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The Audi RS7. Courtesy of Audi
The Audi RS7. Courtesy of Audi

The Audi RS7 Sportback can scare you half to death while carrying the entire family

Kevin Hackett gets behind the wheel of the RS7 that was unveiled for the first time in January this year at the Detroit Motor Show.

Can you sum up Audi with one word or phrase? Not too long ago I could have. I would have used the word "dull". The company really lost its way, with a range of yawnsome cars that were often incredibly fast but offered precious little else apart from their famed quattro drivetrains. Really well made, really quick, really safe, really boring. You certainly couldn't accuse Audi of being boring today, especially if you'd just stepped out of its utterly bonkers RS7 Sportback.

Unveiled for the first time in January this year, at the Detroit Motor Show, the RS7 is one of those cars that nobody thought they needed. You still don't need it, but you may well want it, and I can sympathise. In the right colour combo it looks spectacularly good - elegant, rakish, sharp and athletic - and its interior is up to Audi's usual standards. And by that I mean that it's the best in the business; so good that you wonder how an imperfect human being could have been involved in any part of its construction. But its trump cards, the ones that the RS7 keeps up its immaculate sleeves until you get the opportunity to drive it like you stole it, are the way it goes and the way it sounds.

Any RS Audi is fast, but the RS7's pace is nothing short of stupefying. It is laugh-out-loud, ludicrously, head-spinningly, shockingly, joyously, earth-stoppingly, 911 Turbo-baitingly quick. A car this size simply should not be able to crack 100 kilometres per hour in less than four seconds, but it can and it does, all day long if you so wish, and it will keep on accelerating all the way until it's doing 305kph. It could propel you even faster than that, but Audi's techno boffins have given it a speed limiter - let a teenager loose on it with a laptop and you could probably use this thing to outrun a cruise missile.

Of course, there is much more to driver enjoyment than sheer speed and, these days at least, Audi gets that loud and clear, so the RS7 sounds like a 1960s race car. The twin-turbo, 4.0L engine is basically the same as that fitted in Bentley's spectacularly good Continental GT V8, but in the Audi it's been tuned for 560 horsepower and, this is the best bit, a colossal 700Nm of stump-pulling torque. If the Millennium Falcon could sprout wheels, this is the car it would want to be. At low speeds, it woofles like any half-decent V8 but, once you open its taps, it absolutely screams its lungs out. Lift off the throttle and it pops, whizzes and bangs, egging you on to get the throttle nailed again just so that you can enjoy the racket. Even the R8 doesn't sound like this.

So it's supercar quick, sounds like nothing else and looks gorgeous. What's not to like? It might sound ridiculous but, once you begin to compute what you've experienced after even a few minutes behind its chunky steering wheel, you might start to realise that this is a car that's too powerful for its own good on many levels. Performance statistics like the ones that the RS7 bandies around were once the preserve of outlandish, highly impractical and absolutely exotic machines that kept young boys awake at night. At the risk of sounding older than I actually am, I reckon that the RS7 could be the most ridiculous car I'll get to drive this year, and that worries me.

When did this happen? At what point did family hatchbacks start to take on the likes of Ferrari, Lamborghini and the rest of the supercar establishment? It's impossible to say with any degree of certainty, but Audi was there at the start of the revolution, having joined forces with Porsche to develop its RS2 estate car, which was launched in 1993. It was fitted with a 2.2L, turbocharged, five-cylinder engine that was good for more than 320hp, and only 2,800 of these cult classics were built. The RS2 even had Porsche's "Cup" magnesium wheels and its very ridiculousness seemed to set something of a template for a whole host of insanely fast cars that can carry the entire family and double up as an Ikea load-lugger. The RS7 Sportback, then, has a lineage that stretches back at least two decades.

There is a certain appeal when it comes to this kind of car, obviously. The fact that it looks, to all intents and purposes, like a normal big saloon, yet could rinse an Aston Martin at the lights, is its very essence, yet it's delightful on many other levels, too. At the risk of repeating what I've said so many times before, nobody crafts interiors like Audi, so it's an incredibly pleasant environment in which to scare yourself witless. Its exterior design has really grown on me since the A7 Sportback first broke cover, and I take back everything I initially said about it being a pointless exercise - it's one of the most handsome vehicles in production right now. But there's more to it than superficial good looks, because it sticks to the road like a limpet, and this is where its fun really lies.

The car I'm in is fitted with the optional Dynamic Ride Control (DRC) package, which is engineered to reduce pitch and roll. When this is in its Dynamic mode, it makes an excellent fist of keeping the RS7 composed during hard cornering, even though it never manages to fully disguise the fact that it's a heavy car (almost two tonnes, if you're curious).

In RS7s with the standard air suspension and 20-inch wheels, the ride is firm but reasonably comfortable. However, with the DRC option you also benefit from a sports exhaust and, without it, you'd probably be better off buying a straight S7. This is a car that deserves to be heard.

There is also an optional sports suspension which, when combined with 21-inch alloys, makes the car almost undriveable on anything other than billiard table-smooth roads. Whichever suspension you plump for, the steering seems to be at its best in Comfort mode, but it's as detached as any modern system so doesn't inspire confidence when negotiating the often-narrow country roads that Audi has chosen for us.

Any high-performance car needs to be able to stop as effectively as it goes, and the RS7 initially feels reluctant to apply its anchors, requiring an almighty stamp on the pedal before it wipes off speed. Obsessives will probably opt for the optional ceramic brakes but, seriously, unless you're going to spend your weekends with it on a racetrack, you'd be better off pocketing the change. The ceramics don't half squeal, too, which is really embarrassing when you're driving through urban areas and downright annoying when you're on the open road.

This is emphatically not a track day weapon. It's a stonking autobahn cruiser that can adjust the space-time continuum with a flex of one's right foot, and I dearly love it for that. But despite its mighty performance potential, Audi has not forgotten its duty to protect the environment in which it operates, and this aspect, more than the power and pace, is what really boils my brain. Because its ruthless efficiency proves to all that luxury motoring need not be at the expense of the planet.

The V8 engine incorporates a Cylinder on Demand (COD, as if we needed another motoring acronym) system, which shuts off four cylinders under light loads, effectively turning it into a V4. And this, combined with stop-start technology, allows it to achieve an average consumption of 9.8L per 100km and emit 229 grams of CO2 per km - figures that would have seemed impossible for cars such as this less than a decade ago.

But I still can't bring myself to recommend that you go out and put down a deposit on an RS7, despite all the many things it has going for it. Because, for all its efficiency, its intoxicating soundtrack, its stunning build quality and its sure-footedness, it's still too fast for our roads. When a car like this can seat the family in splendour and comfort, you owe it to them to make sure that they'll reach their destination alive with all limbs intact, and this Audi simply encourages hooliganism at the wheel. When there's so much potential waiting to be unleashed, you end up using it; it's as simple as that.

After I hand back the key to my RS7's guardian, and after a quick change of underwear, I'm treated to a whistle-stop tour of Audi's inner sanctum, the factory in Neckarsulm, Germany, where the RS models and R8s are fitted with their optional extras. A hushed atmosphere pervades as the company's finest technicians and engineers go about their business, ensuring the most exacting quality control is upheld. It's situated in the oldest part of the factory and journalists have, until now, not been permitted to see what goes on in there. It's the polar opposite of mass production, where everything is hand-fettled and checked over with microscopic precision by perfectionists evidently proud to be wearing their famed red overalls. And after just a few minutes observing these men and women, I find myself forgiving the RS7 for its ridiculousness, because it's entirely evident that these are incredibly special vehicles that inspire enthusiasts all over the world. It's just a pity that the only country in which you can legally enjoy its prodigious power is the one that builds it.

Yes, the RS7 has me confused. I admire it greatly, yet I think it's irresponsible and it's a car that cannot fail to impress, whether you like it or not. But where will it all end, this insatiable thirst for ever-greater performance? It probably won't and, deep down, I'm as glad about that as anyone. If the RS7 does it for you, you can put in an order this autumn. Prices for the UAE are yet to be fixed, but in Germany it starts at 113,000 (Dh545,789).

khackett@thenational.ae

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