For years, I maintained the staunch belief that BMW and Audi, among other manufacturers, were withholding some of their best models from U.S. customers. Before I get ahead of myself, I must make it clear that I’m not referring to modern classics like the Euro-spec 3.8-liter E34 M5, or more recent examples like the E61 M5 or E46 M3 CSL; I always knew that low production numbers and high regulatory costs prevented them from coming here, and sort of accepted the notion that sampling the best of the breed would likely require a trip to Europe and good connections.
Things have changed more recently with cars like the F82 M4 GTS, the Porsche Cayman GT4, and others seeming to justify their U.S. availability at least in part through sales—but again, these cars aren’t the specific topic at hand.
I am instead referring to practical hot rods such as the BMW M140i, the Mercedes A45 AMG, and the Audi RS3 Sportback.
As I was suffering through my college experience with my beloved 100,000-mile E46 330i sport-package sedan, which happened lack to fold-down rear seats, I especially lamented the fact that BMW refused to sell us a good hatchback. We’d naturally been teased with a few wagons, but none were available in decent spec. The E46 Touring came to the U.S. only in 323i or 325i form, either of which would have translated to a significant downgrade from my 330i, a car that seemed capable of keeping pace with an E36 M3.
Sadly, not much has changed: The current crop of F31 wagons look great, but are all too often equipped with a diesel engine, AWD, or both, along with an MSRP that exceeds $50,000. But let’s not get started down that road.
I’m sure that some readers are probably screaming, “Volkswagen GTI!” at this point, and I’d be the first to admit that these are excellent cars. I’ve driven examples of the past several generations, including the current Mk7, and have long held the belief that they represent one of the last—and perhaps best—performance bargains on the market. FWD used to be an immediate deal-breaker, but again, things have changed, and the last few generations of cars like the GTI, Honda Civic Si, and Ford’s Focus and Fiesta ST have begun to sway even the most ardent detractors. VW has even caved a few times over the years and given us a few limited-production AWD specials, like the Mk4 and Mk5 R32s, and more recently the Golf R, which was produced during the Mk6 and Mk7 generations.
Sadly—or in my case ironically—it is the Golf R that serves to prove my point. The conundrum of the luxury-oriented, segment-topping hot hatch is that you eventually grow out of the idea. However infinitely more practical and fun to drive they may be than the conventional sedan, the very concept of a high-line high-performance hatchback simply does not embody the premium nature of brands like BMW in the U.S. In my case at least, by the time the Golf R became a reality, optioned MSRPs were approaching $40,000, and I had come to the realization that settling with a single vehicle for every occasion wasn’t really necessary anymore, and had perhaps been a foolish concept in the first place.
Pricing can’t simply be ignored, either. If the R version of Volkswagen’s Golf has a starting MSRP a few hundred below $40,000, what would an M140i, with a six-cylinder, RWD, and all end up going for in the U.S.? Audi’s S3 sedan starts at $43,650, and adding an R prefix to the model designation translates to a starting price of $54,900. All of these cars share the same underlying MQB platform as the GTI and economy-oriented base-model Golf. Yes, the RS3 has a very special five-cylinder engine that emits sounds reminiscent of Group B greatness, but would I actually feel good about packing a Sportback version to the gills and using it to shuttle precious garbage to the storage unit and back? Doubtful.
Aside from being prohibitively expensive, it actually seems as though limited-production specials like the Golf R are perhaps more important for stoking the image of the brand for young enthusiasts, which is something a manufacturer like BMW doesn’t really need to do. BMW’s M cars and various other lesser versions with a slight performance twist have always seemed to capture the minds of enthusiasts regardless of the era. It’s been that way for me, anyway, as it seems no other make can emulate BMW’s balance of practical performance.
What’s even better is that there is a true lineage to trace. The 3 Series has retained its position as the mainstay of the brand, even though it’s no longer the least expensive. The F30 320i is the closest you can get to a “driving-appliance” BMW in the U.S.—but outfitted correctly, it makes an excellent practical performance driver as well. If you want to get the same kind of offering from Mercedes or Audi, you’re stuck with either a CLA or an A3, both of which are a rung below the 3 Series and FWD-based, but still end up costing roughly the same.
At the end of the day, vehicles like the GTI are what I like to refer to as compromise cars. Utility allows you to carry offspring and various other necessities for keeping a good home running, while the mechanics—and of course badging—allow the owner to show the world that they still care about the driving experience. When looking at things through this lens, it makes a lot more sense why a hot hatch wearing a roundel has never been sold here. A columnist I follow over at Road & Track wrote a great article about how customers foolishly buy what they think they might need, even when it ends up working against them in the long run. With apps like Turo making private-car rental a practical reality, I think the writer of the R&T piece makes a great point: Why shell out for the expensive and top-heavy SUV or truck when you can inexpensively rent something much more practical for hauling that refrigerator or mattress on the single day you may need it?
I ended up surviving college with my fixed-backseat 330i just fine. In fact, before I even graduated, I began to see the light and bought my first coupe—and since then I have owned three more. Looking back, I’m glad that there wasn’t an expensive Audi, BMW, or Mercedes hatch for me to lust over and spend untold money on.
And what do you know? Things turned out just fine without the extra storage capacity.—Alex Tock
[Photos courtesy BMW AG, VW Group, quattro GmbH.]