Fries or side salad? That’s the internal struggle I face every time I order a sandwich. My poetic heart wants oily starches, but my literal heart would prefer I cut the fat and salt from my diet anywhere I can. Try as I might, I don’t love veggies unless they’re deep-fat-fried, and it’s a damn shame things that stoke my appetite don’t really meet the FDA’s caloric intake suggestions.
It’s much the same for cars. A Corvette is undoubtedly more fun on a Saturday morning than a workaday family sedan, but the latter is far easier to live with Monday thru Friday. Luckily, the automotive world has found a successful solution to that fries-or-salad problem, as evidenced by the 2021 Audi RS5 Sportback. Fresh off a recent facelift that brings a new infotainment system and slightly edgier styling, the RS5 is a brilliant combination of supercar speed and liftback practicality – hearty and healthy in equal measure.
The vehicle you see here is an Ascari Launch Edition, which enhances the RS5’s intrinsic values with every performance option Audi offers, as well as a long list of comfort and convenience amenities to soften the blow of its $20,500 package price. The limited edition’s exclusive Ascari Blue paint pairs wonderfully with the flag-design wheels and recalls the Nogaro Blue shade first seen on the 1995 Audi RS2. In fact, limited to just 100 examples, that color could be the best reason to opt for an RS5 Ascari. Dig in, before it gets cold.
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Audi has long been known for its avant-garde styling, and the RS5 Sportback is no exception. This year’s visit to the plastic surgeon brought a newly chiseled face, and the revised headlights, grille, and bumper do a decent job of sharpening the car’s slightly droopy front end. Around back, there are new taillights and a reshaped bumper, and the lighting elements front and rear now sport Audi’s dramatic Matrix LED light orchestrations on lock and unlock, a fun little gimmick that’ll either impress onlookers or draw snide chuckles for how extra it is.
In addition to those minor alterations for 2021, the RS5 Sportback wears the same nearly flawless proportions as always, with a long hood, pleasant dash-to-axle ratio, and gracefully arched roofline, all hunkered over the Ascari’s gorgeous, bright silver 20-inch wheels. Chiseled fender flares channel the original Quattro of the 1980s, and oval exhaust tips are an early-2000s throwback that’s become an Audi Sport signature. But otherwise, this is a thoroughly modern machine, particularly with our tester’s Alu-Optic matte silver body jewelry in place of brasher, trendier gloss black or carbon fiber.
Inside, the RS5 is a bit more dated, with a big, tablet-style touchscreen on top of the dash that isn’t as elegant as the geometric glass display appearing on the automaker’s newer cars. Still, the Sportback is a pleasant place to spend time, with excellent RS-branded front bucket seats wearing company-signature, hexagonally quilted leather, and the driver faces a flat-bottomed Alcantara steering wheel, making every drive feel that much more special. Finally, the interior boasts excellent materials even in unseen places, like the glovebox and door pocket linings.
That hidden-gem quality adds to what is already a comfortable automobile. The RS5 is obviously the sportiest member of Audi’s stylish A5 family, but you wouldn’t know it from the smooth, quiet freeway ride. With all drive systems in their most genteel settings, the RS5 is a fine commuter car, its dampers absorbing bumps well and taking the edge off large potholes. The optional mixed-material brakes – ceramic for the front rotors only, curiously – do squeal a tiny bit when cold, but otherwise, the RS5 Sportback is a happy little errand-runner.
Making the daily drudgery of a commute more palatable are supportive front buckets with adjustable lumbar and side bolsters that fit a variety of body types. The standard heating and massage also soothe tired muscles, and there’s just enough space in the intimate front row to get cozy. However, driver and passenger will have to fight over precious few storage cubbies: a shallow armrest bin and undersized tray in the center console join acceptably sized door pockets. The lack of stuff space is disappointing, especially since Audi could have reconfigured the center console now that the multifunction MMI controller is a thing of the past.
Anything that doesn’t fit up front will surely find a home under that sloping rear hatch. The prodigious 21.8 cubic feet of cargo room behind the rear seats easily beats out the Mercedes-AMG C63 and BMW M3 sedans in terms of luggage-hauling ability. That rear seat is a bit cramped due to a roofline that’s both lower and faster than those four-doors, but it’s capable of coddling two average-sized adults for at least a few hours thanks to well-sculpted rear outboard seats. As expected in this size class, three-across seating on the rear bench is ill-advised, but possible.
Though trapped within that passé, freestanding 10.1-inch display, the RS5’s infotainment system saw an update for 2021 to Audi’s newest MIB 3 software, which is quick, responsive, logically laid out, and beautifully rendered. Wireless Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and device charging come along for the ride, as does a standard Bang & Olufsen audio system that provides clear high and mid tones, though somewhat muddled bass notes.
Also standard is a 12.3-inch Audi Virtual Cockpit instrument cluster, which was one of the first such gauge packages on the market when it arrived on the 2016 TT. A few MIB 3–related updates ensure it’s still near the top of the class, particularly the detailed full-screen map display. A comprehensive on-board computer is also on hand, as is a combo bar graph tachometer/enlarged gear readout for aggressive driving. The Ascari also includes a head-up display for even more viewing flexibility.
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As nice as it is around town, the Audi RS5 Sportback is much more enjoyable when the road gets kinky. With abundant grip from a square set of 275/30R20 summer tires, the RS5 laughs in the face of those pesky suggested-speed signs. Also, the steering wheel isn’t as vague as one once expected of Audis; confidence increases in lock-step with familiarity thanks to the heavy tiller. The adaptive dampers firm up nicely when asked while still offering a modicum of crash-through resistance, making quick work of the broken pavement common to the San Gabriel Mountains.
Those ceramic front and iron rear brake rotors dissipate both kinetic and thermal energy adroitly, with no degradation even in hot, hilly cornering – however, a curiosity of the layout is that the back wheels get positively coated in grime after a long day of driving while the fronts look spotless, opposite of most cars. The stoppers also contribute to some supreme handling balance, with linear operation that allows for easy and predictable weight transfer. At the limit, the RS5 will relent to mild understeer, but that threshold is inadvisably high for public roads.
Even so, the RS5 feels somewhat aloof and disconnected from the driver. The ingredients are all there (heavy steering, exceptional grip, good balance, a compliant suspension, and excellent brakes), but some emotion is missing. The Audi feels calculated, administering sporty responses on single-serving trays, but no one ever wrote love poetry about their dietician. That said, if the chassis is short on sparkle, the engine is happy to compensate.
Under the hood is a twin-turbocharged 2.9-liter V6 with 444 horsepower and 442 pound-feet, mated to an eight-speed automatic gearbox and Quattro all-wheel drive. The engine sounds phenomenal with the exhaust in its Spinal Tap–approved setting, snap-crackle-popping on overrun like a bowl of Cocoa Krispies, and the gearbox quickly cracks through gears, either when shifting automatically or via the paddle shifters. Sixty mph happens in 3.8 seconds – both BMW and Mercedes claim the same for the M3 Competition and C63 S – but the Audi’s spicy bent-six makes a unique and lusty noise all its own.
Every RS5 comes with forward collision monitoring, automatic emergency braking, and lane departure warning, while the comprehensively equipped Ascari pack includes lane centering tech and adaptive cruise control with traffic jam functionality. As on other Audis so equipped, the RS5 Sportback relieves the driver of a fair amount of fatigue, maintaining speed and tracing lanes smoothly in both heavy and free-flowing traffic. Front and rear parking sensors and a surround view camera help prevent low-speed uh-ohs as well.
Although not a huge concern for a zesty five-door, the Audi RS5 Sportback can boast a decent 18 miles per gallon city, 25 highway, and 21 combined, and I saw about 17.8 mpg in a week of decidedly aggressive driving. – though it runs on premium only. The BMW M3 Competition achieves just 20 combined, although the V8-powered Mercedes-AMG C63 S is the surprise winner of the group, getting 22 mpg. Both of the Audi’s rivals demand the expensive stuff too.
The Audi RS5 Sportback starts at $76,445 with destination, undercutting the C63 S by 800 bones but asking a further $2,600 than the M3 Competition. However, the limited-production Ascari package is a staggering $20,500, my tester’s only Monroney line item. The total damage for this admittedly loaded RS5 is $96,945 – find a paper bag to breathe into, penny pinchers. That coin brings every performance goodie in the RSenal, including ceramic front brakes with blue calipers all around, a multi-mode sport exhaust, Dynamic Ride Control adaptive dampers, and an increased top speed of 174 mph.
The Ascari also includes the aforementioned driver-assist tech, an Alcantara wheel and interior accents, matte carbon dash trim, and the eponymous blue paint that’s nearly worth the cost of entry all on its own. Still, nearly $100,000 is a lot of cash for a compact performance five-door, particularly when both the BMW and AMG sedans are more involving for less money. Thus, the RS5 trades primarily on its stellar design and versatile interior, both of which would enhance the ownership experience without detracting from the car’s inherent twisty-road capability – and if you don’t need Ascari Blue, you can build a hot RS for about $85,000.
That happens to align with my own priorities, so for me, it’d be hard to turn down an RS5 as a personal daily driver. High dynamic limits, a cracking-great engine, and styling that looks good enough to eat? I’ll have what they’re having.
Gallery: 2021 Audi RS5 Sportback Ascari Launch Edition Review
2021 Audi RS5 Sportback Ascari Edition