The question that kept floating around in my head at the local launch of the new Audi RS5 Sportback was ‘Why does this car exist?’. While that might sound like a smackdown (it’s not), hear me out.
The 2019 Audi RS5 Sportback joins the RS5 Coupe and, if we’re being pedantic, the RS4 Avant in Audi’s line-up of RS cars in the mid-sized segment. Something for everyone, it seems. It’s also the first time Audi’s staid A5 liftback has received the RS treatment.
Why am I grouping these three together? Because they are fundamentally the same car, but clad in a different skin. So how similar are they?
Well, for starters, they all share the same powertrain, Audi’s slightly intoxicating 2.9-litre TFSI twin-turbo V6 with 331kW and 600Nm mated to an eight-speed tiptronic (torque converter) auto transmission. That combination is good for a properly quick 0–100km/h sprint time of 3.9 seconds in the Sportback and the coupe, while the RS4 wagon completes the dash in a more pedestrian 4.1 seconds. Not much in it then, making your choice of hot Audi a personal one.
The RS5 Sportback is an interesting proposition: a coupe-like performance sedan with decent storage and four-seat practicality (five at a pinch). And with a starting price of $157,700 plus on-road costs, the RS5 Sportback shares a sticker price with its two-door garage-mate that can be had for the same price. Interestingly, the RS4 Avant that, as already mentioned, shares the same powertrain and underpinnings sits in dealerships around $5K cheaper than either RS5 variant, $152,529 plus ORC. And it’s arguably more practical too.
Sitting on a longer wheelbase than the coupe (2832mm against 2772mm), the RS5 Sportback is also longer (59mm), and – unsurprisingly – taller (76mm). But, despite sharing design cues and inspiration from Audi’s IMSA GTO race car of the late 1980s, it’s 16mm thinner in the hips than the RS5 Coupe. That might not sound like much, but it’s significant enough to rob the Sportback of some of the presence the coupe exudes. In buckets.
That’s not to say the Sportback is without presence. There are plenty of RS design cues to whet the appetite – massive air intakes at the front, alongside a wide and flat single-frame grille and a front splitter adorned with ‘quattro’ lettering.
Move along to the side, and while not as pronounced as those on the coupe, the trademark ‘quattro blisters’ characterise this as an RS. At the rear, there’s an RS-specific diffuser and an RS exhaust system with fat oval tailpipes, while a fixed spoiler on the liftback completes the Sportback’s aggressive stance.
The standard equipment list is pretty aggressive too, as you’d expect of a car asking well north of $150K. Highlights include 20-inch alloys, head-up display, RS sport suspension with Dynamic Ride Control and adaptive dampers, sporty red brake calipers, panoramic tinted sunroof, LED headlights and tail-lights with dynamic indicators, a premium Bang & Olufsen 3D sound system, wireless phone charging, and RS-specific Audi Virtual Cockpit.
There are plenty of RS styling cues too, with an RS flat-bottomed sports steering wheel, wrapped beautifully in perforated leather, RS sports seats finished in Nappa leather and featuring Audi’s RS honeycomb-patterned contrast stitching, and a liberal sprinkling of RS logos on the dash, door sills, and floor mats.
You can, if you like Alcantara (and you’ll need to love it), spend an extra $3300 on the RS design package that adds acres of the stuff – on the steering wheel, the sides of the centre console, door inlays and gear selector – all with contrast red stitching. Our test car had this box ticked, and frankly it was a little over the top, certainly for my tastes.
Other options on our tester included $1950 for metallic red paint (in fact, seven of the eight colours in the RS5 Sportback palette command a $1950 premium, with only Nardo Grey available as standard), $1000 for RS-specific carbon inlays (they look racy), and $1900 for Audi’s Matrix LED headlights including daytime running lights, dynamic front and rear indicators with RS-specific darkened trim elements. All up, our test car wore a sticker of $165,850 plus on-road costs.
And for that money, you’ll find yourself behind the wheel of a pretty potent grand tourer that wears two distinct faces.
The RennSport formula concocted at Neckarsulm is pretty simple, combining excellent road manners around town with impressive performance when the opportunity presents itself. The RS5 Sportback delivers on this tried-and-true formula in an uncompromising fashion.
Docile enough at city speeds, the RS5 Sportback transforms into a well-behaved albeit soulful corner carver out in the wild.
The surge from that twin-turbo V6 is delightful, accompanied by a growl that, despite being muted, is still intoxicating enough for most. Sure, there’s no V8 howl of older RS models, but that is a small price to pay for the measured way the Sportback piles on performance.
Make no mistake, this is no street brawler in the vein of some of its German rivals, which can be compromised at times, especially around town where traffic stifles every move and poorly maintained roads serve as a jarring reminder that the natural environs of high-performance cars like these aren’t narrow city streets with 50km/h speed limits.
There’s no such compromise with the RS5 Sportback (or just about any RS model, for that matter) – Audi proving that a performance car does not have to break your back every time you drive it.
Simply, Audi’s sport suspension set-up (five-link at all four corners) with hydraulic adaptive dampers, cushions occupants from the worst our roads can throw at it in Comfort mode, before firming up nicely to provide more feedback and engagement in Dynamic mode, but without the level of stiffness some other brands like to dial into their suspension tunes.
The end result is a pleasing execution of the sport sedan formula: a pleasant around-town family car with the engaging dynamics of a proper sports car on the open road. A true grand tourer, then.
Of course, the pleasure in cars like these is in their ability to transform into something more than a daily driver. Throw the Sportback at some corners and there is a surety under-wheel thanks to Audi’s excellent AWD quattro platform. In everyday driving, torque is distributed in a sedate 40:60 front/rear fashion. But, ask more of the Sportback, and that torque can be shuffled as much as 85 per cent to the rear, or 70 per cent to the front. Additionally, a rear sport differential shuffles torque to the rear wheel with most traction. All that adds up to a muscle car that can be driven with confidence.
Audi’s new eight-speed auto is also perfectly adept at selecting the right gear for any given moment. Around town, there’s the usual quick shuffle through the cogs in the hunt for economy, but ratchet up the action and the 8AT willingly and longingly runs out to redline. Alternatively, using the steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters offers more tactility and engagement, if that’s your bent. Personally, I prefer to leave it in self-shifting mode, such is the excellent calibration of the tiptronic.
There’s plenty of confidence under brakes too. Standard-fit steel discs can be upgraded to carbon ceramics for an eye-watering $11,900, but other than showing off to your mates – or if you intend to regularly track your RS5 Sportback – they’re not necessary.
One criticism – and it’s true of the coupe too – is the steering. Yes, it’s beautifully weighted and precise, but it lacks feedback – that connection to the road so vital for pure enjoyment. It’s nitpicking, for sure, but some more feedback wouldn’t go astray.
Despite that criticism, the overall RS5 Sportback package remains a well-resolved one. Blisteringly quick and taut when you need it to be, with the duality of purpose that will allow you to drive the family around in comfort and style without compromise.
There’s little compromise inside either, the interior typical of Audi’s excellent fit and finish. The materials are top-notch (although, as already mentioned, I personally could do without the swathes of optional Alcantara as fitted to our test car) and the layout and ergonomics are as expected.
If anything, the view of the cabin from the front is a bit homogenous, identical as it is to that found in the RS5 Coupe and the RS4 Avant. You really need to be in the second row, or cast a glance over your shoulder, to determine exactly which RS variant you’re inside. Not a criticism, rather a comment on how interchangeable the three are.
That back row is comfortable enough for average-sized humans, with plenty of leg and knee room. Headroom is a bit impacted, thanks to the Sportback’s sloping roof line, but it’s perfectly acceptable. That boot swallows 480 litres of stuff, just 15 litres more than the coupe, but with the extra benefit of easier access thanks to the Sportback’s liftback design.
Infotainment comes courtesy of Audi’s MMI navigation plus that features a crisp 8.3-inch colour display (not a touchscreen) controlled via a rotary dialler and or/voice commands. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard, as is satellite navigation with live traffic updates, and keeping it fresh, the system comes with five map updates at six-monthly intervals.
To Audi’s credit, there are no optional safety features. Instead, the RS Sportback wears a full suite of active safety and driver-assistance systems: driver-attention alert, Audi pre-sense with pedestrian detection and autonomous emergency braking, hill-hold assist, tyre pressure monitoring, 360-degree cameras, adaptive cruise control with stop&go, active lane-keeping assist, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, and Audi’s exit warning system that alerts the driver when a car or cyclist is approaching when opening doors.
The RS5 Sportback doesn't wear an ANCAP rating, despite the A5 Sportback being rated at five stars back in 2015. A spokesperson for ANCAP confirmed, "The RS5 is not covered by the A5 rating and is considered ‘unrated’. While we would expect similarity in results, comparable performance was not confirmed by Audi during the rating process."
It’s still hard to fathom why this car exists at all. If you don’t need the practicality of four (or five) seats but want premium performance from a Euro bahnstormer, then the RS5 Coupe will serve your needs. If, on the other hand, extra space and practicality are high on your list of priorities, then the RS4 Avant will perfectly serve your needs.
Of course, not everyone likes wagons (More fool them… Wagons are cool), and Audi has tapped into that psyche with the RS5 Sportback. And make no mistake, this car is every bit as manic as its RS stablemates, capturing the soul of RennSport in a practical four-door package. But, if it were my money on the line, the $5K-cheaper RS4 Avant has more practicality, better street presence, and the same levels of performance.