Audi RS5: Downsized but still a king-hitter

The new RS5 still fights fire with firepower – and the excitement is still to the max..

TAKING the rev counter to just beyond 8000rpm was especially enlivening – the engine and exhaust bellowed thunderously in unison. It was wonderful.

Reminiscing about the RS5 as it used to be; a full-fat experience, in a world of diets might seem bittersweet now those days are gone.

Still, there’s no use bleating about how unfair it is that the environmentalists and eurocrats have won. The naturally-aspirated V8 is dead; it’s dirty secrets – poor emissions and over-indulgent fuel burn in the main – powering it to the scrapheap.

So, anyway, with Audi making a fresh start, how easy will it be for fans of this Ingolstadt blockbuster to follow suit? Impression gained from driving the RS5 in its reborn $152,900 twin-turbo V6 format is that this new life is not so bad, all in all.

The new engine is not the same as what we had: How could it be? It might not necessarily be better, at least at a sensory level. But neither is it necessarily worse.

In fact, there’s plenty to suggest that, by pick up a Porsche Panamera powerplant that downsizes by 1.3 litres’ capacity and drops two cylinders, Audi has played smart.  You get the same 335kW power as before, more torque than ever and, though it still likes a drink, are hit less hard in the pocket. Also, it so reduces in exhaust nasties as to be safe from not just current but next-step emissions regs.

Also, the car as a whole is better too. This is the first RennSport model to be based on the company’s latest MLB evo platform, which underpins all Audis from the A4 and Q5 upwards. That architecture brings significant reductions in weight and improvements in performance, efficiency, ride, handling, refinement and technology.

Time on the public road in the wake of a media introduction day that stuck to the track was illuminating.

Thought from the Hampton Downs’ burl about the specific reduction in weight and improved weight distribution over the front axle being the crux to the tangible improvement in handling proved spot-on. It’s not quite a world-class dancer but is definitely more dextrous through bends.

It’s great that New Zealand includes the RS dynamic package - which includes dynamic steering and a sport rear differential with torque vectoring – and Quattro has always been an amazing failsafe, of course.

But now there’s less stomp, not so much of a sledgehammer, less sweat. It’s not just how it scythes through corners. The old car already had good steering feel, but now it’s even more communicative. And other little things – like ability to haul up quickly with less fuss – also show.

Is that enough to keep the faith? Well, there is the small matter of the soundtrack. It’s challenging at the very least to make a V6 sound like a V8, not least when turbos are involved.

The RS Sport exhaust delivers a nice crackle on overrun and is not shy to shout out as the engine works up, but those waiting for it to bring on the full Earth-shaking bass as the ousted eight did are in for disappointment.

There are other sixes out there – the architecturally identically item in the Alfa Guilia, for one, and also BMW’s in-line item – which ultimately have more aural character. The Audi doesn’t sound weak, But yeah, if you want boom-tastic, AMG is the place to go, now.

Then again, if you want a full intensity blast-off, stay right here. The power of its intent is immediately noticeable in driving. Audi says the big lift in torque, to 600Nm, and a 60kg weight reduction to 1655kg are enough for the RS 5 to hit 100kmh in just 3.9 seconds, which is well faster than the model it replaces (4.5s), which offered 430Nm from 4000rpm.

Having already tried the RS5 in full anger mode on the track, I did not feel compelled to completely unleash its anger anywhere public. But there’s certainly a lot of wallop and it unleashes very, very easily. In the most extreme sport mode, the full phwoar footing is just a toe away. It’s more relaxed in the comfort setting, but only just.

The power and torque opportune at 1900rpm, even lower revs than with the V8. The way it hauls from there is impressive, but it’s a different kind of engine at the top end. Those expeditions to the 8000rpm zone are over; peak torque unsticks now from 5000rpm, at which point you're a few revs short of peak power.

It’s a fast engine, married to a slick but slightly slower transmission. Going to an eight-speed torque-converter automatic, as per the S5, is intriguing, given that Porsche can supply this engine with a direct-shift box pretty muich like the one the previous RS had. The new tranny is lightning-quick to upshift; the quibble is that it is hesitant to downshift fast enough. Also, the whole driver-to-gearshift interaction is a bit less intimate, even in the sportiest setting. Too picky?

It’s a massive drive, in every sense, on a winding road, but more involving now. The quattro drivetrain has been developed to be quicker acting, the usual split for the drive being 40 percent front and 60 percent rear, with more pushed to the back if necessary. Traction is never an issue.

There’s huge strength in the car’s design attitude. Historically, I’ve always found more to like about the platform-sharing RS4 Avant (also now with this engine) would get priority. Not simply due to its ability to better meet my personal lifestyle demands, but because it’s always seemed to have a more agreeable stance.

In saying that, all credit to Audi for making this generation of RS5 seem less bulky in appearance than the previous versions. For sure, the standard A5 on its own is a good-looking car. But adding some flared wheel arches – which Audi claims were inspired by its old 90 quattro IMSA GTO, and under which 20-inch rims reside - a jutting front 'egg crate' grille and a pair of massive oval exhaust finishers really completes the picture, rather than spoils it. Perhaps that’s a man thing. There’s a lot of talk about how masculine this shape is.

Even in conventional hues it's a head-turner, the added aggression of the RS changes very welcome indeed. There are options to change its appearance further, There are options to change its appearance further; 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) - clearly require commitment. All the moreso the biggest single spend item, carbon fibre brakes for $15,000.

Even without overt embellishment, it’s a fancy car and flamboyant car, but fit and finish is exquisite and the uber levels of technology and luxury are rendered extremely tastefully, save for one thing. The gearshift paddles on the back of the steering wheel spokes are tiny and feel of poor quality plastic. It’s as if Audi almost doesn't want you to use them.

The sporting touches are in abundance; RS front bucket seats are in Nappa leather, a three-spoke flat-bottom multi-function RS steering wheel is covered in Alcantara. Also playing the sporting game is Audi’s customisable Virtual Cockpit digital instrument cluster – those power, torque, g-force and gearshift meters are all RS-specific.

Standard safety features now include three-mode electronic stability control, adaptive cruise control with stop and go function including traffic jam assist, park assist, cross traffic assist rear, exit warning, turn assist, camera-based traffic sign recognition, Audi pre sense city (AEB) and Audi smartphone interface, MMI navigation plus with MMI touch, head-up display and a 755-Watt 19-speaker Bang and Olufsen 3D sound system that can easily drown every other noise source.

Even though this is a significantly sized car, the cockpit is reasonably compact. Maybe there's room in the back for a pair of flexible adults, but I couldn’t find anyone game to try it out and had no compunction to place my 1.8 metre frame back there. So there are better RS models for family fun.

In respect to that, the RS5 remains a slightly complex character. This chassis is undoubtedly the best yet, and I take the point that the adaptive dynamic ride control suspension is so improved that the settings are no longer different levels of hardness. Comfort really is pretty comfortable. That’s pretty much unheard of for a German performance car.

Maybe the RS5’s dynamic attitude still doesn’t stir the soul quite as well as some rivals do. In some scenarios, it’s still a bit aloof and remote. As if it wants to do a great job, but doesn’t feel need to be your best friend.

The engine is different to what we’ve known before, but no less impressive, not least for punch. Sure, we miss the old mill’s big rev character and its astounding soundtrack, but not so much as to say the new way isn’t ultimately better.