OK. I SEE what’s happened here. When the BMW 335i arrived in new F30 format, the logical thing to do was set it loose against its Ingolstadt counterpart, the Audi S4. Clearly, when requesting the V6T, the Volvo with the phonetically identical name á la V60 was instead offered up by its handler, which explains why Sweden has an entrant in our usually Teutonically exclusive premium compact sedan shootout. The reality is that apart from the offending non-saloon profile (I prefer the wagon anyway) there are more similarities between the Audi and Volvo’s Polestar than you’d have guessed, ditto to a lesser degree the Bavarian – so Sweden plays along. Critically, they all boast force-induction 3.0-litre powerplants with outputs hovering above 225kW and 400Nm. So is this a proper three-way grudge match or will the Polestar struggle?
Were the battle fought on looks alone, it would be close but I’d give the honours to the Volvo. Ours is black, with R Design aesthetic enhancements throughout. That entails 18-inch diameter two-tone alloy wheels, and silver accents on its deep bumpers and rear diffuser. It helps that the base V60 shell is such an aggressive looking thing, arguably more svelte and somehow menacing than its S60 sedan counterpart. Factory cars are seldom endowed with such a purposeful stance as the Volvo’s although the Audi gets close – real close. It is lathered in dramatic red paint, also with two-tone 18-inchers, identical to the rims on the RS3. This one’s a facelift rather than an all-new machine as is the case in the BMW.
But I’d argue that an all-new A4 would barely look any different, thanks to an overly cautious (almost lazy) stylist at Ingolstadt. I like it, I like how much edgier it’s become with a more intricately detailed interpretation of the Audi grille. Its chiselled lamp clusters are so filled with crystal nuances it looks like a fractal explosion frozen in ice. I like how the subtle S Line trim gives the impression of a hard working ground effects kit, making the saloon look like its hugging the road surface at pace, even when parked.
The BMW suffers here, being sprayed in a generic white and lacking the BMW Motorsport body kit that would undoubtedly have made it look like a proper circuit stomper. It, too, gets 18-inch alloys, covered in Bridgestone Potenza S001 rubber versus the ContiSport Contact 3 items on the S4 and the Bridgestone Potenza Adrenalines on the Polestar. I don’t know about the new looks though. Personally, I think it’s a subtle improvement on the E90 with the headlamps now kissing those kidney grilles ahead of the long raked bonnet. The rear end is unmistakably similar to the 5 Series, while in profile the car looks hauntingly similar to its predecessor. However, it’s that imposing front end that I see most often in my rear view.
Climb into the BMW and it’s a warm, pleasant experience. F30 is a subtle but effective improvement over the E90. Ergonomics are largely unchanged, but the styling feels more resolved, more attractive and textures throughout are a tactile pleasure. This car has the Sport Line trim level – versus Modern and Luxury – so detailing in the cabin echoes the accents on the outside. Gone are any reservations against BMW’s iDrive, the system now feels intuitive and is the perfect interface between driver and machine.
The Audi’s MMI is similarly accomplished although at first can be finicky to navigate for the uninitiated. The S4’s interior holds no surprises. Despite its familiarity it still impresses, and is my favourite here. Lavish red leather inserts on seats and door panels impress further as does the red stitching running hither and thither throughout the cockpit – this car manages to feel so much more special than its rivals.
Aboard the Volvo, life is somewhat more drab. It’s dark in here, uninspired and damn near antiseptic. Oh Volvo, this is just not cutting it when you produce a car with more power than the Germans and then bestow upon it looks that illicit reactions in the loins of petrolheads. If this was a report card I’d be forced to mark the Volvo an F with the added note ‘Must try harder’. The array of controls are different from what you get in the Germans but no less functional. I miss a user interface similar to the other cars’, but the most obvious deficit is that of shift paddles, almost mandatory in a quick auto. The seats don’t do as good a job of cossetting the driver as the other cars either, which could prove problematic considering we’re testing them back-to-back along a 500km Western Cape mountain meander.
Going by the numbers alone, it was any car’s game. The BMW churns out 225kW and 400Nm at the flywheel, and sent to the rear. It’s the only two-wheel driven car here, with the Volvo and Audi powering all four wheels. The Audi matches the BMW’s 245kW and 440Nm but then at 1640kg it does weigh 140kg more. The Volvo with its Polestar software stays competitive at an alleged 242kW and 480Nm. I say alleged because the remapped V60 has not been officially tested locally. Unfortunately, it weighs 1741kg and also has the slushiest six speed autobox here, as opposed to the seven-speed S-tronic in the Audi or the eight-speed auto in the BMW.
Where the Audi sprints from zero to 100kph in 5.4 seconds, the BMW hangs on at a close 5.57. The Volvo’s drivetrain is unable to match these launches so makes do with a modest 7.08 second sprint, relegating it to mere hot hatch performance. It holds even across the quarter-mile, passing the marker in 15 seconds dead, while the Audi manages it in 13.57 seconds and the 335i in 13.83. It’s feeling like a two-horse race here, as similar numbers get repeated during in-gear acceleration tests, with the Audi and BMW both pouncing from 60 to 100kph in 2.86 seconds while the Volvo trails at 3.01. It does, however, manage to out-brake the BMW by the barest of margins, stopping in 2.62 seconds versus 2.64 in the 335i over the test routine. The Audi outshines again with a stopping time of 2.56 seconds.
What the numbers don’t tell you though, or give you any insight into, is the fantastic soundtracks of each of these boosted vehicles. Each is so distinct, different and delicious to the ear. Bounce the Audi’s needle into the red and you’re rewarded with a full-bodied roar, crisp at the top and quick to build up into a crescendo when spooling through the revs. The BMW is thinner, tinnier, boosted but still pure. The Volvo takes a page out of the BMW book with a higher-pitched bark, but then adds in all the whooping and whistling from a modified street racer. Uncharacteristically Volvo, but I like it. None of these cars escape the imposed 250kph top speed limit, but the Audi certainly feels the most capable.
The Audi continues to feel capable on the winding tarmac that joins De Doorns and Montagu, a majestic stretch of road that rides the topography like a roller coaster. Our test car has not been fitted with the optional adaptive ride suspension, so must make do with the standard five-link front, trapezoidal-link rear, with anti-roll bars across both axles. As a result, it rolls and yaws up till a point, then loads up firmly onto its springs. Hardly discouraging, but it’s there. The BMW manages to remain flatter through the same turns, and feels livelier too with its lighter kerb weight and rear-wheel drive. Driving modes exist here, ranging from Eco-Pro (economy over performance) to Sport+ (all systems set to maximum performance with minimal traction control). In a topsy-turvy change of events, it’s the Audi which offers the better steer, feeling meatier, more substantial in my palms than the BMW, which for the first time in ages can be accused of being too light. This isn’t just good-for-an-Audi steering, it’s great for any car, and I’d rate one of the best racks on a modern Audi since the revered RS4. Sure, its lacks the grainy feedback of a BMW helm, but it has this particular 335i trumped. Turn-in is immediate and feels precise versus an initial bout of vagueness on the BMW across the first five to 10 degrees of lock. After that its automotive telepathy as the BMW delivers a constant stream of communication to its driver.
The Volvo is very different. I can tell that the chassis has great alacrity and a superb ability to change direction, but the steering is far too light for this to be executed with enough precision. The only way to supersede the guesswork that goes into accurate cornering is repetition and familiarity. Once you’re used to the action, the Volvo does seem to shed some of its weight and become alive in your hands, but thanks to poor mid-range tractability – no doubt attributable to that gearbox – still loses out in the turns. I reckon a heftier and more realistic steering feel plus a quicker transmission if not a dual-clutch (I’ll take either with some paddles!) and possibly tweaked throttle response would make this car truly competitive in this company. I don’t even mind the suspension, crashy as it is over pock-marked road surfaces, it managed its weight well when pushed hard through Du Toit’s Pass. Sorry Volvo, we’re not there yet but we are close.
Hmmm, the V60. I was at the launch of this car in Portugal two years ago where the designers and engineers professed this new chassis to be a proper departure from their staid past efforts. Here was a sporty Volvo, built from the ground up to be a fun drive, dynamically adept at the pedal pushing driving style that comes naturally to its rivals on this page. They were mostly right. It is a transformed animal, dynamic, fun and powerful, but in truth it’s still a generation behind. And that’s good news, since decades-old Volvos were essentially four-wheeled cruisers with the dynamic ability of a box car. I predict that if the marque continues along this trajectory that the next generation of Polestar will indeed be equipped to play alongside metal dubbed BMW M, Audi RS and Mercedes AMG. Sadly, for now the V60 can be discounted in this shoot out.
THE GERMAN VERDICT
BMW versus Audi – who shall I offend? The Audi is fractionally quicker. In this trim, it looks better too, and I still prefer its dated interior. If they had mapped an extra 60kW into its engine and tacked an R in front of its S4 badge, I’d probably have a lot of good things to say about that too, that’s how good this chassis feels. I like the way it sounds, the way it launches itself forward even when half way through a turn, it’s just so responsive. But it is an old car, fighting a younger and more athletic 3 Series rival.
The new 335i is better than the car it replaces, more athletic too, and you feel at any time that it’s over 100 kilos lighter than the Audi. Also, it’s R70000 cheaper in base form, and when a German manufacturer sells you a base vehicle, believe me it’s the automotive equivalent of a bring-and-braai – there’s nothing in there. Not the fancy seats, not the clever suspension, zilch – so get out your pen and get ready to tick some boxes to the final tune of just under R700000.
Which would I choose? Well, I’ve long been touting rear-wheel drive as the zenith of driver enjoyment and Colin Chapman would agree that lightness is paramount. At Killarney, the 335i proved to be one of the most balanced cars we’ve tested in ages, and I know my fellow testers would agree. But you know what? Right now, barrelling along tight canyon walls and diving into valleys, I’d rather have the Audi S4