Notes from the Road, A Personal Automotive History – Issue 22: “Back so soon?”

Well it’s pretty clear I need some sort of intervention. I thought this series had wrapped. I assumed it was put up on the digital shelf to be cracked open for purposes of nostalgia in some foggy future. I honestly had winsome visions of… Oh to hell with it. I knew there was no way my car ADD could possibly rest. So what gives? Let me catch you up…

When we left off the Complaints HQ garage was full to the brim with metal in the form of one E92 M3 DCT, a shiny new Land Rover Ranger Rover Evoque, and the humble yet feisty Mini Countryman All4. I am happy to say that the Mini is still holding strong! Of course it’s worth noting that this is my wife’s car and she’d almost certainly choose it over me, but I digress. As it turns out, with no powerful force to protect them, the Evoque and M3 did not fare nearly as well. So what happened? What exactly was the deficiency?

First let me state that both vehicles are fantastic and should thoroughly satisfy any sane person who is looking for a superlative experience in each of their respective categories. Of course the key words here are “sane” and “respective categories”. Any true performance enthusiast who lives in a region blessed with snowy winters, and has a legitimate need for some level of practicality, can almost certainly identify with this struggle. By all rights 90% of the time all you can truly justify owning is the crossover vehicle that get’s the best MPG. After all you can park them anywhere, they can typically slog through any pre-apocalyptic driving conditions with all-seasons, and they’re less than completely horrible to drive. That other 10% though… Therein that 10% lies the rub. For the true performance enthusiast, even the mightiest crossovers (SRT8, X5M, Cayenne Turbo) can’t truly scratch the itch. Even if they fully talk the talk (go really fast), they can never really walk the walk (look really good and feel agile).

The Evoque is an absolutely wonderful crossover. It actually gives up some practicality in the form of rearward visibility and backseat headroom, in exchange for a stylish look. The interior is lovely and it looks probably as good as a small truck can possibly look. In addition, it’s not too bad to drive and can move as well as any normal car (0-60 in 6.7s or so). It has decent cargo capacity, comfortable room for 4 and wears that oh-so-important Range Rover badge.

The E92 M3, on the other hand, is an incredible performance tool. The DCT shifts orders of magnitude faster than I ever will, the V8 soundtrack is like a symphony, and the car is quicker than probably 95% cars on the road (60 will come in less than 5 seconds in a typical street start scenario). In terms of balance, feedback, precision and driver experience it finds it’s better only in the 911 and NSX of the cars I’ve owned. On top of all of this it looks sharp, is a bit of a sleeper since most write it off as a basic 3 series, and it is reasonably practical. Until November, that is, when the powder falls and the local news gal starts screaming “SNOWPOCALYPSE!” Now look. I acknowledge that I am incredibly lazy and have bad luck. “Swapping tires” has just never worked for me and never will. With my luck inevitably I end up in a freak early snowfall sliding along on summers through October powder, or I wind up glued to the ground in Blizzaks due to an unprecedented February heat wave. As a result I always run all seasons. Yes, this neuters these fine cars. I get it. In any event, a powerful real wheel drive car is never fun in snow. Workable? Maybe. Fun? No.

So I found myself with one car that was extremely fun and semi-practical, which I couldn’t rely on year round. And another car that was quite practical, and semi-fun, which I honestly didn’t want to drive year round. Added to that was the time and effort required to maintain two vehicles. It took less than a year for this to wear thin.

I was determined to find the holy grail! A single vehicle that could be both “practical enough” and driven year round, yet was both “special” and not only scratched, but clawed that performance itch! Now to be sure I’d actually already owned some fine specimens here. In particular, I found myself thinking back to Godzilla and, specifically, why the hell did I sell it?

Putting on the official hat of introspection, most of my objections to the GTR were very personal and somewhat psychological. It’s a peculiar quirk of mine that used performance cars just never quite sit well with me. Sure if they pass a PPI and all is well you get an amazing deal, dodging initial depreciation but still rolling in style. But if it’s not factory new I never quite form that emotional bond with it. This quirk was eating at me with the M3 as well, but with the GTR it was magnified. The GTR is such a special and exotic vehicle that not having bought it new left me feeling a bit of a pretender. Ridiculous to some I know, but I’ve already admitted I need counseling! In addition driving the GTR is like driving a parade float with a naked supermodel on top waving at the crowd.  Some love this.  Some need this.  I hate this. But with the decision made to evict both the Evoque and the M3, the I’d be lying if I said the GTR didn’t come right back on my radar. Not another pre-owned though. No sir. Brand spanking new! After all, the DBA (12+) car might as well be called a GTR 1.5 compared to the CBA car (09-11). The differences are tremendous. In addition, Nissan had introduced the Black Edition so there was a real opportunity here to get back into a GTR and not feel like I was going backwards. A new GTR BE would truly be a whole different beast than my 09 Premium. So is this a “back to GTR” entry? SPOILER ALERT, but no. Well why not? In a nutshell, Nissan has just gone nuts with the MSRP of the mighty Godzilla. Still a bargain perhaps, but well out of my price range with a 2014 MSRP in excess of a hundred grand. Too rich for my blood! An interesting side note is that now (meaning as of this publication) they can be, since there are not only ’14’s, but still brand new untitled ’13’s languishing on lots.  Nissan cannot move these cars and so has ponied up some very deep incentives. As a result there may actually be a “Part II” coming to this entry, but no promises!

Back on track though, with the GTR being priced well out of my range at the time, and a used example no longer an option, the field was getting really narrow. I found myself starting to look at a brand I had long forgotten. Hearkening back to the very dawn of my automotive obsession! Yes, that’s right, Audi. I mean is it any surprise? If the criteria are fast, sporty yet luxurious, all-weather travel who wouldn’t look to Ingolstadt? Well me for one. I have to admit I’ve really just never been an Audi fan. For one reason or another they just don’t occupy the same head space as BMW or Mercedes for me and they’ve also gotten quite expensive. That said, I figured it couldn’t hurt to head on over to the local(ish) big Audi dealer (rather than the actual local small one) and see what was up. It was there that I saw this in the flesh (er… metal):

2014-01-10 12.35.57
Yes, that’s a 2014 RS5

Full disclosure, I had test driven an S4 and an S5 back in 2012 and come away pretty underwhelmed.  I found that the S5 felt surprisingly slow on the street and the steering felt quite artificial.  The S4 was a bit bland.  I filled the salesman in on all of this in true “hostile consumer” form (it was his lucky day!), but he was adamant that this car was nothing like those and encouraged a test drive.  Well.  Who am I to turn down a test drive in an RS right?  Man.  After a quick 15 minute run I had to painfully admit that the guy had a point!  So how is the RS5?

The first thing that struck me was the build quality.  Followed quickly by the materials quality.  And hot on the heels of those the design language.  In all three of these areas Audi is killing BMW.  Full stop.  Now this is just my opinion, but it is by no means a minority one.  And please keep in mind that I don’t really like Audi, yet love BMW.  But the E92 M3 was simply not competitive with this car in these metrics.  The Audi immediately looked and felt more solid and modern, and every surface had a stronger sense of quality.  Yes they both use a lot of plastic, but plastics aren’t all created equal.  And for those curious about how the M4 might fare, one of my last service appointments for the E92 incidentally left me with an F80 loaner. I have to say I feel that car is perhaps actually worse.  The materials quality was a bit better than the E92, but in the F80 the design language is even more of a mess to my eye.  Having since test driven the M4, I maintain that the Audi is a nicer place to be; it’s just a cleaner cabin:

2014-01-10 12.37.04
And most importantly… Door close = solid THUD. THIS is key!

This is all well and good, but what about what matters?  What about performance?  From the first press of the accelerator I knew that this car had nothing to do with the S4 or S5.  It felt fast.  “WTF are those magazines talking about?” fast.  Anyone who has read any review done by anyone other than Motortrend (whose reviews seem to directly mirror my own experience) needs to drive this car for themselves before judging it.  The RS5 is a monster on the street.  Quattro is more brilliant than ever and just grips. The engine is a beauty.  Much like the E92 M3 it is a high revving small block V8 (4.2L in this case making 450HP).  Forget the masses who fixate on torque numbers and lack the ability to rev an engine.  Both the E92 M3 and the RS5 provide an exotic experience in the form of 8000+RPM on a screaming 8 cylinder  For those who are able to actually articulate their ankle, the numbers prove that both fly despite torque figures (295 for the BMW and 315 for the RS5).  Power to weight on these cars is about the same, but the Audi feels quicker.  And this feeling extends far beyond 60.  At the top end, say from 70-110 (in theory… not that I’ve ever tested this! ahem) the RS5 can feel GTR quick (I’m sure it’s not, but it feels it).  Perhaps more importantly, the aural feedback that comes along with all of this performance bests any car I’ve owned short of the Tubi equipped NSX.  That includes the 911 with PSE.  Full disclosure my car has the factory sport exhaust, but I can say with confidence it is the best exotic V8 soundtrack this side of a Maserati.

By the numbers the RS5 pulls to 60 in anywhere from 3.9 – 4.5s depending on who is driving and whether or not they’re using launch control (for reference, MT pulled a 3.9 and, without launch control, I measured 4.5 on my vbox just flooring it at a light), and can do the quarter in 12.4 at around 111MPH trap (as evidenced by many YouTube videos at this point).  By comparison both the M3 and M4 are essentially in the same range.  The difference is that in 80% of normal driving scenarios, the RS5 performance is just far more accessible.  Yes that means it’s all “easier”.  And yes that means a brilliant computer is playing all sorts of games with torque vectoring to ensure you don’t die, but that also means that far more people can use this performance far more of the time.  Do I think the M4 (or E92 M3) are more fun on the track?  In the hands of an experienced RWD driver absolutely.  And the M4 in particular will best the RS5 lap times by a couple of seconds in such a scenario as well.  But for the overwhelming majority of drivers, they’re never going near a track and, if they do, they’re not going near those kinds of numbers.  I’d be willing to bet money that 8 out of 10 drivers will be faster in an RS5 than in a C63 or M4 on a track.  On the street its a wash and it really is more about traction and transmission tuning.  Which brings me to the next point…

I cannot say enough about the Audi dual clutch.  The DCT was great, the Audi S-tronic is beyond great.  It’s the smoothest dual clutch I’ve ever driven (in a different universe than the GTR) and feels almost like an automatic, yet when you engage “dynamic” and whale on it, it is just as neck snappingly quick as the GTR or M3 DCT.  An aggressive blip of the throttle greets every downshift and upshifts are instantaneous.  The sport mode is smarter too.  Whereas on the M3 you have a giant range of settings, and the most extreme trans setting (S5) is honestly a bit too brutal to use for daily driving, the Audi provides only 3 settings (auto, soft and uber) and more intelligence.  The Audi dynamic mode is every bit as aggressive as DCT S5, but is also smarter about how long to hold revs before upshifting and when to downshift based on dynamic conditions.  With DCT I only used S5 when testing and most of the time left the car in S3.  With the Audi I leave the transmission in “sport” about 30% of the time.

To cut to the chase, I’ll summarize my view of the M3 and RS5:

Build Quality/Materials/Interior Design Language: RS5

Exterior Looks: a wash… too subjective and both cars offer understated aggression and build on the looks of the base coupes

Engine: a wash… very similar engines.  Both phenomenal, high reving, V8s that are certainly extinct in this era of forced induction on every car soon to be replaced with electric power plants.

Cabin Tech: RS5 – the RS5 offers in car Google maps, in car 3G and apps and the MMI system is just a lot nicer to use and more intuitive than even the updated BMW iDrive System

Comfort: a wash… both cars are extremely comfortable.  Shockingly so for near sports cars.  The US RS5 lacks dynamic ride control, but I found the factory coil over setup on 19’s (the standard wheels) provides a much nicer, yet also more confident, ride than my M3 did.  My M3 had EDC, but was also rolling on the optional 20’s.  I found no EDC setting was quite right.  Sport was excellent in terms of handling, but too jarring for the street.  Comfort was better, but introduced body roll which I didn’t like.  All in all my opinion on ride quality remains solidly anti “big wheels”.  My rule of thumb is that the rubber to rim ratio should be the greater of all the possible combinations.  If the wheel well can support 20’s, I like 19’s.  If it can support 19’s, I like 18’s.  Very difficult, by my but measurement, to compensate for a lack of rubber with dampening.

Performance: a wash, but I will say that the RS5 makes the performance much more accessible and consistently deliverable for mere mortals

Steering: a wash… both cars are fantastic.  Caveat… My RS5 does not have the electrically assisted dynamic steering.  EPS is the devil and I hate it.  M3 steering is possibly just a hair more direct.

Soundtrack: RS5 – the exhaust note and engine sound of the RS5 has almost no equal among sport coupes.

Practicality: RS5 – interior room is about the same.  Trunk space is about the same.  The RS5 is a tad larger and heavier of a car, but close enough to keep them in the same class.  But the RS5 has Quattro.  And Quattro is a thing of genius.  Quattro eats snow.

Transmission: RS5 – this one is close.  The M3 DCT is great.  It’s smooth and performant.  But the S-Tronic is shockingly even better

Fun Factor: TOUGH one… at the limits, in a highly dynamic situation, the M3 brings it all together.  The M division roots go deep and the M3 “is racecar”.  The RS5, on the other hand, is an Autobahn barnstormer.  That’s what it was built to be.  It’s a land missile that feels ridiculously fast on the street yet is easy.  Despite that, it surprises you often with just how nimble it is and just how far out its limits lie.  While it doesn’t provide the near telepathic feedback of the M3, it’s light years behind any lesser automobile and it sounds better than just about everything.  Really a tough call here.

Did I leave anything out?  I don’t know, maybe.  But this entry is getting too long and you get the idea.  Overall I am extremely pleased with the RS5 even though I’m still only lukewarm on Audi in general.  At $77,000 I think it was too expensive, but that’s how things are going these days and, next to the $100k+ GTR, it actually feels like a bargain.  Yes Godzilla brings insane performance, but as an actual car that you use to drive somewhere other than Cars and Coffee you leave a lot on the table and it is now 911 money.  Compared to the M3 I’d say these are very very close competitors, but the one place the M3 simply cannot compete is all-weather utility and for that alone, the RS5 is the winner!  Now let’s see how it lasts!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s