An Audi RS5 might be flashier, a BMW M4 more delicate, but neither can match the overall appeal of Merc’s perfecting of the traditional big bonnet, three-door blueprint formula.
BMW has finally nailed the M4 formula with the CS. Early M4s felt wayward and loosely controlled at the rear axle which, combined with a shortage of traction, made them spiky and nerve-wracking to drive.
Each subsequent version has got better, none more so than the CS, which is much more a cut-price GTS than a uprated Competion Package.
The CS has the finest-judged chassis of any BMW M car in production. It’s rampantly accelerative, nicer inside than any M4 before it, and not too stiff to live with. A Competition Package does much of the same, of course, yet it’s the CS’s chassis, grip and traction that not only makes it the best M4, but M’s best driver’s car, too.
Whereas the Alpina B4 always felt undeniably rapid, the B4 S coupé that replaces it is a serious high-performance machine. It’s not the power (up 30bhp to 434bhp) but that additional torque (up by more than 10% to 486lb ft) that provides real-world performance a clear step ahead of its predecessor.
It’s a softer car than the M4 on which it’s derived and there’s a price to be paid in body control through very fast corners and over undulations, but it never feels nervous, as an M4 can. We’d bet smiles of drivers would be greater, too, even if it’s ultimately not as fast around a track.
What sells the B4 S is its character; it’s a classy, charming car. There’s nothing quite like it in the class.
Uncompromised style, premium desirability, performance in reserve, multi-faceted rear-drive handling, improved practicality and even decent value. How much more could we expect? Nothing at all. The M240i’s mix of attributes is one that nothing else in the segment at this price can touch. It’s an outstanding car.
Nowhere will you find a more pleasing powertrain to interact with, or a faster car, for similar money; you have to go up a few rungs of the pricing ladder to experience anything better. The M240i shows BMW’s M Performance arm at its very best, and that you the keenest driver needn’t always need a full-blown M car.
The Lexus RC F is an important step along the road for a young performance brand and adds much-needed variety to this part of the market. It has been created with no shortage of budget, effort and commitment. It’s fresh, bold and different, and it’s pleasingly unreserved and true to its purpose – an easy car to like.
The RC F isn’t quite so easy to justify, though. As effusive as the car’s V8 powertrain can be, it can also be underwhelming and even frustrating at times. The chassis spec makes dynamic promises that the handling fails to fully deliver on.
It’s big on charm, then, but lacking in real-world pace and well-rounded cruising manners.
Lesser versions of the Audi TT are doubtless better value but there is real dynamic capability beneath the TTS, not least as it shares so much with the excellent Volkswagen Golf R.
Is it as much fun as the cars at the top of this list? Let’s not be silly. A BMW M240i? Probably not – though you’d need a back-to-back test to decide for yourself.
Fact is the TTS has always been about more than just that. It has always been a good coupe that gives you sound reasons to buy one. That it’s now rather good fun to drive is another one.
The best reason for buying the old Audi RS5 previously was to access the last resting place of the Audi 4.2-litre V8; a reason now manifestly gone. The twin-turbo V6 that replaces it no longer dominates the driving experience.
Any deeper appreciation of the new RS5 rests on a preference for the model’s tactful repositioning. Dig the monster GT vibe, and the car’s established gifts for interior splendour, technical prowess and sharp-edged looks start to make considerable sense.
Seen from this alternative vantage point, which has almost nothing to do with the hard-charging, handling flair that exemplifies its rivals, the RS5 simultaneously appears limited and perhaps more appealing than it ever has.
Although the C 43 might be considered an AMG-lite by some, Affalterbach hasn’t merely added power to its twin-turbo 3.0-litre V6 and said: 'That’ll do.' For the chassis is overhauled, too, and it combines with the engine to make a rapid, sure-footed and fine all-round sports coupé.
Go for the full-fat C 63 if you can afford it, because it’s an absolute riot. But if you’re not bothered about all the sideways stuff, then at £15,500 less than the C 63, the C 43 Coupé is a comfortable, all-weather, cross-country beast. And any doubts that 367bhp isn’t enough turn out to be poppycock. It's plenty quick enough.
The D4’s best party trick is its ability to deliver thundering levels of performance while returning more than 40mpg in the real world, and a touring range of almost 500 miles.
Fair enough, if you thrash the living daylights out of it, the D4 might return as low as 35-36mpg (shock, horror). But if you were to drive a factory BMW M4 in a similar fashion, it would be at least 10mpg if not 15mpg thirstier.
Diesel-engined coupes may not sound like a match made in heaven, but the sheer pace of the D4, combined with its tidy fuel economy, is persuasive.
If you want something that isn’t a BMW 4 Series, an Audi A5 or a Mercedes-Benz coupé, this car is worth a look - and not because it’s almost the only alternative.
It’s quick, fairly engaging, well finished, generously equipped and refined. It’s also a more satisfying drive than the A5 and feels more eager than a Mercedes that hasn’t been through the AMG workshop.
But the transmission and needlessly complicated steering underline the more poised abilities of the 4 Series.