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First Drive: 2018 Audi RS 5

Audi Sport starts to show its twin-turbo hand

Basem WasefWriterThe Manufacturerphotographer

As pleasantly aggressive as it is on the eyes, the meaner stance and flared bodywork of the 2018 Audi RS 5 doesn't tell the entire story behind this reworked coupe. The most significant transformation lurks beneath its creased and widened skin, specifically the swapping of its big, naturally aspirated V-8 for a smaller, torque-ier twin-turbo V-6. Welcome to the inevitable future of Audi Sport, in all its predictably downsized and turbocharged glory.

A Teutonic Tale of Loss and Gain

The turbo trend is a bit of a new car cliché, bringing with it left-brain justifications as well as predictable chatter from enthusiasts about the loss of certain intangibles. The RS 5 enjoys the typical benefits — for starters, the smaller engine weighs 68 pounds less, alleviating some of the nose-heavy weight distribution and shifting the car's balance rearward by a half percentage point, to 57/43. The figure is still not ideal, but it's certainly a step in the right direction.

The RS 5's 2.9-liter V-6 — also found in the Porsche Panamera — produces the same 450 horsepower as its predecessor but gains a significant 125 lb-ft of torque, for a total of 442 lb-ft. Impressively, that figure plateaus from 1,900 rpm to 5,000 rpm and bests the R8's base V-10 by a notable 44 lb-ft. Audi's familiar DSG transmission has been swapped for a ZF-sourced eight-speed with a conventional torque converter because a dual-clutch unit couldn't handle the motor's prodigious twist, according to Audi Sport development boss Stephan Reil. Fuel efficiency improves by 17 percent over the outgoing V-8, with the U.S. equivalent of the New European Cycle equating to somewhere in the neighborhood of 19/27 mpg city/highway.

Power is distributed via a Torsen differential, which employs a 40/60 front-to-rear split and can route as much as 85 percent to the rear or 65 percent to the front. A mechanical torque vectoring system uses two clutches at the rear axle to overdrive the outside wheel, with additional brake vectoring at all four wheels.

Longer, More Agile, Roomier

Though it grows in length by 2.9 inches, the RS 5 loses 132 pounds thanks to aluminum components like an instrument panel substructure formed from extruded cross members, bringing curb weight to 3,648 pounds. Front strut domes now use cast aluminum construction instead of welded sheet steel, aiding structural stiffness and steering response. An optional carbon-fiber roof shaves an additional 6.6 pounds but is unavailable on U.S.-bound cars.

The cabin also feels incrementally roomier thanks to a 0.6 inch increase in wheelbase, which adds nearly an inch of rear legroom, helping make the back seats feel almost habitable for average-sized adults. Luggage space increases by 0.4 cubic feet, offering a best-in-class total of 16.4 cubic feet.

Cockpit Action

Climb into the RS 5, and a few aggressive details quietly clamor for attention, particularly the flat-bottomed steering wheel, paddle shifters, and available contrast-stitched leather or Alcantara trim on key controls like the shifter and wheel. Unlike earlier Audi models, the 8.3-inch navigation screen is unfortunately fixed in place. At least the MMI wheel, touchpad, and hard buttons play well together. Also available is Audi's slick Virtual Cockpit, which transforms the space formerly known as the analog dashboard into a customizable, 12.3-inch TFT screen. Unique to the RS application are displays that make the tachometer change to yellow or red when approaching redline, as well as engine output gauges, tire pressure and temperature, and g-forces.

Our test drive took us from the flatlands of Toulouse, France, to the sci-fi-ish principality of Andorra, a tiny corner nestled in the switchback-laden peaks between France and Spain. Unlike the outgoing RS 5, which howled its way to an 8,500 rpm redline, the new model's punchier personality is best tapped at low- and mid-range rpms, where the core of its sonic soul also happens to reside. At mellower engine speeds (and in the brief space between shifts), a low frequency hum fills the cabin. It's subtle and almost soothing but not entirely real thanks to a tiny shaker on a metal flap that allows some of the engine sounds to resonate off the windshield.

Regardless of its authenticity (or lack thereof), the deep frequency sounds are discreet enough to add some much-needed character to the V-6's repertoire, aiding an otherwise relatively quiet powerplant by lending it an air of personality. It's no free-breathing, high-screaming V-8 — indeed, it offers an entirely more soft-spoken quality — but at least the V-6 produces refined audio and, in sportier modes a huskier tune and a satisfying off-throttle crackle uncorked via an exhaust valve.

While the V-6 is not as gloriously long-winded as the high-revving V-8 was, it does pack an intense punch. Drop the hammer at low rpms, watch the thin-line digital boost gauge escalate, and feel the whoosh of power as the engine winds up, pressing you firmly into your stitched leather seat. Shifts during mellow driving can be a tad jerky (even in milder driving modes) but become paradoxically more comfortable when the going gets faster. There's a certain understated quality to driving the RS 5 quickly, due in part to its relatively subdued engine sounds. Squeeze the throttle, and the car's raison d'être instantly alters; when pushed, the RS 5 can launch to 60 mph in 3.7 seconds, eliminating any suspicions of its mild-mannered pretenses. Keep the shifter in its standard mode, and there's enough torque on hand to deliver strong acceleration. Tap it down for S mode, and power becomes more readily available. Use the Drive mode select toggle for a more aggressive setting, and the revs stay high with quicker upshifts and easier downshifts.

The RS 5 felt appropriately agile on the frantic switchbacks of the jagged Andorran countryside, thanks in part to a new hydraulically linked shock system inherited from the S8 model that's a part of the Dynamic package (along with sport exhaust and red brake calipers). The system uses valve-adjustable shocks interconnected with hydraulic lines for greater body control, and the system pays off by feeling poised and responsive. Though steering is generally inoffensive, the dynamic steering option does deliver some artificial feeling feedback during certain mid-corner maneuvers. Our tester was equipped with the Dynamic Plus package, which adds ceramic front brakes with massive 15.7-inch rotors, a tire temperature and pressure display, a carbon engine cover, and a top speed limiter that lifts from 155 mph to 174 mph. The brakes, which are larger than the R8's, deliver effortless stops from breathtaking speeds.

In the case of the 2018 Audi RS 5, does progress equate to excitement? We can't help but appreciate the idea of a lighter, nimbler, and considerably quicker car that propels its equipment and instrumentation firmly into the 21st century. Does it sacrifice the (semi) analog joy of a naturally aspirated V-8 in the process? Most certainly, yes. But the tradeoffs, at least when executed with a keen eye towards power and handling as they have been with the RS 5, go a long way toward giving drivers something to look forward to in the brave new turbocharged world.

2018 Audi RS 5 Specifications

ON SALE April 2018 (est)
PRICE $70,000 (base) (est)
ENGINE 2.9L twin-turbo DOHC 24-valve V-6/450 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 19/27 mpg (city/hwy) (est)
L x W x H 185.9 x 73.3 x 53.5 in
WHEELBASE 108.9 in
WEIGHT 3,649 lb
0-60 MPH 3.7 sec
TOP SPEED 155 mph