VROOM WITH A VIEW
Hitting the road in the Audi RS6 felt like diving into arctic waters
People much more qualified than me will write PhDs about the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on society. There will be books, Netflix documentaries, TED talks and weirdos ranting on YouTube. Humanities professors across the globe will spend the next century explaining why the pandemic proved their pre-existing theses.
First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
An army of scientists and activists and academics will ride their hobby horses to Covidtown, for sure. But some will not. Some will illuminate new truths and understandings from what we have collectively endured that I think will be useful. Some are already obvious – that 9-5 commuting might have become unnecessary and wasteful, for example – but I have a feeling that there is a great deal more to be learnt, and that some of it is really important.
I hope that the best people might be able to interrogate what has happened and get closer to answering some really big questions, such as: Is what is valuable in society valued by society? What is usefully productive to society, and does it make the people who produce it happy? What makes people happy, and is it possible to do more of it? Can governments do more, or should they do less?
So prolific will the output be that a number of people less qualified than me will write about it too, and I couldn’t be less qualified if I tried – but that won’t stop me making observations. I can observe that among those lucky enough to have office work there has been reticence, or even anxiety, about a return to commuter life. I have seen how people have gingerly skirted social reintegration, and not only on the basis of concern around the virus. People have likened it to a kind of social atrophy, a waning muscle memory. Going out and being with friends, some have said, is something we used to do lots of and need to relearn.
Like with commuting and work, if it is no longer necessary to meet in person to have relationships and friendships, will everyone emerge from their digital networks, blinking into the sun after two years of staring at the screen on night mode? After all, finding something to wear and hailing an Uber, having the sheer confidence to re-enter the Real World that’s changed forever – let alone the pub – can seem insurmountable.
For almost three years I flew to Johannesburg and back once a week. In two weeks’ time I will get on to my first plane in more than a year, and I confess to some worry. Have I forgotten how? Is it all the same, or has everything changed?
One muscle memory that fellow Capetonians have very clearly lost is the one we commonly call “driving”. Those who live in the shadow of the mountain aren’t known for their automotive talents. Whereas our highveld compatriots like to break the law with a kind of laser-sighted precision and aggression that boggles the mind of any blow-in from the coast, here in the fishing village we prefer to drift aimlessly betwixt lanes and write whole WhatsApp essays while doing 80km/h in the fast lane. On Sundays you can absolutely guarantee that on any road with half a decent view (that’s most of the peninsular), an elderly couple will be driving a very old Toyota Tazz at 43km/h, utterly oblivious to the unmitigated bedlam they are causing in traffic from Simonstown to Melkbos with a kilometres-long, visible-from-space queue of cars behind them full of people who are now very late for lunch in Noordhoek.
All of these cobwebs, all of this tentative, toe-dipping, vacillating irresolution, feels like it needs some kind of immersion therapy. A blast of something. To be sure, I’m going to put my long pants on and catch that plane in two weeks, but what of the driving? How can I reintroduce myself to my now uncool and distant old friends, speed, power, grip and oversteer?
The answer to three of four was to borrow a new Audi RS6 wagon. The RS6 may do oversteer as well, if you press the right buttons and go fast enough, but hell’s bells I can’t imagine how hard you’d have to push to even find out. After nearly two years of tooling about town in various sensible cars, hitting the Swartland in the RS6 felt like the equivalent of jumping into arctic waters like Lewis Pugh. The sheer violence of it. The RS6 will crack the 100km/h sprint in 3.6 seconds. This is absurdly quick, but it’s the kind of numbers that luxury manufacturers are managing to squeeze out of their high-performance versions of normal cars, such as BMW’s M5 for example.
Anything below three seconds these days tends to have a very exotic badge on its nose, but – and this is important – this is a large family estate car, not a Porsche 911.
Absolutely nothing this quick comes with the eccentric mix of talents that means you can pack the groceries in, take the Labrador to the park and the kids to school … and then snap at the heels of a Lamborghini Huracán on the way home.
The RS6’s 441kW V8 puts down its 800Nm of torque through all four wheels, biased to the rear, and sucks the horizon in like you’re sitting in a black hole. It is utterly planted, slingshotting out of corners like something coming unstuck in a centrifuge, snarling in precisely the direction you pointed it.
The RS6 delivers the Quattro package with such ferocity. Physics tells me that there is a limit to grip, but I didn’t find it, and nor did I particularly care to. It feels like it’s vacuum-sealed to the road, which means it doesn’t dance like a powerful rear-wheel-drive BMW does. The seven or so people in SA who have the talent to really balance a car – to steer with the throttle and other voodoo driving tricks – may miss this Bavarian magic. Practically, however, in the hands of the rest of us, this is an incredibly forgiving and straightforward car to drive very quickly, and enormously satisfying and fun to boot.
After all this, I pointed the car’s snout back to Cape Town and selected comfort mode. The car lifted slightly on its air suspension and wafted home in a surprisingly wallowy and relaxed manner. Despite its capabilities, the RS6 is a genuinely usable everyday family car. It’s an astonishing statement of engineering.
A final thought: just look at the thing. If this can’t persuade South Africans to reconsider their wholesale abandonment of estate cars in preference for top-heavy, SUV jelly moulds, then I honestly give up.
The RS6 was the intravenous shot of automotive caffeine I’d been missing, a thrilling despatch from the end of the age of internal combustion, and made me fizz with anticipation for Audi’s electric future.
I feel ready to come out into the light again. DM168
Alex Parker is a journalist, author and consultant.
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.