I hadn’t been in an Audi in a long time when I climbed into the 2019 RS 5 Sportback. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting to like it. The severe styling of these cars had me imagining a soulless, surgical driving experience. But by the time I got out, for a second there, I had a new favorite car. It’s fast, sure, but it’s also comfortable, reasonably useful, and lively.
(Full Disclosure: Audi loaned me an RS 5 Sportback for a week, I drove it around, it was collected again, and I immediately lamented not driving it more.)
We’re many years into an era of automotive design dominated by the idea of the “coupe.” Or, it’d be more accurate to say, the concept of sleekness, as cars that only have two doors (the traditional definition of “coupe”) are not particularly common in 2019.
But long and low-looking vehicles definitely are. The first Mercedes CLS-Class of the early ’00s was a progenitor of coupe styling being ported to four-door cars, and since then, BMW has followed suit with its Gran Coupe models and the Audi A7 subscribes to the same school of thought. You’ve probably also seen crossover SUVs shaped and identified as coupes like the Porsche Cayenne Coupe, BMW X6 and Mercedes GLE Coupe. I credit the Infiniti FX as the first of its kind there, but that’s a post for another time too.
Today, we’re diving into a niche class of the “looks coupeish but is actually a sedan” phylum: The Sportback. Sportbacks, like this version of the Audi RS 5, are sleek four-doors that have a rear liftgate instead of a trunk. In other words, the whole back of the car (rear window and tailgate) open up like a slanty station wagon to create a sizeable usable cargo area without sacrificing that aforementioned sleekness. The Kia Stinger would be another example of such a configuration. See also, Honda Accord Crosstour; Tesla Model S.
Or I guess could have just told you that the RS 5 Sportback is a carbon-burping asphalt-assaulting 444-horsepower sub-4.0-second-stop-to-60 Audi RS 5 Coupe with an extra row of doors and better cargo capacity.
Specs That Matter
That 444 HP (and 443 lb-ft of torque) output claim comes from a smooth 2.9-liter biturbo V6. The engine’s connected to a snappy eight-speed automatic you can paddle-shift manually and an advanced all-wheel drive system with a special rear differential that’s supposed to tactically distribute power between the left and right rear wheels. Audi’s brochure pitches this as “imparting the feel of a rear-wheel drive but with all-wheel drive grip.” I concur.
Audi also claims the car weighs 4,057 pounds. The stated 0 to 60 sprint is 3.8 seconds and the top speed’s posted at 174 if you tick the right options.
If those numbers aren’t enough context for you, allow me to translate: this car fucking rips.
As for just how much luggage space that extra ass area gets you: I’m six-foot and I could comfortably sleep in this Sportback with the second row folded down. Otherwise, there’s plenty of room for four people’s carry-on behind the second row. Breaking out the tape measure, the RS 5 Sportback claims 21.8 cubic feet of cargo room assuming all seats are occupied with people. An RS 5 Coupe only has 11.6.
The RS 5 Sportback’s coolest conceptual feature is, of course, the combination of the versatile Sportback body with a genuinely exhilarating personality and the metric shitload of energy dispensed by its engine. But my personal favorite parts can be appreciated at any speed.
The infotainment screen, a rectangular plane propped inelegantly on the dashboard, can be quickly turned off with an easily found hard key. I love that. The rest of the gauges can be dimmed with similar ease with a nice, obvious knob and the heads-up display can be flicked on and off with another immediately accessible button, it’s not buried below layers of operating system menus. Minimal digital distractions help me get dialed in on driving, and no, you shouldn’t need instruments seared into your eyes to know when to shift up or slow down.
The main gauge cluster, which you can populate with pretty much any piece of information you’d want to see, including a full-screen map, can even display tire temperature. A highly useful tool to consult before pouncing on the go-pedal, if you’re the type to turn a gentle cruise into a sudden sprint. If you’re not, an hour or so on a great road with this car will turn you into one.
Great interface design goes beyond switch placement in this car, though I’d be happy to spend paragraphs on how good the button organization is. Did I mention the volume knob is near the shifter? Another excellent Audi feature. And that shifter, by the way, is shaped like a spaceship’s throttle and it’s fun to pull.
The whole cockpit, but especially the seats, and even the look of the doors, fall into a sweet spot between intense and advanced that makes the interior look fun and avant-garde without being overdone.
Acceleration is impressive when you make an impulsive pull to speed, but it’s downright overwhelming if you can find a secluded place to set the vehicle to Dynamic mode, reduce traction control with another button flick, then stand on both pedals for a beat and release the brake to let yourself be launched into the horizon. The RS 5 Sportback injects excitement you can feel right in your adrenal glands, it’s the kind of scary-fun energy that makes shelling out huge money for a serious performance car actually seem worth it.
But a lot of new cars can slingshot you into the passing lane or push your stomach into the seatback. The RS 5 SB stands out by managing to be extremely powerful, fast, and entertaining to an amateur driver even at reasonably social speeds.
There’s a tangible sensation of feedback in the steering, something not all modern electronic systems can replicate, and that paired with a taut-but-not-punishing suspension creates a ride that really makes you feel like you’re Driving, even when you’re just puttering between stoplights.
We already discussed how much I dig this car’s gracious willingness to eliminate distractions like its various dials, but it also consolidates its many abilities into just a few simple drive modes. You’re either cruising in Comfort or rip-snorting in Dynamic. Though you can also make your own setup (toggled as Individual) for some customization. Similarly, slapping the console shifter from D to S makes the car ravenous for road and the steering column paddles are actually pretty satisfying to snap through gears with.
I like how simultaneously next-gen and dummy-proof the RS 5 feels, but I love how decisive and substantial the car seems as you link turns together. Hard driving is really rewarding in this car thanks to great weight balance, steering that doesn’t feel numb, and a very responsive throttle. More than that–the car doesn’t beat you up with a rough ride or egregious stiffness.
If you read Jeff Glucker’s RS 5 Coupe review here last year, you might be wondering why he called that car “a little rough and stiff” and here I am now telling you that the Sportback is actually pretty supple.
That’s more a reflection of personal perspectives than any technological difference because while the Sportback is a little longer the two cars are effectively the same. Funny enough, I’m usually one to get fed up with harsh ride quality pretty quickly.
And speaking of other perspectives, I caught up with automotive test pilot Derek Powell, who had also driven the RS 5 Sportback, this exact blue one, and told me he didn’t care for it. He complained about a lack of steering feel and synthesized noise. I didn’t have the same beefs, then again, he drives faster than I do so perhaps the car shows its seams more if you like to push further beyond social speeds. But in case it wasn’t abundantly clear; I didn’t have any trouble having fun in this car.
I don’t know what Audi’s artists were thinking when they came up with this wheel design (20-inch 5-Arm Flag style, forged, part of the $5,000 Matte Alu Optic Carbon package) but I’m not a fan. Why so many... shapes? Otherwise, the RS 5 SB didn’t offer me much to complain about.
The one area I did feel some weirdness was with the car’s braking response. It’s not that the stoppers felt inadequate–my test vehicle, spec’d with the Dynamic and Dynamic Plus packages, had a set of eight-piston calipers clamping down on ceramics. You’d need a pretty persistent deathwish to outrun that kind of hardware.
But on my midnight test ride up and down Angeles Crest Highway, I couldn’t shake the sensation that braking pedal effort seemed somewhat... inconsistent.
As you may well know, braking effort in any car is apt to change as rotors and pads and fluid get hot. This tends to become more apparent the harder you drive. To properly evaluate the car within limits of socially acceptable behavior, I was shoving the RS 5 around pretty brusquely. But, I mean, well below where a vehicle of this caliber should feel stressed.
The brake pedal did seem to want more effort than I expected though, particularly around the second hour of my drive. I’m not sure if that was truly a shortcoming of the equipment or just a byproduct of idiosyncracies in my driving style, but if you’re really in the market for one of these cars you should cross-reference some other reviews and see if anyone else felt similarly.
That said, the brakes felt nothing short of magical in regular to moderately aggressive driving in town and on the highway.
Pretty much any modern performance car “can” be daily driven, but the Audi RS 5 Sportback is one of the most versatile practical performance luxury (in that order) vehicles on the road right now.
The design is exceptionally exciting without going full peacock, particularly inside the cockpit. It’s hard to slide behind the steering wheel without getting a little whiff of energy; it’s all just so damn cool-looking. The fact that the car can deliver a ride that’s just as exhilarating as advertised solidifies the RS 5 as a hot one, but what really elevates the Sportback is how well it works in a practical sense for four-person family activities and road trips.
You should expect a lot here since a well-equipped version of this car costs about $100,000. If that makes you woozy, a Kia Stinger GT2 provides a conceptually similar platform for half the price. But if you do have the means, and you’re wondering if the Audi really is twice as good, I mean... yeah, it is. The RS 5 Sportback straight-up slays.