First Drive: 2018 Audi RS 5 Coupe U.S. Spec

Bi-turbo beast when you want it to be, go fast GT when you don’t

PHOENIX, Arizona – The process for activating launch control on the new 2018 Audi RS 5 is simple enough. Hit the traction control button until it’s in Sport mode. Notch the transmission into Sport as well. Apply your left foot firmly on the brake pedal, right foot on the gas to 2,500 rpm or so as the bi-turbos spool up. Lift off the brake, mash the throttle and then hang onto the perforated-leather clad, flat-bottom steering wheel as the 8-speed automatic furiously cycles through the gears, the digital tach reflashes green, yellow, red, and the exhaust snarls out of the blackened oval tailpipes.

With launch control, the new RS 5 boasts a claimed 0-60 mph time of 3.7 seconds—and it felt every bit that fast during our blastoff. Considering you have 444 hp and 443 lb-ft of torque from a 2.9-liter twin-turbo V-6 on tap for the 3,990-pound super coupe, it’s hardly surprising.

The 2018 RS 5 is one of the first standard bearers of the new-look Audi Sport division, which has reorganized the brand’s RS street car and customer race car efforts under one flag. Even better, we Americans are now finally getting RS cars as they come out, not just end-of-lifecycle scraps. The 2018 RS 5 is the latest new generation Audi Sport car to arrive here, following the TT RS and RS 3. And there’s more on the way. Bring ’em on.

Like all of Audi’s RS cars, the RS 5 was put through roughly 10,000 miles of hell on the Green Hell in a six-week span. Yes, it’s getting cliché as a test destination, but the Nürburgring is still one of the preeminent stretches in the world to help engineers properly set up a sports car, and you can bet the crews from Ingolstadt and Neckarsulm know how to use the Ring to their advantage.

That includes people like Matthias Noethling, the RS 5’s affable technical project manager. Noethling spent three years with the team shaping and honing the coupe. When he and RS 5 product manager Anthony Garbis start breaking down the finer points of the car’s optional Dynamic Ride Control feature, a mechanical setup which deploys air tanks to push hydraulic fluid crosswise to compress the car’s dampers when necessary, thereby helping to keep the car flat under hard cornering, you know there was some serious work done to make this car perform at a high level.

Sadly, we didn’t get a chance to sample the RS 5 anywhere near its limits on a route that cut through the scruffy and often spectacular desert landscape of the Tonto National Forest north of Phoenix. But the miles behind the wheel were enough to get a feel for a car that Noethling described as being designed for “maximum fun while being relaxing, too.”

Our fun run included dropping a couple of gears and slingshotting past slow moving traffic as the optional sport exhaust (part of the $3,350 Dynamic package, which also nets you red brake calipers and Dynamic Ride Control) sang its sweet baritone six song. While not the same tune as the high-revving 4.2-liter V-8 powering the previous RS 5, it’s still plenty satisfying.

Its twin-turbo 2.9-liter six is also available for the Porsche Panamera, because you know, VW Group. But Noethling pointed out there were some significant packaging challenges the team had to address in order to fit the engine under the RS 5’s shorter hood, in addition to a different crankshaft and other minor mechanical changes. The six is some 66 pounds lighter than the outgoing V-8, makes more torque lower in the rev range, and it’s more efficient (a class-leading 18/26 mpg city/highway). No, it’s not the eight, but do not misunderstand, this six is one bad mutha in its own right. For the forseeable future, the engine will be exclusive to the RS 5 in the Audi Sport lineup.

The Audi Sport team also claims that the eight-speed automatic hooked up to the engine shifts quicker than the last car’s seven-speed dual-clutcher, which wasn’t designed to properly handle the new engine’s 443 lb-ft, anyway. All we know is the new tranny upshifts, kicks down, and otherwise responds to paddle shifted inputs as well as or better than anything in its class.

Routing all the power to all four wheels is the RS-tuned Quattro system. All RS 5’s for the U.S. get the Audi Sport rear differential as standard equipment. The standard 40:60 rear bias setup can push as much as 85 percent to the rear wheels and 75 percent to the fronts through a self-locking Torsen center diff depending on the traction situation. The Audi Sport rear diff further augments the RS 5’s handling prowess by constantly measuring and delivering up to all available torque to whichever rear wheel needs it most. Combined with ride control, an RS-tuned ESC system, and a stout multilink front and link rear suspension setup, you better believe the RS 5 will handle. All this Quattro wizardry is designed in part to help mitigate the car’s 54:46 front/rear weight distribution.

After a quick pit stop at Theodore Roosevelt Lake and Dam, we started back toward the Valley of the Sun, all the while scanning the road ahead for Arizona Smokies. Wait, is that one up there? Better hammer the optional, massive 15.7-inch front carbon ceramic brakes (13.0-inch at the rear) with six piston calipers sprayed in a fancy gray just to be sure (the carbon brakes are part of a $6,000 Dynamic Plus package). In slow traffic the brakes take some getting used to as they will reach out and grab you. When you’re hustling they will whoa you down with furious anger.

There wasn’t a lot of hardcore curvature to the route, so we really didn’t get much of a chance to wrestle with the RS 5’s steering. It’s become something of a sport among auto journos to bag on Audi’s wheel feel. The RS team has attempted to address the carping by locking in a heavy feeling, 13.5:1 ratio when you select the Dynamic mode.

Under normal circumstances, the RS 5 was absolutely easy to drive slow or fast. Hit the Audi Drive Select’s Dynamic mode and the sport exhaust will make itself known, things definitely firm up suspension-wise, and you will feel (and hear) the road. Notch it over to Comfort and you could easily cruise all day in the heavily bolstered buckets, which also have several massage settings.

Once you’re in those stylish, stitched up leather seats (Nappa will set you back $1,500), you’ll be staring at an RS-specific version of Audi’s 12.3-inch virtual cockpit (a heads up display is optional), featuring those special performance gauges and other features including a lap timer. There’s also an 8.3-inch screen topping the center stack. The rear seats aren’t adult friendly, but they fold down, augmenting 11.6 cu-ft of cargo capacity—a pretty impressive amount space for a coupe. And as is the case with just about any new Audi, there’s a Wi-fi hotspot, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto capability, multiple safety features, and an optional Bang & Olufsen 3D sound system.

Audi has also taken hits in recent years for being too restrained with its exterior design aesthetic, especially when it comes to its performance models. The RS 5 is a move toward a more expressive approach, with an aggressive-look honeycomb grille (with Quattro stamped on the lower lip) and side vents, a slightly lowered stance, and with the Black Optic package ($1,500), you get 20-inch forged rims (ask for the milled five-spokers) and several blacked-out accents that add more visual punch. There’s also a RS 5-specific color called Sonoma Green (or Garbis Green, as it’s becoming known).

It’s no secret the RS 5 competes against the BMW M4 and Mercedes-AMG C63 coupe. It’s also no secret that both of those cars are rear-drive and by extension some deem them dynamically superior. But when it comes down to it, it’s about what a given car can do for you, what best suits your tastes. The RS 5 is the quickest to 60 mph in the segment, it can hang at the Ring, and from a day-to-day driveability, style, and features standpoint, we’re comfortable saying it’s every bit the match of the M and AMG.

2018 Audi RS 5 Specifications

ON SALE April 2018
PRICE $70,875
ENGINE 2.9L twin-turbo DOHC 24-valve V-6/444 hp @ 5,700-6,700 rpm, 443 lb-ft @ 1,900-5,000 rpm
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic
LAYOUT 2-door, 4-passenger, front-engine, AWD coupe
EPA MILEAGE 18/26 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 185.9 x 73.3 x 53.5 in
WHEELBASE 108.9 in
WEIGHT 3,990 lb
0-60 MPH 3.7 sec
TOP SPEED 155 mph (174 w/ Dynamic Plus package)