ANDORRA, near France—If we’re being honest, and we try to be, the Audi RS 5 has always been a runner-up in the German super-coupe stakes. The BMW M3 reigned supreme for a long time, and now Mercedes-AMG is on a roll—its C63 has is currently our favourite car in the category.
But the all-new RS 5 is a new hope for Audi, a fresh take. Things are changing over at Quattro, Audi’s high-performance division. For one, the name is different: the division is now called Audi Sport. There’s also a new boss in charge. Stephan Winkelmann left a gig as CEO of Lamborghini to revitalize Audi’s in-house hot rod shop.
The early results from Audi Sport are promising. The little Audi RS 3 is an utter hooligan. It’s surely the most fun-to-drive car from Audi we’ve yet driven. Can the company keep up that momentum and leapfrog the RS 5 to the top of its class?
The previous RS 5 was subtly aggressive. Only an aficionado would’ve caught the flared arches, the big wheels, and hungry front grille. The new RS 5 follows a similar formula to good effect. The wheel arches bulge outward, reminiscent of the 1980s Group B rally-winning Sport Quattro. Audi says the design was inspired by the monstrous 90 quattro IMSA GTO racecar, but you’ve got to squint very hard to see any resemblance there.
The track is wider than on the S5, with the wheels pushed out a further 16mm at both front and rear axles. The front lights are blacked out. The grille is wider and flatter. A carbon-fibre roof is optional, as are a set of drool-worthy carbon-ceramic brakes.
Overall, it’s still a very subtle approach to the super-coupe formula.
The cabin is, unsurprisingly, excellent. This is where Audi excels compared to its rivals. The design is modern and airy, with a large gap between the dash and the lower centre console. The gear lever looks like a Henry Moore sculpture. I like that the air vents go across the width of the dash, giving the cabin a cohesive feel.
The climate control knobs turn with pleasing tactile click. Bang & Olufsen’s (optional) stereo sounds glorious at any volume. The infotainment screen and virtual dashboard are easy to use and respond immediately to inputs. It’s these little things you appreciate in the Audi.
But most of those details can be spec’d on the basic A5 coupe, which costs ten-of-thousands less. Yes, the RS 5 gets sporty seats and lots of RS badges and alcantara on the steering wheel. If there’s a criticism to be made regarding the RS 5’s cabin, it’s that it doesn’t feel all that special.
There’s space for four adults, if two don’t mind ducking and diving into the rear seats. Trunk space is formidable too, making this a good choice for an extended road trip.
Porsche used it first in the new Panamera, but ask an Audi engineer and they’ll say this new V6 is an Audi design. It displaces 2.9 litres and is boosted by two twin-scroll turbos. The charged air is water-cooled – rather than air-cooled in the Porsche – which combined with a slightly higher compression ratio, allows it to eke out a smidge more power. The official rating is 450 horsepower and 442 lb-ft of torque.
Power goes through Audi’s Quattro all-wheel drive system and an eight-speed automatic. The old dual-clutch was ditched because it couldn’t cope with the new motor’s torque.
The V6 isn’t as sonorous as the old naturally aspirated V8, of course, but it doesn’t need to rev so high to provide meaningful thrust. The mid-range especially feels much better. The other benefit of the V6 is fuel efficiency. (Although, Audi doesn’t have Canadian economy ratings yet.)
It’s worth noting Audi didn’t think it was necessary to launch the RS 5 on a racetrack. BMW and AMG did with their super-coupes, but Audi is going for something different. Instead of a track, we have Andorra. High in the Pyrenees, caught between France and Catalonia, the roads are immaculate winding wonders: smoother, probably, than anything you’d find in Central or Eastern Canada.
The RS 5 soaks up highway miles like a luxury cruiser. The cabin is quiet, the exhaust note entirely absent or, at most, unobtrusive. Hitting 250 km/h is just a matter of finding an empty enough stretch of straight road. Even at that speed the car is stable and planted. German cars are happiest when going fast.
If that’s all you wanted though, there are other Audis available for less money. The RS 5 needs to excite its driver. Audi stiffened the body structure around the front wheels, and revised the suspension, but the changes don’t seem that extensive.
There are more driving modes and combinations of driving modes than we have room to explain here. Suffice to say Comfort mode is surprisingly cushy, even over long distances, and Dynamic mode is sharp-ish but not exactly razor-edged.
Tackling a mountain hairpin, the Audi just sticks. Most of the understeer has been dialed out of the A5’s chassis, but there’s no hope of oversteer. The BMW and the AMG are rear-drive, and will drift around hairpins all day if you have the requisite driving skill to make that happen. Even the RS 3 – with its bigger-in-the-front tires – will slide around. Not so the RS 5. With traction control off, provoking it with a mid-corner lift and lots of throttle, all that happens is some tire squeal and a brief moment of almost-oversteer before the all-wheel drive system tidies things up.
Turbo lag is present, especially if you floor the throttle in first gear. (Torque is limited artificially in first to preserve the gearbox.) But above 2,500, the RS 5 flies.
Point-to-point on a twisty road you can turn in carrying huge speed through corners. Mid-corner surprises are a non-issue. The RS 5 is a car you can trust. It won’t bite. The result is a car that’s more grand-tourer than sports car.
The 2018 RS 5 will arrive early next year. Canadian pricing has yet to be announced, but the outgoing model started at $84,000. If the new RS 5 is that much it’ll be on par with the AMG C63 S, which has 50 more horsepower and two more cylinders.
It’s not clear how Audi could justify such a price, unless you consider all-wheel drive a must-have, which, admittedly, many Canadians do. The BMW M4 starts at $78,350 by comparison.
Instead of playing the same ultimate-performance game as BMW and Mercedes, Audi has gone in their own direction with the new RS 5. It’s not pretending to be a track-day weapon. It’s not about all-out speed, nor driving thrills.
The RS 5 is a usable rocket, a missile you could take to work and back every day. What it lacks in pure entertainment it makes up for in comfort and refinement.
Disclosure—This writer’s travel and accommodations were provided by the automaker for the purposes of this first-drive review.