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BMW M3 and Merc C63 AMG under renewed attack from Ingolstadt - First drive: Audi RS5

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Audi's most powerful ever mid-size car takes its aim - with lots of claims to live up to. Does it?

First up, a few words from Audi’s press blurb about the new RS5.

‘It’s the most potent naturally aspirated V8-powered production Audi ever.’
‘It’s the only car in its class with all-wheel drive.’
‘It has the highest-revving engine in its class.’
‘It has the lowest CO2 emissions in its class.’
And, perhaps predictably, ‘It will have the best residuals in its class.’

Impressive stuff, and there is no doubt that this is a massively desirable car. That’s an impression that is only heightened on first acquaintance. This car has visual presence, it oozes build quality, reeks of attention to detail, glowers with fine finish. Inside and out. It has stance, too, borne of wheels that fill arches thanks to generous diameter, rubber-band tyres, and lowered suspension that sucks the RS5’s visual mass floorwards.

And it manages – just – to avoid looking flash. Sure, heads turn as you burble by, attracted first by a subtle V8 warble, then they follow appreciatively, enjoying your statement of taste. Yep, the RS5 has class.

All of which counts for a great deal at this level of the market – this is a £58,685 car, and it feels it. That’s fully five grand more than either a BMW M3 coupé or a Merc C63 costs – and if it’s actually going to be more desirable than those two, it’ll have to be an absolute riot to drive. As good as it looks, in fact.

Those glorious first impressions continue as you fire up the 4163cc V8. It promises an R8-beating 444bhp and 317lb ft, the latter spread generously from 4000-6000rpm. That also compares well with the 4.0-litre M3’s 414bhp/295lb ft, but can’t beat the C63’s 451bhp/442lb ft from an admittedly lazier 6.2-litre engine. And it straddles the character of both those engines too, having a more obvious V8 throb at low revs than the tight and punchy M3 engine, yet avoiding the NASCAR lairiness of the C63’s note.

Despite a chunky 1725kg curbweight (blame the four-wheel drive), the RS5 pulls away like a turbocharged hot hatch – but without torque steer, and with a much more appealing soundtrack. It helps that Audi’s seven-speed S-tronic paddleshift transmission is standard, and you can configure its ferocity of shift via the Drive Select function, which also governs the steering and throttle response, as well as the damping. And that’s standard on UK cars.

As one of the old RS4’s finest (and most surprising) features was the quality of its damping, there’s hope that we’re in for a dynamic treat. Yet here the M3 and the C63 pull away from the Audi, as surely as they would on a challenging road. And it’s especially disappointing that the damping is probably the biggest culprit. Put simply, there is no subtlety to the way this Audi rides. In the softest setting it simply feels rather disconnected; in its toughest setting it grips the firm springs with an iron strength that translates into hard crashing at every bump.

OK, nobody buys a sports saloon on the strength of its ride comfort, and maybe we’d forgive the RS5 if it entertained as much as the extraordinarily nimble and adjustable M3, or the stable, committed yet gloriously tail-happy C63. But the Audi feels wooden in comparison, its steering numb, its responses mute. It grips like glue, and the four-wheel drive ensures you get round the fastest of corners facing the right way. But it does so with remarkably little joy. And with this kind of massive performance (0-62mph in 4.6sec) and that addictive engine note on tap, that’s unforgivable.

In straight lines the RS5 impresses much more, thrilling with its linear power delivery, which is aided by a quick-shifting gearbox that punctuates the flow with a fabulous exhaust boom on the (incredibly brief) overrun. So maybe this is a car whose appeal has been lost in translation. On the carpet-smooth surfaces of Germany or on the long straights of the States it would surely put up more of a fight. But in the UK, its dynamic deficiencies are difficult to defend, even if the RS5’s styling, its solidity and its luxurious cabin all demand that you do so.

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