Audi does it again, and again

Audi, quickly emerging as something of a technology leader among German luxury brands, kept the heat on BMW and Mercedes-Benz on 14 January in Detroit.

The manufacturer also caught members of the automotive press flat-footed on at least one one of two vehicle unveilings. The RS7 Sportback will give Audi a foothold in the cohort of ultra-exclusive hatchback sedans masquerading as coupes, while the SQ5 will bring the momentum of Audi’s “S” performance line to its sport-utility vehicles.

“Momentum is the only way to describe Audi in 2012,” said Audi of America chief Scott Keogh, who added he was optimistic “that Audi momentum will continue into 2013”. Keogh recently replaced Johan de Nysschen, who left the company to shake up nomenclature at Infiniti.

The statistics on the RS7 flirt with Mercedes AMG levels of cartoonishness. With a twin-turbo, 4-litre V8 engine that sends 560 horsepower to all four wheels through an 8-speed automatic transmission, the RS7 will rocket to 60mph in under 4 seconds and reach a top speed of 190mph, Audi claimed. The RS formula elevates Audi’s “S” line to a suitably higher level to cater to a clientele that expects maximum performance with no sacrifice in luxury.

And in what might be a sign of a recovering economy – or at least a strengthening global oligarchy – the RS7 has head-to-head competition for wallet-depleting prowess. The recently introduced BMW M6 Gran Coupe, Mercedes CLS63 and Porsche Panamera Turbo S are all members of an elite corps of sport sedans that offer at least 550 horsepower. Audi was mum regarding pricing, but its competition run at least six-figure tabs.

Upstaged by the RS7 was the SQ5, a quicker, sportier version of Audi’s small sport-utility vehicle. The “S” designation is synonymous with Audi’s sporting models, and makes its first sport-utility appearance on the Q5, which has been on sale for nearly three years.

The big news for the SQ5 is under the hood, where the upgraded 3-litre, supercharged V6 found in the S4 sedan and S5 coupe routes 354 horsepower and 346 pound-feet of torque through an 8-speed automatic transmission. The engine sits atop the Q5’s standard engine choices: a 2-litre turbocharged 4-cylinder unit and a less powerful 3-liter V6. At the 2012 Paris motor show, Audi showed off an SQ5 TDI destined for much of the rest of the world, whose torque figure of 479 pound-feet drew gasps of envy from the US automotive press. For now, it seems, that powertrain will not reach North America.

The transformation to SQ5 continues with the addition of Audi’s selectable drive system, which allows drivers to tune steering and suspension profiles to their individual liking. Cosmetically, the SQ5 will be distinguished from the Q5 by upgrades inside and out. A grey grille and model-specific badging keep styling updates in line with the rest of Audi’s “S” range.

While there was no word on an expected US launch for the RS7, the gasoline-powered SQ5 is slated to hit US dealerships late this year, and will also reach as many as 13 other markets.

These updates come on the heels of the marque’s significant presence at the Consumer Electronics Show last week in Las Vegas, where Audi demonstrated a self-driving car, which was able to navigate through traffic jams and parking structures, as well as steer and brake without any human input.

In light of Audi’s autonomous-driving efforts, and with such blatant drivers’ cars in attendance, chief executive Keogh’s late comments on Monday could perhaps be read ironically: “Our commitment will inspire true driving fans to seek out Audi.”