Like any card-carrying automotive journalist, we’re guilty of waving the fast station wagon flag a little too vigorously. We’ll never understand why somebody wouldn’t want to pair a big engine up front to the practicality of an estate body – but Audi tells us some people just aren’t that into wagons. Go figure.
Enter the business case for the 2019 Audi RS5 Sportback. The hatchback form factor has been available on the standard A5 for a decade but, until now, the hi-po RS5 has been a two-door offer only.
The coupe format isn’t going anywhere but for 2019, the badge is shared by the Sportback, which uses the same 331kW/600Nm petrol V6 but includes a set of rear doors and a wide-opening hatch. There’s no price premium for the extra convenience: both the RS5 coupe and the RS5 Sportback cost $157,700 ($171,138) as they come.
In both photographs and reality, the RS5 Sportback is a looker, with a long bonnet and longer, flowing roofline and a tidy rear end. In the best traditions of go-fast Audis, there is little to immediately reveal the RS5 as a performance car: anoraks will spot the beefy twin exhaust pipes and subtle badging, but that’s about it.
Our Navarra Blue example was a particularly elegant specification, with 20-inch bright silver wheels and a Lunar Grey nappa leather interior. Rather indulgently, our test vehicle was specified with a $10,900 exterior carbon pack.
Compared to the lairy Mercedes-AMG C63 S or the BMW M3, the Audi happily slips under the radar until you’re ready to unleash the considerable performance on tap.
When the new RS5 coupe was launched, purists rightly mourned the loss of the naturally aspirated 4.2-litre V8 engine that powered the previous shape of this car – but thankfully, the downsized 2.9-litre V6 that now motivates RS5s is, in isolation, a terrific engine.
Power is equal to the old V8, at 331kW, but torque is way up to 600Nm in a flat plane from 1,900rpm to 5,000rpm. As such, the words ‘flexible’ and ‘tractable’ spring to mind, with the RS5 able to deliver utterly rapid progress either from a standing start or across country. Drive it like it wants to be driven and the real world fuel economy will be around 13L/100km.
While the characteristic burble of a V8 might be gone, it’s clear that Audi Sport put substantial effort into the soundtrack of this six. The engine zings cleanly to its relatively modest 6,500rpm redline but there’s plenty of theatre from the exhaust: pops, crackles, farts and bangs all emanate from the rear, accompanying throttle lifts, plus upshifts and downshifts from the slick eight-speed torque converter auto that bests any dual-clutch for refinement. The whole experience comes together well.
That’s when the engine and exhaust are in Dynamic mode, that is: in their standard settings, the RS5 is significantly quieter outside and in and highway drone is eliminated. We were surprised and delighted to find that the RS5 Sportback has a true split personality: it is sumptuous and relaxing to commute in but it can be animalistic at the flick of a drive mode switch.
And we don’t mean to sound like the brochure when we say that. Test drive the Audi against the BMW M3 and it will be clear that the RS5 can do the calm stuff a lot better than its German brethren. That’s important, because these cars spend plenty of their time prowling suburban streets.
The suspension is firm but totally compliant on Sydney’s pockmarked roads, with the 20-inch wheels rarely allowing potholes and ruts to thump into the cabin as they do in a Mercedes-AMG C63 S. The Audi manages to feel foursquare on the road while also having enough suspension travel to soak up dodgy surfaces. In fact, the ‘comfort’ setting on the two-stage dampers always feels appropriate, aside from on track: the ‘sport’ suspension choice is sharp and terse.
The steering is fast and direct but not especially engaging for the driver; you can sense there is a connection to the front wheels but it isn’t an intimate one. Body roll is almost zero, though, and the sorted chassis always feels buttoned down. Plus, the steering wheel is compact, and the deep perforations around the rim are a great tactile addition.
You’ll also be quite comfortable thanks to the RS5’s lovely interior. An example of the last of the outgoing Audi cabin design language – which is better than the new interiors you’d find in, say, a Q8 SUV – spending time in the RS5 Sportback is never a chore.
Supple and soft, the seats offer high levels of support and the standard massaging feature works to great effect to soothe over long drives. The steering wheel falls perfectly to hand and the intuitive, rotary dial-driven MMI infotainment – which is being dropped in new Audis – makes the entire experience feel fluent.
This is quite a long saloon and as such, the room in the back seat is better than you might expect for a car like this. Legroom is good for six-footers and there is adequate headroom, too. We’d recommend keeping everyone happy by limiting it to two passengers back there: the middle seat is tight.
An electric tailgate reveals a large boot which is easy to access thanks to the huge hatch-back. Without folding the rear seats there is a generous 480 litres of space and the usual German smarts, like shopping bag hooks and a light. That’s 15 litres up on the two-door RS5 coupe, but with a more convenient hatch opening.
Specification is very generous on the RS5: you need few options other than the lustrous paint ($1,950). Almost everything is standard: full keyless start and entry on all doors, a sunroof, heated massaging seats upholstered in nappa leather, tri-zone climate control, a 19-speaker Bang & Olufsen stereo, wireless smartphone charging, digital radio, a head-up display, CarPlay and Android Auto… you get it all. We’d skip our test car’s indulgent $11k carbon fibre styling pack and keep the tasteful, included black accents.
Safety inclusions are, likewise, impressive. A 360-degree parking camera is included, as is automated parking, and a substantial suite of adaptive technologies come standard. These include autonomous emergency braking operational to 250km/h, adaptive cruise control with stop and go, lane keep assist, blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, and exit warning, which helps avert knocking a cyclist when opening the doors.
Everything about the RS5 is essentially a blend of serious performance with everyday liveability. That’s this car’s mantra, and we think it does a better job of it than the AMG or the BMW.
The blend does come at the expense of lairy character: the RS5 doesn’t want to step out on you and there is some level of disconnection between the driver and car at the very limit. But that will concern only a select few. For most buyers, the Audi strikes precisely the right compromise. The RS5 Sportback brings together subtle sleeper looks, a striking coupe roofline, proper everyday comfort and a hugely pacey engine. It’s equally happy running the commute or covering rural ground at a frightening pace.
Such happy compromises are very few and far between in this segment. The Audi RS5 Sportback manages to achieve just that.
Key specs (as tested)
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