Stealth Fighters

You can nab a seriously good luxury performance car for circa $100K these days. But the question is, which one?

by LOUIS CORDONY pics ELLEN DEWAR/NATHAN JACOBS

HEREíS a reason why Bruce Willis fills your television screen every Christmas.

People love Die Hard because itís about someone regular-looking proving much more than that.

Cars are no different. If something unassuming pulls up beside a Ferrari and then suddenly blows off into the distance, itís like seeing Jackie Chan walk into a bar and kick a boozedup giant out cold. Youíd feel equally bemused and delighted.

Such things are better known as sleepers. We love them. And when coughing up for a luxury sedan priced nigh-on sixfigures, with performance and covert looks thrown in, itís obvious the Northern Hemisphere does too. Our four contenders all hail from Europe, each sporting sixcylinders and 3.0 litres of force-fed grunt. But while they might sound similar on paper, the differences in their executive-friendly suits already set them apart.

First up is Audi. The original 100 S4, its first S-badged model, looked less suited to full-berry-giving than it did Uber Black duties (if such a thing existed in the early í90s), but itís shaped all its hot four-doors since. The justlanded B8 S4 is $30K more expensive than the next A4 variant, but singling it out from its cheaper brethren isnít easy. The A4 already oozes menace with its sharp lines, gleaming grille, and furrowed daytime running lights, so youíd have to zoom in on the S4ís front brakes, in all their six-piston glory, to pick it.

But the Audi may as well advertise its pedigree with neon signs when compared to our testís bargain entry, the $89,900 BMW 340i. Sure, its crease lines, shark-nose, and squinty headlights keep its six-year-old looks fresh, but seen here in Luxury Line trim, that Ď40ií badge and dual-rear pipes are the only real nod to its stonk.

This wonít be easily fixed either with something like an M Sport package. The pack only changes the wheels, grille colour, guard badges, and front bumper.

Until BMW offers a factory M Performance variant, this meekly dressed 340i wins this testís trainspotter prize.

AMG hasnít been so shy. Itís been two decades since a Ď43í has graced a Mercedes-Benz C-Classís backside in Oz. But Benz has rebadged the once Euro-only C450 AMG Sport as just that. And while those figures no longer correlate to engine size, they hint at the fact that this car punches harder than its formal facade suggests.

Engineered by Mercedes-AMG, the C43ís ĎAMGí calipers and drilled front brake discs allude to its performance and help justify its $101,900 ask, without options, while those big eyes, rounded surfaces, and sparkling grille, plugged into its unique front bumper, make it the softest on the eyes here.

However, the Germans arenít the only masters of disguise. Britain, after all, is James Bondís homeland and Jaguarís long been in the sleeper game. The XE is

While ĎC43í doesnít indicate engine size, it hints that this car punches harder than its formal facade suggests

What truly defines the Jaguarís ĎSí badge is a brawny V6 lurking under its long, drooping hood

Jaguarís successor to the forgettable X-Type, and the carís aluminium sheet metal doesnít look out of place.

Dropped on optional 20-inch wheels it looks positively sexy, though it also brings with it a long options list that takes its $105,350 base price to an eye-watering $125,270, only four grand of which it wears on its exterior.

What truly defines its ĎSí badge, however, is the brawny V6 lurking under its long, drooping hood. Itís borrowed from the F-Type and is the only engine thatís picked the supercharging route, its twin-screw blower helping spin up 250kW and 450Nm.

These cars might be separated only by three cubic centimetres, but itís the Jaguarís that feels largest in capacity at the drag strip. Rolling the Jaguar from the line is the best way to manage rear grip and allow its blower to build boost with revs. It sets off wailing like its sports car cousin and whining like a supercharged drag car, needing 5.28sec to reach the 100km/h mark before breaking the 400m ribbon in 13.45sec.

Our testís other rear-driver, the BMW, prefers a bit of a smoke. Itís the only car with an actual launch control system (found in iDrive), but it rarely maintains a set stall rpm and walking it from rest results in waiting for the turbo to wind up. However, with luck, and wheelspin, itíll charge to 100km/h in 5.51sec, before finishing the quarter mile a tenth behind the Jaguar at 13.57sec.

Plugged with BMWís all-new B58 unit, it makes 240kW/450Nm, but it spins the highest and hits the heaviest. Plasma-coated bores and a closed-deck block were used to strengthen the new engine, while shorter turbo paths cut lag. So the needle happily sails past its indicated redline to a 7250rpm cut-out in manual mode, and its torque peak is spread over the widest area from 1380rpm to 5000rpm.

Mercedes-AMGís 3.0-litre twin-turbo V6 in the C-Class, contrastingly, goes about this stuff more frenetically. Its 270kW and 520Nm outputs arrive in what feels like rapid gunfire from its nine-speed automatic. Itís geared so short it needs to upshift twice before 80km/h.

Youíd think this would hurt its acceleration times, but the numbers donít lie. Thereís no Race Start system, so launching it requires switching off ESP, dialling up 2550rpm with a firm two-step, and then lifting before its all-paw drive system digs in. As it slingshots forward a metallic howl rips from its optional performance exhaust in Sport Plus mode, punctuated by an abrupt crack on every shift before its 6300rpm cut-out. Triple figures arrive in 4.61sec, 400m passes in 12.87sec.

Switching from the AMG to the S4 is like swapping an assault rifle for a shotgun. Thrust arrives via its ZF-made eight-speed autoís ratios in thick, linear slugs. This is partly because Audiís filled the V6ís valley with a twinscroll turbocharger, which required flipping around the heads so the exhaust valves point inwards, helping it push 260kW/500Nm through its four tyres.

Launch controlís a simple two-step affair like it is in the Merc, the only difference being its quattro drivetrain tenses up with a higher stall at 3100rpm. But itís still just as aggressive. With each upshift the ZF íbox buries little jabs into your back and the all-alloy V6 blurts out a beefier note, and bassy ignition-cut farts, as it flings the S4 to 100km/h in 4.74sec and 400m in 12.99sec.

No prizes for guessing that our all-paw duo ravage the rear-drivers from a standing start. However, roll-on tests flip the pecking order on its head. The BMW will tear free of the pack from 80-120km/h in third gear, relying on longer gearing and lighter weight to cut it in 3.1sec.

Thatís a tenth faster than both the Audi and Jaguar, while extremely short gearing lets the AMG down, forcing it to nab fourth at 114km/h and register a 3.2sec sprint.

Run the same test in sixth gear and the Merc leapfrogs back into first place, its muscly outputs helping it zap the 40km/h gap in 5.9sec. But the BMWís thick torque spread means itís breathing down its neck the whole way as it does the same in 6.0sec. Meanwhile, the Audi and Jaguar need 6.6sec and 7.7sec respectively in terms of the sixth-gear sprint.

However, the 340i reels íem in so quickly at the speed traps it makes you wonder if the petrol station at BMWís engine dyno facility only stocks 95 RON. It flies across the quarter mile finish line at 175.56km/h, while the Merc trails with 174.03km/h, the Audi 173.69km/h, and the Jaguar 172.08km/h.

Break free for the twisty stuff and youíll discover the 340iís six also dominates the carís driving experience.

The higher the revs, the sweeter it sounds and harder it pulls. Itís only a shame its suspension doesnít extend the enjoyment into the bends. Even with low-profile Bridgestones and adaptive M suspension, the 340i fails to tell you whatís happening at a surface level. Thereís little feedback from its tiller on how much purchase the front tyres have. It also feels like the front strut set-up canít translate available grip into sharp turn-in, so the stability police show up well before the funís even started, yapping at wheels to keep it within the road lines.

Itíll have you scanning the options list for a fix, but the 340iís adaptive suspension is already pinched from the M Sport package; and the optional M brakes, at $1400 for the set, are the only chassis upgrade. They wonít be enough to save the 340i from its dynamic woes, but are worth it, as youíll sail past a few apexes adjusting to the stock setís underwhelming power.

Switching to the Jaguar feels like shedding a pair of mitts. At first, though, itís hard to trust for a few reasons.

The XEís brakes are by far the most powerful here, which goes to show thereís nothing wrong with sliding calipers; and also, the steering feel numbs when you get stuck in.

Then on the way out of corners the LSD-by-brake system sporadically nabs at the rear axle, and as a result, your

The higher the BMW's 340i travels in its rev range, the sweeter it sounds and harder it pulls

The Audi's not the most natural corner carver, but the diff is so good it feels like the tech was stolen from VW's WRC operation

confidence falls significantly, too.

Once you find smooth tarmac, though, you can finally let the XE S sink in its claws. The electric steering is sharp, fluid, and commands a front-end that feels magnetised to apexes. Itís here that its firm suspension setup pays off, as you can start to ratchet up the commitment and uncover its huge levels of lateral grip.

But the Jaguarís ferocious demeanour lingers over rough stuff. Those 20s pick up small bumps and while thereís more travel in its dual-mode adjustable dampers than the BMWís, they work harder to keep its mass in check. Itíll fidget after big dips, too.

Once again, though, the grippier pair prove themselves in another class. The S4 rides so well youíd think Heathcoteís back roads snaked their way through Audiís test grounds. With multi-links and adaptive dampers all around, it swallows big bumps and high-frequency stuff with pillow-like compliance. Even around town, with 35-profile tyres, youíre not afraid to line-up speed humps or potholes.

Admittedly, the Audiís not the most natural cornercarver against the Jaguar or Merc. The first quarter of steering lock feels out at sea and the nose is a bit pushy, but across a twisting road the optional ($2950) electronically controlled hydraulic diff is so good, it feels like Audi stole the technology from VWís abandoned WRC operation. Instructions on how to drive it would sound right at home in an infomercial Ė Ďfloor the gas, and watch it magically tighten your lineí.

Just donít try the same stuff in the AMG. Its all-wheel drive system doesnít have a limited-slip differential at all and shoots 67 per cent of its grunt rearwards. Coupled with its hefty outputs, the traction-control light flickers like a bug zapper if you sink the right-foot as early as you do in the Audi. That said, once straightened, its all-wheel grip allows it explode out of corners.

The Mercís hard-charging character isnít smoothed out by its adaptive dampers. It feels like its suspension bushes were pinched from a race car. Harsh ridges are absorbed with a huge thud, and the dampers have so much travel in Comfort mode the car sails over them like its air-suspended. Switching to its Sport Plus mode cuts out the damper float, and the upside is the C43 feels so tied down you suspect AMG pinched the C63 Sís suspension system. Thereís an extremely direct front-end connected to a crisp-feeling steering rack. Itís positive, and so rich with feedback that any yaw movements are thwarted with almost telepathic dabs of opposite lock.

And if youíre going to annihilate apexes thereís no better place to sit than in the Merc. The optional Performance seats grab your kidneys tighter than an organ thief, while the raked seating position drops you low into the car.

The baby S-Class design theme inside is a classy touch, only tainted by the COMAND systemís confusing menu

structure. Mind you, the seats, wheel, and exhaust come as part of a $4990 Performance Package.

Our four are each fantastic for cruising in lavishly cloaked performance, and long shall their kind reign.

But if value is your guiding principle, the BMWís a stand-out pick. Short of autonomous driving tech, it boasts the same kit, badge prestige, and refinement as the Audi or AMG for less cash. The interior also doesnít seem Ďthatí old, and itís a sharp looker from the outside. However, its flat seats speak loudest about its undercooked dynamic talent. The 340iís all about that silken, turbine-like engine, and ignores what the balanced chassis underneath it could be.

One glimmer of hope comes from the $10K discount over its rivals, which could be used toward an M Performance Accessories LSD. Maybe along with a nonvariable steering rack (optional) this would have made this a fairer fight for the BMW. However, until the new 3 Series arrives in 2019, this oneís under-braked, outgripped, and over-powered.

On the other hand, Jaguarís XE S injects more handling and grip into the sleeper sedan mix. Meanwhile, a blend of razor-sharp turn-in, dramatic engine noise, and handsome looks mean it has a charisma other brands might need multiple generations to craft. But while itís dazzling enough to negate the $15K price gap between it and the BMW, itís nowhere near fast enough, refined, or well equipped to justify its hike over the other two.

Maybe the MY18 model, which scores the F-Type Sís 280kW engine, can reignite its chances at toppling the German duoís establishment.

When it comes to grunt and drama, however, the C43ís the undisputed king. Thereís so much to love about its drivetrain, its gearbox works well when left to its own devices, and it could decimate all if only injected with a proper limited-slip diff. As a stepping stone between Mercedes-Benzís C-Class range and AMGís lunatic asylum, itís a perfect fit. But crucial ride and powerdown issues sink its chances at clenching the top spot.

This brings us to the S4, which has emerged as an exceptional all-rounder from this test. Not only does it basically match the Mercedes for straight-line speed, itís genuinely magic when the road twists and turns.

Yes, the differential is optional, but even without it, the S4ís clever quattro system and thumping drivetrain are strong weapons in its arsenal Ė the noise also shows it still knows how to have fun. And once youíre done terrorising tarmac, its delightful ride and smart interior bewitch you into its driverís seat for the drive home.

Audi deserves credit for sneaking it under the $100K mark considering the scroll-length list of standard kit.

And the autonomous driving tech would raise eyebrows at Tesla, too.

The S4ís fast, reasonably priced, technologically advanced, and matches this all to subtle good looks.

Forget Bruce Willis, the S4 slides onto scene like Superman. Wearing glasses and a smart, business savvy suit, but brandishing otherworldly powers that need to be driven to be believed. M SPECS OVER PAGE

Inner space

Splitting our six-cylinder brigade

MERCEDES-AMG C43

The steering wheelís D-shape doesnít win favour, but its size and ĎDinamicaí microfibre grips do. Performance Package adds electrically adjustable and heated pews from the C63 S.

JAGUAR XE S

New, and optional, 10.2-inch touchscreen is nice, but not game changing; thereís $6550 worth of stuff in here thatís standard on the Audi.

BMW 340i

Familiar, but not too old-feeling, the BMWís iDrive and gearknob placement is a fundamental lesson in sound ergonomics.

AUDI S4

S Performance package ($5900) adds massage-seats, carbon fibre, and Alcantara. Digital dash, which comes standard, helps interior feel generations ahead.

The Numbers

12-second cars? Yep, some of them

MERC-AMG C43

0-10km/h 0.28 0-20km/h 0.6 0-30km/h 0.99 0-40km/h 1.38 0-50km/h 1.79 0-60km/h 2.2 0-70km/h 2.73 0-80km/h 3.27 0-90km/h 3.89 0-100km/h 4.61 0-110km/h 5.41 0-120km/h 6.23 0-130km/h 7.19 0-140km/h 8.23 0-150km/h 9.41 0-160km/h 10.69 0-170km/h 12.22 0-400m 12.87sec @ 174.03km/h 80-120km/h (Drive) 2.96sec 100-0km/h 35.09m SPEED IN GEARS 1st 48km/h @ 6300rpm 2nd 79km/h @ 6300rpm 3rd 114km/h @ 6300rpm 4th 156km/h @ 6300rpm 5th 211km/h @ 6300rpm 6th 250km/h @ 6150rpm* 7th 250km/h @ 5300rpm* 8th 250km/h @ 4440rpm* 9th 250km/h @ 3700rpm*

AUDI S4

0-10km/h 0.26 0-20km/h 0.6 0-30km/h 0.98 0-40km/h 1.4 0-50km/h 1.85 0-60km/h 2.38 0-70km/h 2.8 0-80km/h 3.42 0-90km/h 4.1 0-100km/h 4.74 0-110km/h 5.55 0-120km/h 6.42 0-130km/h 7.44 0-140km/h 8.46 0-150km/h 9.6 0-160km/h 10.94 0-170km/h 12.45 0-400m 12.99sec @ 173.69km/h 80-120km/h (Drive) 3.01sec 100-0km/h 35.34m SPEED IN GEARS 62km/h @ 6800rpm 100km/h @ 6800rpm 150km/h @ 6800rpm 187km/h @ 6800rpm 244km/h @ 6800rpm 250km/h @ 5650rpm* 250km/h @ 4630rpm* 250km/h @ 3610rpm* N/A

JAGUAR XE S

0-10km/h 0.44 0-20km/h 0.89 0-30km/h 1.3 0-40km/h 1.72 0-50km/h 2.14 0-60km/h 2.63 0-70km/h 3.16 0-80km/h 3.87 0-90km/h 4.56 0-100km/h 5.28 0-110km/h 6.07 0-120km/h 7.05 0-130km/h 8.05 0-140km/h 9.11 0-150km/h 10.34 0-160km/h 11.66 0-170km/h 13.09 0-400m 13.45sec @ 172.08km/h 80-120km/h (Drive) 3.18sec 100-0km/h 38.43m SPEED IN GEARS 57km/h @ 6900rpm 85km/h @ 6900rpm 128km/h @ 6900rpm 161km/h @ 6900rpm 209km/h @ 6900rpm 250km/h @ 6425rpm* 250km/h @ 5380rpm* 250km/h @ 4280rpm* N/A

BMW 340i

0-10km/h 0.54 0-20km/h 1.06 0-30km/h 1.56 0-40km/h 2 0-50km/h 2.52 0-60km/h 3.04 0-70km/h 3.56 0-80km/h 4.12 0-90km/h 4.74 0-100km/h 5.51 0-110km/h 6.26 0-120km/h 7.09 0-130km/h 7.99 0-140km/h 9.03 0-150km/h 10.2 0-160km/h 11.4 0-170km/h 12.7 0-400m 13.57sec @ 175.56km/h 80-120km/h (Drive) 2.97sec 100-0km/h 40.45m SPEED IN GEARS 64km/h @ 7250rpm 100km/h @ 7250rpm 150km/h @ 7250rpm 187km/h @ 7250rpm 244km/h @ 7250rpm 250km/h @ 7250rpm* 250km/h @ 7250rpm* 250km/h @ 7250rpm* N/A As tested by MOTOR: Heathcote Dragway, 12.01pm, 26 degrees, dry. Driver: Louis Cordony. *Manufacturerís claim

Our four are each fantastic for cruising in lavishly cloaked performance, long shall they reign

What lies beneath

Splitting our sixcylinder brigade THEYíRE all 3.0-litre forcefed six-cylinders, but theyíre hardly identical. Our three V6 engines each cop boost in different ways. The AMG relies on low-mounted twin-turbos while the Audi welcomes a single unit in its vee. The Jaguar, instead, relies on supercharging. The singleturbo BMW is the only inline engine and also is the most undersquare, yet it revs the highest. Three engines, the Mercís, BMWís, and Jaguarís, cool their charge air with water intercoolers while the Audiís makes do with a good old airto- air unit. Itís also the only one to boast cylinder-head integrated gas manifolds.

AUDI S4 JAGUAR XE S MERCEDES-AMG C43 BMW 340i

BODY 4-door, 5-seat sedan 4-door, 5-seat sedan 4-door, 5-seat sedan 4-door, 5-seat sedan DRIVE all-wheel rear-wheel all-wheel rear-wheel ENGINE 2995cc V6, DOHC, 24v, turbo 2995cc V6, DOHC, 24v, supercharger 2996cc V6, DOHC, 24v, twin-turbo 2998cc inline-6, DOHC, 24v, turbo BORE/STROKE 84.5 x 89mm 84.5 x 89.0mm 88.0 x 82.1mm 82.0 x 94.6mm COMPRESSION 11.2:1 10.5:1 10.7:1 11:1 POWER 260kW @ 5400-6400rpm 250kW @ 6500rpm 270kW @ 5500-6000rpm 240kW @ 5500-6500rpm TORQUE 500Nm @ 1370-4500pm 450Nm @ 4500rpm 520Nm @ 2000-4200rpm 450Nm @ 1380-5000rpm CONSUMPTION 11.02L/100km (as tested) 12.27L/100km (as tested) 12.35L/100km (as tested) 11.24L/100km (as tested) POWER/WEIGHT 160kW/tonne 157kW/tonne 166kW/tonne 155kW/tonne TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic 8-speed automatic 9-speed automatic 8-speed automatic WEIGHT 1630kg 1590kg 1625kg 1540kg SUSPENSION (F) multi-links, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar A-arms, adjustable dampers, anti-roll bar multi-links, adjustable dampers, anti-roll bar struts, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar SUSPENSION (R) multi-links, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar multi-links, adjustable dampers, anti-roll bar multi-links, adjustable dampers, anti-roll bar multi-links, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar L/W/H 4745/1842/1404mm 4672/1850/1416mm 4702/1810/1429mm 4633/1811/1429mm WHEELBASE 2825mm 2835mm 2840mm 2810mm TRACKS 1565/1546mm (f/r) 1602/1603mm (f/r) 1565/1546mm (f/r) 1531mm/1572mm STEERING electrically-assisted rack-and-pinion electrically-assisted rack-and-pinion electrically-assisted rack-and-pinion electrically-assisted rack-and-pinion BRAKES (F) 350mm ventilated discs, 6-piston fi xed calipers 350mm drilled/ventilated discs, 4-piston calipers 360mm drilled/ventilated discs, 4-piston calipers 340mm ventilated discs, 4-piston calipers BRAKES (R) 330mm ventilated discs, 2-piston fl oating calipers 325mm drilled/ventilated discs, 4-piston calipers 320mm drilled/ventilated discs, single-piston calipers 340mm ventilated discs, singlepiston calipers WHEELS 19.0 x 8.5-inch (f/r) 20.0 x 7.5-inch (f); 20.0 x 8.5-inch (r) 19.0 x 7.5-inch (f); 19.0 x 8.5-inch (r) 19.0 x 8.0-inch (f); 19 x 8.5-inch (r) TYRE SIZES 245/35 R19 (f/r) 235/35 R20 (f); 265/30 R20 (r) 225/40 ZR19 (f); 255/35 R19 (r) 225/40 R19 (f); 255/35 R19 (r) TYRE Hankook Ventus S1 Evo2 Pirelli P Zero Dunlop SportMaxx RT Bridgestone Potenza S001 (run fl ats) PRICE $99,000 ($110,596 as tested) $105,065 ($125,270 as tested) $101,900 ($106,890 as tested) $89,900 PROS Chassis wizardry; interior design; advanced technology Exhaust noise; blower whine; sexy looks Stonking pace; lovely front-end; great noise Chassis balance; incredible value; cracking engine CONS Pricey interior options; disinterested front-end Thin standard options list; interior ergonomics; lacks dynamic polish Flawed ride; intrusive traction control in Sport mode Underbraked, out-gripped, and over powered STAR RATING 11113 11123 11113 11123