First Drive: 2013 Audi RS5

The tinkerers at Quattro GmbH can build performance cars as well as any other automaker, but in its twenty-nine years of existence, the go-fast outfit has failed to establish a cadence as to where and when it uses the RS treatment. That's about to change as Audi elevates its performance sub-brand in an effort to replicate the reputation and consistency of BMW's M and Mercedes-Benz's AMG divisions. Give it a few years, and Quattro will be spreading its seed to any Audi that will lift its hood long enough for an engine swap.

If earning our attention with the firecracker TT RS was the first step in jump-starting the RS lineup, step two comes with this RS5, the closest thing to an official announcement that Quattro intends to run wheel-to-wheel with M and AMG. By targeting the BMW M3 and the Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG coupe -- two of the most respected cars to ever come out of an in-house tuner -- Audi has taken the fight straight to the competition.

Like its rivals, the RS5 refuses to buy into the turbocharged myth that, when it comes to performance cars, you can save your fuel and burn it, too. At this level of raw talent, normal aspiration remains a coveted mark of exclusivity, and the Audi RS5 is as genuine as they come. The 4.2-liter direct-injected V-8 isn't defined by its 450 hp and 317 lb-ft of torque as much as it is by its stratospheric redline of 8500 rpm. This engine is a model of linear, free-revving performance.

Even with the $1000 sport exhaust, the RS5 emits a subdued thrum too smooth to call a rumble and too quiet to call a roar. More volume and more bark would give it some attitude, although the civility of the soundtrack highlights just how polished the powertrain is. By the time the rev limiter finally gets around to putting a lid on your acceleration, the pistons are dancing as quickly as a Formula 1 car's.

The engine is tied to an equally fluid seven-speed dual-clutch automatic, the only available transmission. That unit is the quickest-shifting S tronic gearbox Audi has ever produced, but it shifts with far less violence than Porsche's PDK set to its most aggressive mode. The Audi's automatic also packs flawless logic in normal, sport, and manual modes; the last will hold a gear against redline.

Although the RS5 has clearly borrowed its powertrain playbook from the M3 and the C63, Audi won't acquiesce to groupthink when it comes to drive wheels. Quattro couldn't take a pass on its namesake all-wheel-drive system, so in place of burnouts and donuts is the unflappable traction of a 40/60-percent front/rear baseline torque split. There's no question that it's of benefit in putting the power down, but all-wheel drive also introduces some sterility to the experience of tracking the RS5.

You wouldn't call the RS5 benign, though. Thanks to the standard torque-vectoring rear differential, the back end is eager to swing around in corners. Carrying throttle through the tight 180-degree turn 7 at Sonoma Raceway (nee Infineon, nee Sears Point), there's no question that this single piece of hardware is the difference between egregious understeer and precise rotation. Lap after lap, turn after turn, it consistently dials in the slightest amount of controlled oversteer that makes for the quickest way around a bend.

If going fast is a priority, you'll want to skip the variable-ratio steering that comes packaged with blind-spot monitoring and adaptive cruise control. The system is fairly innocuous on the street, but we were repeatedly caught by surprise on the racetrack when initial inputs returned more steering than anticipated. You can put full faith in the brakes, though. With eight-piston binders up front and floating discs (to fend off heat-induced warpage) with a wave-shaped outer diameter (to save nine pounds) at all four corners, the brakes readily scrub speed on the track and are easily modulated on the street. They're so effective that carbon-ceramic front discs aren't just optional; they're superfluous.

Audi's Drive Select is standard, altering the steering effort, throttle, transmission, exhaust, and differential among three settings. While comfort, auto, and dynamic each have their own merits, the selectable settings are more of an indulgence than a part of the car's character. We have the feeling that Audi could build a great car (possibly even a better car) with a single calibration for each of those parameters, just as they've done with the fixed-rate suspension. On Northern California's forgiving roads, we found a perfect ride and handling balance with the optional twenty-inch wheels.

With its silky engine, lively differential, and stout brakes, the RS5 is every bit worthy of the RS badge, but that's not where Quattro stops when it comes to aesthetics. Every body panel save for the doors, the roof, and the hood is changed from the A5, yet, true to Audi subtlety, you might guess at first glance that every panel save for the front clip is untouched. It's not until you're standing next to the car, looking down on the broad fenders, that you really appreciate the RS5's wide body.

It doesn't require that close of an inspection to appreciate that this RS5 can hang with an M3 and a C63 AMG. In fact, it's good enough that Audi may have already arrived at step three in establishing RS's new relevance: it might just beat the competition.

The Specs
On sale:
Now
Price: $69,795
Engine: 4.2L V-8, 450 hp, 317 lb-ft
Drive: 4-wheel
EPA Mileage: 16/23 mpg

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