2007 Audi RS4 – a speeding ticket waiting to happen? Click image to enlarge
Article and photos by Laurance Yap
It was, perhaps, an unfortunate bit of luck that the weekend I was driving one of the first 420-hp Audi RS4 sedans in the country coincided with the August long weekend, and a well-advertised police crackdown on speeding throughout the province. The RS4 is an awesome car, gorgeous to look at and great to sit in, but not exactly happy when it’s going slowly. At 100 km/h in sixth, it’s just goading you to dig into the gas and go faster. In town at sane speeds, it rumbles and bucks and isn’t that easy to drive smoothly (though, it must be said, the North American version does feel a bit friendlier than the cars we drove in Germany earlier this year).
What struck me, driving the RS4 conservatively – well, accelerating hard away from stoplights in first and second until I upshifted into sixth to cruise nonchalantly along – was that so much of its performance envelope would never be explored: not by most of its owners, who if they never go to a racetrack will likely never understand just how capable it is; and not by me, trying to avoid a traffic ticket during a weekend when there were police cars almost everywhere and I was driving an obviously highly-tuned car with huge wheelarches, raunchy-sounding exhaust, monster 19-inch wheels and no front license plate. It looks illegal, it sounds illegal. If you dare drive it like it was designed to be driven, the RS4 is illegal.
Still, I love excessively powerful cars. Love the idea of them, the way they look, the way they sound, they way they feel when you’re driving them hard. Love, too, that there’s a certain outlaw appeal to their very illegality. But I’ve always favoured smaller, less-powerful sporty cars for myself. The theory being that you can drive them harder more often and not be risking your life or license. But even my perennial favourite four-cylinder sports car, the Mazda Miata, is now powerful enough that it’s seriously quick in a straight line and can maintain cornering speeds around on-ramps well above the posted suggestions. Heck, these days, even the least-expensive economy cars are capable of big speeds. As several of us discovered last year in Quebec on the launch program, the Kia Rio will quite happily and securely motor along at 150 km/h if you keep your foot in it long enough – that’s one and a half times the posted highway limit and an automatic date with a judge if you get caught. Wind out a Honda Civic in second gear – it still has three more, remember – and you’re up to 100 km/h, the speed limit on most 400-series highways.
Signs along Ontario’s Highway 401 serve as reminders of the possible cost of speeding. Click image to enlarge
Our relationship with speed is complicated. On the one hand, we’re reminded every day by the signs along Ontario’s Highway 401 and through public-information campaigns that speed is bad. That it can kill, that it can cost you money and demerit points and your license. On the other, I can’t think of any kind of law anywhere that’s so widely broken so much of the time. Judging by my morning commute, I’m far from the only one exceeding the limit on the way to work, intentionally or not. And doing 120 km/h in the RS4 on my way to the coffee shop where I’m writing this – that’s already a fine of almost $200 – I was passed by an open-topped Jeep TJ with a happy pack of teenagers in it, all looking at the pumped-up RS4 quizzically as if I should have been the one passing them. Preferably in fourth gear with the engine and exhaust blaring, no doubt.
Certainly, we in the media have some responsibility to shoulder for this obsession. Images of speed are everywhere. It may no longer be cool for a movie hero to smoke cigarettes, but car chases are still a staple of many movies (indeed, it could be argued that there’s a whole sub-genre of action flicks that are all about the chase scenes). There’s a whole catalogue of songs in my iTunes library about driving and driving fast. Unlike some countries, which restrict speed-related imagery in advertising, our car ads are full of fast cars doing silly speeds. Heck, there’s a cheeky billboard on the Gardiner expressway right now showing a Chevy Cobalt SS having just been pulled over. “Remember,” it says. “Police officers are your friends.”
Some automotive enthusiast publications don’t help, either. Journalists can lose their objectivity when some car company flies them to a place where going fast is okay, and lets them loose in the latest piece of high-performance machinery. They eagerly describe things like the way the car rides at high speeds, how it handles when the tires are on the edge of adhesion, how the engine sounds when it’s wound right up to its redline. But unless you’re at the track every other weekend, the information you really need is: how will this car behave during my commute? Does it feel like it’ll last for a few years without breaking down? Is there enough room for my family and my stuff?
Car writers are only human. We love having more than we need. More power than we’ll ever use. More gadgets than we’ll ever know what to do with. I call it “the joy of specs.” I like diver’s watches, but I don’t swim; I have a Fisher space pen, but I’ve never been to space; I like fast cars, even though increasingly, I’m driving slower than I used to. Part of it is, I guess, being able to brag to your friends about what your car COULD do if you ever unleashed it. Part of it is the feeling of just having so much complicated machinery at your beck and call.
The RS4’s 420-horsepower V8: one of many elements that makes this newest Audi model a spectacular high-speed cruiser. Click image to enlarge
There’s an important thing to understand about fast cars, though. A faster car is a safer car. All of the things that make a car fast – a powerful engine, big tires, suspension that hugs the road – also mean it’s able to get out of sticky situations faster. When passing on a two-lane road, you’re not exposed to oncoming traffic as long, because you’re able to accelerate faster. More grip makes it easier to swerve around situations that slower cars might not have the time or space to avoid. Most importantly of all, most fast cars (and there are unfortunately a few exceptions) also have much deeper reserves of braking performance than slower cars, meaning you can more likely stop short of an accident instead of becoming one. Mercedes-Benz’s SL55 not only has huge eight-piston front calipers and vented discs; it also senses when it’s raining and gently applies the brakes every once in a while to keep them dry and ready for action.
Fast cars have made slower cars safer, too. Safety features we’re now seeing on more mainstream models – such as ABS, traction control and stability management to name but a few – all originated in fast cars. The Germans, especially, have been instrumental in introducing autobahn technology on less-expensive vehicles, as Volkswagen Beetles have to share the de-restricted sections of their highway system with BMWs and Porsches. These days, you can buy a Kia Sportage SUV for less than $20,000 with standard-fit ABS and stability control, but those technologies owe their existence to the necessity of dealing with high speeds in poor conditions.
I watched an interesting video a couple of years ago from a Japanese TV show called “Best Motoring,” which you may be familiar with if you’re a fan of Japanese cars and tuning. In a face-off between some of the best souped-up Nissan Skylines and some very high-end European machinery, the Skylines came close but lost – and one of the arguments that a presenter made was that the car couldn’t be developed any further until Japan lifted the 180-km/h restriction fitted to all domestic road cars. This, after doing the comparison test on a tight, twisty road course where reaching 180 km/h was an impossibility. I sense what he was getting at – and I agree – was that the development that takes place out on the ragged edge of the speed envelope has tangible benefits even when you’re not going that fast. A car that works well at 250 km/h is just bound to work better at 100 km/h than a car that’s never been beyond 140. You can feel it in the confident way a Porsche finds traction in a rain-slicked corner at high speeds or the way a Mercedes S-class is so serene no matter how fast you’re going.
2007 Audi RS4. Click image to enlarge
There’s another side to all this, of course. I’ve watched enough live crash tests to know the huge difference that even 10 km/h can make in terms of damage, both to the cars involved and the people in them. Speed – or at least, speed used in an inappropriate setting – can indeed kill. And less speed does at some level mean less death, less injury, less damage to property. In the city where cars are parked in parallel and when I can’t see what might be coming out from some side street, I’m usually moving along slower than the rest of the traffic; you’ll never see me speeding or accelerating hard in a residential neighbourhood.
Still, while it’s certainly dangerous, at some level speed is and should be the objective. It’s why the car was invented in the first place: because we were in too much of a rush to walk to where we were going. It’s why we forego our (increasingly fast) cars and suffer the indignity of air travel when we need to cover large distances. It’s why we now use e-mail instead of snail mail. Speed has enabled us to bridge gaps in space and time in our work and in our personal lives; it’s ushered in businesses whose sole objective it is to be faster than the alternatives. People want speed, and they want to go fast; that same great feeling of being on a roller coaster when you were a kid is still there when you accelerate out of a corner in a big, powerful car. For some people – no doubt many of you who read this publication – the pursuit of speed is both intellectually challenging and good for the soul.
Over the course of a week with the gorgeous, fast and highly malicious RS4, I probably found a grand total of about 10 minutes – a little here, a little there – when I managed to find the space and necessary seclusion to feel the pure, unbridled joy of a fantastic machine doing amazing things. Proportionally, that’s a pretty poor return, especially if you’ve just dropped the best part of $100,000 on one. But that’s the weird thing about speed: that 10 minutes was enough to carry me through the rest of the week’s worth of sixth-gear cruising, stop-and-go traffic and general frustration at not being able to stretch its legs.
In other words, a little bit of speed can go a very long way.