I’m not sure how many cruises we will find in Edale in the Peak District on a wintry December morning but, thankfully, we’re ready to make a very small one of our own. There’s snow on the hills, but the peaks themselves are shrouded in cloud. The cold will tickle your toes if you stand around outside in it for too long. This is definitely four-wheel drive weather. Now is the time to find out if this newly pumped-up Audi can mix it with a properly grown-up performance saloon: the new BMW M3 Competition xDrive.
It might look like the Audi is being set up to fail here, but that’s not our intention. We just want to know if it can hold its own – because if nothing else, its pricing certainly suggests that it should. The BMW, now in its fourth decade and its sixth model generation, has just gained optional four-wheel drive for the first time; the Audi, barely a decade old itself, has moved up into more rarefied market territory, from where it hopes to ride the crest of the wave of its cultish following.
And the upshot? That if you want a fully loaded RS3 four-door, complete with its standard-fit new torque-vectoring rear differential but also optional carbon-ceramic brakes, adaptive sports suspension and assorted technological bells-and-whistles content, you will be paying more than £67,500. Yes, that much – gulp – for a 180mph Audi A3, albeit a very special one. But increase your budget by less than £11,000 and you can be in all-paw BMW M3 Competition territory instead.
If the Peak District was the wrong area to have gone looking for ‘youngsters’, a National Trust car park is definitely the wrong corner of it. Still, here we are, at the foot of Mam Tor, planning our next move. The roads are quiet; wet and slippery, icy in patches, but not snowy or frozen. The temperature is five degrees centigrade. The passers-by – committed cyclists and well-wrapped walkers, mostly – take little interest in us (which is the way we like it). For the ones that do stop, it’s the Audi that has lured them in. That might be the effect of the Python Yellow paint or it might be because this car appeals more widely than I realise.
Time for a quick static appraisal of cabins and driving environments. It confirms the obvious: that the smaller Audi may be comfortable enough up front and competes with the BMW in terms of digital technology, but it’s not a match for four-seater practicality, for the rightness of its driving position or for the richness and performance-flavoured presentation of its interior.