Friday, December 7, 2007

Audi RS4 Track Drive (ADE IV)

A Brace Of Audi RS4s

Jumping out of the sublime R8, it was off to the autocross test. After a couple of practice sessions it was all down to three timed runs, across each of the fifteen participants, in order to determine the winner. The course comprised a fast right/left combination, a 180 degree hairpin and a dog-leg left into the finishing box. Fast as you like without hitting any cones, and ending with the front wheels inside the finish box. Weaponry provided? Audi TT V6.

Best technique I found was to hold the car on the brakes with the left foot, add a little throttle, and then just floor it when ready, simultaneously letting go of the brakes. Yup, it was an automatic and all this palava was just trying to get the damn thing to launch quickly.

Flat into the first corner, feather to take the second, flat to the hairpin; brake hard as you can - and earlier than you'd like - and turn in; off the brakes and floor it again right until you hit the brakes once more for the final stop. Afterwards, I could think of ways to squeeze more time (left foot brake for the hairpin but keep the throttle part open to speed the spool up of the engine afterwards, for example) but two of the three times were reasonable, sitting in the upper-mid 11-second range.

Turns out I must have got it mostly right as not only did I win the competition but two of my three posted times beat the benchmark set by the instructor. (I completely blew one run by trying too hard.) Chalk one up for the 50+ CEO over the winner of last year's US rally championship!

Last up, back to the track, this time in the RS4. Here's another car I was looking forward to driving. Reputed to be a hardcore road car with serious performance credentials - 420 bhp again, 8-piston front brakes, uprated suspension, 0-60 in 4.8 seconds - this would be a fascinating comparison with it's bigger brother. Except, except.

Here's the problem: the R8 had set the bar so high that it took me a fair-few laps to get over how much the RS4 was rolling as you pushed it harder and harder through the corners. The comparison unduly highlighted what the RS4 actually is - a beefier A4, and all that this implies - and not a custom-designed two-seater sports car. Now in many ways it was a bit more fun to drive because you could feel the chassis working hard, dealing with all the forces that were building; it kept you busier, in short, making sure that you stayed smooth and clean because any margin for error was quickly disappearing as things got faster. Regardless, it's clearly a very potent car that in context of the rest of the A4 series takes the platform about as far as it can go. $70,000 worth? Your call, but for me I think I'd be doing a lot of comparisons with other contenders from Mercedes and BMW to figure out what balance of characteristics I was looking for (road vs. track, daily driver friendly, room for spouse-and-sprogs, etc.)

One thing I forgot to mention, for the track sessions we were randomly paired with other course participants: one drives while the other rides. The guy I had in the R8 was fine. The instructor slowed down somewhat and that car flattered all kinds of driving styles, good and bad. Alas, not so the RS4. After the first sighting lap, the guy who took over in the driver's seat in my car was quickly out of his depth. We reached the point where you needed binoculars to find the apex on corners you were going through. Braking was a randomly-instigated event that occurred somewhere in the transition from going straight into one end of the corner and unwinding lock again out the other side, you just never knew quite where or when it would happen. I came to greatly appreciate just how wide Infineon is, because I think we drove over just about every inch of it, finding new and previously untried lines on pretty much every lap. Thankfully, the session was soon over and the instructor obviously saw what was happening and kept the pace down in order to protect Audi's investment in sheet metal for these courses. Phew.

Summary? A great time was had by all, and the R8 really is a stunning entrant into the super-car stakes, justifying both the price tag and the hype.

Final epilogue tomorrow, with one last twist.....

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