Although Audi of America has not yet confirmed it, the stunning new RS5 coupe that debuted at the Geneva auto show in March will indeed be imported to the United States, and even though it probably won’t arrive until late 2011, we’ve already driven it. The last RS models to come here, as you may recall, were the RS4 sedan and cabriolet that were discontinued some time ago. The current drought of U.S.-bound RS models has been long, but the RS5’s U.S. arrival will be the beginning of a new era where we will see a steadier infusion of RS models. Why the delay for the RS5? The A5/S5 coupe on which it’s based, although still stunning, is due for a mid-cycle face-lift next year, so it makes sense for Audi to import the RS5 at the same time as that freshened model.
Like all fast two-door Audis, the RS5 is genetically connected, albeit loosely, to the 1980s Coupe Quattro. To underline this link to Audi’s glorious rally-winning past, the RS5 sports squared-off fenders and triangular sill extensions. Specific RS styling elements include a new grille, enlarged air intakes, restyled front and rear bumpers, plenty of aluminum trim, two large oval tailpipes, a front splitter, a rear diffuser, and a wing that extends at 75 mph and retracts at 50 mph.
Inside, power-operated sport seats are trimmed in Alcantara and leather. The RS instruments wear different graphics; the onboard computer includes an oil-temperature gauge and a lap timer; the pedals are made of drilled aluminum; and supple leather, shiny carbon fiber, and piano black panelwork please the eye and help justify the premium price, likely about $75,000 or $80,000 in the States.
While most future RS models will be powered by twin-turbocharged engines, both the upcoming, Europe-market RS4 Avant and the RS5 coupe get a high-revving, normally aspirated, direct-injection, 4.2-liter V-8. It makes 450 hp, 30 hp more than the old RS4’s V-8 of the same displacement. Stephan Reil, R&D chief in charge of all Audi RS and R models, explains: The high-revving V-8 is better suited for this particular vehicle concept than a twin-turbo V-6. When you consider the extra plumbing, the more complex exhaust system, and the additional cooling requirement, the weight penalty of the V-8 shrinks to less than 40 pounds. The engine for the RS5 was practically developed from scratch. It develops more power and torque than the outgoing unit, yet it uses twenty percent less fuel. Although the redline was pushed up to 8500 rpm, maximum torque, an identical 317 lb-ft is now available between a less hectic 4000 and 6000 rpm.
Engineering highlights include a two-mode intake manifold with tumble blades, variable intake and exhaust timing, and a multimode exhaust system.
To trim parasitic losses, Audi reduced piston friction, lightened the DOHC valvetrain, and fitted a variable-output oil pump. A regenerative braking system increases alternator output during deceleration and reduces its output during normal driving. A seven-speed dual-clutch S tronic automatic is the only available transmission.
The RS5 gets the latest evolution of the Quattro system that debuted on the new S4 sedan. Its salient feature is a center differential capable of directing up to 70 percent of the torque to the front axle and up to 85 percent to the rear. An optional computer-controlled rear differential adjusts torque between the rear wheels to prevent wheel spin and aid cornering.
As one would expect, the chassis wizards have come up with new springs, dampers, and antiroll bars for the RS5, as compared with those of the stock A5. The calibration of the suspension software has been firmed up quite a bit, ride height is lowered by nearly an inch, and the standard tires are 265/35YR-19, with 275/30YR-20 footwear optional. The brakes employ thicker, larger-diameter discs, and the front brakes employ eight-piston calipers and 14.4-inch-diameter vented and drilled rotors pinned to aluminum hubs.
Through Drive Select (the interface for steering, powertrain, and suspension that debuted in the Q5) the driver can personalize all essential dynamic traits. The settings known as comfort, dynamic, auto, and individual also apply to the sport differential. Other variations can be dialed in by sharpening or softening the performance of the dual-clutch transmission, by focusing or relaxing the mind-set of the V-8 engine, and by altering the tunes played by the restrained, raucous, or rowdy exhaust. As for the steering, Audi engineers have found ways to massage its action in three almost equally compromised directions. Comfort is stiff, dynamic is even stiffer, and auto varies between the two, which are both disappointingly lifeless and uninspiring. As a result, the helm feels heavy and doughy and lacks fluidity and progression. This setup is quite clearly more interested in execution than in communication.
In theory, Drive Select combines the best of all worlds. In reality, it makes falling in love with this car a trial-and-error experience that can be either enlightening and entertaining or frustrating.
Although the new Audi RS5 is lightning quick, some of its motions have a strangely synthetic touch. A competent and classy car, it delivers the goods in a rather cold and detached fashion. Like the new A8, the RS5 overwhelms the driver with modern conveniences and with optional behavioral manipulations. With Drive Select, one can now almost reach deep into the car¹s brain and tweak the flow of its neurotransmitters, which takes some getting used to and could even call for an attitude change not unlike the one we went through when the automotive industry introduced antilock brakes, traction control, and stability control, all of which evolved from potential incapacitators to indispensable saviors.
In view of the Audi’s awesome on-paper form and the favorable driving conditions, we set off from Audi headquarters in Ingolstadt with the engine/exhaust, the transmission, and the sport differential in dynamic mode. In addition, we raised the stability control threshold with the sport program. Unless you use the paddleshifters or push the lever into the manual gate to prevent automatic upshifts, the driveline needs no further instruction to deliver exactly as expected. Throttle response is brisk and eager, and pickup at low revs is commendably energetic, but you still need to keep the V-8 revving within its 4000-to-6000-rpm sweet spot. With the transmission in auto and Drive Select in dynamic, the black box does most of the thinking for you, which could be a good thing, except that we often disagreed. After all, late upshifts and very early downshifts are a nuisance in town: at 30 mph, the cogs will decide to engage second gear, fiercely blipping the throttle in the process and firmly keeping the exhaust in that blat-blat hooligan setting. In dynamic mode on the open road, the transmission will try not to shift up to sixth or seventh gear, which sounds and feels fast but is not a particularly practical proposition. So after a couple of hours, it’s back to auto mode with a frown and a question: could it be that the Drive Select software is a touch too clever for the environment it must work in?
Still, on the winding but open road between Vohburg and Münchsmünster, the RS5’s sport differential, Quattro, and tuned suspension created an almost eerie virtual-reality cornering effect. Can these speeds be true? Are the RS5 and Kacher still on the same planet? What happened to all the familiar warning signs like body roll, tire squeal, lift-off oversteer, the steering firming up or becoming lighter? The RS5 is teaching me new lessons here, like how to approach and detect and deal with the limit without relying on familiar instincts. It’s an unreal experience, and yet it is electrifying, intoxicating, and addictive. The network of filters takes out most of the vagaries and the imponderables, but at the same time it simplifies the car’s complex character and personality.
If speed from point A to point B and total composure are your priorities, the new Audi promises total satisfaction. But if feedback and transparency matter most, the RS5 puts you on a relatively strict diet. As it is, the RS5 ticks all the boxes with robotic accuracy and awesome ability, but I, for one, need more time to adjust to this new quality of focused, fuss-free performance. Most of all, I need more time to mix a Drive Select cocktail that really works for me.