1 M Coupe and the much more affordable Audi RS3
The idea of stuffing powerful engines into conservative cars has been around for ever, but few examples of that genre have generated such strong followings as the Audi RS3 Sportback and BMW 1 M Coupe. The BMW in particular has attained cult status.
When it was new in 2011, the first RS3 Sportback cost £39,930. It was only in Audi showrooms for two years, but the BMW 1 M Coupé was even more exotic: it was only available for one year, 2011, and cost £40,020.
Six years on, a used 1 M is even more expensive than a new one was back then – expect to pay around £42,000 for an average mileage one with full service history – whereas an equivalent used RS3 from the same year can be bought for exactly half that amount. It has four-wheel drive and five doors too, whereas the BMW has rear-wheel drive and only two doors.
On the face of it, the Audi looks like a shoe-in to win this comparison – but is it?
With the TT RS’s 335bhp turbocharged 2.5-litre five-cylinder engine, 4WD and launch control, an RS3 gets off the line like a scalded cat. Thanks to a standard seven-speed semi-automatic gearbox that shuffles the ratios more slickly than a Las Vegas croupier, the RS3 is quicker than the BMW in a straight acceleration shootout.
Oddly, though, it’s not that exciting on a bendy road. Grip and traction are massive, but the steering has a detached feel about it. That’s in marked contrast to the lighter BMW’s steering, which is much more informative about what’s going on with the front wheels. Its stiffer suspension reduces roll, too, but creates a harder ride than the Audi’s.
Power from the BMW’s twin-turbo 3.0-litre six exactly matches the Audi’s, and although its six-speed manual gearbox is excellent, that plus putting all the power through the rear wheels hampers it on absolute acceleration times. Still, the engine’s responses are sharper than the Audi’s and the noise at high revs is addictive. The absence of 4WD means you have to exercise some care with the 1 M on wet roads, but the stability control system will help you. The fact is that the BMW is a great driver’s car.
Get into the Audi’s too-high driving seat and apart from the ‘RS3’ badges on the gearknob and flat-bottomed steering wheel you’ll struggle to distinguish it from a regular A3. You get a sportier feel from the BMW’s lower-mounted and body-gripping seats but, odd slice of stitched Alcantara apart, it’s another fairly mundane cabin.
Naturally, the five-door hatchback RS3 is much the more practical choice. You can only take two rear passengers In the BMW, but they’ll do nearly as well on head, leg and shoulder room as the same two would have in the back of the Audi. There’s nothing between the two on front space, and the BMW actually has the bigger boot, but its small opening makes loading more difficult.
On purchase costs, it’s impossible to ignore the disparity between these two. £40,000 is pretty much the minimum entry price for a 1 M, and the examples that are for sale may well have low miles, cranking prices up even higher. Its collectability means that depreciation isn’t going to be an issue though, whereas it still is for the RS3.
You may not care overmuch about fuel economy with cars like these but the Audi’s 31.0mpg is marginally better than the BMW’s 29.4mpg. Servicing costs are also going to be quite similar, with the BMW being slightly cheaper. Surveys indicate that neither of these marques has a stellar rating for reliability or customer satisfaction.
On paper, the vastly cheaper Audi RS3 Sportback seems like the obvious choice. It’s classy, practical enough to use as a daily driver, and really fast in all kinds of conditions thanks to its four-wheel drive system.
But cars aren’t driven on paper. In the real world, the RS3 disappoints in terms of excitement and looks, which are the things you’re paying for when you’re not opting for a bottom of the range A3.
The massive price gap between the RS3 and 1 M might stop you buying the BMW, but if you can afford it this is the car you should go for. It’s dear, sure, but you won’t lose any of your money on it. You might even make a profit when it comes to selling it. That’s the beauty of a cult car.
And this is a cult car that fully deserves its status. It was one of the BMW M Division’s most thrilling cars when it came out, and it still is today. The ride isn’t plush and the rear-end grip needs watching, but the points on the plus side of the 1 M equation – the fantastic engine and chassis – easily outweigh those small demerits.