Plugging the gap in the RS model range must have seemed like such a fine idea. If you’d walked into an Audi showroom several months ago you could have written a cheque for £60,000 or so and driven away in a very fast estate or a very fast coupe, but not anything in between.
The RS4 is only offered as a wagon while the RS5, identical beneath the skin, has only two doors, making it not much use to anyone looking for a more practical sort of performance car.
WHERE THE RS5 SPORTBACK FITS IN
There was no RS alternative to the BMW M3 or Mercedes-AMG C63 saloon; nothing between the coupe and the estate. And so by introducing the RS5 Sportback just recently, Audi has filled in a hole and mopped up a handful of customers who might otherwise have wondered off elsewhere. The problem with Audi slotting itself into that particular niche is this: in facing off against the M3 and C63, the RS5 Sportback will also have to prove itself against a car I am convinced will be remembered as one of the finest performance saloons of all time. So far, everything that has squared up against the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio has come away looking a bit daft.
WHY THE ALFA IS SO SPECIAL
What you need to know about the Alfa is that it’s the only sports saloon ever built that manages to feel and behave not like a saloon car with lots of power, but like a sports car that happens to have a pair of rear doors. It’s an important distinction. It ultimately means the Italian car is more rewarding to drive than its German rivals. Its development was overseen by a number of Ferrari engineers who had only just signed off the spellbinding 458 Speciale. On top of that, its engine is built beneath the same roof within the Ferrari factory as that company’s spectacular V8s and V12s.
And so you see why Audi’s RS division has been so bold in producing a direct rival for the Alfa.
HOW THE STATS STACK UP
The RS5 Sportback and Giulia Quadrifoglio list at almost the same money, both within a few tanks of super unleaded of £64,000. The Alfa is more powerful with 503bhp compared with the Audi’s 444bhp, but with four-wheel drive the RS5 Sportback matches its rival to 62mph, both clocking that speed in 3.9 seconds. Curiously, both are powered by 2.9-litre V6 engines with a pair of turbochargers and each transmits that drive to the wheels via an eight-speed automatic gearbox, but despite the similarities on paper the two drivetrains actually feel quite different out on the road.
If there is one statistic that best sums up the difference between the two machines, it is surely their kerb weights. While the Audi looks quite portly at 1,720kg, the Alfa Romeo seems unusually light at 1,524kg, at least for a modern performance car with this sort of power. Lifting their bonnets gives you some idea of why the Italian car is so much lighter, its carbon-fibre hood floating up like a feather in the wind while the Audi’s bonnet takes a proper clean-and-jerk effort to raise from its closed position. So too their boot lids: the Alfa’s is so light you want to serve it a decent meal while the Audi’s hatchback – which actually makes it a five rather than a four-door car – is vast and heavy, thanks in part to the huge glass panel. It’s also powered, which probably tells you everything you need to know about the ideological differences between these two cars.
THE INSIDE LINE: HOW THE INTERIORS COMPARE
If not, their cabins will. The Alfa’s is frankly unimpressive given its list price, the overall dash design and the quality of the materials more fitting of a mid-range hatchback than a sports saloon that trades on the far side of £60,000. Some of the switchgear feels tacky and the infotainment system, though functional, doesn’t look at all like a high-end piece of kit. But the carbon fibre-backed sports seats are wonderfully supportive and the seating position is spot on.
Meanwhile, the Audi’s cockpit looks and feels like it belongs to a car costing significantly more than the Giulia, with expensive soft-touch plastics and rich leather, and a sense of solidity about the overall build quality. Its infotainment is easier to use and the graphics have the air of a much more premium system, but the RS5 Sportback’s seating position isn’t anything like as well-judged as the Alfa’s.
On the basis of their cabins the two cars are easily categorised: the Audi concerns itself with perceived quality and feel-good factor, while the Alfa Romeo is only bothered about the stuff that actually makes a difference to the driving experience.
In that respect there is no competition here. The Audi has a reasonably pliant ride, being cushioned and composed enough to iron out the smaller lumps and bumps in the road surface that would otherwise make a car feel busy and jiggly. But when you meet bigger imperfections in the road, the suspension runs out of ideas and the car thumps and thuds its way along. It never gives you the impression of being light or of skimming across the tarmac, which is a consequence of its rather portly weight.
Unfortunately for the RS5 Sportback, the Giulia Quadrifoglio does feel light on its tyres, almost floating over the surface of the road rather than pounding its way along it. Far less weight and some very deft damper tuning make all the difference for the Alfa Romeo in that respect.
Ignoring ride comfort for a moment, it also means the Italian car can breathe with the asphalt when you’re clipping along a little more enthusiastically. It even has a ‘soft’ damper setting, which gives it a rare degree of compliance over a bumpy road.
Alongside it, the Audi feels heavy and tough. Through corners the Alfa is poised and balanced where the RS5 Sportback is leaden and determinedly nose-led. Driving the Audi along an inviting stretch of B-road is like playing a child’s xylophone; it’s one-dimensional and not especially rewarding. The Alfa Romeo is a Steinway piano by comparison, requiring skill and concentration but producing a far richer and more compelling dynamic output.
SPORTS SALOON OR GRAND TOURER?
The Giulia Quadrifoglio has sharper and more intuitive steering, a much wider operating window when cornering – in which it can be perfectly balanced or oversteering as much as you dare, whereas the RS5 Sportback will only ever offer gentle understeer – and the Alfa has more effective brakes as well. In response to that, the Audi is always more refined, better isolating wind and road noise. It’s therefore a better grand tourer, but the Alfa Romeo is hardly a no-hoper in that regard.
It’s worth noting as well that thanks to its four-wheel drive system and less aggressive tyres, the RS5 Sportback is much more secure and reassuring in wet conditions. With only two driven wheels and quite single-minded Pirelli tyres, the Alfa can be a touch dicey in very low-grip conditions.
WHICH HAS THE BEST ENGINE?
And their engines? The Audi’s 2.9-litre twin-turbo V6 is clinical and effective with what seems like a manufactured, sport exhaust-enhanced soundtrack, whereas the Alfa’s 2.9-litre twin-turbo V6 howls authentically, the way an Alfa V6 should. And although it does fade a little more towards the redline than the Audi’s motor, the Giulia’s is always more characterful. It feels much stronger, too, thanks to a good wedge of power on top and far less weight to battle against.
Their automatic gearboxes behave in much the same way, meanwhile, the Audi’s perhaps being fractionally sharper and more responsive in manual mode. Left alone in normal driving both ‘boxes are smooth and refined.
In a number of significant ways the RS5 Sportback is a more capable machine than the Giulia Quadrifoglio and for those buyers who value prestige and a sense of luxury over the finer points of performance driving, it is perhaps the more desirable car. But anybody who really loves driving shouldn’t hesitate for a moment. The Alfa Romeo is still the best practical, day-to-day performance car £60,000 (plus a bit) can buy.
Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio
Price: from £63,540
0-62mph: 3.9 seconds
Top speed: 191mph
Fuel economy: 34.4mpg (combined)
Audi RS5 Sportback
Price: from £64,735
0-62mph: 3.9 seconds
Top speed: 155mph
Fuel economy: 31.4mpg (combined)
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