2021 Audi RS5 Sportback review: Where's the drama?
The 2021 Audi RS5 Sportback has 444 horsepower, 442 pound-feet of torque and will hit 60 mph in less than 4 seconds. It has Quattro all-wheel drive with a torque-vectoring rear differential, ceramic front brakes, adaptive dampers and a sport exhaust. Throw in a ton of tech, comfy accommodations and a liftback shape that's both fashionable and functional, and the RS5 positions itself as one hell of a go-fast all-rounder. So why don't I want one?
This car's biggest problem is that it desperately lacks drama. It's not enough for the RS5 Sportback to just be quick, fast or agile. It needs to be visceral. It needs to be exciting. It needs to make you laugh. You should want to drive it harder and harder, again and again. Audi absolutely nails this unquantifiable feeling with cars like the R8, RS6 Avant and even the electric RS E-Tron GT. The RS5, by comparison, is kind of sterile.
The 2.9-liter twin-turbo V6 has plenty of shove, but it's too quiet -- ditto the RS Sport Exhaust. The eight-speed automatic transmission shifts quickly and seamlessly, but the small, steering wheel-mounted paddles offer no experiential draw. At least the RS5 is more fuel-efficient than other sporty compact luxury cars, returning 18 mpg city, 25 mpg highway and 21 mpg combined. Normally I'd say good luck hitting those numbers given the RS5's performance stats, but since this car really doesn't eke you into driving it hard, those EPA numbers are pretty spot-on.
To its credit, the RS5's adaptive dampers make it really comfortable to drive around town, and it'll gobble up hundreds of miles on the highway. But when you call up Dynamic mode and point the RS5 up a mountain road, it's like you're forcing it to do something it's not up for. There's pronounced body roll in fast corners and audible protesting from the 275/30R20 Pirelli P Zero tires. You'd think Audi's sport steering option would help liven things up, but it's too light and too numb, regardless of drive mode. The ceramic brakes are plenty powerful, but the inconsistent pedal feel hampers confidence. Really, the RS5 is happiest when you're rocking a moderate pace, which sort of defeats the purpose. The BMW M3 and Mercedes-AMG C63 might not be as well-rounded, but holy smokes are they more entertaining. And isn't that what made you want to buy one of these in the first place?
All the aforementioned performance kit can be fitted to any RS5, but it comes standard with my test car's limited-run Ascari Launch Edition pack. Only 100 RS5 Sportbacks and 25 RS5 Coupes will be optioned like this, painted in the appropriately named Ascari blue, which is a hue so lovely it almost makes up for some of this car's shortcomings. Paired with matte aluminum trim, this RS5 looks hot as heck, and those 20-inch wheels really fill out the wheel arches for a great stance. The special-edition trimline also comes with a 360-degree camera system, head-up display, adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist, navigation and a bunch of other goodies. Then again, considering the Ascari Launch Edition is a $20,500 option, it had freaking better be fully loaded.
The RS5 gets the same updates as Audi's other 2021 A5/S5 models. You'll notice the redesigned headlights, wider grille and larger exhaust pipes, and inside, Audi's updated MIB 3 infotainment interface is displayed on a 10.1-inch touchscreen. This tech is great -- colorful, responsive and easy to work through, with Google Earth map imagery and a standard Wi-Fi connection. You can use Apple CarPlay wirelessly or hook up Android Auto with a USB cable. Combined with Audi's always-awesome Virtual Cockpit digital gauge cluster, the RS5's tech game can't be beat.
Another big win, the RS5's Sportback shape adds a heap of functionality. The whole rear hatch opens to reveal 21.8 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats, which is more than double what you get in an RS5 Coupe. You can fold the back bench down to carry longer items, too, making this one of the most functional vehicles around that doesn't get slapped with an SUV or crossover designation.
All things considered, the RS5 Sportback would make a great daily driver. But $76,445 (including $1,045 for destination) is a whole lot of money, and if I'm shelling out for an RS-badged Audi, I want it to make me feel all the feelings. Oh, and this Ascari Launch Edition rings up at $96,945, which would normally make some modicum of sense given its limited-run status, but not when the RS5 is so inherently meh.
Besides, if it's quiet competence you're after, why not just get an S5 Sportback? It's every bit as luxurious and functional, and you can get a generously equipped one for around $65K. The RS5 might have an extra 95 hp, but it just isn't worth the added cost. Remember, specs don't always tell the whole story.