Audi RS5: First Drive

The V8 is gone, but what's left is better than ever before.

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The last Audi RS5’s crowning glory was its 4.2-liter naturally aspirated V8. It revved hard to a 8,250rpm power peak, gave the classic muscle car soundtrack an engaging high-tech remix, and snapped through gearshifts courtesy of a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. But it was far from perfect, and its Achilles’ heel was a ponderous, flat-footed chassis and steering that cranked with the tactility of a rusty submarine hatch.

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Good news: the second-generation RS5 rides on Audi’s new MLBevo architecture. This mixes a high-strength steel and aluminum structure with updated five-link suspension at the front, while another five-link layout at the rear replaces the old car’s trapezoidal-link set-up. It not only promises sharper handling, but a 132lb weight reduction too.

Bad news? The RS5 is still chunky at 3,649lb, and 68lb of its weight loss comes from swapping out the V8 for a V6 that’s downsized to 2894cc with twin turbochargers nestled in the vee. It makes no more power than its 444hp predecessor, bangs on the redline fully 1550rpm sooner at 6700rpm and actually has less capacity than the 3.0-liter S5. The dual-clutch ’box also makes way for a more conventional ZF eight-speed automatic.

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Only it’s not such bad news. With our test car’s optional and probably crucial sports exhaust, the engine – shared with the Porsche Panamera 4S – warbles smoothly and sweetly at low revs, and builds like a James Brown brass-section on a final warning when you push past 3500rpm.

The delivery, too, impresses. There’s a little lag, sure, a little mush to the throttle compared with the gunpowder-fizz of the V8, but you also get 125lb ft extra – 443lb ft from 1,900-5,000rpm compares with the old car’s 317lb ft at 4,000rpm. Power surges in from under 2,000rpm, then steps onto a travelator from 3500rpm to make overtakes you wouldn’t even contemplate in the old car feel not only possible, but totally safe too. Efficiency also increases by 17 percent, for a 27mpg average.

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No complaints on the auto ’box either: smooth in city traffic and parking lots, it punches through the gears to add a relentlessness to the delivery, and it downshifts from eighth to fourth in the time it takes four fast finger clicks. Snick it in manual mode and it’ll never over-rule the driver with up-shifts at the rev limiter, only intervening when you’re in too high a gear at too low a speed.

The RS5 grows by 2.9in compared with its predecessor and has significantly more steroidal looks. Apparently the look is inspired by the Audi 90 Quattro IMSA GTO, the racecar that saw Hans-Joachim Stuck rock up late to the 1989 IMSA GT season, notch up enough wins to place second, then vanish, leaving the regulars to wonder what just happened.

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The wheel arches are blistered by an extra 0.6in over the standard A5 coupe, hungry air intakes and angry LED headlights dominate the front end, and the rippled bonnet makes Mr Universe look a little gym-shy. The carbon fiber roof is optional, topping off the looks with its lacquered black weave, saving 6.6 lb and lowering the center of gravity, though our car’s panoramic sunroof does the opposite.

Inside, the RS5 is a work of art, with the optional ‘virtual cockpit’ digital instrument binnacle mixing with beautiful Alcantara, leather and metal trim, fit and finish to make a master craftsman look sloppy, and a suitably low-slung driving position. The extra length helps squeeze four six-feet tall adults in there, if only just. Wind noise? Road noise? You might as well be wearing noise-canceling headphones.

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We drove a car with the optional 20-inch wheels and adaptive Dynamic sport suspension; the latter upgrade diagonally interlinks the four dampers with oil lines, so that cornering forces flow extra oil to the dampers most in need of extra support, reducing pitch and roll. Even with over-sized rims, improvements to ride quality are instantly noticeable. The Comfort setting is characterized by a gentle lull to suspension movements and enough body control for regular driving, if a little too much roll for really fast work. Auto tenses the dampers’ muscles for keener cornering, but introduces a restless, more tiresome fidget. Dynamic turns every road surface into a washboard.

The steering is much improved, but it’s a shame it lags a little around the straight ahead like it’s prioritizing high-speed stability over lower-speed pointability–it detracts from the agility of the chassis, and means you cross your arms more than expected in hairpins. Perhaps the optional Dynamic steering would offer an improvement, but that too has felt flawed in other Audis.

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Even with standard steering, the RS5 makes for an enjoyable car to thread down a tricky road. Quattro all-wheel drive typically splits torque 40/60 front-to-rear with its mechanical center differential, but can divert up to 85 percent to the front, or 70 percent to the rear in more extreme situations. Our car also gets the Sport rear differential. The combination makes for sure-footed and neutral rather than particularly rear-biased progress.

To get the best out of the RS5, you need to be firm and decisive. Do it right – dive-bomb the apex squeezing the excellent six-piston steel brakes to keep weight over the nose – and the RS5 just carves through tight corners cleanly, partly because ‘wheel-selective torque control’ subtly brakes the inside wheels to coax the nose in to the bend.

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That keenness to turn encourages you to feed in the throttle early, and when you do it feels like releasing a stretched slingshot; there’s a fraction of attitude from the rear end, and so much traction you wonder if you’ve just pulled up the road surface. Rear-drive rivals like the BMW M4 and Mercedes-AMG C63 are certainly more flamboyant, more of an interactive challenge, but the RS5’s ability to pick apart a twisty road with almost psychopathic composure brings its own enjoyment.

All told, the Audi RS5 is one seriously rounded performance coupe, and a big step from its predecessor. US pricing is yet to be announced, but it’s pitched close to the Mercedes-AMG C63 Coupe in other markets. Expect something close to $67,000 when it arrives here early next year.

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Price: $67,000 (est)

Powertrain: 2.9-liter V6 twin-turbo, 444 hp, 443 lb-ft; AWD, 8-speed tiptronic auto

Weight: 3649 lb

0–62 mph: 3.9 sec

Top speed: 155mph (174mph with Dynamic upgrade)

On sale: Early 2018

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