Marc K. Stengel, Sun, 28 Oct 2007 08:00:00 PDT
Escapes from reality are few and far between. So when an invitationbeckons, it's only too appropriate to hop aboard the UnrealityExpress. Who knows when it will pass this way again?
When Audi recently tempted the nation's autowriters to join them inWashington, D.C., for the unveiling of a trio of 2008 models, fewamongst us fully appreciated what was in store. The nation'scapitol? Home of the pork barrel sandwich and legislative sausage-making? How much fun could that be? And then I was handed keys to thecar...
For Act II in Audi's Quattro Follies, the company seemed determinedto play a bit of a practical joke. Into the unassuming butindubitably cute little A4 Cabriolet soft-top, the hot-rod boffins atAudi's "quattro" performance division have shoehorned the same420-horsepower V8 that thunders so marvelously inside the R8supercoupe. The result? The automotive equivalent of a Stealth Fighter.
Unless a bystander notices the discreet "RS 4" or "quattro"badges affixed to its flanks, this car seems nothing more than asweet little convertible with seating for four. Why, there's even atoggle switch to mask its exhaust note, lest savvy street racerssuspect there's more than meets the eye under the RS 4's tameexterior.
There is: This RS 4 is capable of fire-breathing performance that isonly hinted at by its 4.8-second pace, zero-to-60. A short, widestance with quattro power at each wheel results in go-kart handlingon the raceway and surgical precision in city traffic. Its broadpowerband delivers instant roll-on acceleration at speed, and its8,250 rpm redline rivals many motorcycles. In tight-corneringsituations, the RS 4 pivots as if a dance pole had pierced the centerof the cockpit.
And then, with the flick of an exhaust-note switch, it's easy toplay the introvert again (so long as you didn't spec the chromeyellow paint job). The cockpit is the essence of refinement. Leatherseating and metal accents are simultaneously subdued and hip.Controls are easy to reach and understand, although the mastercontroller for Audi's Multi Media Interface (MMI) requires a bit ofpretzeling to reach with the driver's right hand. Still, for driverswho like to hide their egos under a bushel, the RS 4 Cabrio is anideal needle for the haystack.
I had landed at Dulles Airport literally 10 minutes ago when an Audirepresentative asked if I might, please, ferry a midnight blue R8sports coupe to the hotels after a detour of some 150 miles throughgorgeous Northern Virginia horse country.
Ferry it? I wanted to marry it. The R8 is Audi's "supercar"contender, and it's unprecedented in the way every exoticar has aright to be. Standing but 50 inches tall, squat and square on its 19-inch wheels and showcasing its jewel-like, mid-engine V8 under apanoramic glass hatch, the R8 basks in an aura of beauty and danger.
Initially, you don't want to know too much. The six-speed"gated" shifter is intimidating enough without having to worryabout 420 horsepower underfoot, or 317 foot-pounds of torque spanningthe gap between 4,500-6,000 rpm. The "monoposto" driving position,resembling the working cockpit of an open-wheel road-racer, seems tobanish all frivolity; and the blue-white LED brow lights under theheadlamps are as sinister as Snidely Whiplash's waxed-whiskers.
With the push of a button, the R8's V8 lights up like a volley ofRoman candles. Then, slotting the shifter into first and releasingthe clutch, you're away. On cat's paws. As gentle and asconsiderate as any solid citizen in city traffic can be. Blip thethrottle, and you're aware of fangs to be bared; but the specialsurprise that first greets you in an R8 is how genuinely polite andreassuring it is to drive.
And the same civility enhances barnstorming tours of the countrysideor thrashing-sessions on the race track. Monster torque is managed bycomputerized all-wheel-drive and stability control to keep the R8 ontrajectory even during power slides. With 4.4-second zero-to-60 timesand a 187 mph top speed, the R8 is a beast; but it's a well manneredone you wouldn't be embarrassed to take home to Mother (or Mistress,as the case may be).
When sanity reigns again, it pours. How else to perceive the svelteAudi S5 Coupe quattro, bargain-priced at only $59,015, as-tested.
Alongside the Audi "R Cars" already mentioned, the new S5 coupemay appear anti-climactic; but this new model may in fact be Audi'smost significant model for 2008. It's the company's first midsizecoupe for North America in 13 years, and the S5's combination ofample power and stunning interior luxury addresses real worldconcerns far more thoroughly than the R8 and RS 4 models.
What's missing, perhaps, is instantly provocative exterior styling.Instead of being beautiful, the S5 is solidly handsome; but oncebehind the wheel, a feeling of control and relaxation dispels anydoubts about the S5's overall refinement.
Underhood is another 4.2-liter V8, but in this case, horsepower is de-tuned to a mere 354 hp, whereas torque is hiked to 325 foot-pounds.The S5 handles masterfully, but it's heavier and thus a bit lessagile at the extremes than the R Cars. The obverse side of this coin,of course, is the S5's more stately road manners at touring speeds.This is a car meant for the open road, and seating for four includesample legroom in the rear. Special controls, moreover, allow rearpassengers to adjust their own legroom and even exit the car unaided.And a panoramic sunroof (which is standard) graces every occupantwith a light and airy cockpit. Clearly, for racer boys, Audi hasample toys. But for grown-ups, the S5 is its own reward.