The True Cost Of Luxury

Tim Marrs

With new German high- and higher- performance models rolling out in endless procession like gaudy floats in some insanely gay parade that starts on New Year's Day and lasts until New Year's Eve, I promised myself -- after sniffing at BMW's fast and furiously expensive M6 and 640i Gran Coupe in these pages in September -- that I'd go easy on carmakers from Germany that come out with special edition after special edition from their once highly focused performance divisions. Today, the only thing limited about German limited editions is the number of buyers able to pay the freight over the typically highly competent models they supplement.

I don't want to sound like a broken record, or, to use the modern parlance, a corrupted data file, especially because it's hard to get too sour on the subject of more performance. But, then again, virtuous promises to one's self are the easiest promises to break. And when I made that oath to cut German luxury makers some slack, it was before I joined Audi in Sonoma County for a track day with the new, 450-hp RS5, which I attended after driving the next-hottest A5 -- the S5 -- up from San Francisco.

So let me apologize at the outset and remind you that Noise, Vibration & Harshness is the name of the column. Repetitiveness is sometimes what makes the noise and vibration so harsh.

Don't get me wrong -- the RS5 is kind of a peach. It's the latest variation on the A5, which, when launched five years ago, moved me to say that this was the sort of buttoned-down fatso-mobile that Detroit really ought to be building as the Cadillac or Buick luxury coupe of our day. And, what do you know, with the CTS and CTS-V coupes, they kind of do. You wouldn't have to put a gun to my head to make me take any of these hefty two-doors.

What makes the RS5 special is the presence of the 4.2-liter V-8, which is closely related to the high-revving engines of the R8 and the old RS4. The RS5's V-8 revs even higher than those gems, redlining at 8250 rpm and sounding, well, as exciting as 8250 rpm sounds -- although at more than 4000 pounds, the RS5 needs all the help it can muster getting up to speed.

Several hot laps around the track (northern California's Sonoma Raceway) proved that 450 hp seems to do the trick. Around the hilly road course (perhaps you know it from Gran Turismo 4), big brakes help. Wave-contour rotors that resemble refugees from the flower-power movement look cool and evidence technological crossover from Volkswagen's recent Ducati motorcycle acquisition, but whatever weight savings they provide are of microscopic relevance on what remains a very stout machine.

On one level, you can't blame Audi. It's Auto Industry Marketing 101. Back in the day, you could buy a basic Chevrolet Bel Air with a six-cylinder and a two-speed automatic or one with a 427-cubic-inch V-8 and a four-on-the-floor that cost a hell of a lot more. Ford made an art in England of playing into that society's deepest class- and status-conscious truths by offering Escorts and Cortinas in dozens of finely differentiated permutations, workingman's dogsled to businessman's express, all separated by mere hundreds of cubic centimeters of displacement. And we like a little of that mild, medium, wild action. But just as car companies delighted themselves managing to get so much duty from the same crappy platforms (e.g., Falcon begets Mustang begets Maverick), the downside is that a lot of energy and funds that could've been spent building more modern cars -- lighter, safer, more fuel efficient -- gets squandered.

I, for one, would be happier if Audi gave us some station wagons instead of so many sport options. But I would be happier still if the company worked harder on making large, luxurious sedans and coupes that weighed 3000 pounds and also blew our minds at the track. That alone would be worth a parade.

Ian Porter
Hi Jamie,  As usual, the problem is with the customers, not the carmakers. I visited Ingolstadt last year and was enthralled by the project wherein Audi applied all its weight-saving technology to the S5 V8 coupe. Weight plummeted from 1640kgs to 1240kgs and the so-called S5 ultra only needed a 170kW, 2-litre turbo to match the V8's performance. NVH levels were maintained and fuel consumption halved to 5.9 litres/100kms. Why is the S5 ultra not in production, I asked. "Our customers in the US want to have an eight-cylinder engine. You can't sell them a four-cylinder engine. That's the problem."
It's easier just to throw bigger engines into heavy cars than it is to do careful engineering. There are exceptions to this, like Mazda, which is carefully taking the weight out it's new generation cars and using smaller engines in lighter chassis to get good performance.But they don't have the resources of the VW group, and even Mazda is afraid to sell a sporty station wagon other than the small Mazda 3.

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