It’s been a few weeks since we declared the all-wheel drive G80 BMW M3 ‘xDrive’ as the best version of the compact super saloon, and so far, I haven’t had any hate mail turn up at my inbox nor bags of excrement left on my doorstep. Perhaps, then, it wasn’t quite the controversial conclusion I thought it might prove to be.
The problem with the rear-wheel drive G80 is 503bhp is a lot of power for something that isn’t a purpose-built supercar. Even in the dry, it struggles to get its power down, which can be frustrating. Why have all that shove if you can rarely deploy it all? The 414bhp F80, spikey though it was, would generally allow you to give the full beans without the traction control light flickering away like mad.
The M3 isn’t the only compact super saloon in the 500 club, though. The Mercedes-AMG C63 S breached that barrier years ago, as did the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio. We happen to be running the latter as a long-term test car, so it only seemed natural to get ‘ours’ together with the M3 while we had it on test. We know an M3 xDrive is better than the rear-drive version, but is it superior to our favourite current super saloon?
The first thing you notice is the difference in cabin quality. Alfa may have made some improvements during the Giulia’s mid-life facelift, but it still feels far less sturdy and more dated than the current BMW 3er cabin. That said, we’re happier about some of the more old-fashioned touches, like the physical dials in the instrument cluster, plus the gorgeous (and huge) column-mounted paddle shifters.
In terms of the powertrain, it’s advantage: Alfa. The power outputs of the two engines might be identical, but in terms of character, they’re worlds apart. And we aren’t just talking about noise (we’ll get to that) – it’s the delivery which really separates them. The Giulia’s V6 needs to be revved a lot harder to extract its full potential, reaching peak power at 6,500rpm. The M3 gives you that 1,000rpm earlier.
There’s little point in taking the M3 beyond its 5,500rpm peak power point. From there, the torque (405lb ft, 38lb ft less than the Alfa Romeo) tails off and the soundtrack gets a little weedy. In the Alfa, there are no such aural issues. It’s a raspy, angry-sounding thing right up to the rev limiter.
The Alfa’s damping is more forgiving than the BMW’s in all modes, but it’s still best left in comfort. Although the xDrive M3 gets a slightly brisker steering ratio than its rear-drive counterpart, it’s still a far cry from the Giulia with its supercar-fast 11.8:1 rack. It doesn’t deliver a whole lot of feedback through the wheel, though. The BMW is the better in this regard, but still fairly vague-feeling.
Switching to the BMW, the extra 250kg or so it’s carrying should be obvious, but it simply isn’t. The G80 hides its pork remarkably well, swiftly changing direction with as much enthusiasm as the Alfa. I’m immediately ruing the more underwhelming soundtrack of the ‘S58’ inline-six, which lacks the excitement of both the Giulia V6 and the last M3’s ‘S55’ I6.
However, the M3’s engine still provides plenty of drama, just in a different way. The all-wheel drive system means the S58’s enormous mid-range clout is accessible all the time, whenever you fancy putting your foot down. It feels far faster than the Giulia for more of the time.
The Alfa’s electronics really hold things back, particularly in the first few gears, and there’s no equivalent to the BMW’s partially-off ‘M Dynamic Mode’. Your only option is to turn everything completely off in ‘Race’ mode, which also removes the option of the more-road friendly ‘Comfort’ damping. Set thusly, you’re restricted to ‘Mid’ and ‘Sport’ modes for the suspension.
Make no mistake, just because the BMW is all-wheel drive doesn’t mean it’s more inert and less exciting than the Alfa. It still moves around plenty at the rear in ‘4WD Sport’ mode, and yes, you do have the option of ditching drive to the front wheels entirely. It’s fun enough with all wheels driven that you might not feel the need at all, though.
As a complete package, the M3 ticks more boxes, and we are even coming around to the controversial looks. That big face works a lot better here than it does on the G82 M4, certainly. The conclusion this tie-up leaves me with is that the Giulia would be a better car with all-wheel drive, something which our time in the Stelvio Quadrifoglio earlier this year already had us thinking. The quite-possibly-Ferrari-derived V6 is a joyous thing, so it seems like a shame to be missing out on a lot of its potential while the traction control panics.
Of these two, then, the car we should want ought to be the BMW. It isn’t though. The Giulia feels more special and exotic, and it’s more of a one-off. Unlike the M3, it has no predecessors, and there won’t be another one. The little touches like all the cloverleaf badging and the big paddle shifters help give it an edge, too. That stuff brightens up any drive, no matter how dull.
It remains our favourite super saloon from the current crop. But to be fair to the capable yet exciting M3 xDrive, which is what you probably should buy if you have your sensible trousers on, it runs the Alfa awfully close.