Ex-Stig Ben Collins' verdict of the M3 vs. C63 AMG and RS4
Given below is an excerpt for Ben Collins's book, 'The Man In The White Suit'.
It's a reference to the Top Gear 3-way test between the M3, C63, and the RS4 which aired in 2007.
We flew to Malaga in Spain and stayed at the opulent Ascari Resort. The circuit nestled inside a range of rugged mountains dotted with sparse Andalusian foliage. It was designed by the owner and my former team boss, Klaas Zwart, and replicated twenty-six of the most challenging corners from Grand Prix venues like Spa and Zandvoort. With sun all year round, it was the perfect setting to assess the true performance of three of the latest road cars: a BMW M3, an Audi RS4 and a Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG.
As I walked down the pit lane I passed a familiar shape peering from underneath the metal shutters to one of the garages. I stared longingly at the aggressive dive planes covering the wheel arches of Ascari’s Le Mans racing prototype. It sent me back to the time I drove it around Le Mans. The desire to race stung like a wasp, and it was all I could do to drag my focus back to the day’s objectives.
Clarkson was hunched over his laptop, sucking on a Marlboro as he rocked back in deep contemplation of the script he’d been working on with TG’s other wordsmith, Richard Porter. Jeremy was the architectural powerhouse behind all his work, so I left him to it. I needed to make a decision that would affect the rest of my day: Cappuccino or Americano.
The Ascari lair with its marble floors, manicured gardens, ‘Cortijo’ clubhouse, swimming pool and sleeping hammocks compared very favourably to the spit and sawdust of Dunsfold. The crew enjoyed it so much that we lobbied Wilman to shoot the whole series out there. Predictably enough, he refused to ‘become a shareholder in EasyJet’.
Having satiated myself at the breakfast buffet I moved back towards the presenters, who were embroiled in a mock debate about their cars in a build-up to filming their comments.
Clarkson turned to me. ‘Have you driven it?’ ‘What’s that?’ ‘The Merc.’ ‘Not yet.’
‘You’ll love it. It’s got loads more power than the others; it’s insane.’ Big draw on his *** and back to the laptop.
The statistically correct script labelled the Merc as a winner by virtue of its 450-odd horsepower, against the Audi on 420 and the BMW a nickel short. The Audi was four-wheel drive, which might throw in a curve ball, but the BM seemed destined for third place in the performance stakes.
Whilst the presenters got to grips with their lines, the director got me on to mine. We filmed all three cars going flat out around the circuit. The crew had already dispatched instinctively and were filming Grand Vista shots of the countryside before the rest of us had even arrived.
It was no surprise to see that Iain had found a cherry picker. Ben panned artistically across the hillside, through the branches of an oak tree. Casper was shooting from on high to absorb the bleached panorama.
First up was Clarkson’s Merc. I climbed in and moved the seat forward for about five minutes until I reached the pedals. It was a big heavy unit, with a 6.2-litre engine that could power a supertanker. I shifted into gear and positioned alongside Phil, who was busy with his radio, his sunbaked forehead turning the colour of beetroot. He gave me the thumbs up and ‘Action.’
I skipped my left foot off the brake and simultaneously pinned the accelerator to the floor. A cloud of smoke billowed in my rear-view mirror as Daimler’s finest horses roared towards the first corner of the day. I braked earlier than I felt I needed to, but the Merc sopped up the margin; its lumbering weight folded into the soft suspension. Yuk.
The front of the car washed out mid-corner as the chassis lolled about, front first, followed by the rear. With so much roll and so much power, I knew that a touch of the throttle would produce a filthy slide, so I opened the floodgate. There was a screech of rubber bordering on the sociopathic and two bubbling black stains across the pristine grey road surface.
Being inch perfect was difficult as the volume of power overcame the rear differential and shoved the remaining surge through one wheel, spinning it faster than the other. Overpowered, with soggy brakes and wobbly suspension. What an old nail.
Next up was the sales rep’s wet dream. Hammond’s M3 sat firm on its suspension, with a smooth ride from shock absorbers that clamped the rubber to the tarmac. The tender brakes reacted quickly to my input. The acutely sensitive power delivery was stunning and controllable. It drifted sideways through the corners like it was on casters. Every detail, from the cross-stitched leather steering wheel to the flawless gear-change and reduced upper body weight, was bang on. It was such a gem I wanted to kiss the designer.
I hopped into James’s Audi RS4. As an Audi fan I expected to be impressed. The four-wheel drive gripped and bogged down on the fast pull away, then kangaroo hopped along the pit lane. Even with a 40/60 front to rear torque split, I never liked four-wheel-drive sports cars. They only functioned properly if the bias was substantially in favour of the rear wheels, otherwise the two axles competed for supremacy at the cost of cornering stability.
Once I was up to ramming speed, the engine torque punched the Audi nicely through every gear. Minor inputs of the wheel were met by jarring returns from the suspension and cornering became mundanely predictable. The RS4 juddered with understeer through every turn.
I donned the white suit for a time attack to determine which of these V8 bullets was the fastest. I already knew the answer. I tried to warn Jeremy that he had picked a dog.
‘Rubbish, you’ve no idea what you’re talking about,’ he replied.
When it came to posting a time in front of camera, the Merc rolled over on its wheel arches and flashed its undercarriage at every opportunity. Its time was 2.43.5.
Next I pushed the Audi to the brink, flat-footed it through the kink on to the back straight and reached a top speed of 145 into a fast, tightening right-hander.
Braking and turning from high speed tested the driver’s confidence as much as the essence of the machine. I went in flat, cogged down and braked lightly to prevent the ABS activating, then gradually increased the brake pressure. The ABS triggered as I reached for the apex at about 110, resulting in a deadening of the pedal. Then the electronics gave up, no longer caring to moderate the percentage changes of fluid pressure to slow each individual wheel. That sent all the braking to the least loaded wheel, the inside rear, locking it instantly as if someone had hooliganed the handbrake. It sent the car completely sideways.
The Polaroid moment that followed saw The Stig in a flat spin, exiting stage left off the circuit towards a gravel trap and tyre barrier. And it was only 10.30 in the morning ...
The gremlin in the system’s electronics had more to offer. I piled on the opposite lock, slammed the steering into the rack stop and applied 100 per cent brakes, scanning desperately for a solution to save the car either by swivelling it around or trying to accelerate away from the wall. At that critical moment the ignition switched itself off, taking with it the power steering and assisted brake. I had to push them both twice as hard to achieve the same effect, manhandling the controls like a gorilla at feeding time.
Scraping the tarmac ran my speed down another 40mph to a manageable 70 by the time I slid across the border of the gravel trap, missed the deep stuff next to the wall and brought the car to a stop on the grass. The engine and electronics were totally dead. Naughty car, but you had to laugh. These things happened.
I removed and replaced the key. She switched on and drove back to the start line as if nothing had happened – and still managed a time just 0.4 of a second slower than the Merc.
The M3 tore a ferocious pace thanks to its poise and balance in every corner, and aggressive braking. The time was a full five seconds faster than the other two.
I went out with Klaas and the presenters for tapas in the medieval town of Rhonda, overlooking the spectacular ‘El Taho’ gorge. It was a rough existence.
Jeremy was so irked by the day’s events that he accused me of deliberately missing an apex to foul the lap time of his meat wagon. I told him that if I put an apple on the apex he could drive at it all day and never hit it. Jezza swallowed the bait whole.
We lined up the cameras on a sharp corner and I placed the apple at the latter part of the apex kerb. I stood right on the corner to goad the big man further.
Jeremy went at it hammer and tongs, drifting sideways into the corner on different lines and somehow managing to miss every time. He was excruciatingly close, but no strudel. I bit my lip hard, trying desperately not to laugh. After the fifth attempt he gave up and it was my turn in the BMW. If I hit the apple, Jeremy was prepared to eat it.
I flicked the M3 into the turn, lit up the rear tyres and squelched it on the first take. At Jeremy’s request we filmed it from another angle. I nailed it and the big man took a big bite of humble pie. He picked up a grubby piece of crushed apple from the kerb and guzzled it down.
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"...it's not about the money and not about the brand of the car, it's about handling,performance and passion......And that, no other car has all together like an M3........when you talk about the most complete car the M is invincible." --Tony Kanaan.