The great estate: Audi RS2 takes on BMW M5 E34 They’re Both fast and furiously practical, but did BMW or Audi make the best shooting brake? Words Nathan Chadwick. Photography Adam Shorrock.
HEAD TO HEAD BMW M5 TOURING E34 VS AUDI RS2 Nineties über estates – which gets your pulse racing.
Estate of the art
THE GREAT ESTATES All fast family holdalls owe the Audi RS2 and BMW M5 Touring respect. But which is the best now?
The estate has been in a slow decline for years. These once-noble family holdalls are no longer popular, swept away in a clamour for more SUVs and crossovers. The fast estate is entering its final stage of evolution – and that’s a shame. After all, from the Volvo 850T-5R to the unhinged V10 madness of the Audi RS6 and BMW M5 E61, this breed brought performance motoring to those who also had to shift dogs, children and the byproducts of family life. Those latter 10-cylinder chargers might represent the peak of the fast estate, but they wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for these two – the Audi RS2 and BMW M5 Touring E34.
’THE RS2 IS MORE PURPOSEFUL BUT DOESN’T HAVE THE BMW’S UNDERSTATED MENACE’
True, individual tuners and the likes of Alpina and AMG had built quick specials since the 1970s, but these two were the first factory-sanctioned fast estates from Europe. These weren’t just engines in another body – they were precision instruments built by the best in the business. The M5 is a proper M Department product, crafted by hand at Garching. Audi went even further with the RS2, enlisting Porsche to build it on the same line that had just finished building the 500E W124 for Mercedes-Benz (and that had at one time knocked out 959s).
’THE BMW’S STEERING IS MUCH LIGHTER AND MORE VAGUE THAN EXPECTED’
That kind of heritage is a lot to live up to for either car, so to celebrate 25 years since the RS2’s launch we’ve brought together two survivors to see which one marries the differing concepts of estate and performance car together most cohesively. Now, which one to start?
There are few cars that get the four-door saloon quite as right as the E34 – and with the combined talents of Ercole Spada and Claus Luthe to hand it’s hardly surprising. If anything the Touring version is even better – the lines are tense, unfussy and imposing, without being vulgar. You’d be hard pushed to tell this was something special – aficionados might spot the subtle spoilers and bodykit, an those with a keen eye for the parts catalogue will notice the 18in M-Parallel alloy wheels offered as part of the Nürburgring package. Thanks to the Fjord Grey paintwork, it’s really subtle.
’BMW TASKED THE M DEPARTMENT TO COME UP WITH A LIGHTNING-QUICK EXECUTIVE CAR, NOT A SPORTS CAR’
You won’t find quad exhausts here, or a rippling exhaust note on start up. There’s the familiar BMW big-six chinking sound as it turns over and kicks into life, but it’s a refined unit. It’s not without power though; as this is the gen-two powerplant, the S38B38 pumps out 335bhp from 3.8 litres. There’s a larger intake, lighter pistons, shorter conrods, increased compression ratio, reprofiled manifolds on entry and exit, revised ECU and a dual-mass flywheel.
That’s marshalled via a six-speed manual gearbox, making this a rare version of an already rare car – this is one of just 209 built with six Getrag ratios. It’s a nice shift – positive, a little long, as befits a car designed for the autobahn – and with a nice feel. The same could be said for the rest of the interior – you feel like the most important part of the package, with all the dials and diodes pointing towards you. It might feel a bit flimsy to the touch in places, despite the lovely hand-stitched leather, but it’s certainly a more interesting place to be than the Audi.
The Audi struggles to shake off its S2 origins inside and out. Yes, the RS2 is much more purposeful, squatly sitting on its 911 964 Carrera-sourced alloy wheels like a primed sighthound waiting for an unlucky squirrel to stray into its path, but it’s a little too bulbous to have the same understated menace as the Beemer. It’s unmistakable in Nogaro Blue, but plenty more discreet than the M5 in this car’s Polar silver. You’d really have to know your fast German metal to notice the massive air intakes in the injection-moulded bumpers and the small red badge on the grille to take it all in before it blasts past.
Inside it’s far more functional, the dash lying flat. There are body-coloured trim accents that lift the gloom, along with some pleasing white instrument dials, but it doesn’t quite have the exoticism of the Beemer, even if everything feels far more solid.
There’s similar solidity under the skin – the 2.2-litre Audi quattro-sourced 20v five-pot was comprehensively fettled by Porsche to produce 315bhp, and a stomping, supercar-rivalling 143bhp per litre. That headline figure is an 85bhp boost over the standard S2, thanks to a larger KKK turbo and intercooler, a more robust camshaft, bigger injectors and a revised ECU and exhaust set-up.
The Quattro four-wheel drive system uses a Torsen centre diff, and there are six ratios to play with. There are stiffer dampers and anti-roll bars too, though the spring rate was unchanged. Given the unforgiving reputation of Audi suspension, that’s a bit of a relief.
It certainly sounds more up for it at idle – a bassy hum permeates; like a wasp’s nest would sound on the first day back in the office after strenuous bank holiday weekend on the ‘nectar’. Despite this, the M5 appeals to me more. With that glorious naturally-aspirated big six and rear-wheel drive, the ingredients are there – so I take the Touring’s key first. Tales of rampant M-power pace and screaming S38s ring in my ears…
Only it doesn’t translate that way, at least not at first. As we peel out of Seymour Pope’s premises (where these cars are for sale), the M5 doesn’t feel any different to a lesser-engined E34. It’s maybe a little noisier, the seemingly enormous rear load bed amplifying the rear suspension’s doings with the clarity and depth of a concert hall. The seemingly infinitely-adjustable Recaro seats make everything very comfortable, and the gearshift, though a little loose – probably the bushings, a common old Beemer complaint – feels sufficiently weighty.
The Servotronic steering is much lighter and more vague than expected too – but then this is a steering box-fed wheel, rather than rack and pinion. If you’re used to more modern M-Department racks this might come as a disappointing surprise. The first thought isn’t BMW, it’s Mercedes-Benz.
The steering wheel’s not quite as secretive about its work as the Three-Pointed Star’s finest, though, which gives you a little more confidence to push harder. I step on it a bit. Happily, it all starts to come together.
Peak torque arrives at just under 5k, but around three-quarters of it can be had from just under 2k, lending the M5 a more relaxed feeling than you might expect. It doesn’t rev with the enthusiasm you might expect either, but it there's plenty of in-gear punch when dropping down to blast past dawdlers, the engine seemingly scrabbling in the bay in its bid to charge forwards. It doesn’t feel particularly swift by today’s standards, a testament to its relative refinement back in the day. It doesn't sound very exotic when milling about, but it sounds great fully lit, shrieking into life as you head to 7000rpm. But such moments are fleeting; this doesn’t seem like a car that appreciates full-bore throttle workouts and the long gearing makes it feel more lethargic than it actually is.
To that end the damping is very smooth; not quite at Mercedes-Benz level, but we’d happily trade that for the cornering gusto. A late-model car, this one has Electronic Damping Control, well known for failing and leaving grown men in tears when they see the repair bill – there are no replacements available from BMW (see Need to Know). With the Nürburging package, you can choose from two damper settings: put it in P and it will automatically sense the right rate for the road, via monitoring steering angles, body movement, vehicle speed and acceleration and deceleration, and controls each wheel individually.
We can’t help but select the firmest setting and…well, there’s not a great deal of difference, really. Maybe there would be if we headed out on track – but we’re just north of Watford, the largest asphalt expanse is the M25 and it’s currently at a crawl. Instead we head into the twisting lanes in the sliver of green before you get to London itself. TheM5 acquits itself well – there’s no getting away from the steering box’s vagueness, but put your faith into the M5 and it delivers, with excellent stability as you exercise the brakes. There’s a touch of understeer as you lean into the apex, but nudge the accelerator and the rear bites with predictability, bringing the nose into line. Pushharder and you canunleash your inner Jethro quite easily, though that seems an odd thing to do in any estate car, even one wearing an M badge.
Drive it neatly, quickly, and you’ll discover vast reserves of grip – this feels like the natural driving style to adopt and it rewards with excellent feedback and needle-point adjustability. Just remember to keep it on the boil past 4000rpm and you’ll be fine.
Some might find that disappointing; and if you’re seeking the fast-revving, screaming hooliganism you get from M3s and later M5s, then this isn’t really the car for you. BMW tasked the M Department to come up with a lightning-quick executive car, not a sports car (the steering is too ponderous for that), and the results are excellent in terms of achieving that aim.
’AROUND 3000RP, THE AUDI CHUCKS YOU INTO THE RECAROS WITH AN IMMENSE FORCE’
But can the Audi manage to go one better? So far it’s provided entertaining five-pot bass notes to the BMW’s high-octave delivery, but can it keep the concert going from behind the wheel?
The answer wasn’t immediately obvious back in the day. The original Ur-quattro has its enthusiasts, but personally I’m not a fan. It looks and sounds great, but isn’t especially thrilling. I’ve not driven its replacement, the S2, upon which this is based, but seeing as that was panned back in the day, hopes aren’t high.
Much like the BMW, it takes a while to show its hand. But rather than the M5’s slow reveal, when the Audi does it slaps its cards on the table with a huge snap – somewhere around 3000rpm, chucking you into the Recaros with a force that still seems immense despite its modern equivalent, the RS4, chucking out twice the output. Past 3000rpm it’s fairly linear, but when the shove comes you’d better be pointing in the right direction.
Not that it’s an unwieldy beast – far from it. As you might expect there’s truly epic grip and traction, but those mere words just don’t convey the RS2’s ability to take ever more lateral punishment in its stride.
The best experience is on initially tight corners that gradually open out. Approach at speed and dab the brakes, and the lack of understeer is a revelation. Hit the throttle and there’s absolute precision as you accelerate, the engine firing away like a roaring crowd – no drift, no wander, just ever increasing velocity. The only thing stopping you is the feeling your brain might be sucked out of your ear, such are the lateral G-forces.
If the lack of understeer was surprising, then there’s the steering. It was panned as lacking feel, and failing to excite, when it was launched; and yes, there isn’t the granular detail the M5 is happy to provide when you start to lean on it. But 25 years on and in sharp contrast to most performance cars these days, there’s a clarity of information about the road surface that’s at least satisfyingly detectable, if not piped into your fingertips.
You really do get a sense there’s a connection going on – that’s helped by an interior that although solid, is nowhere near as refined as more modern Audis. You feel part of this experience, rather than simply watching it. The jiggly ride has a role to play in that, too, and the body roll – it’s an engaging experience.
The steering is direct and accurate; heavier than the BMW’s but it doesn’t increase its communication in extremis either. It’s still much better than most Audis of the era – and since, come to that.
The brakes feel much sharper than the BMW’s; the Porsche-branded Brembos are eyeball-warpingly quick to operate. The gearshift isn’t, though – occasionally it feels clumsy across the gate, though the clutch feel is much nicer than the Beemer’s. The best course of action is to take an unhurried approach to gearshifts, going for accuracy rather than hardcore, sharp-shifting immediacy. But then it’s not really that type of car.
It’s all about the accelerative thrust – the RS2 is famous for beating the McLaren F1 to 30mph (1.5sec vs 1.7sec), but the more useful figures lie in-gear. Stomping from 40mph to 60mph takes less than three seconds; get more adventurous and from there to 80mph takes little more than three and a half seconds. If you’re truly wedded to the traffic light grand prix it’ll do that in 4.8 seconds. That’s still quick even by today’s standards.
You can imagine the brief for this car, an excruciatingly exacting one – it was ordered by Ferdinand Piech himself, after all – and it feels like it’s nailed that. But is it enough to defeat the Munich machine?