Audi RS5: Smaller calibre suits big gun

The old Audi RS5 was an old-fashioned sledgehammer V8 coupe. How much emotional wallop does it have in its new-age format?


ANOTHER week, another famously fab performance V8 takes a step closer to meeting its maker.

In this instance it’s Audi’s naturally-aspirated 4.2-litre. Once the mainstay of every one of Ingolstadt’s performance cars, this generator of melodious, magnificent muscularity has slowly been pushed toward retirement. For the past 12 months, it has mainly found work with the RS5 two-door coupe and now that job, too, has been disestablished.

The RS beat goes on, of course. The ultimate performance badge is especially revered in New Zealand, accounting for 12 percent of Audi volume, an astounding penetration. Add in the ‘first step’ S cars and that becomes a 20 percent slice.

But this RS5 marks the beginning of a new era. From now on the roadcar-derived specials swear allegiance to a 2.9-litre V6. It’s a high-tech twin turbo thing with more socially acceptable habits (emissions and economy are both significantly improved) and yet stays true to credo by presenting equal power as the outgoing eight and, impressively, 200Nm more torque.

This 331kW/600Nm unit comes into Audi play with established credibility, having debuted as a Porsche engine, in the Panamera 4S.

Still, it’s surely a punt. Kiwis are definitely sold on performance V8s. How will they feel about swapping for a six? The distributor is wasting no time finding out. Starting from today they’re hosting a big two week Audi Sport soiree at Waikato’s Hampton Downs circuit. Assuredly the 400 invitees will be keen to share their thoughts, not least the 150 of whom already drink the RS Kool Aide.

What if they don’t like it? They’d better because there is no turning back. The RS5 is a warm-up act. Next recipient for this fresh heart is the new RS4, traditionally the biggest-selling Audi performance car here and so important that Audi NZ has flown in a left-hook example for display (but not to drive) at the customer show, to enliven interest ahead of an early 2018 on-sale.

Journalists have beaten the actual punters - albeit by just a day - to a first drive of the $152,900 RS5. Those of us with memory of its predecessor will know that a track debut is a big ask of the RS5. For various reasons, mainly to do with a shortfall in dynamic delicacy, it was not wholly brilliant there. Lots of power, but the subtly of a sledgehammer.

But, in the words on a brand representative, what uses to be more of a Grand Tourer has gone way more Gran Turismo (as per the game), so hopes are high.

Personally, I’m pleased we get to thump around the full international circuit rather than the roads. It means that we can fully explore the performance traits of the new brawnmeister without risk to licences.

Before heading out onto a surface still heavily-rubbered from having hosted round of the Australasian GT3 championship the prior weekend, there’s time to look over this second-gen model.

Gotta say, if looks say it all, then this car is off to a fine start; the shape is derivative, of course, but more dynamic in overall look, being leaner and better detailed. We’ve gone from fat to phat.

With flared wheel arches – said to be inspired by its old 90 quattro IMSA GTO and under which 20-inch alloys reside (they get 19s overseas but Kiwis demand big rims) - a prominent 'egg crate' grille and a pair of rugby ball-swallowing oval exhaust finishers, the RS5 does a nice job of evidencing nicely restrained brutish aggression. It’s quite properly less elegant than the regular A5 but all the more eye-catching.

There are options to change its appearance further. The buyer can choose exterior packages that implement brushed metal, black and carbon fibre finishes on the bumpers. At $11-$13k, these – along with a carbon fibre roof that costs $8000 (and saves 3kg) - are require commitment, though the biggest single spend item remains carbon fibre brakes, for $15,000.

The interior reflects brand expectation that owners will want a sporty environment with a luxury finish.

Hence there are RS-specific changes like deeper and heavier bolstered seats, a chunky, flat-bottomed steering wheel, lots of perforated and contrasting stitched leather – and Alcantara on the wheel rim – but it’s all five-star, with all the regular car’s tech including the swank Virtual Cockpit, albeit with RS-specific displays.

Looking the business is one thing, being it quite another. Track plays follows the usual plotline of a couple of warmups – a nip around the club circuit and standing start exercises using drag racing-style lights - before we’re allowed out for the main course of two hours’ worth of laps of the full circuit, with a lead car to keep us in check, though only barely. Not least when the ‘hare’ is is an R8 V10 driven by Paul Blomqvist, a rising formula racer whose dad happens to be the real Stig.

Actually, this play – sorry, serious evaluation - isn’t just a test of what the engine is capable of. Because this is more than just a fresh powertrain under scrutiny.

There’s a new platform too. For 2018, the RS5 has been updated to ride on the second-generation MLB underpinning that serves under the A4, A5, Q7, and others promises change for good.

Logic suggests a lighter, stiffer and stronger new platform is a good thing. Logic also suggests the loss of a pair of cylinders over the front axle also has to have good effect on weight distribution.

Logic is correct. The old car came across as being surefooted and highly grippy yet still heavy and slightly ill-balanced. The new car ticks the first two boxes but not the last.

So, agreed, the dynamic story is more promising than before and the chassis undeniably better. It feels more balanced and more confidence-inspiring than before. The steering is more faithful and accurate, too, with quick, predictable turn-in behaviour, and there’s even a degree of ‘natural’ feedback.

While the qualities of the Quattro all-wheel-drive system are undeniable – so long as you’re hoofing, it’s holding – it still feels very Audi in its approach, which veers towards effectiveness. Being a four-wheel-drive car, understeer still lurks.

An optional torque-vectoring sport differential seems good value at $3800, given that it promises ability to ensure max thrust to the ground when the car is booted out of a turn. The default split is 40 percent front and 60 percent rear; if the car detects slip, up to 85 percent can be sent forward, or 70 percent aft.

About that engine. In terms of pure punch, downsizing is not downgrading. This V6 is indeed one hell of a hard charger, with power, torque, and speed coming in a huge wave that intensifies proportionally to throttle application. Audi estimates the zero-to-100kmh run at 3.9 seconds, which is slightly more than the previous car managed, and there’s nothing to suggest that its timepieces are wonky.

There’s pleasing flexibility to the muscularity. Actually, it’s more V8-ish than the old V8 in that peak torque arrives at 1900rpm – whereas, with the 4.2, the pinnacle was at 4000rpm – and sticks around until 5000rpm, at which point you're a just few revs short of peak power.

This broad swath of oomph makes it feel sensationally quick, almost anywhere in the rev range, and you’re egged on by a booming soundtrack that seems almost too good to be true for this kind of engine. So is it?  

VW Group is not beyond piping fake electronic noise through speaker systems and certainly there’s been some manipulation, given that Audi loves tto relate that the engineer in charge was given a first gen RS4 (the one with the turbocharged 2.7-liter V6) and commanded to “make it sound like that.”

In respect to the ‘how’, it simply references that the RS5 has an ‘active’ exhaust system that features both movable flaps and a resonating cross pipe connecting the left and right sides just aft of the rear axle.

The car’s chassis mode controls how eager the flaps are to open, as well as how often. I’d imagine it’s a lot less boomy in the comfort mode. But in the uber-sporty Dynamic placement you get real bombast. Only thing is, it seems louder and more belligerent within the car than outside it, so …

Now to that transmission. RS cars started with manuals then went to dual clutch boxes when owners demanded even faster shifts for less effort. So why, now, an automatic?

The official line is that the V6 makes more torque than any of Audi’s own dual-clutch automatics can handle. Yet, of course, in the Panamera the self-same unit happily matches up to PDK … a dual clutch box. There’s suggestion that the truth of the matter is that Weissach won’t share its transmission, so the only option left to the sister brand was to take the erstwhile ZF eight-speed auto.

I haven’t driven the Panamera. A colleague on the launch who has reckons it’s a nifty thing. That might be so, but I cannot say the ZF disappoints. It shifts really smartly, doesn’t mind being hand-shifted (with paddles behind the steering wheel) and was certainly smoother – or, at least, less jolty – than the dual clutch unit in the RS3 hatch we also had opportunity to drive at Hampton. Step off is faster, too. For the most part, you'll do well to notice any difference whatsoever.

The driving position and the forward view from the supportive, multi-adjustable and massaging front seats is outstanding. Visibility to the rear is decent, too, given the coupe roofline, and the cabin will accommodate four people of average height with no issues.

Purists will likely as not argue for ages whether this new powertrain is a step back or a step forward. It’s a matter of fact that customers do give credibility to cubic capacity and cylinder count; if they did not, surely Mercedes-AMG’s C63 – which has a 4.0-litre V8 – would not be the dominating force of this sub-category?

That’s not to say this isn’t a story of positive advancement; but maybe in this instance it’s more to do with the car as a whole than what’s under the bonnet – the one immediate plus point is that this RS5 has genuine driver engagement, now; a handy factor when it faces rivals that certainly also don’t lack for at-the-wheel appeal.