a Ph.D. in performance

2019 Audi RS 5 Sportback Review: An All-Wheel Drive BMW Beater


August 22, 2018 Cars By Photo by Audi
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While we’re forever bemoaning American disinterest in sport wagons, is it also now time to bemoan American disinterest in the humble coupe? If Audi’s sales figures are any indicator, perhaps. According to the company, sales of the A5 Sportback – a four-door hatchback – handily outpace sales of the original A5 coupe. It seems people prefer the versatility and ability to stuff three actual adults in back when necessary. (We’ll ignore the fact that the Sportback is just one designer’s digital click-and-drag away from being a sport wagon. Just hike up that back end and – oh, never mind…) For that reason, Audi is paying extra-special attention to the newest sport-tuned variant in its lineup, the comely RS 5 Sportback.

Not only has it given the RS 5 lots of love, but it’s showering that love overwhelmingly in the direction of North America, which it fully expects to be the strongest market for the mid-sized rocket. For that reason, U.S. media enjoyed the first glimpse of the machine on the roads outside Munich, as well as at its sprawling Audi Sport experience center, where we tossed it through a variety of challenges.

The Good: First, stellar handling and responsiveness. The RS 5 made quick work of the mountain roads in Bavaria, and felt nicely planted during straight-line assaults on the autobahn. Throw in the six-cylinder twin-turbo’s quick response in Dynamic mode and its throaty growl – though that’s enhanced inside by a window-vibrating augmentation system (seriously, a small transducer vibrates the windshield to use it as a speaker) – and you have a world-class sports machine. It’s also a looker, with subtly wavy character lines, more pronounced wheel arches compared to its donor model, a unique fascia just for this model with a matte-aluminum blade beneath the grille and a carbon-fiber rear diffuser. Inside, you have 22 cubic feet of storage thanks to the hatchback configuration, or up to 35 cubic feet if you fold the rear seats down. That’s significant and great for people who live in the real world.

My personal favorite option, however, is the green paint, a.k.a., Sonoma Green Metallic. It’s a glittery color that immediately conjures up something familiar from my childhood that I can’t quite put my finger on – a toy perhaps, or television show or a groovy custom van I may have seen back in the late ’70s – and which immediately bonds me to it. Can’t say the effect will be the same for you, but even objectively, it’s a cool color.

Who It’s For: Pricey performance coupes can send a certain message about their owners – their station in life, their aspirations, their fears – that could betray reality. You may come across as someone who really wants a sports car, deep down, but either can’t afford it or is grudgingly lugging the kiddos around, or people might assume you’re an older empty-nester or, on the other side, someone still young and monied enough to dig such cars but is hoping for a family soon and doesn’t really have enough friends to worry about needing those two extra doors. No other body style, save the minivan, comes freighted with quite so much anxiety. Four-door sport coupes bypass all that, are fundamentally cool and can be used to carry kids and friends, so nobody will assume one or the other. That’s you.

Watch Out For: There can be a little bit of wriggle in the car while taking long, arcing turns at (very) high speeds – above 150 mph – as we discovered on the unrestricted stretches of Autobahn outside Munich. Nothing major, but just a tendency for the car to bounce and pull a bit to the outside of your turn during transitions between throttle on and off, or while traversing inconsistencies in the road surfacing. Audi attributed this to the dynamic settings system dialing up the steering sensitivity, which means every microscopic flick manifests and magnifies itself when you’re cruising above 150 mph. So even this complaint – and it barely even rates as a quirk – is on me, and just a driver-adaptation issue. As you’ll see below, it felt fine otherwise.

Alternatives: Of the up-tuned sedans and coupes, BMW’s M, Mercedes’ AMG branch, and Audi’s RS certainly leads the way. The M3 is the closest facsimile, but is just a hair slower (3.9 seconds to 60, compared to 3.8) and a hair less powerful (425 hp to the RS 5’s 444), though a good chunk cheaper ($66,500 to start, to the Audi’s $74,200). Another obvious option is the Mercedes-AMG C 63 S Sedan, a 503-hp, V8-powered bruiser that roughly equals the RS 5 in acceleration and initial price.

Review: Any visit to Germany that involves a performance vehicle invariably also involves a visit to the unrestricted sections of the Autobahn, among the few places in the world you can truly open a vehicle up for… inspection. While fully legal, it still feels somehow illicit to us Americans, which only sweetens the experience. It also requires caution relative to other vehicles on the road and your own skills. At triple-digit speeds, things happen fast.

The RS 5 Sportback with the Dynamic Plus Package, which was included in our test vehicles and includes carbon-ceramic front brakes, opens up the top end from the standard, usually electronically limited 155 mph to 174 mph. I just kissed that, topping out at 168 mph before backing off due to traffic. Apart from the aforementioned dynamic in long turns, the car is fully planted at all speeds, with the carbon ceramic brakes inspiring great confidence should trouble arise. When it became necessary to scrub off speed with any sort of urgency from 165 or so, the car remained fully controlled with no hint that anything was about to get away from me. I’d grind down immediately to a reasonably sane 130, say, to let the traffic clear. When that did happen and my path to top-speed reopened, getting back on the throttle was a pure thrill, with the Tiptronic transmission responding briskly to gear selections and the engine growling heartily in the background.

In the German heartland of Bavaria, the assorted vehicle setting options came to the fore, with Dynamic setting me up for a withering run up the mountain and Comfort helping balance things out when we were just trying to chill a bit on the quieter stretches. In all cases, the Quattro all-wheel-drive system’s wide front/rear power distribution range (70:30 to 15:85), its sport rear differential and its overall ability to direct traction where it needs to be further inspired confidence.

I also saw this precise handling nicely billboarded in the wet when putting the car through a gauntlet of challenges at Audi Sport’s experience center near Munich. This included inducing understeer and oversteer, running a slalom and retaining control under emergency braking. Paying attention to the mechanics of each of these in real time – as opposed to just, say, instinctively throwing the back end out in a power slide – makes them harder to induce at first, but easier to grasp along the way. In that process, you also appreciate the vehicle’s responsiveness and the way you use it to retain control. In the RS 5, its finely tuned suspension, overall balance and variable-ratio steering meant that minimal inputs steered you successfully around obstacles, with less chance of over-correction on the other side.

Everything else about the car felt right for a sports-oriented Audi at this price, including the chunky flat-bottomed steering wheel, the firm leather seats and the stainless-steel pedals. For the audiophile gearheads out there looking to crank Kraftwerk’s Autobahn while tackling the Autobahn, the infotainment system is of course based on Audi’s MMI Navigation system, with full Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Bluetooth and USB connectivity – whatever your pleasure. The RS-specific displays in Audi’s virtual cockpit include tire pressure and temperature, torque, horsepower, a g-force meter and a shift light indicator. During our top-speed runs, it was easy to keep tabs on the tach out of your peripheral vision, thanks to the dynamic, shifting-color displays that gave you the redline warnings.

Verdict: It’s an appropriately mean machine, but with brains. In fact, the RS 5 Sportback has a Ph.D. in performance, with a Master’s in fine arts – thanks to those gorgeous lines and the evocative paint jobs. It made me feel like a kid again, in more ways than one.

What Others Are Saying:

• “The mechanically downsized, dimensionally upsized Sportback easily finds its place in the RS 5 family. It’s a new species of premium compact sports sedan, one that blends the performance and handling of a coupe with the space, comfort, and tech normally found in a family car. The RS 5 Sportback isn’t as tail-happy as the BMW M3, and its V6 lacks the character of the Mercedes-AMG C63’s baritone V8, but it’s the dapper all-arounder enthusiasts seeking a daily driver will want to choose.” – Ronan Glon, Digital Trends

• “An eight-speed automatic handles shifting duties, and while you’d think a dual-clutch gearbox would be just the ticket for an RS model, I have no complaints about this ZF-sourced Tiptronic transmission. A conventional torque converter means off-the-line starts are as smooth as they are powerful, and when left to its own devices, the Tiptronic executes buttery shifts in Comfort mode and crisp, responsive cog-swaps when you’re giving it the beans in Dynamic.” – Steven Ewing, Road Show

• “The 2019 Audi RS 5 Sportback is a ridiculous grand tourer, disguised as a practical and accommodating family car. Pricing kicks off at just north of $74k, though as tested – and indeed as Audi expects most orders – you’re potentially looking at $20k more. That’s no small chunk of change, but neither is the RS 5 Sportback any ordinary performance car.” – Vincent Nguyen, Slashgear

Key Specs: 2019 Audi RS 5 Sportback

Engine: 2.9-liter twin-turbo six-cylinder biturbo
Transmission: eight-speed automatic transmission
Horsepower: 444
Torque: 443 lb-ft
0-60: in 3.8s
Top speed: 155 (174 with optional Dynamic Plus Package)

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