Audi RS7 Sportback: Hammer and tongs

It all starts with the momentary whirr of the starter – an almost disappointingly puny sound, but one rapidly and unequivocally eclipsed by the angry growl of a V8 being prodded into life. You feel as much as hear the deep, menacing throb from the gutter-sized exhausts, and when you prod the loud pedal, the whole car trembles in anticipation. Meet the meanest road-going Audi of them all: the larger-than-life RS7 Sportback. By DEON SCHOEMAN.

The A7 Sportback is Audi’s take on the four-door coupé trend – a rather hare-brained designation for four-door cars with the low roofline and sleek proportions of a coupé. After all, isn’t a coupé by definition limited to two doors only?

You can blame Mercedes-Benz for creating the genre in the first place, and by implication for encouraging the creation of some of the world’s most ungainly cars.

The luxury brand’s own CLS, now in its second generation, still looks like a droopy banana on wheels. And while BMW’s take on the four-door coupé theme, the 6-Series Gran Coupé, is handsome in a low-slung, stealthy kind of way, it’s still more sedan than coupé.

Which brings us to the A7 Sportback, a car that steers the four-door coupé concept in a different direction by at least acknowledging the need for an arced roofline and a fastback-style rear. Even so, there’s no disguising that this is four-door, and a big one at that.

The result is a car that presents itself as streamlined, elegant and sophisticated from some angles, but awkwardly proportioned from others. It certainly doesn’t look anything like a coupé in the classic small, two-door sports car context.

Enter the RS7 Sportback – a pugilistic, hammer-and-tongs variation on the A7 Sportback theme that’s always spoiling for a fight. Yes, the low-slung, arc-roofed silhouette is still there, as is the rear tailgate, but there’s a smouldering, hunkered-down aggression that reeks of testosterone and tar-ripping performance.

Fans of the marque will know that the RS designation only adorns those Audis at the very top of the performance pecking order; special, low-volume versions of existing models that have been substantially re-engineered to safely cope with huge dollops of extra urge.

The RS7 Sportback is exactly that kind of car: big enough to be intimidating in traffic, loud enough in ‘Sport’ mode to wake up dogs and small children while merely idling, and luxurious enough to double up as a cocooning high-performance limousine.

The high-performance personality of the RS7 completely overshadows its Sportback identity: what matters here are the technical underpinnings, and the way they dictate the Audi’s demeanour.

It all starts with the engine. The 4.0-litre V8 is fitted with twin turbochargers, neatly nestled between the two cylinder banks, and boosting the air/fuel mixture by up to 1.2 bar. As a result, the eight-potter achieves a maximum power output of 412kW, much of it already on offer from way down the rev range.

At 3,000rpm, there’s already 250kW on tap. At 4,000rpm, you’re almost at 300kW. And it hits the 412kW maximum at 5,700rpm, sustaining it to the 6,600rpm redline. The torque push is even more impressive: 200Nm is already on offer at just 1,000rpm, with the full 700Nm on song from 1,750rpm.

But it’s the way muscle and torque interact that results in the car’s devastating punch and ferocious acceleration. Quattro all-wheel drive with torque vectoring delivers masses of urge to all four wheels at the first prod of the loud pedal, preventing the otherwise inevitable wheelspin, but creating so much instantaneous momentum that the big Audi literally leaps off the mark with all the intensity of a missile being launched.

Keep the accelerator floored, and the RS7 will continue to accelerate towards the horizon if the road is straight and long enough. The 100 km/h mark comes up in just 3.9sec, after which only the standard-issue electronic limiter prevents the speedometer needle from sweeping past the 250 km/h mark and rushing all the way to 300 km/h and beyond. Yes, it’s that quick.

Have I mentioned that the gearbox is an eight-speed Tiptronic, and not a dual-clutch S-tronic as one would expect? Apparently, the V8’s output is too overwhelming for the S-tronic transmission – but the good news is that the old-style gearbox does a good job, with seamless shifts in auto, and rapid, incisive cog swaps when using the shift paddles behind the flat-bottomed steering wheel.

While the drivetrain has more than enough power to propel the big and heavy RS7 quite astonishing ease, you’re still aware of the bulk and the mass of the car, of the volumes of air it’s pushing out of the way, of the sheer momentum it carries.

Despite aluminium accounting for 25 percent of the RS7’s bodywork, it still tips the scales at just a few kilograms short of the two-ton mark, and while the hell-for-leather acceleration may mask that fact, the first corner serves as a rapid, sobering reminder that this is a substantial piece of performance machinery.

The RS7 rides on big, 21-inch alloy wheels and fat, grippy rubber. Those wheels are hung from a lightweight independent suspension, and the fronts are turned via an electro-mechanical steering rack with speed-adaptive assistance.

For those committed to the art of piloting fast machines, the steering is what matters most – and at slow speeds, the RS7’s wheel feels too easy, too flippant for a car of this calibre. But fear not – at speed, when precision at the helm really counts, the steering finds the heft and feedback to make the passage through the twists and turns an involving and rewarding affair.

For that very reason, the RS7 is at its most entertaining when the road isn’t straight, and there’s more to taming the beast than keeping it on the straight and narrow.

Take the Franschhoek Pass, for instance: driving up from the town, the initial uphill section isn’t that taxing, with plenty of straight bits to stretch the RS7’s legs. But once you’re rounded the top hairpin, and start dropping down towards the Theewaterskloof Dam, it’s a different story.

Such is the composure of the big Audi that it’s all too easy to underestimate the velocity you’re carrying into a corner. Brake hard into a downhill corner, and you become acutely aware that the car you’re pointing towards the apex is pushing two tons in the same direction.

It’s a measure of the RS7’s balance and traction that you don’t run it off the road right there, or plough the nose wide into the rough stuff. Instead, you’re pleased – make that grateful – that the dinner plate-sized brake discs manage to slice off big chunks of speed in the blink of an eye.

Of course, it’s also easy to underestimate just how much confidence and composure the quattro all-wheel drive system contributes, especially in the tight. Torque vectoring allows lateral transfer of power between the wheels, in addition to quattro’s conventional front/rear distribution.

The result is a car that almost defies Newton’s laws by (mostly) adhering to the intended line, and that vitally has the ability to clearly communicate both its current status and its immediate intentions.

Let’s not forget that the RS7 comes standard with Audi’s Drive Select system, which allows throttle response, damper settings and steering effort to be tweaked to best suit individual drivers. Apart from auto, comfort and dynamic settings, there’s also an individual preset that can be programmed according to personal preference.

Drive Select’s individual mode allows softer damper settings to be linked to an aggressive throttle action, for instance – a combo that works well on our country routes, where ruts, bumps and holes continuously hanker for a roadwork crew’s attention.

Talking of comfort: the RS7’s focus may be on tar-ripping performance, but that doesn’t mean the cabin is a Spartan place. Expect every bell and whistle, and then some. The soft leather-clad seats are sculpted to ensure support, and can be electrically adjusted in every dimension, while Audi’s multimedia interface allows easy access to everything from Bluetooth to satnav – and even includes a touchpad for direct alphanumeric input of data.

More concerned about golf clubs and boot space than performance stats? Well, the RS7 has the same 535-litre boot as the normal A7, and if you really need cargo space, folding the split rear seat backrest down creates a cavernous 1,390-litre cargo area.

But take it from me: for all its roominess and tailgate-accessed boot space, its lavish luxury and comprehensive safety gear, its exclusivity and aesthetic appeal, the RS7 Sportback’s real focus remains undiluted, adrenaline-pumping performance.

The slingshot acceleration, the gut-wrenching cornering forces, the prodigious braking – these are all traits that the RS7 Sportback excels at. But here’s the thing: you can’t drive the RS7 Sportback like it wants to driven all the time.

It’s almost too brutal on public roads, capable of approach speeds that are simply alien to normal road users. Try to pilot it with suave reserve, and you might as well be driving a normal A7. In fact, you’d be more comfortable, and for a lot less money.

The RS7 Sportback is a thoroughbred, a four-door coupé with racing car genes, a car that’s luxurious and spacious, yet pushes the boundaries of road car use. For some, that combination will push all the right buttons, but for others, it will be over the top.

One thing’s for sure: you won’t see a lot of Audi RS7 Sportbacks in South Africa. They’re in short supply worldwide, and the local allocation is limited. There’s also the R1,4-million base price to consider.

But the real reason why you won’t see many is because most of them will be passing by in a blur. DM

Audi RS7 Sportback

  • Engine 3.933 cc V8, twin-turbocharged
  • Gearbox Eight-speed Tiptronic auto
  • Power 412kW @ 5 700 rpm
  • Torque 700Nm @ 1 7500 rpm
  • 0-100 km/h 3.9sec
  • Top speed 250 km/h (governed)
  • Fuel consumption 9.8 l/100 km (combined cycle)
  • CO2 emissions 229g/km
  • Price R1,450,500

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