2020 Audi RS7 Sportback first drive review: Angry master blaster
Almost every Audi to wear an RS badge has been an overwhelmingly competent machine, delivering enviable levels of power, poise, tech and luxury. That said, not every one of the German automaker's performance-branded models has simultaneously managed to deliver an aesthetic and visceral punch to match their dynamic abilities. Many -- especially the company's four-door RS models -- have instead adhered to Teddy Roosevelt's oft-quoted foreign-policy maxim, "Speak softly and carry a big stick," like the brand signed some sort of gentlemen's decorum agreement.
As you can see by the 2020 Audi RS7 Sportback pictured here, that far more subtle approach is evidently dead and buried. In fact, one look at the front end of this swoopy five-door grand tourer door suggests that not only is that approach dead and buried, it's been subsequently exhumed, pulverized to a fine powder and then combusted inside the RS7's fire-breathing, twin-turbo, 4.0-liter V8.
Whereas the outgoing RS7 coyly hinted at its power with subtly reworked fascias, discreet badges and unique wheel patterns, the 2020 RS7 Sportback bellows about it. The new car is a broad-shouldered bully, sporting a radically different and altogether more aggressive look thanks to its unique-to-RS widebody stance. In truth, the RS7 only sports about 1.6 inches of extra width over its A7 and S7 siblings, but visually, it might as well be a foot wider. The RS7 shares just its hood, roof, front doors and rear hatch with its siblings.
The RS7's biggest appearance change is up front, where it now brandishes a bezel-less, oversized, hexagonal honeycomb grille bookended by a pair of massive intakes that stretch upward toward the car's glowering LED headlamps. In profile, the RS7's trademark teardrop shape boasts the aforementioned blistered fenders, along with model-specific side sills and unique 21- or 22-inch alloy wheels. Out back, a prominent rear diffuser has a bridge element that serves to emphasize the sewer-pipe-size oval exhaust finishers.
Even in shades other than this tester's tango red, and without our photo car's optional black optic package, the RS7 finally has the visual muscle to stand up to its Volkswagen Group kin, Porsche's Panamera Turbo, as well as rivals like the Mercedes-AMG GT 4-Door and the forthcoming BMW M8 Gran Coupe. Some buyers may prefer the outgoing RS7's more reserved appearance, but Audi says owners and cross-shoppers alike have been vocal in seeking more visual aggression and greater differentiation from lesser familial models. It's hard to fault that logic, especially when the RS7 is likely to cost around $50,000 more than a base A7 ($68,000) when it arrives in dealers.
Wicked V8 heart
That snarling and taut new bodywork isn't an empty promise. The RS7's 4.0-liter, TFSI twin-turbo V8 produces 592 horsepower and 590 pound-feet of torque routed through an eight-speed paddle-shift automatic transmission and rear-biased Quattro all-wheel drive. Interestingly, the exiting RS7 Performance model's 4.0 featured slightly more horsepower (605), but substantially less torque -- 553 lb-ft.
Of course, there could be incrementally higher-performance RS7 models yet to come, but either way, it's awfully hard to find a place to deploy this kind of firepower in public. Fortunately, I had a better shot at than most, as at the test drive event, Audi let me loose on both derestricted sections of Germany's famed Autobahn as well as on some surprisingly challenging mountain roads just hours after the car debuted at the Frankfurt Motor Show.
Audi says the new RS7 Sportback will hit 62 mph in in 3.6 seconds and power on to a top speed of at least 155 mph (an optional Dynamic package relaxes the limiter out to 174 mph, and the full-whackadoo Dynamic Plus pack pushes that total to 190 mph). If anything, Audi may be slightly underselling this car's acceleration. When the traffic clears, thrust from the V8 is immediate, linear and monstrous, with peak torque kicking in from just 2,050 rpm. On speed-limit-free sections of the Autobahn, the RS7 is hilariously quick to achieve velocities you'd otherwise only explore on a racetrack, doing so with rock-solid stability and surprisingly little wind noise.
It's not just the gas engine making the magic happen, there are electrons at work, too. At the Frankfurt show, Audi's Oliver Hoffman told Roadshow, "Electrification is the foundation of RS Sport in the future." As the managing director of Audi Sport and head of technical development for Audi AG, he should know. To that end, the RS7 and its RS6 Avant station wagon sibling are the first RS models to employ hybrid technology. The cars borrow the same 48-volt system from the A8 luxury sedan, and the mild-hybrid tech also helps manage the car's stop-start system and -- on European models -- enables the engine to shut off under coasting.
Sharper than expected
I mentioned mountain roads, and Audi's routemeisters even put us on some tight ribbons of pavement that once upon a time doubled as a local hillclimb course. Given this Sportback's not-insubstantial dimensions (197.2 inches long, 76.8 wide), this was a particularly bold move, especially as past RS four-doors could feel somewhat unwieldy and prone to understeer at the limit, the result of their engines hanging out over the front axle.
Indeed, I initially felt that same (admittedly sensible) reluctance to rotate the rear end on my first and second tentative runs over those narrow, serpentine and rutted sections. But after familiarizing myself with that same stretch of road, I dialed up Sport Plus on the Drive Select toggle and attacked the route anew with greater commitment and velocity. The chassis responded sharply, sluicing its back end around obediently and rather dramatically, the car's all-wheel steering and rear-biased power delivery combining to deliver rear-wheel-drive-like dynamics. The car shrunk up around me in a way no four-door RS model (save the tiny RS3) ever did. Past RS7s could put up great handling numbers thanks in part to their wide, sticky tires, but never previously delivered this level of engagement and tossability.
Active rear steering, which can run counter to the front wheels by up to 5 degrees at low speeds, helps the RS7 feel like a foot or more has been cleaved from its wheelbase. Audi says the system shaves 3.3 feet off the car's turning circle to give it a turning circle similar to that of the much smaller A4 sedan. However, it's the steering's performance at speed that sells me, when the rear wheels deflect up to 2 degrees in the same phase as the fronts to sharpen responses and improve stability. I even find even decent road feel up through the tester's RS7's 22-inch watchstrap-like Pirelli P Zero summer rubber, also something of a surprising new development.
The aforementioned all-wheel steering setup will be optional on Euro models, but standard fit on US cars, along with a sport differential. Audi will offer a smaller array of RS7 options in the States, but we'll get the good stuff, including the buyer's choice of standard adaptive air suspension or the firmer optional RS sport suspension with Dynamic Ride Control.
Suspended two ways
I was able to test multiple cars to experience both suspension setups. The latter is a fixed-height, steel-spring, mechanical system that employs diagonally opposed shock absorbers tied together by hydraulic lines and central valving to control oil flow in the dampers, firming up the shocks of the outside wheels in order to flatten cornering. DRC works as advertised, enabling the Sportback to corner flatly and adroitly, but the base air-suspension car works every bit as well under 95% of driving conditions at no additional cost. The latter has the benefit of a wider user-adjustable range, affording a more softly-sprung relaxed grand touring feel along with a firmer setting for track days and canyon carving.
The other noteworthy item on the performance parts options list will be ceramic brakes. The massive discs (17.3 inches up front, 14.6 out back) provide herculean stopping power for this 4,500-pound car, all while shaving a whopping 75 pounds from its unsprung weight. Pricing for the US-spec RS7 has yet to be released, and if history is any guide, these binders seem destined to be part of an option bundle, not necessarily a stand-alone upgrade. They're great, but don't kid yourself -- the standard steel clamps are all you'll ever need for street use.
More thunder, please
In Europe, Audi will offer two different exhaust systems -- standard and optional RS sport plumbing you can spot on the street thanks to a set of black tailpipes. Thing is, even though the latter setup is active thanks to a switchable baffle for more noise, to my ears, its max-angry mode isn't vocal enough for a car of this performance and visual impact. Blame Europe's more-stringent pass-by noise regulations, but RS engineers also have a history of erring on the (too) conservative side.
More promisingly, Audi officials I spoke with promise a "dramatically louder" exhaust will be fitted to US cars when they arrive next year. You may not want a fire and brimstone soundtrack all the time, but with the switchable nature of the RS7's pipes, it'll be nice to have the option.
I haven't talked about this car's interior yet, because it's all but a given that Audi interiors are a tour de force of luxury and tech these days. The standard A7 offers one of the most thoughtful and solid-feeling cabins anywhere in the automotive kingdom, and the RS7 only builds on that base.
Improvement worth noting? Slightly larger and better-feeling aluminum shift paddles (Audi has stuck with small and annoyingly plasticky tab selectors on its mainline models for too long), as well as hip-hugging quilted leather seats that finally offer not just heating, but ventilation, too. Unfortunately, the US will go without Europe's optional flat-bottomed Alcantara-wrapped sport wheel, a concession to American buyers who evidently can't live without a heated rim. Fortunately, our wheel should still gets an RS Mode button to toggle through to the driver's individually tailored drive mode presets.
That aside, the RS7 benefits from Audi's latest MMI Touch Response infotainment, the dual-widescreen system that blends crisp graphics and snappy processing with well-laid-out menus and high degree of customization. There's a bit of a learning curve and more than a few fingerprints, but combined with a colorful head-up display and Audi's reconfigurable Virtual Cockpit gauge cluster, the ability to reconfigure and customize this car's digital environment to one's personal preferences is all but unmatched. Of course, if you can't be bothered to learn the ins and outs of MMI, the system also includes wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration -- super convenient for Waze addicts looking to keep an eye out for speed traps.
Speaking of "safety first," the RS7 enjoys a bounty of advanced driver assist systems (ADAS), including forward collision warning with auto brake (with cyclist and pedestrian detection). In fact, the RS7's integrated lidar and zFAS central processor enables conditionally automated Level 3 hands-off, eyes-off driving in select markets outside the US. Designed as a commute easer to be used under specific circumstances (namely divided highways in slow-moving traffic), Audi's Traffic Jam Pilot still hasn't made it to North America. Instead, our RS7 will get a simpler, lidar-free Level 2 adaptive cruise control system with lane centering. (Even without the laser scanner, our hardware can still come to a stop with the hazard lights on and call emergency services if it detects a non-responsive driver.)
The price of greatness
2020 Audi RS7 pricing and fuel efficiency figures haven't been released for the US, but given where the last one left off, it's fair to assume a base price in the neighborhood of $115,000 and combined fuel economy somewhere around 20 miles per gallon.
Given how resolutely capable and luxurious the standard Audi A7 already is, it's hard to view the 2020 Audi RS7 Sportback as a good value. That said, this car not only handles better than ever, it's more communicative and engaging. If nothing else, the RS7's menacing new widebody looks means nobody will confuse your six-figure Sportback with its more ordinary counterparts. When this thing fills up their rearview mirrors, your neighbors are going to know exactly what it is that's about to blow their doors off.
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