It's Panto Season - The Ultimate Driving Machine?
"Oh no it isn't" seems the appropriate way to start this review as it's panto season. Continuing the theme, one thing is also certain "it's behind you", a long long way behind you, if you're driving the RS3 that is.
This is a little test I got to do a few weeks ago but I haven't had time to tell you the tale. Now clearly I'm biased but my bias was equally matched by the M enthusiast who is running the M135i while he awaits delivery of his new M powered luxobarge (he's just sold his M5 and waiting for an M6). So when Paul called and told me we were going to the same event in mid Wales we arranged to meet up and take the interesting route.
Paul had been confident in his pre-meet banter, he was confident I'd be so impressed by the M135i, and wouldn't be able to keep, that I'd be buying one soon after this little meet. "The balance of the M135i is so good through the sweepers you'll never keep up in your all wheel dull", having not driven the 1M or M135i I couldn't really comment but just thought to myself we'll see. Paul had bought all the Chris Harris and magazine stories about the RS3 understeering in to the nearest hedge if it so much sees a corner. The thing is I have spent quite a bit of time in a 120d daily driver work car and while it's a nice enough place to sit, much better than the other option which is a Focus, it is underwhelming when you push on.
A road rockets?
So to the test, the Wednesday arrived and true to form it turned out to be a wet one or rather a torrential downpour with the mountain roads we had chosen running with surface water. I was excited by this and Paul was still bullish that the M135i would still show me the way. All the magazine tests were conducted on dry days so this would give us some answers the magazines hadn't or I'll suggest had purposefully avoided. Both evo and Top Gear magazines have printed negatives about the M135i, evo told us how the M135i became ragged on a wet track and Top Gear, or rather the Stig, went further saying it wasn't even that good on a dry track. Had the case for the M135i been overstated by journalists who only drive cars for a few hours?
Paul took the lead on the first stretch so confident that I wouldn't know which way he'd gone though the quick sweepers on he A roads that lay ahead. So I follow along in S ready to react to any sudden breakaway. Oddly nothing happens, were moving at a fair pace but soon I've dropped the RS3 back in to D and am tickling along behind in 6th/7th. Both cars are flappy paddle and running on Michelin Pilot Super Sport tyres so there is a direct comparison here(it was 11 degrees on the day for those who care about such things). In every magazine test only the M135i was on MPSS the others being on more road biased tyres. After following for a while I got bored, dropped in to S waited for a long left hander that opens onto a long straight and thundered past. Or I should say thundered past with ease. We stopped at the next layby for a bacon buttie.
"You must have been really pushing that [RS3] through those long sweepers" says Paul, buttie in hand but without his usual grin on his face.
"Nope, I didn't even have to try I was in Drive until I got a bit bored and overtook" said I, followed by a slightly uncomfortable silence. I chose to enjoy the bacon rather than say any more.
"So where was all the understeer the magazines complain about?" was the slightly dejected question.
"That's the thing, the RS3 only understeers if you enter corners way too fast, and even then it's easy to correct." is my reply thinking if only I had a £1 for every time someone asked me about the RS3 and understeer. Chris Harris you've so overplayed that card.
"Can we swap seats?" asks Paul, now I wasn't expecting the offer this early in the day. "Oh yes" I reply like a slightly over enthusiastic Churchill nodding dog. "Just one question though, why didn't you offer me a drive of the M5?" the response is is a single digit. Oh dear it seems my reputation (and maybe the odd YouTube video) once again precedes me!
We swap seats and this time I lead in the M135i running similar fast sweeping A roads. I'm giving it my all in the M135i but can't gain any distance on Paul in my RS3 at all. I've driven plenty of RWD stuff from the supposedly tricky S2000 to the slide at will caterfields. I'm quite happy slithering about in the wet. The thing is the M135i doesn't really slither about, just like the 120d it all feels quite front driven until you reach the exit of a corner. With RWD it's much more important to wait for the exit. Where you can get on the loud pedal at or even slightly before the apex in the RS3 you do this at your peril in the M135i. I was shocked just how late I had to wait to get back on the throttle. Get on the power early and you either get a massive finger wagging 'no' if the assists are on or a very strange kick from the rear of the car with them off. The M135i shows it's weight when it starts to slide and you'd better be on your game.
As agreed we stop again before turning on to the tight and twisty stuff. Our verdict at this point is the same. I didn't make any ground on the RS3 in the M135i and Paul agrees that he was just tickling long with no real effort. Begrudgingly he admits he's quietly impressed.
B road blasting
Now it's my turn to lead in the RS3 and lets just say I opened the taps. The full launch start might have given an indication of what was to come. You've seen plenty from me on the B road ability of the RS3 so I won't repeat that here. The victory was simply crushing, the M135i had no idea which way the RS3 had gone. Just to prove it was nothing to do with driving ability we switched cars and repeated once more. Three corners, exactly 3 corners is how long I could see the back of my RS3 before it was long long gone.
So my next thought was maybe I need to up the pace, maybe the M135i is one of those cars that comes to life when you really hustle it. Oh wow what a mistake, I enter the next corner, one I know well, with great visibility and some tarmac run off on to an Army range area, at an enthusiastic pace. If you've ever had your knee give way from under you you've experienced what happened next. The whole car lurched sideways and the tyres squealed an awful lot, and remember it was pouring with rain. Using the run off I recover the slide but my heart rate is a little elevated. The RS3 isn't just round the corner it's already through the 200ft drop and climbing the next hill - we call it the big dipper because you drop fast then climb a huge hill afterwards. That is the closest I've been to a big moment since sliding a Mk2 MR2 across both lanes of a dual carriageway and onto the grass [don't try this at home, I was young and very stupid at the time]. The MR2 was full of grass and road debris but at least in one piece. The motoring press make the M135i out to be some pliable easy to slide machine, it isn't. Maybe on track with loads of run off but on road it's a liability. I will say this clearly on a dark wet night the M135i would cover the road no more quickly than a 120d.
Maybe it's the tyre pressures?
After a hilarious (to my mind at least) moment where we stopped in the one horse town garage to check the M135i's tyre pressures "maybe the tyre pressures are out" said Paul with a look of more hope than expectation. He was clutching at straws by now as all 4 tyres were spot on. Some school boys add insult to injury when they shout "cool RS3 mate" at my snorting beast, the condensation rising from the grille after the mornings activities.
The Ultimate Driving Machine? You're having a laugh!
So I'm afraid my verdict is a simple one. Do not be fooled by all you read in the motoring press. If you live or only drive when the road is bone dry then maybe the M135i is a great car. If, like me, you live somewhere it rains quite a lot the M135i is a 7/10 car. It's a nice place to sit and the ride is compliant but pushing on takes nerve and more total concentration than I'd want to give on a normal road journey. If you like the adrenaline surge of uncertainty and never being sure where the grip level is this is the car for you. The M135i breakdown:
Steering - M135i well weighted but no feedback to speak of. RS3 at least you know when the front is sliding.
Brakes - M135i the brakes fade and the pedal gets soft after 2-3 minutes of B road action. RS3, the APs remain mighty.
0-60 (Performance Box, same stretch of wet road): M135i 6.2 seconds, RS3 (Stg 1) 4.0 seconds.
Sustained lateral grip through sweeping corner (wet): M135i 0.5g (peak 0.8g), RS3 0.7g (peak 1.1g)
Fuel economy - yes here is the one place the M135i is better, by 4mpg on this test.
I leave you with Paul's final impression of the RS3 as a verdict. As we dropped back down toward Brecon there is a tree lined road full of autumn leaves.
"The final insult was when we turned onto the road with the arching trees like a guard of honour. Your RS3 kicked about 1000 leaves in the face of the M135i as you disappeared down the straight. It was like having sand kicked in my face after the day we've had. I didn't see you again until the lights in Brecon."
Better to be gracious in victory than offer any reply I thought. The light was fading and the fun was over.
Paul is currently driving a M3 with the Competition Package until his M6 arrives. Enough said.