Seems I'm on a lucky streak--were I a gamblin' man I'd be betting heavy right now. Despite releasing the new S5, RS4 Cabriolet and R8 in most major media outlets, an invitation to drive Audi's `Fall Performance Collection'--the aforementioned cars--arrived recently. A chance to drive fast--truly exceptionally fast--in extraordinary, low production cars with no concrete deadline or story/lead photo pressure.When I stepped out of Audi's hospitality suite near Dulles, I held the keys to an RS4 Cabriolet. Although rain was forecast over the next couple of days, the weather was picture-perfect as my partner and I put the top down and headed out into the Virginia countryside. With a closed-course performance venue scheduled for the next day, there was no need for any more shenanigans than would normally be expected from a car-loving fool with a high-revving, 420-hp V8 under his right foot. The next couple of hours were really quite enjoyable.The crab cakes at the driver change were exceptionally good, though the service suffered slightly as the caf staff stepped outside repeatedly to debate which of the exotic machines pulling up outside was most desirable. On a crisp, sunny fall day, the RS4 has to be the obvious choice. Though a little soft in the lower rev range, head for the 8250-rpm redline and the all-aluminum 4.2-liter FSI V8 sings a heady song and puts down some serious power, leaving both the chassis and driver begging for more. Oddly, while rock-solid over distressed pavement that would have sent visible shivers through most other vehicles (and some off the road entirely), hit just the right bit of roughness at just the right speed and some cowl shake will manifest. It only happened once in our three-hour loop, at 30 mph no less, and was impossible to duplicate, despite purposefully seeking out some truly poor pavement. Things like this must be maddening for engineers and one reason why they're always talking about torsional rigidity, harmonics and resonance frequencies.
By far the most visually appealing car was the S5, favorite of the caf's also quite attractive sous-chef. With classic coupe design cues--a long hood leading into a low roof whose long line fades into a short trunk--the S5 oozes confidence and class (0ur lovely chef was also a class act, manners and discretion require we pass on a description of her curves. Sorry). And with its 4.2-liter V8, this time tuned to only (!) 354 hp, but with a fat 325 lb-ft of torque peaking at just 3500 rpm (versus 317 lb-ft at 6000 rpm for the 420-hp FSI engine), the S5 has the easy driveability expected of a grand touring machine and 4.9-second zero-to-60 mph performance to back up the good looks. Whatever performance is given up at the extreme top- end is more that made up for at anything below 150 mph.
Which of course brings us to the R8, probably the biggest disappointment of the lot. But disappointing only in that I never had the opportunity to reach for the car's reported 187-mph top speed. Until I see it for myself, it's just a rumor--though entirely plausible.
After an overnight stay at the excellent Palomar Hotel, our group caravanned out to the broad expanse of parking lots surrounding Fed Ex Field. Though the cars were available for more excursions through the surrounding countryside, I left only briefly to sample the S5 on normal roads. In their infinite wisdom, the Audi staff had not one but two autocross courses set up for less constrained driving experiences.The short handling course was entertaining in a Euro-spec RS4 or S5 and, despite repeated attempts by a professional driver on a mission, the sequence of the yellow car is the most dramatic looking we could produce. The RS4's Dynamic Ride Control, which couples diagonal pairs of hydraulic shocks mechanically, does a remarkable job of keeping the car level, poised and planted. But the real attraction was the long, undulating course next door, perfect for the R8's long second gear (though a bit too long and fast for the S5's brakes) and where the R8's remarkable Magnetic Ride adaptive damping system could be put to the test thoroughly.The R8's shock absorbers are filled with a magneto-rheological fluid that changes viscosity almost instantly with the application of an electrical field. Add stability and traction control programs that react in milliseconds and the result is spectacular. Try as I might, no matter how ham-fistedly I drove, the R8 never lost its composure, though our professional driver chaperones paled when I suggested turning off the stability program. "Um, that would probably be more exciting for us than for you," was the only comment.
Once the stupid moves were out of my system, I spent the next couple of hours trying to improve. I never tired of the course Audi's hire guns had laid before us. And lest you think a parking lot cone course boring, this one had a full gamut of challenges, with the exception maybe of Eau Rouge.
Hard out of the starting gate, I accelerated into second through a long, uphill, right sweeper, just touching the rev limiter before jumping hard on the brakes, trusting the ABS, as we turned into a left-hand 90. Then still climbing, it was across a long, off-camber left-right-left ess that could be taken flat but felt better when you breathed the throttle in the middle. The left-hand 90 cresting the hill was tricky to get right, but nothing compared to the off-camber, downhill, decreasing-radius hairpin that came after a right-hander and a short chute. The computer worked overtime keeping me on the road, and it was interesting to feel the individual wheels start to put power down as the steering wheel unwound, though a little frustrating that the computer wouldn't allow much throttle-induced oversteer to help rotate the car and match output to available traction. Pushing the pedal harder didn't help; I tried (is it childish to take your kind host's expensive car and use all 420 hp to do an oops-sorry-about-that, light-em-all-up, smoky burnout donut or two, then pass it off as a clumsy but honest mistake?). Another short chute led to a right-hander and a downhill run through a tricky lane-change chicane and into a double left-hander--the one place I killed a couple of cones demonstrating that, even with ABS, you can't cheat physics--before heading uphill to a pair of right-hand turns, the first difficult to carry speed through, the second a devilish 120 degrees or so when you expect 90 and back to a cool-down area and the start gate.
I had planned my trip back to Dulles in the S5, figuring a bit of luxury would strike the right note on DC's infamous 495 ring road. The potential for traffic would make an Angeleno blanch and I was a bit dismayed to be handed the key to an R8. But the staff was excited, so I tried not to let my disappointment show. My fears turned out to be unfounded, as Audi's little racecar was docile in traffic with decent sight lines and, despite the intimate quarters, never felt crowded. The trip was a pleasure, with lots of admiring looks, waving kids and other drivers maneuvering for a better view, plus the occasional second- or third-gear blast when the mercifully light traffic opened up. The lady manning the tollbooth at the Dulles airport exit has now seen more R8s than anyone outside the factory is ever likely to see, given Audi's anticipated production numbers. Both the RS4 and S5 are great machines, but it was the R8 that left me wishing our time together hadn't been so brief.