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Audi RS3 vs BMW M3 vs Porsche 911 vs... an Aventador?

Wrong time of year for enjoying the great outdoors, right? Rubbish, there’s no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing... and cars

Published: 01 Apr 2022

Even for the 15-tog loonies drunk on Biscoff mochaccinos who insist that this time of year is their favourite, winter motoring is miserable. Salt-encrusted paintwork, white sun in your eyes for the 20 minutes a day that it isn’t pitch black, and a screenwash receipt longer than Number 10’s bar tab. The car industry spies an opportunity. Increasingly, there’s a trend for fast cars with split personalities: something you can wield against the elements, wrapping you in that warm cloak of electronic invincibility, with a streak of yobbo-on-demand. A winter weapon.

We headed north in search of ice and snow, but the majestic Cairngorms have let us down. For centuries this rugged hillscape has been home to the most dependable snow in Britain, with records of flakes falling in every single month of the year. Even in the Scottish Highlands, they don’t make winters like they used to. But the skies remain spectacular: morning breaks with a watercolour palette of orange and purple. Defrosted, our convoy heads east from Aviemore, away from the speed camera-infested A9.

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Naturally, we required a fast Audi – the quintessential sub-zero teleportation pod. But the new 394bhp RS3 is something of a fresh direction for quattro. And that direction is ‘sideways’. The headline act for the third-generation RS3 isn’t its raucous, oversized 2.5-litre engine, but rather its torque-splitter rear differential. ‘Drift Mode’ might sell cars, but the promise of a more rear axle-driven chassis is what makes this the most promising new Audi since the first version of the R8.

Photography: Mark Riccioni 

It’s a fascinating contrast with the new BMW M3 xDrive – the first ever to be sold with all-wheel drive. As one of the most predictable mega-hatches learns there’s life beyond understeer, BMW’s last bastion of rear-drive über alles bows to the inevitable and grudgingly notes folks willing to part with £75k for a 503bhp family saloon would appreciate the traction to deploy that poke either side of August. Is it just me, or have we found the spec for the over-nostrilled M3? Burgundy with gold calipers finally adds an air of class to this overwrought gargoyle. Grime helps cover the rest.

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Porsche has been plumbing four-wheel drive into 911s since 1989. Back then it was an unsophisticated sop to the arse-engined balance’s appetite for untalented stockbrokers. As with every change made to the 911 since 1963, it had traditionalists frothing over ‘loss of purity’ and ‘not lethal enough’, but consistently strong uptake through the three generations of 911 since means the latest, fastest Carrera – the 992 GTS – is indeed available as a ‘4’, for an extra £5,580 over the RWD GTS.

These German systems are trained to divide drive instantaneously between the front and rear axles, juggling torque where it can best be deployed. They’re constantly thinking and tweaking underneath you – in particular the 911, which snatches at the road as it sniffs out purchase while the temperature outside climbs past 3˚C.

Audi RS3 Sportback + BMW M3 Comp xDrive + Porsche 911 C4 GTS + Lambo Aventador SVJ Roadster

Then there’s the Lamborghini Aventador Roadster. An 11-year-old supercar raging against the dying of its light in final SVJ evolution, with a blown rear wing ejecting air from its underside to modulate downforce, and a how-the-heck-is-this-legal 6.5-litre V12 that makes an avalanche of noise. And 770bhp as an afterthought.

While my back uncoils from yesterday’s 430-mile journey north peering out of the Lamborghini, I plump for the M3 as the fiery horizon gives way to a trendy slate-grey. Bad move. This M3 is equipped with the £11,250 ‘Ultimate Pack’, which includes possibly the silliest chairs ever fitted to a road-going vehicle. Posting even a modest thigh between the obese steering wheel and the girder-like bolster is like squeezing through a London Underground turnstile without paying the fare.

Even once seated, the idiotic carbon fibre genital-gutter makes life uncomfortable. Very progressive of BMW to build an M3 only ladies can drive in comfort. This might be the friendlier xDrive-equipped M3, but nothing’s been done to soften the M3’s first impression, just because you’ve chosen the weatherproof version for a £2,500 premium.

The car doesn’t immediately feel heavier than a rear-drive example. There’s no detectable wriggle corrupting the steering. Right now, this is still a rear-wheel-drive M3. To keep der faithful on side, the M3 xDrive only demands power be shared with the front wheels once the rears have lost traction. More of a last resort than an idiot-proof guardian angel.

It’s a monster in a straight line, aping the relentlessness of a Nissan GT-R without the drivetrain histrionics. I think my brain drew that parallel from the similar soundtracks – the M3’s bi-turbo straight-six is an industrial-sounding ‘powerhaus’, unconvincingly augmented by the speakers. It’s the only car here that sounds better from outside than in the cabin. I’d be miffed that an RS3 driver gets to enjoy a more exotic noise.

But there are grumbles coming from the RS3 – it takes an age to warm up, the heater is lacklustre and the bum-warmers feeble. The Aventador constantly steamed up yesterday, too, but I’d put that down to the aircon being attuned for Dubai over Dunbartonshire.

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Clearly frustrated, Greg gives the RS3 a bootful, and even the sure-footed M3 loses five lengths on the Kermit-skinned rocket ship. In the split second the BMW needed to ponder gearbox kickdown and where to divide the horses, the RS3 arrived at full boost, dug its claws into the frigid surface and trumpeted away.

Giving chase exposes where BMW’s purist attitude to all-wheel drive is exciting, but isn’t ultimately as useful in the depths of winter. It’s also too complicated. Two tiers of brake pedal feel? No thanks, I’d prefer consistency. None of the steering modes unlock the feedback being reported from Sam in the 911, and then you’ve the choice of ‘4WD Sport’ (even more rear-drive biased) and a fully RWD mode. Select the latter mode and you can ratchet up through 10 stages of traction control offness, but that would be like setting a mountain lion loose in your kitchen then offering it a tin of corned beef. Nice try, but it’s still going to bite.

Up here, the RS3 strikes a sturdier balance for a wintertide missile. At last able to entrust the back wheels with meaningful power, the RS3 feels alert and poised, reacts to your commands rather than overriding them. It’s not a car of tactile sensation – the steering, like the M3’s, is numb and the brakes aren’t pinpoint sharp – but when it encounters a sadistic shaded patch where sunlight hasn’t penetrated the trees and ice still laces the road, it charges forth ruthlessly where the M3’s brief shimmy dents your confidence.

We rotate cars again near Braeriach – Britain’s third highest mountain – and now a climate change tourist attraction. Clinging to a gulley in the rock face lies the ‘Sphinx’ – a patch of snow that is so sheltered from the sun’s glare it remains steadfastly frozen even through summer. It’s only known to have completely melted eight times in the past 300 years – six of those in the last quarter of a century, including 2021. And, yes, I do appreciate the irony in barrelling past in 2,129bhp of sweety jar coloured sports cars. The Aventador SVJ chucks out more CO2 than the 911 and the RS3 combined, and that’s why this is the last non-hybrid V12 Lamborghini ever. I’ll build up to it.

Audi RS3 Sportback + BMW M3 Comp xDrive + Porsche 911 C4 GTS + Lambo Aventador SVJ Roadster

I select the long drop into the 911. Several miles later, the biggest surprise isn’t that this is (yet) another crushingly competent and immaculately rounded Porsche. It’s that I’m preferring this GTS to the current GT3. Devoid of the winged one’s double wishbone front suspension with its track-hungry settings, the king of the Carreras is trustworthy without any of the GT3’s camber- following, bump-steering mayhem.

The engine’s not as savage, but the way it rips around from 7,000 to 8,000rpm is well worth hanging on for. Today’s 911s aren’t small anymore, and the hips feel vulnerable as the drystone walls close in, but 10 minutes in this makes you wonder why Jaguar, BMW, Mercedes or anyone else bothers to build a £100,000 sports car.

Do you need the ‘4’? Not sure. Feels more of a placebo out here. A graphic on the digi-dash monitors where the torque is being lobbed. Bosh the throttle and it floods forward but recedes almost the instant the car is rolling. It’s just a swift getaway aid, and the modern 911 is such a traction monster anyway it’s a real belt and braces approach to deal with a ‘mere’ 473bhp. It’s unflappable, but cleverly unspoilt by carrying 4WD. You might never even know it was there.

Microphones lurk in the front wheelarches listening for the hiss of spray, whereupon the car suggests selecting Wet mode, which directs further torque to the front axle, puts the ABS, TC and ESP on Defcon Wally and renders the 992 nigh-unspinnable. Ironic how the infamous ‘widow-making’ Porsche 911 is now the most trustworthy car in its class.

Sound too easy? For £388,000, the VW family will sell you a car that does almost nothing on your behalf. Coincidentally the only car here not wearing winter tyres complete with extra grooves for siphoning snow and malleable treadblocks which keep on gripping in freezing ambience. Aventador-spec 355-section 21-inch winter rubber isn’t exactly stacked ceiling high at Kwik Fit.

Audi RS3 Sportback + BMW M3 Comp xDrive + Porsche 911 C4 GTS + Lambo Aventador SVJ Roadster

The Aventador uses a Haldex-type AWD system, the sort of gubbins deployed in Audi S3s and old Golf Rs, only here it’s rear-biased. An electronic diff shares the V12’s fury with the front tyres – apparently capable of anticipating slip and ‘preloading’ the 4WD system, but there’s no screen informing you what’s going where. If it spools up, the shrill exhaust shriek spiking is the giveaway. Good luck. Lamborghini has been an AWD-dominated company ever since Audi took the reins in 1998, but it’s not really innovated the concept. You get the sense Lambos are 4WD because the legal department thought it was best, not because the engineers really get off on the set-up. Curious device, the SVJ. With its trick aero, oddly compliant ride and savage performance it dearly wants to be taken seriously as a honed hypercar, but the letterbox visibility, headbanging single-clutch gearbox and unnuanced drive modes are horribly intimidating. In anything other than the most relaxed Strada setting, the ESC is wound down. Gulp.

Still, this big bad Lambo has a reputation for having corks on the end of its horns, sanitised for show-offs who want to spit fire in Mayfair but couldn’t catch a skid if their life depended on it. Which it will. Maybe that’s true of a standard one in the dry, but find yourself in the SVJ on a sketchy downhill off-camber sweeper and you’re awfully aware that massive V12 – all 235kg of it – will happily point itself down into the valley first if provoked. There’s never any extra lane to play with, just the thud-thud-slap of steamroller tyres over cats eyes and your prayers of thanks to the inventors of rear-wheel steering. Lawd knows how cumbersome this was before Sant’Agata added the independently steering rear.

But if the Aventador had been practical or wieldy, it would have disappointed. I’d never driven one before this test, so it’s a bucket list moment: at last, a V12 Lambo. Roof (clumsily) stowed in the nose, another gallon of screenwash funnelled into its bottomless tank, and the Old Military Road. A soaring 8,500rpm deathbed memory.

Audi RS3 Sportback + BMW M3 Comp xDrive + Porsche 911 C4 GTS + Lambo Aventador SVJ Roadster

And also an ideal vantage point from which to watch the other guys and their varying behaviours up front. The M3 makes its driver cut corners, wary of upsetting its 1.8 tonnes in a rapid direction change. The 911 is composure itself, and brutally fast on tight corner exit. The RS3 seems to never illuminate its brake lights. It just effs off.

I catch them up at Glenshee. I’m not embarrassed about being dropped – I’ve been revelling in second gear alone, thanks. Hands are numb, hair ruined, eyes are dry. And my chapped lips crack from the grin.

Glenshee is where we find snow, but it’s as natural as the BMW’s engine note. In 2019 the ski centre spent £1 million on a TechnoAlpin Snowfactory SF210, aka a two-storey shipping container seemingly full of diesel engines. Think of it like a giant American fridge’s icemaker, pumping out 250 cubic metres of snow per day to keep the slopes in business.

Three of the cars trek up the rutted gravel slope for a closer look. Mechanical sympathy for the SVJ’s clutch – and nose – relegates it to the car park, where it’s promptly mobbed. I must admit to finding it sobering that even up here, winter needs an industrial leg-up from humans just to provide some downhill entertainment. Why, that’s as logical as, say, building four-wheel-drive cars with the option of sloshing horsepower to the back to make them artificially lairier. We are an odd species. I prefer summer myself.

For all the seasons, I’d want the Porsche. But tonight, for the headlong run back to the lodge, I can’t resist the fanatically fast Audi.

It’s a weapon alright. Has the potential to turn its driver into one as well.

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