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2018 Audi RS 5 First Drive

As I ease the 2018 Audi RS 5 around a gentle curve at the posted 55 mph, I feel ... philosophical. And at the helm of a 444-horsepower autobahn bruiser the last thing I want to feel is philosophical, but this very not-the-autobahn road — a sweeping, picturesque highway stretching from the Arizona desert and up into the mountains, which I feel sure the RS 5 could easily handle at double the posted speed limit — ensures that I have plenty of time to think.

This new RS 5 is an impressive piece of engineering: a luxury coupe that's so capable it borders on sedate. It has improved on the old 2013-2015 RS 5, with its throaty, non-turbocharged 4.2-liter V8, by every measurable metric, but in the process it's lost some of its character.

2018 Audi RS 5 First Drive

Engineering Galore
The new RS 5 is an unquestionably impressive piece of engineering. It's based on the fully redesigned A5 and S5 coupes, but in typical Audi R fashion, it twists all the dials up to 11. Under the hood is a 2.9-liter twin-turbo V6 making a tremendous 444 hp and 443 pound-feet of torque. The RS 5 is the only vehicle in Audi's lineup to make use of this compact powerhouse, but it does appear in Audi's sister brand, Porsche. In fact, it's the same engine you'll find under the hood of the $103,000 Porsche Panamera 4S. Except in the coupe, the V6 has 4 more horsepower and almost 40 more lb-ft than in the Panamera. Audi says the real trick in adapting this engine for the RS 5 was finding a place for all the cooling systems in a coupe with much less space than in Porsche's hefty sedan.

2018 Audi RS 5 First Drive

All of the big grilles in the front of the RS 5 are functional. Two radiators in series sit behind the main grille; off to the driver's side, you'll find a cleverly designed intercooler; and to the right is the transmission cooler. Parallel to the ground, behind the chin spoiler, is an oil cooler that somehow also manages to produce extra downforce on the front of the car.

To handle all this power, the RS 5 gets a revised version of Audi's Quattro all-wheel-drive system. In this car, it defaults to sending 40 percent of the power to the front axle and 60 percent to the rear, but it can send a maximum of 70 percent of the power to the front or 85 percent to the rear. At the rear, there's also a new active differential that can shift 100 percent of the power it receives to either rear wheel. Audi's goal is to imbue the RS 5 with the feel of a rear-wheel-drive performance car but with all the expected traction of all-wheel drive. Power is fed to this system through a standard eight-speed automatic transmission — a departure from Audi's ubiquitous seven-speed dual-clutch transmission.

Mat the gas from a stop and Audi says the RS 5 will go 0-60 mph in just 3.7 seconds. It's pin-you-to-the-seat acceleration and, if you're into bragging rights, a tenth of a second quicker than what BMW and Mercedes claim for the M4 and AMG C 63 S, respectively. It's also close to a second quicker to 60 mph than the previous RS 5, along with being both lighter (the V6 weighs 66 pounds less than the V8) and more fuel-efficient.

2018 Audi RS 5 First Drive

There are some notable options, chief among an adjustable suspension system. Audi is confident that if you buy this car you'll check the box for the suspension upgrade, and I can't help but agree. This isn't an adaptive setup in that it doesn't "read the road" as you go and try to adjust the dampers on the fly. Rather, it uses pressurized air to preload the oil in the dampers to adjust their stiffness from Comfort to Dynamic (if you leave the system in Auto, it will switch between the two depending on what you're doing). The dampers are also cross-connected, with the front left sharing oil with the rear right and the front right with the rear left. This acts as a purely mechanical self-leveling system, a more analog way to keep the RS 5 flat in corners. Audi says it used this new suspension system to make the driver feel more connected to the road. But with a choice of just rough or comfy, I'm not entirely sold on the benefits.

You can also get your hands on optional carbon-ceramic front brakes for greater high-performance braking performance. The regular brakes are plenty powerful, but if you're planning on doing a bunch of track day events — or you just want your RS 5 to look that much cooler — it could be a neat but pricey option to get. When you get the carbon-ceramic brakes, Audi also raises the RS 5's electronically limited top speed to 174 mph and adds tire temperature sensors to go along with the normal pressure sensors.

Before we move on from all the engineering, I need to bring up the steering because Audi has done something unusual here as well. Dynamic Steering is an optional extra. In Comfort mode, it changes how fast the front wheels respond to input based on the car's speed. Switch the car to Dynamic mode, though, and the steering stays at a quick 13.5:1 ratio, so that the steering response is the same no matter what speed you're going. That's a smart feature for a sport coupe and another place — such as the suspension — where Audi has worked to make the RS 5 feel more analog and connected.

2018 Audi RS 5 First Drive

Capable but Restrained
Back on that Arizona desert highway, the 2018 RS 5 is making bonkers amounts of power everywhere in the rev range. The new eight-speed automatic manages shifts so quickly that most drivers won't miss the previous dual-clutch automatic. There is a very slight delay between requesting a change with the steering-wheel-mounted paddles and reaction from the transmission, but the paddles are satisfying enough to use if you're not trying to snap off shifts at the last millisecond to eke every last rev out of the engine.

In Dynamic mode, the adjustable suspension isn't harsh, but it is very firm, making the car bounce and jiggle uncomfortably over all but the most glassy smooth surfaces. Switch the suspension to Comfort, though, and, while there's more body roll, there's also a much more supple ride. In this mode, the RS 5 feels every inch a luxury grand tourer, but not a connected sports car. The steering is surprisingly light for a sporty car, but it gets noticeably heavier in Dynamic mode. While the action is very quick and precise, you don't get any feedback from the front wheels and the sensation is a bit artificial overall.

2018 Audi RS 5 First Drive

The biggest letdown for this car is the sound. It's all but inaudible at low revs in Comfort mode, and after a little bit of freeway cruising, it quickly became my preference. In Dynamic, there's noticeable droning between 2,000 and 3,000 rpm, and it's not a very pleasant sound, sort of like an industrial thumping drone. Get on the throttle, and the sound improves in quality, capping off a grunty run to the redline with a pleasing burble when it shifts up. However, it's still relatively restrained and buttoned-down for a car like this.

I just drove an RS 3 with Audi's spectacular five-cylinder turbo under the hood and, in comparison, the sound of the RS 5 is a particular letdown. Unfortunately, new European Union noise regulations mean that all future Audi exhausts will have the volume as turned down as the RS 5's, and the U.S. won't be getting the option of louder pipes than what Europe has. That less exciting soundtrack is accompanied by a loss of character compared to the old V8. The twin-turbo V6 is all business, and it lacks the verve of other RS engines.

2018 Audi RS 5 First Drive

Pricing and Availability
The 2018 RS 5 goes on sale this spring with a base price of $70,875 with destination fees. That's about $20,000 more than the starting price for an S5. For that money, you get the Audi goodness you expect. On top of the excellent infotainment (we liked it so much we gave it an award!), it has solid construction and high-quality touchpoints. The back seat offers enough legroom to fit an adult but not quite enough headroom, and the trunk is surprisingly accommodating. Standard equipment includes dual-zone climate control, a panoramic sunroof, 19-inch alloy wheels with summer tires, and blind-spot monitoring, along with RS 5-specific upgrades such as a leather and faux suede interior, power sport seats, a flat-bottomed steering wheel wrapped in perforated leather, and a whole bunch of carbon-fiber interior trim.

Beyond the brakes, exhaust, suspension, and Dynamic Steering, optional upgrades include navigation and Audi's Virtual Cockpit gauge cluster, 20-inch wheels, premium leather upholstery, a premium Bang & Olufsen stereo system, and a full suite of driver aids along with a 360-degree camera.

2018 Audi RS 5 First Drive

By almost every metric, the RS 5 presents a compelling combination of price, performance and luxury. You get a whole lot of extra engineering and speed, and in this segment — the M4 and C 63 are the most obvious competitors — the car presents a good value for money. Still, I can't help but think that, in the past, RS cars were always a little nuts, as if Audi let its engineers do their best mad-scientist impersonations just for the occasion. The 2018 RS 5 feels conservative by comparison.

Make no mistake: It's incredibly capable — the by-the-numbers winner — and it is in most ways quite good. But in a class in which cars are about driver involvement and emotional response, it feels a bit too detached. Go all in with the option packages and the price bumps up to more than $90,000. In fact, it's pricier than a base Porsche 911, and even the basest of base 911s feels significantly more special than the RS 5.

And here's where I get philosophical. The RS 5 is a mechanical achievement, a force to be reckoned with, but it's not passionate or engaging the way other RS cars have been. It can dominate the autobahn, but it doesn't inspire that desire to find more road to explore.