Quattro’s trio

2008, Audi, RS 4 Cabriolet quattro

Escapes from reality are few and far between. So when an invitation beckons, it's only too appropriate to hop aboard the Unreality Express. Who knows when it will pass this way again?

When Audi recently tempted the nation's autowriters to join them in Washington, D.C., for the unveiling of a trio of 2008 models, few amongst us fully appreciated what was in store. The nation's capitol? Home of the pork barrel sandwich and legislative sausage- making? How much fun could that be? And then I was handed keys to the car...

For Act II in Audi's Quattro Follies, the company seemed determined to play a bit of a practical joke. Into the unassuming but indubitably cute little A4 Cabriolet soft-top, the hot-rod boffins at Audi's "quattro" performance division have shoehorned the same 420-horsepower V8 that thunders so marvelously inside the R8 supercoupe. 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 a sweet little convertible with seating for four. Why, there's even a toggle switch to mask its exhaust note, lest savvy street racers suspect there's more than meets the eye under the RS 4's tame exterior.

There is: This RS 4 is capable of fire-breathing performance that is only hinted at by its 4.8-second pace, zero-to-60. A short, wide stance with quattro power at each wheel results in go-kart handling on the raceway and surgical precision in city traffic. Its broad powerband delivers instant roll-on acceleration at speed, and its 8,250 rpm redline rivals many motorcycles. In tight-cornering situations, the RS 4 pivots as if a dance pole had pierced the center of the cockpit.

And then, with the flick of an exhaust-note switch, it's easy to play the introvert again (so long as you didn't spec the chrome yellow paint job). The cockpit is the essence of refinement. Leather seating and metal accents are simultaneously subdued and hip. Controls are easy to reach and understand, although the master controller for Audi's Multi Media Interface (MMI) requires a bit of pretzeling to reach with the driver's right hand. Still, for drivers who like to hide their egos under a bushel, the RS 4 Cabrio is an ideal needle for the haystack.

I had landed at Dulles Airport literally 10 minutes ago when an Audi representative asked if I might, please, ferry a midnight blue R8 sports coupe to the hotels after a detour of some 150 miles through gorgeous 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 a right to be. Standing but 50 inches tall, squat and square on its 19- inch wheels and showcasing its jewel-like, mid-engine V8 under a panoramic 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 worry about 420 horsepower underfoot, or 317 foot-pounds of torque spanning the gap between 4,500-6,000 rpm. The "monoposto" driving position, resembling the working cockpit of an open-wheel road-racer, seems to banish all frivolity; and the blue-white LED brow lights under the headlamps are as sinister as Snidely Whiplash's waxed-whiskers.

With the push of a button, the R8's V8 lights up like a volley of Roman candles. Then, slotting the shifter into first and releasing the clutch, you're away. On cat's paws. As gentle and as considerate as any solid citizen in city traffic can be. Blip the throttle, and you're aware of fangs to be bared; but the special surprise that first greets you in an R8 is how genuinely polite and reassuring it is to drive.

And the same civility enhances barnstorming tours of the countryside or thrashing-sessions on the race track. Monster torque is managed by computerized all-wheel-drive and stability control to keep the R8 on trajectory even during power slides. With 4.4-second zero-to-60 times and a 187 mph top speed, the R8 is a beast; but it's a well mannered one 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 svelte Audi S5 Coupe quattro, bargain-priced at only $59,015, as-tested.

Alongside the Audi "R Cars" already mentioned, the new S5 coupe may appear anti-climactic; but this new model may in fact be Audi's most significant model for 2008. It's the company's first midsize coupe for North America in 13 years, and the S5's combination of ample power and stunning interior luxury addresses real world concerns 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 once behind the wheel, a feeling of control and relaxation dispels any doubts 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 less agile 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 includes ample legroom in the rear. Special controls, moreover, allow rear passengers to adjust their own legroom and even exit the car unaided. And a panoramic sunroof (which is standard) graces every occupant with a light and airy cockpit. Clearly, for racer boys, Audi has ample toys. But for grown-ups, the S5 is its own reward.

By Marc Stengel

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Images of the 2008, Audi RS 4 Cabriolet quattro

2008 Audi RS 4 Cabriolet quattro front view
2008 Audi RS 4 Cabriolet quattro front view
2008 Audi RS 4 Cabriolet quattro rear view
2008 Audi RS 4 Cabriolet quattro rear view
2008 Audi R8 Coupe quattro front view
2008 Audi R8 Coupe quattro front view
2008 Audi S5 Coupe 4.2 quattro front view
2008 Audi S5 Coupe 4.2 quattro front view