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2018 Audi RS 5 review

I stand at the edge of the driveway, anxious with anticipation. I’ve been waiting for this one. As the car pulls up I’m relieved to see that it’s the right color: Sonoma green, an exclusive, optional hue that looks particularly fetching on the Audi RS 5.

It took engineers and designers three years to put this second-generation machine together, so I know it’s only fair to remain patient. This is, after all, Audi’s answer to the BMW M4 and Mercedes-AMG C63 – Germany’s sport-luxury response to muscle bound American pony cars like the Mustang and Camaro, essentially – four-seater coupes that are packed to the gills with go-fast hardware and the latest automotive technologies.

2018 Audi RS 5 review
Bradley Iger/Digital Trends

A lot can change in a generation, as evidenced by the drivetrain in this machine. Gone is the naturally-aspirated 4.2-liter V8 from the old RS 5, a gem of a power plant that sang to a lofty 8300 rpm redline. In its place is a 2.9-liter V6 that’s supplemented by a pair of turbochargers in the interest of more torque and improved efficiency. The seven-speed dual-clutch is also out, replaced by a more traditional eight-speed automatic gearbox.

Both of those changes could be cause for some trepidation. But as we’ve seen time and again, good engineering often pays greater dividends than a spec sheet might imply.

Starting at a base price of $69,900, our well-equipped RS 5 tester rang up $91,000 with destination.

Interior and tech

Modern Audis are typically a lovely place to do the business of driving, and the RS 5 is no exception. Outfitted with the optional fine Nappa leather package, the navigation package, and a Bang and Olufsen premium audio system, this RS 5’s sporting intentions are counterbalanced by a sense of opulence.

Intricate gray stitching adorns the front seats, which feature both massaging functions to keep you comfortable during a commute, and bolster adjustments to keep you in place during high lateral G maneuvers. The flat-bottomed, leather wrapped steering wheel has a dedicated button to swap between a sport-focused readout on the virtual cockpit display that puts a large digital tachometer front and center, and a more pedestrian view that packs in more information. Aluminum and carbon fiber-adorned paddle shifters await your command, but the automatic gearbox is more than happy to swap cogs on its own without a fuss.

The cabin of the RS 5 puts both yin and yang at the driver’s fingertips.

The cabin of the RS 5 puts both yin and yang at the driver’s fingertips, creating a split personality that’s just as well-suited to corner carving as it is to coddling. It’s certainly not the first time we’ve seen this concept in a sports coupe, but its execution is among the best of the modern breed.

The RS 5 is outfitted with a seven-inch infotainment display on the dash as standard. A larger, 8.3-inch infotainment display comes as part of navigation package, which also includes the aforementioned virtual cockpit digital gauge cluster and configurable display in lieu of the standard analog gauges with a digital readout situated between them. 

Driving experience

After settling in behind the wheel and pressing the start button on the center console, I’m greeted by a spirited, if a bit muted, rumble as the V6 comes to life. The 2.9-liter mill is smaller than the engine it replaces, but through the magic of forced induction, it offers essentially identical peak horsepower to its V8 predecessor while boasting 126 lb-ft more torque. It also sheds 66 pounds of weight off the front end of the car.

2018 Audi RS 5 review
Bradley Iger/Digital Trends

Placing the car in gear, I’m thankful for the new eight-speed automatic, a ZF design now used widely throughout the rest of the industry. In years past, dual-clutch gearboxes were a requirement in order to provide the kind of immediate response and quick gear changes enthusiasts craved, but it came at a compromise to refinement around town, betraying that whole yin and yang idea. With the introduction of the ZF eight-speed, dual clutch transmissions have become unnecessary for all but the most hardcore sports cars, as this transmission can be tuned to deliver the level of immediacy that drivers expect with no hit to its low-speed manners.

Audi’s official number pegs its sprint to 60 mph from rest in 3.7 seconds – more than half a second quicker than its predecessor – and it feels a tenth or two more urgent than that.

But as with most modern transmission tunes, when left in comfort or auto drive modes, the gearbox is eager to immediately upshift into the upper cogs for the sake of fuel economy, leaving the driver with numbed throttle response unless the hammer gets dropped. Switching to the dynamic setting solves this comprehensively, but it’s a bit too eager for driving around town. Perhaps a setting that splits the difference would solve this? They could call it sport mode.

It’s a similar story with the RS 5’s optional active suspension, known as dynamic ride control. The comfort setting provides plenty of ride compliance, but it also allows for a bit more body motion than I’d prefer at speed, while dynamic is great when attacking technical roads but is too harsh for the pockmarked asphalt of Los Angeles. A third setting that slots between the two would likely satisfy finicky drivers like myself. It’s safe to assume that auto mode is intended to serve this function, changing between the comfort and dynamic settings as needed, but it often seemed to be a step behind my inputs.

2018 Audi RS 5 review
Bradley Iger/Digital Trends

Ultimately, I found myself relegated to the soft settings in the city before deliberately switching over to dynamic mode on my approach to a good stretch of tarmac. Here the RS 5 can stretch its legs, and I can get to know the new power plant a bit better.

Simply put, what the V6 lacks in sonic charm and revs (its redline dropped to 6700 rpm) it makes up for in shove. This thing is fast. Audi’s official number pegs its sprint to 60 mph from rest in 3.7 seconds – more than half a second quicker than its predecessor – and it feels a tenth or two more urgent than that. With the all-wheel drive grip of the Quattro system it’s repeatable, too, and while the RS 5 can’t offer the potential for power-sliding antics that its rear-drive competition can, it instills more confidence in the corners to find its limits and drive with spirited precision rather than ostentation.

It may be quick, but this is a gentleman’s sport coupe, good sir!

Warranty

Audi offers a four-year/50,000 mile limited warranty, along with one year/10,000 miles of scheduled maintenance free of charge and four years of roadside assistance coverage. J.D. Power gives Audi a 3/5-star rating for overall quality and four out of five stars for dependability.

How DT would configure this car

Although our tester wasn’t short on looks, luxury, or capability, the price tag was roughly 30% over the base MSRP. We’d consider the dynamic package ($3,350) to be essential, as it adds the dynamic ride control active suspension system and livelier sport exhaust, but we might skip the $6000 dynamic plus package, which includes a higher 174-mph top speed (up from 155), carbon ceramic front brake rotors, and a carbon fiber engine cover.

2018 Audi RS 5 Compared To

At $950, the Bang and Olufsen audio system seems like a bargain, as does the $575 fee placed on the Sonoma green paintwork. We’d probably also spring for the $2,600 navigation package to get the virtual cockpit gauge cluster and larger infotainment display.

Our Take

With the second-generation RS 5, Audi has elevated the capability, efficiency, and overall experience substantially from its predecessor. The fact that a tangible amount of charm was lost in the process is an unfortunate side effect, but it’s hard to argue with the results.

For those that can’t live without the rumble of a V8, Mercedes-AMG’s C63 is the only game in town. And, if you want a manual transmission, the BMW M4 wins the debate by default. But if neither of those are factors in your sports coupe buying deliberation, the RS 5 makes a strong case for itself.

Rear-wheel drive offers great photo opportunities, but very few buyers in this segment actually make any use of that tail-wagging capability on a regular basis. All-wheel drive, on the other hand, is not only useful in inclement weather, but provides the RS 5 with consistent, fool-proof launches and predictable handling characteristics at the limit.

At the same time, the value of a high-performance machine is as much about how it makes you feel as it is about what it can do. Potential buyers would be wise to weigh what’s in their heart with as much importance as what’s on the spec sheet and act accordingly.

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