Sharper Audis: Regeneration

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Audi’s S5 and R8 are giving it credibility as a maker of real driver’s cars. Soon even BMW should be worried

In reviews of  cars here or in any other publication, the circumstances in which the driving impressions were generated are likely to be of no concern to you. You do not care if the journalist drove the car on roads he or she had never seen before, nor that the car being reported upon was almost certainly a pre-production prototype. You are not bothered that the hack may or may not have had enough time in the car, nor whether the roads it was driven on constituted a proper test of the car’s fitness for purpose. All you want to know is whether it is any bloody good or not.

Quite right too: reaching reliable conclusions about cars in less than ideal circumstances is the job and it’s what’s expected of us.

But you might wonder just for a moment why, in this increasingly environmentally aware era, every time a car manufacturer launches so much as an estate version of a pre-existing product, it feels the need to spend literally millions flying often over 1000 journalists from around the world to a central location for it to be sampled. It’s simple really: it puts you in their debt. They’ve spent thousands on air tickets, posh hotels and fancy food and, under the circumstances, more easily influenced hacks might feel it far from cricket to then put the boot into their shiny new car. Moreover, introducing you to their car on unfamiliar territory introduces a variable which might just make you question your own judgment and, in that case, be more likely to make you give the car the benefit of your doubt. There are other factors, too – not unreasonably, manufacturers want their cars to be photographed in pleasant surroundings somewhere it’s unlikely to be raining – but really it is all about introducing their product to the Fourth Estate in an environment they can control.

So I operate by the simple rule of thumb that whatever the merits or otherwise of a car when I first drive it, that’s as good as it’s going to get. Cars never improve when you finally climb aboard in the UK as not only does familiarity with the roads and your own choice of test route inevitably ask more searching questions, British roads are also in broadly dreadful condition compared to those of its neighbours on the continent, so it’s safe to say that if a car rides poorly in Germany, then it will ride abysmally in the UK.

So when I trotted off to Verona to drive the new Audi S5 and found a car that neither rode nor handled as I felt it should, I duly said so in the Sunday Times, saying it was a car for the Aled Joneses of this world in what turned out to be a none-too-complimentary review. Which is why I was somewhat surprised a couple of months later to field another call from Audi saying the cars were now available in the UK and would I like to try one. The honest answer would have been ‘not really’ but professional curiosity got the better of me: it was the first time a car manufacturer had been given a mauling and had come back for seconds.

Now I know why. Something, and Audi is not saying what, has transformed this car for the better. The ride is now more than acceptable and where the handling had once been lifeless, it is now on the perky side of interesting. Had Audi built the S5 like this from the start, a largely critical press reaction could have been avoided.

Even so, to Audi, the S5 is just one small step on a long, long road to becoming recognised as a credible builder of premium sporting machinery. The giant leap is the R8 supercar (left). 

Even five years ago, the idea of a two-seat Audi supercar pitched deliberately over the head of the Porsche 911 would have been little short of risible. Even if Audi could have made it worth driving, which at the time would have been in more than a little doubt, its brand value would not have made it worth buying. But not only is the R8 sublime to drive, it is also sold out in the UK until the end of next year, despite prospective owners so loading their theoretically £76,825 cars with optional goodies that the average transaction price is over £90,000.

And Audi is only tickling the surface of this car’s capabilities. Currently it has a 4.2-litre, 420bhp V8 engine installed in its lightweight aluminium chassis, good enough to push it to 187mph. What Audi is not admitting to is the 500bhp-plus V10 engine that will also be available the moment signs of demand for the V8 start to flag: but you don’t need to be an expert in industrial espionage to know it’s coming: you just need to lift the engine cover and see how much space has been left behind the existing engine to know that a couple more pots are an inevitability.

What’s next? There’ll be a new A4 at this month’s Frankfurt motor show, which means a new S4 and a new RS4 will not be far behind; and while the prospect of such cars would once have elicited little more than a stifled yawn from me, now I look forward to them with a real sense of anticipation. Audis have always been good to look at and live with. Now it seems that, not before time, they are also getting to be good to drive. If it can now spread this new found love of the road beyond its premium models and into its mainstream ranges, its future could scarcely look brighter. BMW, for one, should be afraid.

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