The lad driving the S4 Avant camera car, finally released from the tedium of driving at 32mph, wasn’t going to hang about. In fact he absolutely nailed it. The blue tailgate sunk a few cm lower, and the 328bhp S4 – equipped with the same S-Tronic transmission as the one fitted to our RS5 – rocketed away.
He didn’t stand a chance, obviously. I was in the £57,480 RS5: the new 444bhp flagship of the A4-platform performance range. Time to teach the young rascal a lesson.
Subscribe to evo magazine
The instant its rear axle submarined, I did the same thing in the RS5, taking care to ensure that the full-monty Dynamic mode was engaged. Convinced of mine and the RS5’s superiority, I leant back, waited for the seven-speed S-Tronic gubbins to fashion me some class-leading acceleration and primed myself for surely the only thing required of me during this inter-frater joust: a little left lock to avoid nerfing that blue tailgate when the inevitable RS5 surge occurred.
Only it didn’t. Through first and second I gained a few yards, but nothing much to speak of. Into third, matters didn’t change much: perhaps half a car-length was removed from the gap, and by the time I felt the RS5 was beginning to gain ground, the S4’s brake lights were ablaze, signalling the end of the exercise. I’d been learned. So had the RS5.
But I was not unduly surprised. Earlier in the day we’d driven the RS5 from Marbella up the famous Ronda road, which climbs 1000m from the coast. It was early, the road was damp in places and the Audi proved its worth with a very secure chassis and a front end that gives immense confidence in such conditions – not always something the company excels at. It was as we strung together some third-gear bends, allowing the new V8 to brush its 8500rpm limiter before braking hard, that something dawned on me. ‘Chris,’ I said, to the poor sod turning green next to me: ‘Is it me, or does this car just not feel very fast?’ He agreed. It made noise, he said: ‘Lots of lovely noise.’
When you looked past the sheer brilliance of the S-Tronic’s up-and-down shifts, and the fact that Audi has managed to add even more NASCAR-intake to its latest high-revving V8, it didn’t actually pin you into the seat-back with much violence. Strange…
But then the RS5 is far less straightforward than I’d expected. Given the move to turbocharging for the RS6 and S4, a few eyebrows twitched when Audi announced that this car would run a normally aspirated motor. There’s no denying the numbers are extremely impressive: 444bhp from 4.2 litres (the new engine is effectively 4/5ths of the Audi V10) takes it well beyond the 100bhp-per-litre benchmark beyond which large-capacity engines are not supposed to exist.
Running a 12.3:1 compression, this motor is hand-built by Quattro Gmbh with an aluminium crankcase. There’s not enough room here to discuss the full specificaion, but most of the efficiency gains over the RS4 motor have come through lower friction components and an ‘on-demand’ oil pump. The whole unit weighs just 216kg, which makes you wonder where all the other lard comes from, because the RS5 actually has a claimed kerb weight of 1725kg, meaning it’s an honest 1800kg on the road. Someone at Ingolstadt likes pies.
If the 444bhp headline figure gives the RS5 a substantial 116bhp advantage over the S4’s turbocharged V6, then the cheaper car actually turns the tables in terms of torque: 325 versus 317: and it’s available from 2900rpm whereas the coupe doesn’t do its best hauling until 4000rpm. The picture looks even worse when you factor-in the respective kerb weights: the cheaper, lighter S4 saloon offers 193lb ft per ton, compared with the RS5’s 184lb ft per ton. The message is simple: RS5 owners should not tangle with S4s unless the needle is beyond 4000rpm. And just to move the torque argument outside family walls, the Mercedes C63, possibly the RS5’s closest rival, manages 256lb ft per ton.
So as you’ll now be acutely aware, torque is the RS5’s bête-noir: it doesn’t have enough of the stuff. Its gearing doesn’t help either – why have seven forward ratios, and perhaps the slickest shifting transmission on sale, and then run third to nearly 100mph?
It’s rare for a car to be so affected by a lack of chesty urge, but Audi has created problems for itself by making the RS5 a very particular type of car – one whose character is in some ways suited to an easier, less frenetic life.
You see, the new chassis is actually very good. All UK cars come with DRC (Dynamic Ride Control), which offers three chassis settings, Comfort, Automatic and Dynamic. In the softest, the car is about 20 per cent softer than standard; likewise it’s 20 per cent firmer on the hardest setting. Alongside a ride that will keep dentists busy, Dynamic mode brings a louder exhaust (which can be made louder independently through the optional dash-mounted MMI screen) and a faster steering ratio that feels heavier. For me, the car was much, much happier in the Automatic DRC mode, although Comfort might well enhance the RS5’s GT credentials in the UK.
On the track, the centre differential and Torque Vectoring (actually braking of the unloaded wheels) disguises the RS5’s chub surprisingly well. It doesn’t understeer much, and the front axle remains very accurate: you can place the car just where you want to. The centre differential is completely mechanical, so responds immediately to grip changes, and it does feel very slick: much more intuitive than systems that rely on electronic sensors.
Trouble is, it never ever feels like the rear axle has 60 per cent of the torque, and I couldn’t test the claims that up to 85 per cent can be aimed rearwards because the fun-police at Audi wouldn’t let us switch the ESP off. What’s the point of making all these claims if you don’t let people test the bloody hardware? What I can tell you is that it’s less understeery than an RS4, very capable, rides well, steers better than an E92 M3 (though not as sweetly as a C63) and will no doubt suit inclement UK weather the way Audis always have.
But can you see the mis-match now? On the one hand we’ve got an engine and transmission looking for a bodyshell light enough to forgive the lack of torque and a chassis that will encourage the driver to thrash it beyond 8000rpm at every opportunity. On the other hand we’ve also got a supremely competent, though mostly unexciting chassis, which would be best exploited with a relaxing, torque-strong motor. In isolation, they’re great; they just don’t quite work together.
Being an Audi, it’s beautifully finished inside and the RS treatment brings white-on-black clock faces, an oil temperature gauge and a lap-timer. The optional bucket seats are identical to those from the RS4 and probably worth the extra cash. All the test cars were fitted with the optional Sport Differential and the Bang & Olufsen hi-fi, which is a very fine thing indeed.
It’s not a bad car the RS5, it’s just lacking inspiration and clear direction: the very qualities that defined the much-missed RS4. Some people will love the noise and the fuss-free environment the RS5 provides. Folk who love driving will be better off in an M3; I’d take a C63 over both because its everyday performance is so much more accessible.
This leaves us with an interesting state of affairs in the Audi high-performance hierarchy. Of course the RS5 is ultimately a bit faster and technically more capable than the S4, but then spec-for-spec it’s well over £10K more. You’ll really have to want those flared arches and some V8 noise to pay the extra. Me? I’d take the unassuming S4.
|Max power||444bhp @ 8250rpm|
|Max torque||317lb ft @ 4000rpm|
|Top speed||155mph (limited)|