The $75K question: BMW Z4 35i, BMW M3 coupe, Audi TT-RS or Audi RS5?

Since I already answered the $64,000 question with the purchase of my S5 (when compared to a BMW 335is coupe), I’ve been wondering what I would get if my budget were around $75,000. My requirements would be:

  • The car must be purchased or financed new
  • The price must include a four-year maintenance plan
  • Manual transmission a near-must, but I’ll consider a very good dual-clutch transmission in a pinch
  • I would need to squeeze in and be comfortable

The extra $11,000 would allow me to make the jump up to the next level of performance, as it unlocks access to the perennial king of high-performance compact coupes: the BMW M3. Of course, that also provides me access to the upcoming Audi RS5 and TT-RS coupes, as well as the delicious-yet-evil BMW Z4 35i (or 35is, but not all reviews have been glowing). For many, it also opens the door to the Porsche Boxster S or the Cayman S, but it was bad enough for me to try to squeeze into a 911 and that is ever-so-slightly larger than either rear mid-rear roadster or coupe.

At the $75,000 mark, I could also include the Mercedes-Benz E-class coupe or an SLK350. So, why did I not include them on my list? Neither are at the same level as the M3 or RS5 coupes and the Z4, for a hard-top convertible, is a bit more raw than the non-AMG SLK. There is also the Cadillac CTS-V coupe, which I did not consider because of the design. Awesome engine, yes. Eye-gouging design, very yes!

First up, the BMW M3 coupe. What can I say, it has a great reputation for performance and handling and has a high-revving, naturally-aspirated V8. It also comes standard with a manual transmission and an option for a DCT, along with a Competition Package to give the car an extra level of testosterone rush. There, I said it… the M3 is a balls-out, testosterone boost delivery system with four wheels and a knee-weakening audio system, I mean engine growl.

A well-kitted out M3 coupe with the Competition Package, manual transmission and the important tech toys comes in at a hair over $72,000 with the gas guzzler tax. My build would have a similar color scheme as my Audi S5, though it would still look great dressed in white.

The cons for the M3? Well, the biggest one is the lack of a rear-biased all-wheel drive setup. Yes, the 100% RWD setup is one of the most efficient methods of getting power from the crank to the wheels. A rear-biased AWD setup would not only add weight and parasitic loss; and not to mention, would be considered blasphemous for hard-core M3 purists and fanatics. I have been spoiled by the newer Audi quattro setup in my S5, with its 40/60 front/rear ratio and the Sports Rear Differential. I could live with the RWD setup, though I would have to add about $1,200-1,500 for a set of winter tires and rims and storage.

The only other con for the M3 is that the interior is still pretty dang austere compared to other competitors in the same price range.

With that said, why would I consider another RWD vehicle, in the form of the BMW Z4 35i? Have you not seen, ridden in or driven one? For me, the only other sexy hard-top roadster out there is the Mercedes-Benz SL550, which comes in at around $100,000. It is also a roadster that so happens to have most of the engine mass sitting behind the front wheels, making it a front mid-engine rear-driven roadster. I would take a Z4 35i over a 335is convertible anyday, even if the 335is has a better tune and torque overboost.

While the Z4 still uses an older interior layout and design, it is a step up from the M3. Another consideration is that the Z4 is pure roadster, not a freak-out performance tourer, a luxury grand tourer that is the 650i, or the luscious grand tourer like an S5 or an RS5. So that 300 HP/300 ft-lb of torque makes it the “weakest” of the four.

Configured as I would like it, the price comes out to be $68,325 and looks like no other roadster with the Atacama Yellow color package. Only a Glut Orange S5 or RS5 would come close to the jaw-dropping looks. I could almost bust the budget with an equivalent Z4 35is, though I would lose the manual transmission for a DCT in order to get a better engine. Unfortunately, it kind of loses the balance that the Z4 30i and 35i are known for.

Now with the two BMW options considered, it is time to consider the Audi offerings. I need to state that neither the RS5 or the the TT-RS are currently available in the United States, nor has pricing been finalized. It is rumored at the RS5 would have a base price of around $67,000-68,500 and the TT-RS coming around the price just a bit above an S5 coupe. Also, the RS5 will only be available with the S-Tronic DCT and what transmission(s) will be available for the US-spec TT-RS is still up in the air. Unlike the lesser siblings, the TT-RS does have a permanent quattro setup akin to the S5 and RS5, but would still be a front-engine transverse mount setup.

In the RS5, the 4.2-litre engine from the RS4 is carried over with some tweaks and new tuning. The engine is also related to the one used in the R8, but two engines are not identical (the R8 4.2 engine gets a different intake, dry-sump oiling system and among other things). For the TT-RS, Audi goes back to their famous inline five-cylinder block, massaged and let loose with turbocharging.

Between the two, the RS5 is more of a grand tourer that so happens to be even more powerful than the S5. Being an RS engine, it gains horsepower and is of a high-revving nature, at the expense of low-end torque. The boosted TT-RS engine is closer in performance numbers to the S5’s take on the 4.2-litre engine, but makes use of a partial Audi Space Frame monocoque. The ASF allows the TT-RS to be a fair amount lighter than the A5/S5 monocoque and allows it to be faster than the S5.

Like the Z4, the TT-RS is a two-seater affair and isn’t the king of utility. The current generation of TT models are also straddled with an older generation DVD-based MMI that is pretty limiting. It will be interesting to see what the front-to-rear weight ratio will be like in the US-spec RS5 and TT-RS.

As mentioned, both have Audi’s latest generation quattro and the RS5 also gets a crown-gear center differential for increased efficiency. The RS5 also gets Audi Drive Select and the Sports Rear Differential (whether it will be standard or optional when it comes to the US is TBD) that helps make the heavy front-end almost vanish… almost.

Now, decision time. If I were to actually take any of the cars out on a road course, the M3 and the TT-RS would be my choice. The M3 is the Bavarian brute-force solution and can make for a decent daily driver with a usable trunk and rear seats. The TT-RS would be a lighter-weight contender and be a great car to throw around the turns, but could be a bit too harsh as a daily driver. I’ll have to wait for the US-spec model to arrive before I commit to that statement.

For something closer to my current S5, the RS5 would be a logical choice. I would miss not having a manual transmission and may not be that livable in the pothole ridden roads around Portland or Seattle day-in and day-out. It’s too soon to tell at this point as a US-spec RS5 is still a year out.

The Z4 would be a perfect summer car and would have almost enough space in the trunk for hauling photography equipment; yet, still be a usable romper when the clouds return for the rest of the year. One concern that I would have is if it has enough power and handling to justify the price tag. I feel that if BMW kept the hard-top coupe of the Z4-M coupe and made the 35is engine the standard engine for the 35i, it would make the decision that much easier.

Neither the M3 or the RS5 will be fuel sippers, which can become a concern once premium gas hits $5.50 per gallon, if not higher. The Z4, and possibly the TT-RS, would be a more fuel friendly choice due to relatively lower engine sizes and output. In this day and age, that is pretty important and cannot be overlooked.

If I had to decide on just one vehicle out of the four options, I think I might go for the TT-RS. It is relatively lightweight, has a good amount of grunt and power, has a moderate level of utility and has a permanent form of quattro. That last bit is what gives the TT-RS that one point over the Z4 35i. The M3 and the RS5 would be awesome to own, but start to lose out in the bang-for-the-buck and cost to own metrics.

With all that said, I love my S5 and would not change it out for anything at this point. A Z4 would make for a nice second car, but not quite as a primary car.