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Driving the Audi RS7, the new bahnstormer: Motoramic TV

November 12, 2013

Audi’s S-cars are great. They’re fast, they handle well, they’ve got exquisite interiors. But any given Audi S is a subdued creature compared to the full-bore speed monsters from the likes of BMW’s M division, Mercedes-Benz’s AMG or Cadillac’s V-Series. For the really over-the-top Audis, you now need to look at the RS models. The latest of which is the 2014 Audi RS7, which mates the A7’s sleek shape with a powerplant that would adequately propel a small naval attack ship. Audi debuted the RS7 in Las Vegas, or more accurately, the desolate roads far, far, outside of Vegas. This is a car that needs room to roam.

For $105,795—about $25,000 or so beyond the price of an S7—you get a seriously overhauled car. Horsepower leaps from 420 to 560 and the 0-60 time drops to 3.7 seconds, from a leisurely 4.5. And while the S7 and RS7 both use Audi’s stupendous 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8, you do not add 140 hp simply by turning up the boost and ordering some schintzel. The RS7 gets different turbos, a whole new bottom end, a unique anti-lag system, beefed-up cooling and a different transmission.

The S7 uses Audi’s seven-speed dual-clutch S tronic transmission, but the RS7’s 516 lb-ft of torque would render that sucker broke-tronic. That’s OK, because you get the ZF 8-speed automatic instead. And even Audi, which pioneered dual-clutch transmissions, seems on the verge of admitting that the ZF box is so good that dual-clutches might’ve already seen their day. There’s something to be said for the smooth power deployment of a torque converter.

Despite its motherlode of power and creature comforts, the RS7 manages to avoid getting whacked with the gas-guzzler tax, thanks to cylinder deactivation that turns the V-8 into a V-4 whenever you’re not actively slaking a thirst for g-forces. You can’t tell when the 4.0 goes into four-cylinder mode, because active engine mounts cancel out any untoward vibrations. But the four-cylinder trick helps enable the RS7 to claim 29 mpg on the highway, a feat that makes the new Corvette’s 29 mpg appear consequently less impressive, given that the Vette weighs a half-ton less and has 100 fewer horsepower.

Style-wise, the RS7 gets modest differentiation from other A7s—unique exhaust tips, matte trim and its own front bumper. The A7 owns one of the cleanest, most beautiful shapes on the road, yet I still wish they’d vulgarized it just a little bit for RS7 duty. Recall that the first RS cars in America, the RS6 and RS4, were immediately distinguishable by their brawny flared fenders. So, dear Audi: I would like some crazy fender flares. Thank you.

Those early RS cars weren’t exactly great handlers, on account of their nose-heavy weight distribution and relatively simple AWD systems. The RS7 still doesn’t rival a BMW in terms of balance (the S7 has 55 percent of its weight on the front wheels), but the torque-vectoring rear differential helps absolve that sin. The only issue is that, to take advantage of the trick diff, you need to be on the throttle to help point the nose into the corner. That’s counterintuitive, but you get used to it — “Hey, I’m understeering. Better get on the gas!”

For a car as specialized as the RS7, there’s a surprising amount of competition. The BMW M6 Gran Coupe is 550 horsepower, but rear-wheel-drive means you’ll get well acquainted with the blinking traction-control light. The Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG 4Matic packs stats that are nearly identical to the Audi’s — 550 horsepower, all-wheel-drive and 0-60 in 3.7 seconds. The Porsche Panamera Turbo and Turbo S fit into this matrix, too, but those wade into much pricer water, with the Turbo S flirting with $200,000 once you pick a couple options.

All of these cars are great to drive and cases could be made for each of them. But the Audi combines the prettiest shape with brutal off-the-line acceleration and interior design that still manages to outclass cars that cost twice as much. The wood trim, for instance, somehow includes layered aluminum pinstripes — a beautiful, shocking relief from the omnipresent swathes of carbon fiber that are currently the de facto signifier of upscale sportiness.

The last time I was in Vegas to drive an Audi, it was 2006, when they introduced the R8. At that point, Audis were mostly seen as the nonconformist’s option to the two main German rivals, BMW and Mercedes. But Audi announced quite audaciously that it planned an ascent to the same status as Bimmer and Benz, that third-place would no longer do. And sure, the R8 was wonderful, but they had a long way to go.

Well, here we are seven years later with the RS7 and a fleet of killer diesels and suburbs overrun by Q5s. Car companies are always announcing overly optimistic plans, like Maserati declaring they’re going to sell 50,000 cars a year or Lotus planning five new cars at once. But in Audi’s case, damn if they didn’t make good.