Audi has a history of withholding some of its models on the lunatic fringe from buyers in the United States. We were never offered the ahead-of-its-time Audi A2 back in the early 2000s, for example, or the first-generation A3 and S3 hatchbacks. Ditto the absurdly overengineered Q7 V12 TDI, the rowdy little RS Q3 crossover, and the tiny A1 hatchback. But the chief varietals in Audi’s basket of forbidden fruits are the high-performance RS-branded station wagons and hatchbacks tuned by Audi Sport, the company’s illustrious motorsports division. The first was the Audi 90–based RS2 wagon that kicked off the whole RS thing in 1994, followed by multiple successive model generations of Audi’s hot RS4 and RS6 Avants. We’ve also been denied the A3-based RS3 Sportbacks as well as the A5 and S5 Sportback models when they joined their coupe and convertible counterparts back in 2009.
Then Audi reversed course, sending us the RS7 hatchback for 2014, and now the second-generation A5 and S5 Sportbacks also have found their way across the pond. Following the success of those models, Audi decided that not only would it send its first ever RS5 Sportback to the U.S., it would sell the range-topping hatchback model here before anywhere else-including Germany.
We still had to travel to Bavaria to get our first impressions of the RS5, at a program that included driving on the handling course at Audi Sport’s racing and R&D center, plus several hundred miles over gorgeous Alpine roads and Germany’s wonderful autobahns.
In most respects, the RS5 Sportback did not disappoint-least of all aesthetically. Its swollen fenders (Audi calls them Quattro blisters) make the RS5 1.2 inches broader than its A5 and S5 Sportback counterparts, pushing that car’s subtle curvature into the realm of elegant muscularity. They also-to car nerds, anyway-evoke the original Audi Quattro coupes of the early 1980s. The gaping intakes in the lower front fascia look decidedly aggressive; modifications to the rear are less overt and include a lip spoiler at the trailing edge of the sloped liftgate plus a diffuser bracketed by large oval tailpipes, which have been an RS signature since the 2003 RS6.
Other RS-specific design details include a wider grille with hexagonal honeycomb inserts, black lower-door garnishes, dark elements within the headlamps, and matte-aluminum mirror caps and window trim-although on our car those had been swapped for optional carbon fiber on the mirrors and piano black around the windows. Our sample machine was particularly eye-catching in its bright and rather controversial Sonomagrün, or Sonoma Green, which is one of two colors exclusive to the RS5. The other is the battleship-chic, nonmetallic Nardo Gray.
Most of these modifications are shared with the new RS5 coupe; there were a few RS5 coupes at the Sportback event and at least one RS4 Avant; both models share the RS5 Sportback’s chassis and powertrain. Seeing them together demonstrated that there is indeed a place for the RS5 Sportback. It is no less beautiful than the coupe despite its 2.3 inches of additional wheelbase and length, its 1.1-inch-higher roofline, and its pair of extra doors. The Sportback’s sloping roof may not make it as easy to fill the three-person rear bench seat or to load bulky cargo in the luggage compartment as might be the case with the RS4 Avant, but it’s infinitely easier than in the RS5 coupe with its smaller trunk and two-place rear seat. And while we love the delicious irony of a super-fast station wagon, we have to admit that the RS5 Sportback is better-looking than the RS4 Avant.
The Sportback’s additional doors and power-liftgate assembly add a claimed 89 pounds over the two-door, which is not enough to significantly dull the coupe’s handling. Our car featured the available RS sport suspension with Dynamic Ride Control (steel springs and adaptive dampers) as well as optional 20-inch wheels wrapped by 30-series tires. Yet with the Drive Select driving-mode system set in Comfort, the ride quality was taut but supple on the smooth German tarmac. The same could be said in Auto mode, too. Only in Dynamic did the ride become harsh, although it’s in this mode that the rear end becomes livelier under power and the optional variable-ratio Dynamic steering is fixed at a quick 13.5:1 ratio. Wet skidpad exercises proved how easy it is to get the rear end to kick around under power in Dynamic mode and how easy it is to catch it, and slalom exercises revealed how well controlled the body remains in transient maneuvers.
Whether it’s bolted into an RS5 or a Porsche Panamera 4S, the Audi-developed twin-turbocharged 2.9-liter V-6 is a honey of an engine, and in the RS5, it produces a bit more grunt: 444 horsepower and 443 lb-ft of torque versus 440 ponies and 404 lb-ft in the Porsche. Mated to an eight-speed S tronic automatic transmission and Quattro all-wheel drive, the V-6 can-Audi claims-propel the RS5 Sportback to 60 mph in 3.8 seconds, 0.1 second behind the coupe. We found it a formidable and willing partner, with nary a whiff of turbo lag and a transmission that plays along nicely, serving up rev-matched downshifts and snapping off upshifts that are nearly as quick as a dual-clutch unit. The exhaust note is generally pleasant if not always natural-sounding, especially in Dynamic mode at lower revs, when a diaphragm amplifies the engine note under 3000 rpm. At higher revs, it’s purely mechanical and purely wonderful.
Our car was equipped with the Dynamic Plus package, which raises the top-speed limiter from 155 mph to 174, and we didn’t waste our chance to see how the RS5 felt on the autobahn. Up to 145 mph or so, it feels as smooth and composed as it does at half that speed, and stability remains excellent even above 150 mph. We weren’t able to creep up much higher than 160 before having to slow for traffic or construction, but we repeated that process often enough and braked hard enough that we were glad the Dynamic Plus package also includes carbon-ceramic brake discs up front. Putting the car in its ground-hugging Dynamic mode for several autobahn bursts to 150 mph, we found that it remained planted and directionally focused, although the jittery ride quality added a bit of nervousness to the experience.
When we exited the autobahn, we set the suspension into Comfort or Auto modes, making the car as docile as a housecat and giving us ample opportunity to appreciate the RS5’s interior upgrades, which include sport seats that are as comfortable as they are aggressively supportive, carbon-fiber trim, and microsuede and/or leather upholstery with diamond or hexagonal stitch patterns, all brightened by a standard sunroof. The RS5 also gets Audi’s trick Virtual Cockpit gauge cluster as standard, as well as an 8.3-inch MMI center screen with handwriting recognition. What’s missing? The same thing missing from so many current Audi cabins: warmth and character. This place is all business.
The RS5 Sportback goes on sale near the end of the year in the States-again, first-with prices starting at $75,195. It’s a delightful performance package that could (and should) awaken Americans to the innate elegance and general awesomeness of high-performance hatchbacks. Especially when they look like this.
Now for the RS wagons . . .