2020 Audi RS7 First Drive: A Fearsome, High-Tech Hellsled

Capable of high speed and great delicacy, but does it make it sense for our era?

ABSTEINACH, Germany—The interlopers moving into the autobahn's left lane before our blinding-red, blazing-fast 2020 Audi RS7 Sportback were either brave or daft. As we closed in, the RS7 surely blipped into view in that car's mirror like the object Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan sighted in space. "I don't know whether that does you any good," the astronaut told Mission Control at the time, "but there's something out there."

At 120 mph, the RS7 is something, all right—and at that speed, the supersedan is only running at two-thirds of its potential (top speed is electronically limited to 155 mph, but an optional package raises that to 189). Inside of the red missile, I enjoyed a nice conversation with my co-driver while the scenery blurred by. Rather than crowding the slower, lane-insensitive car that had pulled out in front of us on this get-up-and-go section of the A4, I opted to leave a big cushion and touched the brake pedal, finding the mighty brakes (10-piston calipers up front squeezing 16.5-inch rotors as standard, or optional 17.3-inch carbon-ceramic pieces) are capable of delicacy, too. Tapping the brakes smoothly shaved off a third of the RS7's speed without pitching occupants' heads forward.

About that speed: We were hastening to a luncheon meeting at Das Hardberg, a vacation rental on the Steinach River's upper reaches in Odenwald, the UNESCO Geopark of 3,500 square kilometers (about 1,350 miles) between the Rhine, Main, and Neckar rivers in southwestern Germany. The geopark has a slogan, surely one thought up by someone with rocks in their head: "Between granite and sandstone." Village locals had slogans of their own on wall placards: "No Wind Park in Odenwald!" A few bladed turbines fanned on the ridge, part of a grand scheme to achieve 100-percent renewable energy for the whole district.

Like the RS7 Sportback, these anti-renewable citizens are being surrounded by opposite forces. In fact, it's a curious time in Germany for a vehicle such as the Audi. This year in Berlin, anarchists have torched more than 300 powerful, luxurious vehicles and SUVs. Activists around the country advocate restricting SUVs in cities. Hostility to internal combustion is on the rise, and Lärmempfindlichkeit, the sensitivity to noise, is leading to new restrictions. So Audi isn't alone in suppressing exhaust-note boisterousness; it's just too bad that, as a result, the RS7 sounded like it had its head in the toilet after a long Biergarten night chased down with schnapps.

Americans are so lucky. The RS7 we'll get next summer isn't as tainted by greenie activism and will issue a more robust report from its huge tailpipes. The sound will even be adjustable via Audi Drive Select; go for a sportier drive mode, and you'll be rewarded with a louder exhaust. The tradeoff, for those who care about steering-wheel shape, is that the U.S.-spec will have a fully round steering wheel rather than a flat-bottom unit. It'll come with a perforated leather wrap and, glory of glories, internal heating. A sunroof will be standard, too.

The rest of the second-generation RS7 will be as we drove it in Germany, right down to the twin-turbo 4.0-liter V-8. Producing 591 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 590 lb-ft of torque at 2,050 rpm, the V-8 is 40-hp stronger than the old RS7's. (It's also the engine that will power the RS6 Avant station wagon that finally will make it Stateside soon.) Credit the turbo compressor wheels, which are 3 millimeters (0.12 inch) larger, and boost pressure, which is up from 17.4 to 20.3 psi. A stop-start feature and cylinder deactivation abet the brute's efficiency, but miles-per-gallon figures in the mid-teens in city driving and mid-20s for highway travel won't keep the RS7 from inciting a frolic among radical greenies.

But wait, maybe you could show those environmentalists a thing or two. The RS7 Sportback is actually a mild hybrid. This means it is equipped with a 48-volt electrical system that includes a compact lithium-ion battery in the rear and water-cooled motor-generator (it also doubles as the starter) attached to the engine. The system recovers energy via the motor-generator that otherwise would be lost during braking, and uses it to power the vehicle at speeds under 13 mph and enable the car to coast for as long as 40 seconds with engine off.

An eight-speed torque-converter automatic transmission doles the power to all four wheels via Audi's Quattro all-wheel drive, the latter of which helps the RS7 tear from a rest to 60 mph in 3.6 seconds (according to Audi). Opt for the RS Dynamic package if you'd like the top speed governor relaxed from its standard 155-mph limit to 189.

The RS7 has monstrous capability, then, in spite of its two-and-a-quarter-ton weight (Audi claims 4452 pounds!). And even so, the new model is only slightly quicker than the first-gen car it replaces. It is, however, broader—much broader. As exterior designer Francesco D'Amore puts it, working on the car "was basically a dream, because we finally made it wider." He's referring to the '20 RS7's bulging bodywork and optional 22-inch wheels (21-inchers as standard), which push the car's width measurement to 76.8 inches, 1.6 inches wider than the regular A7 on which this RS version is based.

There is very little A7 left up front, at least. Although the hood and front doors carry over from the A7, the headlights are unique. "They're darker," D'Amore tells us, "so they have a little meaner look." The signature Audi single-frame grille is stuffed with an all-black honeycomb mesh insert that evokes Audi's racing heritage, and larger intakes flank its gaping abyss. The story is much the same in back, where the roof and decklid are standard A7 fare, but are joined new rear doors that were necessary to bridge the RS's blistered fenders. And of course there is that rear diffuser—which reprises the grille's mesh motif—and RS-specific bumper. The optional 22-inch wheels not only offer machined-face and contrasting colored elements (blue, gray, red, or black), but their surfaces are dimpled for a dynamic look that. Caught eyeing the wheels, D'Amore pointed out to us the obvious, which is that the treatment is expensive and requires careful machining.

Inside the cabin, we found a posh but not lush atmosphere that also emphasized Audi's tech-heavy image. The RS7 has the brand's latest MMI interface, which is touchscreen-based and does without a center-console controller. Despite a "flatter" menu structure Audi claims is simplified, the central display still distracted me, and even the configurable Virtual Cockpit was too much. The head-up display beamed onto the windshield, on the other hand,  was very useful on my fast drive up along the Neckar River from Heidelberg and into the hills. It displayed key information while I paid close attention in the tight bends so as not to deflect a cyclist into the trees. Speaking of, you might want to deflect any potential fifth passengers when driving the RS7; though rated to hold five, the cabin more realistically accommodates four gentlepersons and a rear, center-mounted lhasa apso.

Bicyclists safe, we proceeded along our route in welcome serenity, interrupted only by the occasional skritching from the pads meeting the ceramic brake rotors. Optional rear-wheel steering, introduced in the A8, migrates to the RS7 Sportback. At low speed, the rear wheels turn up to five degrees in the opposite direction of the front wheels, shortening the turning radius by up to 3.3 feet. Beyond 60 mph, the rear wheels follow the angle of the fronts by up to two degrees, unobtrusively adding a stabilizing effect to high-speed lane changes.

Other RS tricks include an optional sport suspension with Dynamic Ride Control, which substitutes steel springs for the standard four-corner air springs and adds three-way dampers. Those dampers operate with extra damping from a clever oil line between diagonally opposite corners to quell chassis motions—no electronics needed! Audi Drive Select allows the choice of any of six modes, including two custom settings, to tailor nearly every aspect of powertrain and chassis performance as well as engine sound and even the air conditioning. On ever-narrower roads with low speed limits, the Auto setting worked fine and left a lingering sense of wonder at the suspension's smoothness.

As we wended our way out of Odenwald after our lunch meeting, pears and apples ripened on trees and the September sun kissed the meadows and woods. The RS7 Sportback had proven impressive in its abundant and refined power delivery, pleasant ride, and cornucopia of features. Outrunning noise, fuel-economy, and speed restrictions and outmaneuvering anarchists in it is no problem. Partly, that's because even with its  edgy flares and flukes, the RS7's design provokes no outrage; and at least in the cars we drove, the exhaust volume was subdued for speaking a 591-hp V-8's language . Nevertheless, as Audi presents the RS7 Sportback as the Summation of All We Know, does the fight against social forces militating against esoteric vehicular statements really need something this relatively incognito? We'd pick one of the many rides that are more visceral and less expensive for thumbing our noses at progress.

2020 Audi RS7 Sportback Specifications
ON SALE Summer 2020
BASE PRICE $115,000 (est)
ENGINE 4.0L twin-turbo DOHC 32-valve V-8; 591 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 590 lb-ft @ 2,050 rpm
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD hatchback
EPA MILEAGE 114/26 mpg (city/hwy, est)
L x W x H 197.2 x 76.7 x 56.0 in
WHEELBASE 115.3 in
WEIGHT 4,552 lb
0-60 MPH 3.3 sec (est)
TOP SPEED 155-189 mph
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