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Shoehorned between Spain and France, the tiny, landlocked principality of Andorra is draped over 180 square miles of the Pyrenees mountains. Fewer than 90,000 people call it home, but many more stream over its borders to enjoy its duty-free shopping, myriad ski resorts, and extremely friendly income-tax code. While winter sees the country’s peaks blanketed in snow, in summer they’re laced with lush, green scrub and encourage a different type of frolicking: exploring the sinuous, two-lane ribbons of asphalt that climb up from the valleys and back down again. It was across this landscape and past shops stuffed to their rafters with discount booze that we drove the latest Audi RS5 coupe.
For 2018, the RS5 has been updated to ride on Audi’s second-generation MLB platform—the same kit serves under the A4, A5, Q7, and others—and with a twin-turbocharged 2.9-liter V-6. The V-6 takes the place of the particularly sonorous naturally aspirated 4.2-liter V-8 that served in the previous-generation RS5. The V-6 may be down two cylinders, but horsepower is unchanged at 450, and the turbos increase torque from 317 lb-ft to a far meatier 443 lb-ft and also push the output peaks further down the tach: Max power is available at 6700 rpm, 1550 lower than before, and peak torque comes online at 1900 rpm, a full 2100 rpm lower.
The 90-degree six is 44 pounds lighter than the V-8 (the car is 132 pounds lighter overall), all blower hardware included, and its two turbochargers are nestled in the valley between the cylinder banks. This “hot vee” configuration’s largest benefit is to emissions, according to Audi Sport chief Stephan Reil, since the catalysts warm up more quickly, thanks to shorter distances between the turbos, the exhaust valves, and the catalysts. Less plumbing also reduces lag, and this V-6 is indeed one hell of a hard charger, with power, torque, and speed coming in a near instantaneous wave that intensifies proportionally to the angle of your right ankle. Audi estimates the zero-to-62-mph run at 3.9 seconds, or about half a tick quicker than the zero-to-60 time we recorded for the outgoing RS5. We think Audi’s number is just about right.
The Audi-engineered V-6 makes more torque than any of the company’s dual-clutch automatics can handle—Porsche uses its PDK with this engine in the Panamera but doesn’t share that gearbox with other Group members—and so the last RS5’s seven-speed S tronic transmission has been supplanted by an eight-speed ZF automatic. Compared with a dual-clutch ’box, this torque-converter unit’s gearchanges are slower; yet this is not to say it’s slow by any means. The ZF can handle the V-6’s torque, and Reil asserts that customers favor the new transmission’s smoother and more predictable step-off behavior from a stop. There is no manual transmission available, and the ZF automatic’s programming is so good and the plasticky shift paddles so unsatisfying to use that we simply let it work on its own the majority of the time.
Even as the weaponized version of the A5/S5 brood, the RS5 is easy to live with. It’s tautly suspended yet displays a supple ride quality despite its 20-inch wheels and low-profile rubber. It rides superbly in the optional active suspension’s Comfort and Auto modes, and it smoothed out heaving pavement on French autoroutes and the patched surfaces of Andorran B roads with no bobbing or bounding. Dynamic mode is for fun-time only, though, as the ride can get choppy, inducing a slight bucking during straight-line cruising on anything but the flattest pavement.
The RS5’s handling is also docile. While it’s hugely capable, with high levels of front-end grip, there’s little in its behavior to make even a novice driver nervous. It’s sure-footed in both wet and dry conditions, and you can get up to speed with its behavior as quickly as the car itself piles on miles per hour. This follows Reil’s philosophy for Audi Sport’s RS creations; he believes that a car is too difficult to master if an owner goes to a track all day and is still lopping off chunks of time lap after lap. He wants his team to deliver a machine in which it’s easy and safe to quickly find its limits, and they’ve done so here.
The steering is faithful and accurate, with quick, predictable turn-in behavior, and it’s more natural than before—albeit still lacking in feedback. The car rewards smoothness, the Quattro all-wheel-drive system and standard torque-vectoring sport differential working to keep you on line and delivering max thrust to the ground when you boot the car out of a turn, at which point you can feel the torque shift rearward. The default split is 40 percent front and 60 percent rear; if the car detects slip, up to 85 percent can be sent forward, or 70 percent aft. Push too hard into a corner and there remains a whiff of understeer, but it feels more balanced than before. Nonetheless, this is a car that prefers a rapid pace, not a frenetic one.
In addition to the standard iron rotors, the RS5 is available with optional—and huge—front carbon-ceramic brakes as part of the Dynamic Plus package. We drove cars with each setup, and deceleration was excellent with both. While one carbon-equipped RS5 displayed a bit of top-of-travel mushiness to its pedal, a second one didn’t—it may have been that the first car’s brakes weren’t quite bedded in—but overall this system is predictable and certainly stronger than the already capable standard brakes. Given this car’s luxury GT bent, though, we’d skip the carbon brakes unless we planned on attacking mountain roads or racetracks with some frequency.
The RS5’s active exhaust system features both movable flaps and a resonating cross pipe connecting the left and right sides just aft of the rear axle. The car’s chassis mode controls how eager the flaps are to open, as well as how often, and the engineer in charge of tuning the sound was given a 2000 RS4 (which never came to the U.S. but had a turbocharged 2.7-liter V-6) and told, “Make it sound like that.” He nailed the sound quality. At full throat, the new RS5 sounds pissed off, with fat blats on upshifts and a belligerent growl not far off the old V-8’s. Yet its anger sounds as if it’s coming from next door, in part because the car is well insulated from the outside world and also because Audi doesn’t augment the noise with the audio system. The company cops to enhancing low-range frequencies below 3000 rpm—at which point the car basically makes no noise of its own—with a device located behind the instrument panel, described to us as a “shaker” that uses the car’s own vibrations to act on a metal plate. The modest volume fits the grand touring character of the RS5, but it’s still a bit of a bummer, and the pops it executes on overrun don’t really thrill anyone inside the car. They sound mostly like someone you’ve kidnapped banging on the inside of the trunklid.
The RS5’s aesthetic was inspired by Audi 90 Quattro IMSA GTO race car, and the new coupe’s boxy fender flares make it slightly wider than its tamer S5 sibling. Similarly, the RS gets a fatter grille than the A5 and S5, as well as front intakes large enough to swallow the tiny Fiats we encountered by the dozens in the Pyrenees. The overall effect is more sophisticated than feral, however, a motif that carries over to the mostly black cabin, which can be adorned with contrast stitching and red stripes on the seatbelts, but doesn’t get much flashier than that.
The driving position is fantastic, and the forward view from the supportive, multi-adjustable, and massaging front seats is outstanding. Visibility to the rear is decent, too, given the coupe roofline, and the car will accommodate four people of average height with no issues. The two rear passengers have slightly pinched shoulder room, but they have access to four cupholders, so at least they’ll be well hydrated.
In the transition to this latest generation, Audi improved both the RS5’s luxury GT abilities and its dynamic capabilities. With its competitors from BMW (the M4) and Mercedes-AMG (the C63) growing more monstrous and hard-riding by the day, the RS5 is unquestionably the most livable of the bunch. Tingling its pilot’s spine is among its ancillary—not primary—skills, and stoicism remains the bedrock upon which this car is built. Meanwhile, the wait continues for something truly unhinged from Audi.