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First Look: 2003 Audi RS6

The world is not big enough for such predators as this

Nov 20, 2002
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With talons three times more powerful than a Rottweiler's jaws, the Harpy eagle is the world's most fearsome airborne predator. It can lift prey the size of a small motorcycle and cuts an aero-profile so formidable, livestock flee in terror at its shadow.

The gods kept Harpy eagles.

Like most apex predators, the Harpy is a rare animal--the world simply is not big enough to hold more than a few hundred of these creatures.

And so it will be with Audi's RS4, a car with such formidable capabilities, it will never be anything but a rarity on public roadways--the world is too small for many such cars. It's almost impossible to realize that a car like the RS6 is coming to America: 460 bhp spread between all four wheels, twin turbochargers flanking the banks of cylinders, an active suspension, eight-piston race binders, a leather-clad cockpit, a rockin' radio and room for four of your friends.

The gods drive Audi RS6s.

For us mere mortals residing in North America, just 860 of these chariots will find their way ashore. Do you want one? Yes. Can you afford it? Probably not. With a sticker deep in the 80k range and a platform coming to the end of its lifecycle, the RS6 will be an exclusive and elusive piece of machinery, kept in the most blessed hands. Myths, and extraordinary transaction prices, are born of such legends in their own time.

On a recent summer's day in Munich, I was handed the keys to an RS6 and given a simple instruction: Drive to Audi's headquarters in Inglostadt. I had the entire day to motor a mere 60 miles. With a full tank of fuel and a can of Cult Energy Drink (it's a superior-tasting Euro Red Bull), I headed north on the A9 autobahn.

The RS6 folds space with such devastating speed, you can almost feel yourself getting younger. A few, very quick glances at the speedometer showed an indicated 188 mph, maybe 189...I can't really remember; my memory seemed to have lagged behind. Holy vorsprung durch technik, I flashed! I've blown my mind. It's that fast.

It's easy obsessing over the Audi's ample power reserves--the word that comes to mind is muscles, and the RS6 has huge ones. That can happen when you place a turbo on each side of a V8, in this case Audi's vaunted all-aluminum 4.2-liter, 340-bhp wonder mill. Its voice sounds like distant thunder, a deep rumble that's sweet music to any serious car lover. To cope with the stresses of forced induction, the engine received significant revisions, some culled from Audi's race department. The engine's basic architecture retains the five-valve cylinder head--three inlet and two exhaust valves, punctuated by low-friction roller rocker arms. The heads were redesigned for larger, more efficient water jackets to ensure optimum heat dissipation, and the exhaust valves are now sodium-filled for additional cooling.

Top-end breathing was improved by modifications to both the intake and exhaust ports, and the air intake is a completely new dual-branch system, a central dual-chamber air cleaner between the cylinders' vee. A pair of hot-film air mass meters and electronically controlled wastegates regulate the smallish yet responsive K04 turbochargers, dual intercoolers ensuring a healthy dose of compressed air. Bosch's Motronic ME 7.1.1 system handles the complexities of engine management in concert with boost pressure, anti-knock and exhaust gas temperature controls.

The exhaust was redesigned, its dual-branch system carrying two metal-based primary and main catalytic converters in each pathway. To help distribute weight, the battery was moved to the spare wheel recess, which also makes more room for the gorgeous carbon-fiber composite air intake and engine cover--pure DTM gear, to be sure. Compression ratio is exceptionally high for a turbo engine at 9.8:1, but this contributes to a responsiveness unrivaled by other force-fed motors. The RS6 doesn't just charge off the line, it's more like a launch, like an arrow released from a 120-lb. composite compound bow. Audi developed a transmission for the RS6 based on the gearbox found in the 12-cylinder A8, but this Tiptronic five-speed was fitted with ratios and controls specific to the RS6. In the driver-selected "sport" setting, gears are held longer on upshifts and engage at higher revs when downshifting. Depending on the level of lateral acceleration, the transmission management system can even adjust shift points, thus avoiding any "hunting" during cornering.

The RS6 driver can also operate the transmission manually in two ways, the conventional method by pressing the gear selector forward or backward, and the racing-inspired option of using paddles mounted on the backside of the steering wheel, the left paddle for downshifts and the right for upshifts. These paddles can be called into play anytime, the driver's input overriding the current transmission setting. Should the paddles go unused for a prolonged period, the tranny will default back into auto mode. It's like having a little Audi tranny elf in the car with you.

This exceptional transmission is made even better by Audi's DSP (Dynamic Shift Program) with hill-detection capability. DSP offers more than 200 shift patterns, designed to match driver characteristics with driving conditions, while hill detection prevents gear hunting on inclines. This is the finest of the new breed of "smart transmissions" I've driven, providing the perfect blend of control with transparent computer assistance. For the first time, I was perfectly content in a performance car that didn't have a manual gearbox.

The RS6 rides on the same base suspension as the S6, although springs rates were increased 30%, the shock rates 40% and the chassis situated 25mm lower. The underpinnings benefit from aluminum swivel bearings and control arms on the four-link front suspension, and double A-arm rear suspension. Larger anti-roll bars in front and rear help maintain high-speed stability.

The big news, however, is Audi's Dynamic Ride Control. This is the first Audi to offer an active suspension system, which was developed around diagonally connected, hydraulically damped shock absorbers. By continually monitoring and adjusting the hydraulic pressure at each corner, DRC limits body roll and pitch. The single-tube shocks on the same side of the car are mechanically linked to the dampers on the other side via separate oil lines, each with a central valve. When the suspension is compressed on one side, the damper characteristic is modified in such a way as to counter rolling or pitching movements. A central reservoir works to balance hydraulic pressure when both the front or rear shocks are under load, like hard braking. Interestingly, DRC is operated purely through mechanical hydraulics--no fancy computer wizardry here. It's an elegant solution and typical of Audi's longtime philosophy: progress through technology rather than technology for technology's sake. Of course, you'll also find EDL (Electronic Differential Lock), ESP (Electronic Stabilization Program), EBD (Electronic Brake-force Distribution) and ABS on the RS6, although with re-tuned parameters befitting the car's god-like performance.

Audi rummaged through its motorsports parts bins and developed a new brake system unique to the RS6. It's comprised of 14.4-in. front discs and 13.2-in. rear discs, in a newly designed composite configuration. A cast friction ring is fixed to the aluminum brake-disc hub by 14 pins, this "floating" arrangement improving the stability of the discs, particularly when exposed to extreme loads and high temperatures. The ventilated and cross-drilled front discs are gripped with gigantic Brembo calipers featuring eight pistons and four large pads. The rears, also ventilated and cross-drilled, are single-piston floating units. These amazing anchors can bring the 2-ton Audi from 62 to 0 mph in 2.6 sec. It's race-car technology, beautifully applied.

Running gear is comprised of 8.5Jx18-in. nine-spoke alloys with 255/40ZR-18 ultra-high-performance rubber. Each tire is electronically monitored for pressure.

Although Audi literature claims the RS6 "exudes understatement," there's something menacing in its stance. Those bulging fender flares, unique nose and low ride height had fellow autobahn drivers scrambling to get out of the way and into the right lane. The RS6 looks downright predatory. Below and in front of the aluminum fenders and hood is a low apron that houses three intakes behind diamond-patterned grille inserts. The two outboard vents, flanked by foglights, feed the dual intercoolers, while the center intake is for engine cooling. Above the bumper, more diamond-patterned vents funnel air to the turbos. Both sides feature aggressive sill extensions.

The newly designed rear apron incorporates a full-width, diamond-pattered grille near the bottom that allows underbody airflow to escape. Dual chrome exhausts sit near each corner, and the rear decklid is capped with a barely perceptible lip spoiler. Audi engineers say it really makes a difference at 140 mph.

The RS6's cabin is typically Audi--that means perfect. Leather upholstery with color-contrasting piping is standard throughout, and the RS6 logo is tastefully stamped in select locations. The backlit instrument cluster, specially designed for the RS6, features automatic brightness control, the gauges with white illumination and red pointers and the digital readouts in red. The control surfaces are wrapped in perforated leather--a good thing for wicking away sweat from nervous, sweaty palms.

The list of standard equipment is staggering and includes a 200-watt Bose sound system with subwoofer; six-CD changer, heated Audi Sport seats with memory (U.S. will not get the pictured Recaros); sport wheel, Homelink; xenon headlamps; front and rear Parktronic; sunroof and tire pressure monitor system...in fact, the only options are a nav system, solar sunroof, rear power shade and carbon-fiber interior trim.

With six hours to kill, I decided to bypass Ingolstadt and head north toward Regensburg, maybe get lost in the backroads snaking through the pastoral farmlands. On the autobahn, I kept the RS6 at 150 mph for a good 10 minutes, long enough to overshoot my intended ausfahrt. One reason why I'd missed the exit was the utter lack of drama the RS6 exhibited at high speed, like a Lear Jet cruising at 30,000 ft. Quiet, smooth and completely connected to the pilot.

I finally got off the autobahn and entered a countryside populated more by cows than people. Over the serpentine sections of rolling roadway, the RS6 behaved like a much smaller car, tighter even than a well-tuned S4. Steering wheel feedback was brilliant, offering just enough resistance to keep my hands in intimate contact with every movement of the front wheels. If Porsche made a sedan, it would behave like the RS6. Whatever magic the DRC was conjuring was largely transparent--no weird sounds or bizarre movements, just a sensation of the RS6 becoming part of the road instead of riding upon it.

Though North America has often been overlooked when it comes to getting the hot versions of many European cars, (remember the RS4?), the efforts of such product gurus as Audi's Marc Trahan have helped turn that tide.

"I think the RS6 sedan will be a good representation of this exclusive line," said Trahan. "And this won't be the last RS car you'll see here," he insisted.

That's good news, but there's still the question as to why America gets only 860 of these incredible sedans. Is there some significance in that number? Only Audi knows, but I suspect there's an ecological reason behind it, much like the rules of nature that make the Harpy eagle such a rare predator.

For additional technical illustrations and details of this remarkable new car, please visit www.europeancarweb.com

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