Those who care deeply about setting land-speed records on public highways should do the following: Fly to Munich, infiltrate the Audi compound at Ingolstadt, spirit out a new RS6, and, once ensconced in the leather-and-Alcantara interior, incline your right foot one inch. What will follow is a voyage through time and space reminiscent of the stargate scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The RS6’s disgorging of all its 450 horsepower is so effortless, so jetlike, that you quickly find yourself hurled into a realm where no one can hear you scream.
On our personal intragalactic journey, we hit an indicated 174 mph (really more like 160). Our palms weren’t sweating, our right feet weren’t twitching, and we weren’t secretly crying out for our mommies. In fact, many cars are a lot scarier at 110 mph than this Audi is at full speed. So seamless is its power that the RS6’s terminal velocity seems defined by an aerodynamic wall rather than a speed limiter. Yet the car is actually governed to 155 mph. So how did we hit 160? Audi, God bless ’em, calculated top speed on the basis of engine revs, tire wear, and, it seems, a certain looseness with the speed limiter. This means that the RS6 can do 155 when the tires are worn but more with fresh tires and their greater mph-to-rpm-ratio. Even at 160, the RS6 is as stable as the chemicals in a Twinkie. And with noise so absent, the only sensation of speed is that the trees keep getting faster.
This quickest-ever Audi is built by wholly owned subsidiary Quattro GmbH, the people behind the RS4 and the RS2, neither of which made it to America. The RS6 is thus the first American RS model (860 will arrive, in sedan form only, from May through December 2003), and this sub-brand is positioned above Audi’s newly cohesive S performance line. Based on the V-8-equipped S6, with its longer hood and revised, aluminum-intensive front end, the RS6 is nevertheless a world away from its 340-horsepower sibling. Its sheer accelerative force also surpasses conventional competitors such as the BMW M5 and the Jaguar S-Type R. By receipt of two turbochargers, a strengthened, deeper-inhaling version of the corporate 4.2-liter 40-valve V-8 propels the RS6 from 0 to 60 mph in 4.6 seconds, 0 to 125 mph in 17.6 seconds, and 45 to 70 mph in just 3.1 seconds. These figures group the RS6 with such class A intoxicants as the Ferrari 575M Maranello and the Mercedes-Benz SL55 AMG.
Such staggering exoticar performance is sent fore and aft through a five-speed Tiptronic manu-matic transmission. The lack of an available manual subjects Audi to claims of sport-sedan illegitimacy, but with 413 pound-feet moving around the car, there’s no shame in delegating torque-converting responsibilities to this fast-shifting manu-matic. Gear changes are smooth and driver-adaptive, there’s no risk of recoil shuddering through the car from an ill-timed shift, and, besides, who needs to downshift when you’ve got this much torque? But if you must, the RS6’s Tiptronic has two easy-to-tug paddles mounted on the back of the steering wheel. These flippers circumvent the usual Tiptronic protocols–no need to slip the console’s gear selector into the Tiptronic detents to change ratios.
To cope with the speed differential that exists between the RS6 and nearly everything else on the road, Quattro fitted the car with Brembo eight-piston calipers up front and single-piston jobs at the rear. These brakes shorten stopping distances the way the engine shortens distances on a map. From 62 mph, the RS6 stops in 2.6 seconds. Yet, for all its decelerative might, the brake pedal has a mushy zone at the top of its travel that gives one pause, particularly when a schoolbus pulls into the left lane. These brakes offer less initial bite than you’d anticipate, a presumption based on the steering’s high level of resistance.
Much of the Audi’s tautness results from a new chassis system called Dynamic Ride Control (DRC). Think of it as an active suspension without the cost or complexity. Entirely mechanical-hydraulic, DRC negates most pitch and body roll by sending hydraulic fluid to the unloaded side of the suspension when the loaded side is compressed. Under braking, for example, as the front end loads up, DRC compresses the rear, counter-acting pitch.
Although DRC takes the slack out of the car’s transitions, it still can’t give the RS6 the kind of connective tissue that runs through the BMW M5. DRC can’t mask the fact that the RS6 feels a bit reluctant to change direction. But that’s not entirely bad. It’s what makes the RS6 such an unwavering ally at high speed.
Other deviations from the A6 lineup include sport seats, new gauges, swatches of perforated leather, matte-finish aluminum, and gray poplar. For all this, Audi will charge a whopping $82,000. The flagrantly wealthy among us will have to ask themselves: Is straight-line performance worth that much, especially when those speeds are largely theoretical? After all, the car’s flash point can rarely be hit on American roads. And, unlike the fluid, ultra-versatile M5, the RS6 at times can seem merely a tool for outrunning airplanes. In the end, is the ability to say you own the world’s fastest sedan that meaningful? Hell, yes!