Everyone loves to complain that modern cars have lost their character. They’re too competent, too isolated, too good. The cars of old were better because they were worse, these people say; automakers should start making cars worse to improve them. But what would it look like if a manufacturer actually listened to that advice? If a company known for tech and luxury decided to bank on character instead?
It might look like this: the Audi RS5 Competition. Audi asked its buyers what the base RS5 lacked, and apparently one word kept coming back: emotion. So the company went back to its R&D labs, retuned the car’s electronics, and swapped out dead weight for new, trick suspension. But can a suite of late-stage upgrades really give a car character, or is it just a ruse to eke another $16,100 out of Audi buyers?
Full disclosure: Audi shipped me off to the southern coast of Spain to drive the RS5 Competition, where I got to dip my hands in the Mediterranean for the first time (and fill my shoes with sand in the process). The company paid for lodging, transport, and meals, and had travel agents on hand to help sort out my return trip nightmare. Without them I may still be in Amsterdam, sleeping in an airport chair.
The RS5 itself isn’t new. Jalops of olde have driven the car before, in both its coupe and four-door fastback body styles, and generally found it to be Good. Most of what those past writers enjoyed remains in this version: the 2.9-liter twin-turbo V6 with its 444 horsepower and 443 lb-ft of torque, the eight-speed automatic transmission, the Quattro all-wheel drive with an electronic rear differential. This isn’t a brand-new car – the Competition is an option package, not an overhaul.
So what does that option package get you? There are plenty of new little trim pieces and accents, splashes of red and carbon fiber, but that’s not really what you’re here for. The enormous carbon-ceramic brakes up front hint at what you really want here, but even they aren’t new – just a preexisting option, repackaged with the new Competition spec.
It’s not all shared parts. The Competition package gets a unique three-way adjustable coil-over suspension as well as new weight-saving wheels and tires. The engine, transmission, rear differential, and traction and stability control have all been re-tuned – not for more power, but for better response and handling.
The Competition tune raises the RS5’s top speed from 174 mph to 180, and the whole package shaves a tenth off the car’s manufacturer-estimated 0-60 time – down to 3.6 seconds for the coupe, 3.7 for the Sportback. It also shaves an incredible, mind-altering 35 pounds from the curb weight, which without the Comp pack comes in at 3,737 lb for the coupe, 3,825 for the Sportback. That’s almost a full one percent of the coupe’s heft!
Half of that weight reduction is unsprung, coming from the lightweight wheels wrapped in super grippy Pirelli P Zero Corsa tires, cutting 4.4 lbs per corner. Audi claims the 60-treadwear rubber, combined with ABS re-tuned for the increased grip, helps bring the car to a stop “up to” 6.5 feet sooner than a base RS5 – presumably one without the already-optional carbon ceramic brakes that the Competition includes.
The RS5 Competition also gets a revised steering rack, with a fixed 13.1:1 ratio. The car now sits just under half an inch lower than the standard version, with a second “recommended” suspension setting that lowers the car a further 0.4 inches for track use. Of course, you’ll need the included wrench set and a lift (or a good jack and jackstands) to achieve that recommended ride height.
Here’s what makes the Competition suspension so unique. A “three-way adjustable coil-over” can be tuned individually for low-speed compression (weight shifting from one side of the car to the other in a corner), high-speed compression (hitting a bump in the road) and rebound (the dampers extending to their neutral point after a compression event). In most cars, these parameters are set at the factory, never to be changed again. In fancier models, these damping rates will adjust together – usually via electronic adjustment mechanisms within the shock, though more advanced systems use dark magicks to change the viscosity of the damping fluid itself. Few factory suspension setups allow all three to be changed independently.
Three-way coils are usually top-tier aftermarket parts, found on race cars built for track times or show cars built to look like race cars. But in Audi’s implementation, things are a little off. Like most coilovers, the RS5 Competition setup is adjustable for preload (the tension on the spring with no weight on the suspension) and ride height. Unlike most coilovers, though, these can’t be changed independently – the set of collars that controls ride height also manages preload, so a lower ride height can only be had with stiffer dampening. That’s not necessarily a problem — owners who want a lower center of gravity likely want a stiffer ride too — but it means there’s a more limited scope of possible suspension settings to test out. Remember this.
Similarly, most three-way adjustable coilovers feature remote reservoirs – extra damping fluid held in a separate chamber, linked to the damper by a hose. This extra fluid allows for better heat dissipation, keeping the dampers at their ideal operating temperature throughout a grueling track stint. Audi’s engineers considered using remote reservoirs on the Competition suspension, but discovered that the chassis didn’t leave enough room. The company also considered adding electronic damper adjustment, like what’s found on many other performance Audi models, but scrapped the idea due to weight – remember, that crucial 35-pound savings.
The reasonable response to these two nitpicks, of course, is that independent preload adjustment and remote reservoirs would be overkill on a street car. But then, that same argument applies to three-way adjustable coil-overs as a whole. The company says it encourages experimentation with damper settings, but supplies two recommended presets for those not looking to tinker. Going even further, Audi expects buyers to feel more of a difference in the car simply by optioning those coil-overs, even if they never mess with them. At some point, the trick suspension begins to feel more like a method of padding the Competition-pack MSRP than an effort at quicker lap times.
Like an Audi, and like an RS5. Audi has one of the most cohesive design languages in the automotive world right now – every model is instantly recognizable as a sibling of the rest. I’m a fan of the approach, where every car shares the same face and gets only incremental changes each year, for two reasons: first, it brings consistency to the brand, letting people know that this car is first and foremost an Audi. Second, it lets the company pour its design resources into creating one truly beautiful, sleek, well-proportioned design – rather than 30 separate mediocre faces.
But the Competition pack doesn’t do much for the appearance of the RS5. There’s no separate badging like you’ll find on BMW’s most performance-oriented models, making the Audi the subtler offering. When you’re shopping for a used Comp-pack Audi in eight years, look out for the matte carbon mirror caps and blacked-out tailpipes – as well as those split-five spoke wheels. Beyond those, you’ll have no exterior indication of a Competition model.
My tester was a gorgeous deep purple, masquerading as black in all but the brightest light. It’s pretty much impossible to properly capture on a camera, the car preferring to show up as some sort of Anish Kapoor void, but it’s worth seeing in person. Imagine Nissan’s Midnight Purple, but for the kind of people who have accountants rather than Googling “file taxes free” every year.
This is it. The big one, the Competition pack’s raison d’être. Does the driving experience give this Competition model more character, more soul? Can a trick suspension and re-tuned electronics turn the highway-gobbling RS5 into something totally unique, something you can’t believe until you drive it?
Not really, no.
With the suspension in Audi’s recommended Street setting, the car feels unpleasantly stiff. It’s not the nausea-inducing severity of a Ford Focus RS, but it certainly echoes that other turbocharged all-wheel-drive four-door. I found myself wishing I could dial the suspension back, press a button on the dash and feel the car soften up beneath me on the highway. Alas, the Competition option removes any such button.
That stiffness doesn’t come with much steering feel. The car is communicative enough through a hard corner, but it only starts talking when pushed far beyond what’s safe on the streets. The steering is pleasantly heavy through a corner, but oddly light on center.
Power is ample; anyone who says 444 hp isn’t enough is either a professional competition driver or compensating for something that no car can fix. But the turbo six delivers its grunt so dutifully, so unremarkably, that the character Audi seeks is nowhere to be found. If the perfect is the enemy of the good, this engine may truly be perfect – and suffering for it.
The transmission is worse, and not in a good way. The shifts are snappy, putting any “slush box” worries to rest, but there’s a considerable delay between pulling the paddle-shifter and getting your desired gear. In hard driving, the transmission showed a few frustrating quirks, occasionally ignoring a downshift command. If that’s a form of overzealous over-rev protection, it’s only doing half the job: On corner exit at the top of the tach, the transmission would often hang just a touch longer than usual after you hit the upshift paddle – like punishment for not shifting when the car thought you should have.
The RS5’s carbon ceramic brakes are incredibly powerful, with the kind of initial bite that teaches passengers not to reach for a drink while approaching a red light. But, much like Andrew Collins found when driving the RS5 back in 2019, that bite can be inconsistent in performance situations. Even massive carbon ceramic brakes can’t hide a luxury car’s curb weight.
Audi knows better than most how to lay out a great interior. Everything is where you expect it to be, and nearly everything functions as you want. Sure, the full-width vent in front of the passenger may look a bit cheaper than the benchmark for that style — the Honda Civic, an entire car that costs a mere $6,550 more than the Competition option package alone — but that’s the only hiccup in an otherwise gorgeous cabin.
The touchpoints, too, are fantastic. The Competition steering wheel is a near-perfect size and thickness for spirited driving, wrapped in Alcantara to feel extra special. The seats look sporty, but they still have massagers in them. The bolstering leaves a bit to be desired on track, though this may be more the result of my Sailor Moon proportions than any issue with the car.
The Competition name fires directly at BMW’s top-tier M cars, though the rest of the RS5’s specs fall short. Its 444 horses are overshadowed by the base M3 and M4’s 473, let alone the extra 30 that BMW gives you with its own Competition badge. The M cars are also quicker to 60 mph when specced with all-wheel-drive, each taking only 3.4 seconds. Top speed, in top trim, is perfectly identical between both German competitors, though the Audi’s steering rack is far tighter than BMW’s 14.6:1 ratio.
But the BMWs, for all their extra power, cost considerably less, starting at just about the same MSRP as the Audi before adding its $16,100 Competition add-on. Sure, folks can argue about which car looks better, but that’s a matter of personal taste.
Mercedes doesn’t offer a direct sedan competitor in this segment, and the C43 AMG Coupe isn’t much of a competitor either. Despite the shared displacement and forced induction, the Mercedes takes a full four and a half seconds to hit 60 mph – likely due to its 60-horsepower deficit from the Audi. With a price far below either BMW or Audi, however, the C43 plays its own tune.
Plenty of manufacturers build cars that outshine their spec sheet. BMW does it by cramming horses under the hood. Honda does it with a thousand tiny, meticulous upgrades, each unnoticeable on its own but contributing to a transcendent whole. Toyota does it by spending the bulk of its money on the chassis and letting the aftermarket deal with the bolt-on parts. Each approach creates a car that’s unique, something that stands out of the crowd. Something with character.
It seems Audi, in developing the standard RS5, built a car that’s just too good. Everything the Competition shares with the standard car — the engine, interior, and Quattro drivetrain — is exemplary. The problem is, everything that changes with the Comp pack leaves you wanting it changed back. The company succeeded in adding emotion to the RS5. Unfortunately, that emotion is frustration.
Of course, Audi will sell every RS5 Competition it can build. In the luxury-performance market, exclusivity and uniqueness always sells. But I suspect most folks, even those who seek exhilaration behind the wheel, will be happier in a base RS5.