Friday, 5 August 2011

Audi road cars

I’ve written here before about my enthusiasm for Audi’s road cars. A company that spends as much money on racing as Audi, does so in the certain belief that it helps it to sell road cars. And as part of that endeavour, I occasionally have the opportunity to sample cars from their UK press fleet.

Recently, I have had the chance to drive both an A6 saloon, and an RS5 coupe. The A6 had every conceivable extra on it, even though it was only sold as the SE, rather than the higher specification S-line. But it was interesting to try out some of the gizmos that are available these days.

The first thing to say is that my ‘normal’ car - the one that I regularly drive around in and the one which I bought out of my own money - has Audi’s Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC), so I am used to that, and no longer find it ‘gimmicky’ at all. In addition to this, the A6 had Audi’s “Active Lane Assist” and “Side Assist”, fitted as extras. The Side Assist system consists of an orange light on the inside of each wing mirror, which lights up if there is a car travelling alongside, and blinks vigorously if you then indicate in that direction. I found this useful, although there is no substitute for actually turning your head and looking to see if the way is clear.

The Lane Assist was extremely clever. Really only useful in motorway driving, it ensured that you stay in your lane, by applying gentle inputs to the steering wheel to keep you within the white lines marking the lane. In effect, with the ACC on, and Lane Assist working, the driver doesn’t need to do anything - the ACC will keep you at a constant speed and avoid running into the car in front and the Lane Assist will keep you in your lane (provided that there aren’t any sharp corners). Unfortunately, Lane Assist notices when you don’t make any steering inputs yourself and shuts itself off with a warning on the dashboard that you should “continue to steer the vehicle”.

Less useful was the system which turns off the engine when you are idling. In fact it became more of an irritation really. I had experienced this on a manual Audi before, and found it quite good. With the S-tronic gearbox fitted to the A6 though, it would cut the engine while you were stationary, with your foot on the brake, but as soon as you shifted to neutral and applied the handbrake, it fired up again. And at toll booths, I found it would switch of completely, meaning that I had to manually restart the engine to get away. I’m sure I could get used to it, but it wasn’t an intuitive system at all. However, the fuel economy of the 3 litre turbo diesel was most impressive.

Fuel economy and the RS5 do not really fit in the same sentence. The “dynamic” button provides plenty of thrills and a wonderful auditory experience, but means that you get through V-power at a rate of 13mpg. At least, I did. Before I go on to eulogise about the performance though, a word about the gimmicks. The RS5 was fitted with hill-hold assist, which applies the handbrake whenever you reach a standstill. The car comes with the automatic gearbox (S-tronic) as standard, and personally, I find it is easy to get used to the way that it ‘rolls’ on tickover. There is an electro-magnetic handbrake, which can be manually applied when you want it, and which releases as soon as you accelerate. This is fine, but I found the hill-hold somewhat intrusive. It is easy enough to disable, but my advice would be not to bother specifying it as an extra.

The gimmick I did like was the advanced “smart key”. These are increasingly common these days in high-specification cars, but in effect you don’t need to do anything with the key, just make sure it is in your pocket. Doors and boot unlock automatically when you touch the handle, and you then press the starter button to fire up the engine and away you go. When you get out, just move your hand over the door handle, and you’ve locked it. Don’t do what I did the first few times though and check that the door is locked, as then it will cleverly unlock itself for you again!

Enough of optional extras. The beauty of the RS5 is the driving experience. It is superb. The normally-aspirated 4.2 litre V8 engine provides 450bhp and a 0 - 100km/h figure of 4.2 seconds. Quattro four wheel drive does the rest - road-holding and traction that are so sure-footed that you wonder why all cars can’t do this. I’ve mentioned the “dynamic” button already - but in “Auto” mode, the car works out whether you are being dynamic or not and gives you the appropriate setting. I’m not going to enter an argument about whether it is better than the BMW M3 or not - as I am not qualified to judge, but various colleagues expressed their opinions to me - largely gained from watching Top Gear, I’m afraid. Interestingly, Autocar suggests that the RS5 is quicker. (What? “Top Gear” in misrepresentation of truth shock? Surely not?)

Personally, I found the RS5 a lovely-looking car, plenty of space for adults in the back, and room in the boot for golf clubs (if that’s what you need). At around £60,000 when you’ve put the optional extras on, it is beyond what I would consider spending on a car, but with the R8 V10 costing nearly double, the RS5 is certainly not in the ‘unrealistic’ category.

The biggest problem I had with the RS5 was its need to be driven fast. In an R8, one can enjoy driving slowly, safe in the knowledge that heads will turn as you pass. With the RS5, driving slowly didn’t seem to be an option, somehow. And folk in front would happily move out of the way of an R8, but seeing the RS5 in the rear-view mirror seemed to merely make people stay in the way for longer. Apologies to those whom I may have irritated, but my need to explore the acceleration capability of the car (without necessarily exceeding any speed limits), often meant that overtaking had to be done. Amazing how some people seem to regard overtaking as a heinous crime these days.

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