This might look like a slightly left-field comparison but there are, in fact, several very good reasons for squaring the new Audi RS5 up against the latest Nissan GT-R. For one thing, they’re both fourwheel-drive performance coupés. For another, they each use twinturbocharged V6 engines and paddleshift gearboxes. And although their basic list prices are more than £20,000 apart – £61,015 for the Audi versus £83,875 for the Nissan – the prices as-tested are actually similar.
Perhaps the best reason to compare the RS5 with the GT-R, though, is that the two cars are actually converging in terms of their reasons for being . Audi argues that its effort is the most dynamic RS5 yet, while the heavily revised Nissan, with its much-improved cabin, is – according to its maker – the most useable and best-appointed GT-R to date.
And if any one of you believes a single word of that, I’ll be amazed. To tell the truth, we’re only testing the RS5 alongside the GT-R because we want to know exactly how good the Audi is. You can drive a new car thousands of miles on all sorts of roads, in all weathers, and ponder until your hair turns white, but if you really want to know how good a performance car is, you simply have to drive it back-to-back with a rival on a really good road.
Our really good road is the B4391 that joins Bala and Ffestiniog in north Wales. Cutting through the spectacular Snowdonia National Park, it’s one of the best stretches of tarmac for testing a quick car that I’ve ever come across.
Although our benchmark for the Audi is approaching its tenth year in production, if the RS5 comes away from this bout with anything other than a red face, we can be pretty sure it’s a very capable performance coupé indeed. A few years ago, I’d have laughed at this comparison, writing off the Audi before a wheel had even turned. But Audi Sport, as Ingolstadt’s go-faster division is now known, has been on good form of late: the R8 is as mighty as it’s ever been, while the new TT RS and RS3 are both far superior to the models they replaced. Audi Sport’s latest might just give the GT-R a fright.
With the two parked side-by-side for the first time in the hotel car park, it’s advantage Nissan. The Audi is more classically handsome and looks more mature but, alongside the snarling, winged-andvented brute, it just looks a tad anonymous. A bit of a soap bar, isn’t it? The flared box arches could be so appealing if they were just a bit more prominent.
The scores are levelled once you open the door, though. The RS5’s slick, high-quality cabin makes the GT-R’s interior look like something you’d store your firewood in –and that’s after the 2017 model year refresh, which introduced a muchimproved dashboard design with more premium switchgear for the minor controls (a special mention for the metal heater controls, which are some of the nicest I’ve ever used).
So the GT-R has more presence and the RS5 the better cabin. Their specs sheets tell very different stories, for while the Nissan is faster and more powerful, the Audi is just so much more modern. Its twin-turbo V6 is an efficient, downsized 2.9-litre unit compared with the GT-R’s raucous, fuel-hungry 3.8. In fact, the RS5 is so much a super-coupé for the modern age that it even does without a dualclutch gearbox. Manufacturers are starting to move away from dualclutch technology because they’re increasingly able to extract ultraquick shift times from smoother, lighter and cheaper torque converter automatics, which is exactly the sort of transmission the RS5 employs.
The Nissan, meanwhile, was among the first to embrace what was a very modern dual-clutch technology a decade ago. Tellingly, as we’ll find out, the two gearboxes feel spookily similar out on the road.
The GT-R is rated at 562bhp, which gives it an advantage of 118bhp over the RS5. The Audi counters with a 1655kg kerb weight, which makes it almost 100kg lighter than the Nissan. Chubbier or not, the GT-R is the faster car, though; it fires from a standstill to 62mph in 2.8sec, more than one second quicker than the RS5.
Even after all these years, the experience of driving the GT-R is as thrilling and distinctive as it’s ever been. After a quick drive along a flowing, well-sighted road such as the B4391, when you get out of the Nissan you feel completely wired and buzzing with energy, as though you’ve just taken a triple hit of some super-strength narcotic.
Given the sheer size and weight of it, you half expect the GT-R to feel dull and cumbersome but, within the first hundred yards behind the wheel, you’re reminded how sharp and agile it really is. It feels brutally fast in a straight line, pulling with a force that seems to build and build the longer you keep your right foot in, gear after gear. The engine doesn’t have the most immediate low-down response, but the mid range is very strong and the final 2000rpm are just insane. The car feels so much fitter than its official 562bhp power figure.
In corners, too, the GT-R feels so much lighter than it really is, thanks partly to steering that’s quick and surprisingly delicate. Also, the GT-R’s Dunlop tyres claw masses of grip out of a dry surface (if you ever you get the thing understeering on the road, you had better hope your affairs are in order), while the natural chassis balance is actually neutral, which means cornering speeds can be absurdly high. There’s real adjustability in the chassis too, ∆ so you can tweak your line and play with the car’s balance at will.
In outright terms, the GT-R is quicker along a road than the RS5 – it simply has more power and mechanical grip – but if you timed yourself from one point to another in each car, you wouldn’t see much of a difference. Roads have speed limits and suicidal sheep and other users, after all. So in the real world, the Audi isn’t much slower than the Nissan, but it’s just nowhere near as thrilling to drive.
You get out of the RS5 impressed, perhaps pleasantly surprised, but you don’t feel so jacked up by the experience that you just have to jump back in, turn around and blast from one end of the road to the other until the fuel tank runs dry. Let’s call it the difference between a very quick, very competent car, and a truly outstanding one.
To get the best out of the RS5, you have to configure the various parameters correctly. The important one is the steering. If you switch it into Dynamic mode, it becomes completely terrible, with too much dumb weight, far too much inconsistency and no real sense of connection to the front axle. In Comfort mode, it is at least sharp, direct and well-weighted. The drivetrain and sport differential should be switched to Dynamic but the suspension left in Comfort. The firmer chassis mode isn’t intolerably stiff, it’s just more enjoyable to feel the car ducking and weaving a little bit as it does in the Comfort setting. That little bit of extra roll in corners and heave as the car rises over a crest or squats into a compression allows you to read it more clearly, to feel the forces that are acting upon it, whereas in the stiffer mode it becomes a touch inert.
It is undoubtedly the most enjoyable and engaging RS5 to date, though. The front end finds huge grip, which means there’s very little understeer in the chassis, and there’s even a degree of mobility to the rear axle. The RS5 is genuinely fun and engaging to drive The torque converter gearbox feels every bit as snappy as the GT-R’s dated twin-clutch unit – there’s just a fractional delay after you pull the paddle, but the shifts themselves are always very quick – and the engine is responsive, strong and energetic at the top end too.
That said, the RS5 is the latest in a growing line of cars to prove that modern, direct injection turbo engines are neither tuneful nor characterful. Its engine is just so forgettable after the GT-R’s fearsome, old-school turbo motor (although the Audi did return 24mpg over the course of the test compared to the Nissan’s 19mpg).
By a huge margin this is the most complete RS5 and it continues Audi Sport’s recent strong run of form. But, in all honesty, it doesn’t get anywhere near matching the GT-R’s intoxicating driving experience. Similarly, the Nissan is entirely shown up by the Audi in terms of refinement and civility. The two cars may have converged ever so slightly but, as super-coupés, they’re still poles apart, and the Nissan GT-R remains firmly on top.
Price £83,875; Engine 3799cc, V6, twin turbo, petrol; Power 562bhp at 6800rpm; Torque 470lb ft at 3600-5800rpm; Gearbox 6-spd twin clutch; Kerb weight 1752kg; Top speed 196mph; 0-62mph 2.8sec; Fuel economy 23.9mpg; CO2 275g/km
Price £61,015; Engine 2894cc, V6, twin turbo, petrol; Power 444bhp at 5700-6700rpm; Torque 443lb ft at 1900-5000rpm; Gearbox 8-spd auto; Kerb weight 1655kg; Top speed 174mph; 0-62mph 3.9sec; Fuel economy 32.5mpg; CO2 197g/km
BUYING A USED GT-R
Having been on sale for the better part of a decade, there are plenty of used GT-Rs to choose from. Prices for early, higher-mileage cars seem to have bottomed out at about £35,000, which still represents very good value for money given the performance on offer, not to mention the driving experience.
However, running costs can be astronomical, so it is important to go in with your eyes wide open. Consumables such as tyres and brakes are used at an alarming rate, while many maintenance jobs come with big bills. The timing chains can stretch, causing the tensioners to wear, for instance. Replacing them is an engine-out, £2000 job. The deployable bonnet, meanwhile – which pops up in the event of a collision with a pedestrian – is single-use and can cost as much as £10,000 to replace.
There are just 10 Nissan High Performance Centres in the UK that are approved to service GTRs. Sellers today write ‘full NHPC history’ in ads to indicate the car has only been looked after by a High Performance Centre.
With each new model year, Nissan tweaked the suspension settings and lifted power outputs. Really well-looked-after cars from 2011 or 2012 start at about £45,000.