Expert Reviews

Test Drive: 2018 Audi RS5

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“I slowed down for the color, and stopped for those wheels.”

In Dynamic mode, the ride is hilarious.

Gawker Guy was creeping hard on the 2018 Audi RS5 tester, while I fed it a delicious tank of gasoline one evening.

Premium unleaded. The RS5 doesn’t drink the cheap stuff.

“I don’t mean to be nosy, but [expletive deleted], just look at that thing!” he added, apologizing.

Gawker Guy was driving a few-year-old S5 coupe. V8 engine. Gnarly exhaust. White. Covered in brake dust. Class act of a car, this thing.

Good on you, Gawker Guy. You’re forgiven for gawking.

I empathized, explaining that there was no need to apologize. Sometimes, a car makes a good first impression. And sometimes, it makes one like a 2018 RS5 finished in Nardo Grey and rolling on a set of 20-inch Peak Design wheels, which are some of the most gorgeous off-the-showroom-floor rims my face has ever seen.

I explained to Gawker Guy how, a few days earlier upon my first real-life peek at this machine, a nervous pang manifested briefly, but strongly, in my guts. It was the same sort of pang I’d get as a kid when, say, walking up to a Lamborghini in a parking lot, or hearing the principal’s high-heeled shoes clicking down the terrazzo towards my classroom.

It’s a nervous reaction triggered by the basest part of the car-buff’s brain. Put simply, if you have a pulse and like beautiful cars a great deal, you might just experience a brief but powerful physical response to how the new RS5 looks.

The flat grey paint beautifully accents the swopping lines and sculpting and depth to the body, contributing to a look that’s simultaneously glamorous, elegant, athletic, and just a wee tad sinister. Don’t miss the signature watermelon-sized exhausts out back, which serve as a humorously exaggerated nod to the performance capabilities.

The styling elements, taken as a whole, generate something of importance when trying to win over the dollars of high-end shoppers: lust.

The New Hotness

So, what is an RS5? Just about anything you want it to be, really.

On one hand, this is a high-performing luxury powerhouse with seating for four, Quattro all-wheel drive (AWD), and a machine that can be toggled between comfortable and haywire with a click. More on that later.

Doors, driven wheels, twin-turbocharged cylinders, paddle-shifted gears? That’s a two, four, six, eight thing.

This is the second-generation take on one of Audi’s most instantly recognizable performance models. The last-generation RS5 was, in several regards, the answer if you wanted an R8 but needed a back seat. This new machine stays in step with the RS5’s soul, adding more tech, more style, more customizability, and a stronger signal of where the brand’s sports cars are now, and where they’re going.

The knockout cabin is neither as serious and formal as a comparable BMW, nor as intensely decorated as a comparable AMG. The RS5 does its own thing, blending high-tech interfaces with minimalistic hard buttons, setting it all against screens and displays, and dotting the whole thing with red stitching, aluminum, suede, and carbon fibre. The resulting atmosphere is one-part luxury flagship, one-part futuristic spaceship.

There’s a head-up display (HUD). The entire instrument cluster is a high-resolution screen that’s vividly animated, easy to see in any light, and totally customizable. Even the climate control system gets its own little LCD screen console. If you like luxury, but you like gadgets just that little bit more, you’ll approve in full.

No issues with entry or exit up front by coupe standards, at-hand storage for smaller items is sufficient if not abundant, and the rear seats can hold two adults if needed – though they’ll both run out of headroom by about 5'11".

The cabin nicely supports drivers in the use of one of RS5’s most interesting assets: its comfortable side.

For relaxing and tranquil drives where all-out performance and firepower are of no concern, click the Drive Select switch into Comfort mode, and the driveline becomes invisible, and nearly noiseless. Steering gets light and lazy, making it easier to drive the car smoothly. Ditto the throttle. My tester even had massaging seats, ideal if you’ve ever wanted to have a Level 3 Stretch massage while waiting for your speeding ticket to be filled in.

Further, noise levels creep up at higher speeds but without requiring those travelling near-ish the speed limit to yell to converse. The semi-autonomous systems (adaptive cruise and lane-keeping assist) are easily the best I’ve ever used: adjustments to the RS5’s speed and position are executed with consistent smoothness and pre-calculation, and I didn’t experience a single startling or abrupt correction over the course of some 1,200 km, mostly highway. These systems work as flawlessly as I’ve ever seen, and they know what they’re doing, and they won’t freak your passengers out with any surprise moves.

Though engineered for face-peeling acceleration and grip, RS5 doesn’t feel out of place on a lazy Sunday drive.

Making Noise

Power comes from a new twin-turbocharged V6 of 2.9L displacement, good for horsepower and torque figures pegged in the mid-440s. The engine achieves ignition with a quivering blurt, the idle shortly settling into a muted but notable hum. The new V6 nukes the old all-motor V8 (complete with its eye-watering 8,500 rpm redline) in torque output, though it lacks the all-out peakiness of the former engine’s explosive high-revving thrust.

By the figures, the new boosted V6 is better, though fans of little screamer V8s, myself included, will miss the unique shape and drawn-out rising action from the old powerplant, as the revs cranked upward in perpetuity.

With the RS5 dialled into Dynamic mode and the two-way exhaust system in its “HEY, WANNA HEAR SOMETHING COOL?” mode, the V6 emits a howl compared to the old engine’s growl. A smooth and morphing tone, to the old engine’s ascending, pulsating bark. It’s a soundtrack more effectively decorated with burps and pops and rumbles, though a slightly less primitively thrilling one, in all.

Lift the throttle at higher revs, or summon an aggressive downshift, and it sounds like someone’s hammering away randomly at a bass drum in the trunk.

Or, use Comfort mode, and you hardly hear a thing. Again – the RS5 can be made to feel (and sound) as mild or wild as you like.

In Dynamic mode, the ride is hilarious. The body is sprung tightly against the wheels, with high-frequency, short-stroke undulations in response to bumps in the road. It feels, nearly in full, like a weekend track-car on an aggressive coil-over setup. And, while the steering in Comfort mode feels like its made of gooey molasses, Dynamic mode sees it firm, as if the system is now filled with concrete. Here, small and heavy little inputs flit the RS5 around as the steering loads up quickly and strongly in fast corners. It’s mischievously quick, but also, precise and locked on and dialled in against the RS5’s weight, size, and personality.

Bad Behaviour

With eight gears on offer, drivers can fire off three or four redline upshifts via the paddles before delving too deeply into demerit-point territory. Doing so sees lightning-fast, perfectly executed shifts in both directions, completed in scarcely more time than it takes to click and release the corresponding paddle. The sound of the engine positively drenches the cabin here, and the low-end torque ensures nearly instant access to maximum full-throttle thrust that stays on strong until you run into the rev-limiter.

This is naughty, and makes the tachometer strobe a strong “Shift! SHIFT YOU FOOL!” message in bright red pulses. Why do they have to make rev limiters sound so good?

The RS5 is capable of 0–60 in 3.9 seconds and that’s a remarkable thing, mostly because it walks the first car-length off the line at full throttle, before the turbos come online and fire the thing along at full rip. Put another way, for the first bit of those 3.9 seconds, the RS5 is hardly even moving.

My tester included $6,000 worth of upgraded ceramic (front) brakes, and stopping power was intense, potent, and very predictable during hard use. Ceramic brakes are fancy and you might want to buy them even if their capabilities will go almost completely unused on public roads. If you think you should save the $6,000 for speeding tickets and tires, then this is also correct.

Two overwhelming sensations are apparent when driving the RS5 as intended.

First? Instantaneousness. Other than a sprinkle of turbo lag, everything you request is translated with nearly exaggerated immediacy into a big response. Steering inputs instantly trigger a change in direction. No slack. No delay. Gear shifts are completed nearly as quickly as you can click to summon them. Little changes in throttle pressure immediately change the shape and sound of the shrill, exotic howl drenching the cabin. Little inputs make the RS5 do big things, and this makes the driving enthusiast happy.

The other sensation? Confidence. As hard as you’d care to drive this a public road, you never come close to feeling like you’re running out of grip, or stability, or stopping power. The RS5 is right there with you – authentically thrilling, very fast, but all the while supportive, and even playful. Drivers needn’t sniff too deeply to smell what the RS5 is cooking, but at the same time, the car always seems to tell you it’s got much more to give, should you, say, visit a weekend track-day (highly advisable).

Two gripes.

First, as it sometimes goes with ceramic braking systems, the pedal feel lacks much precision or consistency until the brakes are either hot, or operated severely. This braking system can, at times, be tricky to work smoothly if you’re just dawdling through traffic. Simply, it’s the most precise and consistent when worked hard. That is, “racetrack” hard, not “driving to Dairy Queen” hard.

And second, presumably in exchange for the RS5’s performance and handling in Dynamic mode, ride quality degrades rapidly on rougher roads, even into “Oof, that probably broke something” territory if you’re in a locale like Sudbury, where most roads fall into the “worst case scenario” category. The RS5 is a comfy cruiser on a smooth highway, but be sure to assess rough-road ride quality for yourself on a test drive.

I’ll leave you with this: by (rough) definition, “performance” means putting on a show – via strong and memorable sights, sounds and sensations. And by that definition, the RS5 is arguably one of the best performance cars on offer for the money right now. It’s a total thrill ride, with a comfy side.

Pricing from the low eighties.

Engine Displacement 2.9L
Engine Cylinders V6
Peak Horsepower 444 hp @ 5,700–6,700 rpm
Peak Torque 443 lb-ft @ 1,900–5,000 rpm
Fuel Economy 12.9 / 8.9 / 11.1 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb
Cargo Space 329 L
Model Tested 2018 Audi RS5 Coupe
Base Price $82,500
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $2,095
Price as Tested $114,795
Optional Equipment
$30,100 – Head-Up Display $1,100; Carbon-Ceramic Front Brakes $6,000; Carbon-Fibre Engine Cover $600; Audi Sport Package $4,800; Carbon Optics Package $5,600; Upgraded 20-inch Wheels $2,500; RS Carbon Inlays $900; RS Interior Design $1,500; Premium Package $5,000; Advanced Driver Assistance Package $2,100