Audi RS 7: Luxurious brutality

Cruising the Nevada desert, the Audi RS 7 sprints from Nellis Air Force Base, home of the Thunderbirds aerobatics team, to Creech Air Force Base, home of the Predator attack drone.

It is a trip from the past to the future of aerial combat, in a vehicle that neatly bridges the past and future of ground-based supersports luxury.

Vital Stats

2014 Audi RS 7

  • Base price: $104,900, inclusive of $895 destination charge
  • As tested: $122,545
  • EPA fuel economy: 16mpg city, 27mpg highway
  • Powertrain: 560-hp, 516 lb-ft 4-litre twin-turbo V8 engine, ZF eight-speed automatic transmission, all-wheel drive
  • Standard equipment: LED headlights, blind spot warning, power glass sunroof, four-zone climate control, heated 12-way power driver’s seat
  • Major options: Bang & Olufsen audio system, head up display, night vision assistant, adaptive cruise control, active lane assist, 21in aluminium wheels

There once was a time when steel-nerved fighter jocks like those at Nellis flew missions, but now Creech’s flyers, reared on the Call of Duty video game franchise, guide drones by remote control from banks of computers.

And there was a time when Mercedes-Benz and BMW were the automatic go-tos for ultra-swift luxury four-doors, especially when those machines were tuned by the companies’ respective AMG and M divisions.

Times change, and a challenger from Ingolstadt aims to usurp the established order. Here, then, is the RS 7, a 560-horsepower, 180mph all-wheel-drive rocket sled that leaves a shock wave across the desert.

But while driving such an astonishingly fast car might once have required some sacrifice – some strapping in, warming up, systems checking and counting down (plus some discomfort from a cockpit designed for g-force resistance) – the RS 7’s pilot relaxes in the same Barcalounger-like comfort as Creech's remote-control jockeys.

Audi's marriage of brute force and plushness brings a new wrinkle to the maximum sport sedan segment. The Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG is an iron fist in silk glove, with a ferocious, snarling nature. The RS 7 summons comparable swiftness and a delectable growl, but without quite the ostentatiously loud exhaust of the AMG. The Audi is content to fill out its suit beautifully, while the AMG would like you to notice its sculpted pecs. Which are impressive, mind.

BMW's M6 Gran Coupe also contends, aiming to impress as much with brains as brawn. But the car's video arcade feel, with its joystick shifter, dual-clutch transmission and impenetrable iDrive interface, can dilute the driving experience.

The RS 7’s power source is a relentless twin-turbo 4-liter V8 engine that vaults the luxury liner to 60mph in a manufacturer-estimated 3.7 seconds. With power coursing through the ZF eight-speed automatic transmission and Audi’s Quattro all-wheel drive system, power meets asphalt without the roar and screech typically associated with such authoritative acceleration.

In fact, everything about the RS 7’s astonishing performance is magnified by its nonchalance. Occupants are coddled in deliciously soft leather and soothed by a reverie-shattering Bang & Olufsen sound system, a $5,900 option.

Audi found a new way to lend warmth to its popular black interior trim. The RS 7 uses a black wood finished with an open-pore stain that is layered with strips of aluminium. It is a novel way to convey sleekness and high design without sacrificing the feel of real wood. It is something suited to a starchitect’s office furniture.

Outside, the RS 7 strafes the desert with the cool remove of a stealth bomber. Audi says the car is limited to 174mph, but there may be a little fudge factor in the governor, as European-specification cars top out at 189mph.

Despite the RS 7’s power and fury, it veritably tiptoes past petrol pumps – at least when considering it is a 4,475lb car packing 560 horsepower – scoring an improbable 27mpg on the EPA’s highway fuel economy test. Combined with its less-amazing 16mpg city rating, the overall rating is 19mpg, a score that lets the car slip past the US government’s punitive gas guzzler tax.

Driving the RS 7 is enjoyably straightforward, with no inscrutable new conventions to adopt in order to wring out its potential. Mercedes and BMW employ toy-like joystick shifters that spring back to the centre position, providing no tactile feedback whatsoever. Worse, the BMW has no Park position or button; the driver shuts the engine off with the transmission in gear, and the car automatically defaults to Park. It is easy, sure, but also confusingly contrary to decades of convention.

Audi engineers, smart lot that they are, shy from positing solutions to non-existent problems.

The RS 7’s intuitiveness extends to its infotainment system, which tromps those of its German counterparts for sensible operation and non-obtrusive redundant controls. The car goes about its business as a dutiful assistant, rather than a boisterous jester, relentlessly seeking the boss’s attention.

Every aspect of the RS 7 feels natural and well-considered, without gimmickry or artifice.  Competitors feel nouveau riche by comparison, trying too hard to fit in. This is not to suggest the RS 7 is antiseptic – a pitfall of some sport-minded luxury cars. On the contrary, hard on the gas approaching a desert-flattening 180mph, the RS 7’s rumble is pervasive, like that of an offshore powerboat.

The BMW’s burble has similar modest authority, but the Mercedes has the staccato blast of a Nascar Sprint Cup racer. Sure, that makes for good fun on a track, but the neighbours won’t be impressed when you head to the airport for that 6:00 flight.

So the RS 7 is no drone, nor is it a hot-dogging Thunderbird. It is a different kind of flyer, one that rewards a pilot with equal parts drama and reserve. Call it a Learjet for the road.