ZURICH, Switzerland--There's something about a German sports car that makes even the hairiest road seem like something you want to keep driving.
A few days ago, that feeling was reinforced as I (carefully) wound my way up and over some of the most amazing passes in the Swiss Alps. With barely enough room for one car, let alone two abreast, with drops of thousands of feet just off the side of the cliffs, and guardrails pretty much an afterthought, I knew that I was being tested. But I was driving Audi's terrific RS 5, and I wasn't worried.
The very sporty and fierce sibling of the company's existing A5 and S5 coupes, the RS 5 (which is expected to hit the U.S. in 2012) is an acceleration machine, a V8 beast that roars its disdain for whatever traffic you've decided to leave behind, and which looks great doing so.
I was driving the RS 5 as part of Road Trip 2011, a project that took me through seven countries (nine if you count passing through Belgium on the train and a quick walk into Austria) during the last two months. In addition to writing about a wide variety of interesting destinations, from Lego manufacturing to the Paris Air Show, the construction of the world's longest tunnel to the world's tallest bridge, I was also reviewing a number of products. It was my solemn duty to put the RS 5 through nearly 2,500 miles of road testing. Tough gig, I know.
As I've written in my reviews of other cars I've tested in the six years I've been doing CNET Road Trip, I'm hardly a pro when it comes to such things. So while I'll leave you to read the expert thoughts of my CNET colleagues if you want to know everything there is to know about a car, my job here is to talk about my impressions of the vehicles I drive during the project.
After driving the car for nearly a month (I also traveled across Europe in the Audi A6 3.0 TFSI and by train), I came away with two main perspectives of the RS 5. First, it's a lot of fun: fast, responsive, tight, powerful, and comfortable to drive. Second, it's a looker. Everywhere I took it, people wanted to look at it. More times than I can count, I'd return to where I'd parked only to find one or more people gathered around, checking it out. In France, I even found a cat that thought it tasted good. But that's a story for another day.
The main differences between the RS 5 and its S5 and A5 cousins are the bigger, 19-inch wheels; a louder, throatier exhaust system; a sports suspension with "dynamic ride;" and no forced top speed. It looks pretty much the same as the S5, but has the bigger wheels and what I found to be a slightly more curved rear window than the A5, giving it its fierceness. One night, I stood beside it for a few minutes trying to figure out what gave it that quality, and it was hard to pinpoint. But there's little question that wherever I took it, it stood out. In Lyon, France, I parked it for two nights in a garage right next to a brand-new Porsche, and I never had any regrets that my key said RS 5 on it. And don't get me wrong: I love Porsches.
But my feeling after 2,500 miles of driving it is that the RS 5 can hold its own against pretty much anything on the road. Though perhaps not the quickest off the blocks, it more than makes up for that any time you ask it to accelerate past or around something. With just the faintest touch on the gas, the RS 5 jumps forward, pressing you forcefully back in your seat, yet it does so with a smoothness that never ceased to surprise me.
Hills? It laughs at them. I should know. Taking it up and over those Swiss Alpine passes, as well as some pretty steep inclines in France, I always noted that the RS 5 didn't seem to care that it was going uphill. Its powerful 4.2-liter V8 engine shot it forward almost as if it was on flat ground.
And of course, it's a sports car. So, while I'm not the kind of driver with the skills to truly put it through its paces on the curvy back roads of Europe, I always felt that it was totally solid through any turns I did accelerate into, helped along by its giant wheels and its low center of gravity.
What may have surprised me the most, however, was how much room it had in the trunk. When Audi proposed that I test the RS 5, I worried that, while fun, the car might not have enough storage space for the gear I needed to carry with me for two months of European travel. I needn't have fretted. The trunk (see video below) seemed huge, especially for a two-door sports car. One look and I knew that I'd have no trouble fitting my suitcases--a huge relief since I was carrying more gear than most people.
At the same time, the RS 5 is also pretty roomy for a sports car. Though its passenger side seat belt doesn't seem designed for people shorter than, say, 5-feet, 6-inches--the belt cuts diagonally across a short person's neck with no clear way to change it--there's plenty of room for four people. I did, on one occasion, have four in the car, and everyone was comfortable. Perhaps, I began to think, the RS 5 wasn't as small as I'd thought. It might just have been that its wheels were so big that its body looked small. Either way, it's a great car that's a lot of fun to drive. And handing it back to Audi was the least fun part of the entire project.
The A6 3.0 TFSI
While I drove the RS 5 for the lion's share of Road Trip 2011, I actually began my European driving adventure with Audi's A6 3.0 TFSI. This was a much bigger and more luxurious car, but while it is a very comfortable sedan, it was no less powerful on the road.
Since I drove it for just eight days, I didn't really have as much of a chance to form real impressions about the A6, but I certainly came away with the sense that it's a great car. Large and comfortable, I'm sure it could easily seat six people and possibly even store all their luggage. And still keep up with the BMWs and Porsches on the German Autobahn.
Mainly, I drove the A6 in Germany and did cover many hundreds of miles on the Autobahn--a road where I discovered that it doesn't matter if you're going 110 miles an hour: there's always a black Mercedes ready to blow by you. But I also took it up and over the Swiss Alps, and it handled great everywhere I took it. Perhaps the only real challenge the A6 presented was inside some of the incredibly narrow passageways that you find everywhere in European parking garages. Yet somehow I managed never to scratch it. Score one for slow and careful driving.
Aside from its luxurious comfort, I really only missed one thing when I started driving the RS 5: the A6's heads-up display and the fact that it always told me what the speed limit was. This was a great feature: right there on the windshield, there was always a little symbol with the current speed limit. Watching the actual signs on the road, I would say that the car tended to reflect changes in the top speed within a second, and only a couple of times did I see that the car had the wrong number.
The only downside to this was that when I started driving the RS 5, I felt a little lost: if there was no sign on the roadway, I often had no idea what the speed limit was. This should be standard on all cars.
The A6 3.0 TFSI is one of many A6 models, and this one had a nice collection of special features: a sport differential gear, the heads-up display, an adaptive cruise control, the speed limit display, the ability to run a wireless local area network, and more.
All in all, I really enjoyed driving the A6. But it wasn't quite as hard to give back. Especially not since I knew that soon, I'd be behind the wheel of the RS 5. That's a beast of a car that I would happily buy if I had the cash. I'm starting to save now.