The Audi RS5 is a success not only as a premium sports coupé, but as a long-distance cruiser offering an engaging drive.

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At the risk of inducing a mild state of déjà vu, we again find ourselves with the RS5 saying that we’re not quite sure what kind of car we’re going to get from an RS Audi: a smooth-riding, agile M3 beater such as the RS4, or something altogether less appealingly sophisticated, such as the early RS6.

This is the second RS model to rival the BMW M3 since the demise of the RS4, which, although short-lived, shone brightly during its all-too-brief time in production and is still universally revered by enthusiasts.

The RS5's build quality is first rate

Like the RS4, the RS5 has a 4.2-litre V8 engine and permanent quattro four-wheel drive. Unlike the RS4 saloon and estate, the RS5 comes only as an exceptionally handsome two-door coupé or cabriolet, which places it in the crosshairs of the M3 and M4 more than ever.

What we know about this car already is that it posted a very respectable performance at our recent Britain’s Best Driver’s Car contest, impressing our testers to the extent that many thought it the best front-engined Audi since the RS4.

Whether it’s better than that model, though – or indeed better than the M3, which has been subtly yet convincingly revised since it and an Audi last locked horns – is the subject of this test.



Audi RS5 rear

BMW and Audi have approached their sporting coupe flagships in different ways. The current M3 features vastly different body panels to the regular 3 Series in addition to a carbonfibre roof. But with the RS5, Audi's only modifications over the handsome coupé on which it's based are the addition of flared wings all round and new plasticwork front and rear. Though subtle, they help to emphasise the RS5’s potency.

They’re claimed to be reminiscent of the original Quattro, but although we can’t see it ourselves, they do look good.

There's an understated elegance about the RS5

Place an S5 and an RS5 alongside each other, and you'd spot the subtle differences easily, but it's harder to pick out an RS5 as one of Audi's most prestigious sports models from a crowd except by noting some detailing.

Audi has entirely altered the RS5’s front bumper. The air intakes – foglight housings on other A5s – are more angular and made to look more deep-set by the protruding splitter.

Xenon headlights and daytime running lights are standard, and unchanged from other A5 models, and the standard 19-inch alloys look great and certainly don’t need to be any bigger, even though two 20-inch designs appear on the options list.

Enormous oval exhausts dominate the back end, along with a rear wing that lifts automatically when you reach speeds of more than 75mph, or it can be lifted permanently via a button in the cabin.


Audi RS5 interior

If the changes to the outside of the RS5 appear tame, wait until you look at the cabin. There’s a pair of spectacularly supportive front chairs, but apart from those and the odd flash of RS brightwork, you could be in any A5 cabin from the range, or indeed any Audi.

So you don’t necessarily feel you’re in a flagship sports car, but neither does it give us any great cause for complaint. Perceived material quality is as good as that of other cars in the segment, and ergonomically the Audi is fundamentally sound.

Audi has resisted the temptation to festoon the cabin with RS branding

Perhaps the MMI control system, which we once thought class leading, could use a little update of its functionality, and the steering wheel, with its grille-aping detail, maybe looks more 'fat' than 'phat'. Gearshift paddles are standard fit, but they’re not ergonomic enough, and need to be bigger and easier to reach. But these are fairly petty niggles. 

The chances are that any drivers who can't get comfortable in an RS5's cabin are themselves rather curiously proportioned, but although the standard sports seats boast electric adjustment, you’ll need to dip into the options list to have them heated. 

While rear passengers won't be writing notes home about the capaciousness, it's far from bad for a medium-sized coupé. The boot has an impressive 455-litre volume, although access isn’t great, and the rear seats can be folded to increase carrying capacity.


Audi RS5 front quarter

Beneath the skin of the RS5 lie some rather more senior alterations and a serious amount of technological hardware. Motive power comes from a 4.2-litre V8 that's closely related to both the V8 and V10 engines used in the Audi R8 supercar.

It makes its maximum output – an impressive and M3-eclipsing 444bhp – just 100rpm shy of its 8300rpm redline, yet peak torque comes in as low as 4000rpm, so it promises to be fast and flexible. It's the first Audi RS model to put its drive through a seven-speed, dual-clutch gearbox.

The RS5's grip and poise flatters drivers

But at 1855kg as tested, the Audi tipped our road test scales at precisely 200kg heavier than the M3 coupé. And that, when it comes to outright straight-line performance, is crucial.

For the purposes of this test, so closely aligned are the two rivals that we also took along a Competition Pack-equipped M3 to the RS5's performance testing session.

The RS5's launch control and four-wheel drive traction enables it to hit 30mph in a belting 1.8sec (BMW 1.9), but it is an advantage it cannot hold even to 60mph, which the Audi reaches in a very creditable 4.6sec. The thing is that the BMW is even quicker, with a 0-60mph time of 4.5sec. At 100mph (10.7sec in the Audi) the M3 holds a two-tenths advantage.

In truth, these are such small differences that they prove relatively unimportant, so let's not take anything away from the RS5, because it's a car with an exceptional drivetrain.

You'd swear it has more flexibility than the M3 at low to medium revs (although its 30-70mph time of 7.6sec in fourth is 0.6sec slower than the BMW's), and with an 8300rpm redline it has a tremendously broad spread of power, a cracking throttle response and a thrilling soundtrack.

Left to its own devices, the S-tronic gearbox is pretty smart, but there are also paddle shifters that allow full throttle without kickdown for richly baritone-accompanied acceleration, while shifts are barely perceptible in both automated and manual modes.


Audi RS5 rear end

More significant still, however, is an Audi all-wheel-drive system whose centre differential normally pushes 60 percent (but can divert as much as 85 percent) of the RS5's torque to the rear axle; there, an electronically controlled differential does the job of a mechanical limited-slip diff.

Coupled to this is torque vectoring for all four wheels; it can apply the brakes to individual wheels, in effect diverting power to other wheels.

The RS5 is a properly fast point-to-point machine

One last, slightly more controversial addition to this array of hardware and software makes its way onto our test car: Dynamic Steering, an active steering option that alters the steering ratio dependent on speed; it's quicker at low speeds, ostensibly for easier manoeuvring.

Along with the plethora of adjustable drivetrain features, the RS5 also allows its driver to tailor the dynamic experience. The RS5 has electromagnetically controlled dampers that can be set to Comfort, Auto or Dynamic modes that give its driver the opportunity to adjust the steering, engine response and sport differential over a similar range.

The first reassuring thing about the RS5 is that, unless you're determined to make it otherwise by selecting inappropriate damper settings, it rides pleasingly deftly.

But, boy, the RS5 is able if you’re pressing on; it's a properly quick point-to-point mover. Body movements remain tight, grip and traction are as high as you'd expect and, in extremis, you can feel the various machinations beneath the body apportioning power to where it most needs to go.

All the chassis sophistication in the world, however, can't disguise the 12 percent extra weight the Audi carries in comparison with its BMW foe. During this test we drove the two back to back across one of the world's most demanding test roads. The RS5 eked out a small speed advantage over the M3, but only by retaining better traction in slower corners.

But when it came to going, stopping and grip, the more agile M3 had the edge. More crucially, though, the BMW was also the more entertaining car to drive.


Audi RS5

The Audi RS5 demands a substantial premium over the BMW M3; less if you specify your M3 with the seven-speed, dual-clutch M DCT gearbox or the Competition Pack (which we would).

Similarly, the RS5 demands a tiny insurance premium, by virtue of being in group 44 rather than the M3’s 43.

Its incredible that iPod connectivity is not offered more cheaply

The Audi does supposedly, and actually, offer better economy; we didn’t manage to match the official 26.2mpg consumption figure (we never do), but 22.0mpg is a reasonable average for a 444bhp, 1855kg super-coupé and an improvement over the 19mpg we recorded in the (pre-EfficientDynamics manual) M3 we tested back in 2007.

The RS5 is predicted to retain 47 percent of its value after three years, two percent less than an M3, making the higher list price look a little more scary.

A decent amount of equipment is offered. Aside from its 19-inch alloys and LED daytime running lights; front, side and curtain airbags, climate control, leather sports seats and rear parking sensors are fitted as standard.

But if you want to connect your iPod, that’ll set you back £1995 for the technology pack, which also includes sat-nav and cruise control. Pricy.


Audi RS5 rear quarter

Taken in isolation, the RS5 is a success, not just as a front-engined Audi but by the standards of any premium sports coupé, capable of isolating its occupants from the more tiresome elements of long-distance driving, but engaging them when circumstances dictate. 

Its breadth of ability expands wider than those of Nissan's utterly focused GT-R, the overtly cosseting Mercedes-Benz E-Class coupé and the comparatively impractical 911 Carrera, even if it could do with a few ounces more steering feel.

We'd give the M3 the nod ahead of the RS5

For a front-engined Audi, the RS5 has new-found levels of throttle adjustability and a near GT-R level of drivetrain complexity, but only in extremis, when you can feel torque shuffle from corner to corner.

Should it be more engaging? Arguably, a little, and without active steering there's a chance it might be more immediate in its interaction. And the option of a manual transmission would be nice, too.

Even so, the weighty RS5's biggest problem was the existence of the more agile, more able V8 coupé with a propeller on its nose; more so when supplied with the Competition Pack. As the next-generation Audi RS5 was unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show, its competition has changed slightly with its competition from BMW extended to the M3 and M4, while the latest AMG C 63 has pushed its way into the frame. 2017 then, will be when the hot coupé battle lines are drawn again.  

Audi RS5 2010-2015 First drives