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Road trip

Team OD  | Published: September 16, 2011, 02:38 PM IST

Where are the roads, they always ask. Show the average Indian an awesome car or motorcycle and they will immediately ask this spirit-sucking, depressing question. If you live in Mumbai, or indeed Pune, the answer is right here, writ large and eloquent on the white concrete of the expressway that connects the two stalwarts of Maharashtra. Currently passing in a delightfully even, un-pothole-interrupted blur under the fat tyres and compliant suspension of this scarlet Audi RS5.

It isn't perfect like the roads near Audi's home, Ingolstadt in Germany to be sure. But despite the ripples, a fair smattering of uneven concrete and incredibly harsh expansion joints over the numerous bridges the RS5 handles the punishment well, and our love for the expressway diminishes not.

Part of our love for the road, of course, stems from the simple fact that we know what life was like without it. They say cellphones and digital cameras revolutionised the automotive journalism business and no one can remember clearly what life was like without them. The expressway is the same to us, except that we clearly remember the seven hour jams crossing the knotted roads of Lonavla. Where truck after truck would huff and puff and blow substantially nothing more than thick black smoke out the pipe without gaining any ground at all. It was as if the truckers had banded together to play an elaborate, smelly practical joke on all of us, stuck in our 800s and Ambys. Over the years, the monthly drive from Pune to Mumbai to close issue and back, has seen off-roading, field-ploughing and other unconventional means adopted to skirt the epic jams.

So epic we these jams, that in 1998, someone in the Government decided a fancy, fast road was in order. Once they started on the project, they realised that no one in the private sector could handle the scope of the project. So was born the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation, MSRDC, which took over the project and then farmed out sections to various contractors. The hilly terrain meant Konkan Railway, those mountain tamers of renown were brought in to shaft the unsuspecting hills into expressway-ready shapes. Tons of concrete and armco later, the expressway opened. Years later, it is OVERDRIVE's version of the Mother Road a la Steinbeck.

And this Audi is perhaps the sporty car that feels the right-est on it. This RS5, based on the A5 just like the bonkers RS6 was based on the A6, has Comfort, Dynamic and Sport modes which help conquer the imperfections in amazing style, with each mode able to tune the suspension, throttle response and steering feel to suit. For the straights, just leave the RS5 in Comfort. It remains sporty in character but is able to feel supple but stiffly damped enough for complaints to be held in abeyance. Dynamic mode brings more feel and sharpness while Sport can be a bit over the top stiff, though electric in steering feel, throttle response and super responsive in turning.

The short expressway stretch that passes through Lonavla is properly twisty. It wasn't in the original design, but then that design endangered the mousedeer and the giant malabar squirrel. On this stretch, the RS5 shows what an amazing car it is. Suddenly, the stiff comfort of the car plays second fiddle to its storming ability to corner flat and hard, respond to inputs and stay on its line while the expressway tries it hardest to deflect the potent Audi from its intended path. It's an epic matchup, one that I enjoyed thoroughly despite the wet conditions.

Which is probably where the beauty of the Quattro four-wheel drive comes into play. This RS5 has a new generation setup which uses a planetary gear differential that is able to direct torque to where grip is. All this gear business is designed to run a 40:60 front-rear torque split, with as much as 85 per cent rear biasing or 70 per cent front biasing possible when wheels are slipping. But it also stays in touch with the braking and electronics which gives this Audi torque vectoring capabilities. The car automatically brakes slipping inner wheels, directs more torque to the outside wheels to curb any understeer that might rear its head swiftly, almost before you can sense it, long before the traction control has to cut in and save that pretty bodywork from crashing into the ever-leering Armco.

Part of the blame for all this electronickery also lies in the bonkers engine under the hood. Just like the 3-4km long straights of the expressway seem wildly out of proportion to the rest of the Indian roads, the RS Audis have always boasted wild engines under their bonnets. The RS5 boasts an R8 based 4163cc normally aspirated FSI V8 that puts out 430Nm of torque between 4000 and 6000rpm on its way to its 450PS peak power, which comes at a stratospheric 8250rpm, just 250rpm short of the redline. And yet, Audi says the car manages 9.3kmpl in mixed driving (European cycle). To achieve this, the hand built (yes, in Györ, Hungary) engine uses all manner of optimisations and energy recuperation systems. The 90 degree long-stroke V8 is fed by direct injection which uses 120 bar pressure to fill the high compression 12.3:1 engine. 32 large diameter valves with roller cam followers, four camshafts have a set of tumble flaps in the intake to promote charge tumble (increases efficiency) while another set in the hydroformed exhaust opens at high revs for a glorious, richer sound. The RS5 is also the first time a high revving engine has been mated to Audi's seven-speed S-tronic transmission, featuring an extra tall seventh gear for economy. Like most twin clutch gearboxes the S-tronic is always in one even gear and one odd one, allowing super quick shifts. And should you ask, reverse is on the even gear set clutch (aka K2).

What this adds up to is immense, but never frantic performance. and gratuitous throttle blipping to hear that exhaust roar, crackle and then burble happily. Did I mention that the expressway has loads of tunnels? Which means coasting and then filling the tunnel with the glorious sound of the V8 every single time. Or play with the paddle shifters to force downshifts and listen to the blip and howl issuing from the exhaust.

To talk numbers, the RS5 is limited to 280kmph but will hit a hundred in just 5.23 seconds, while the quarter mile is demolished in 13.88 seconds.

And just like the expressway compresses its 96km traverse into a short time without requiring you to drive like a maniac, the RS5 delivers blistering performance without things becoming frantic at the wheel. Hell, it sometimes feel too restrained, especially when you realise that the interiors are an all-black design that is typically Audi, with very few details that tom-tom the sporty nature of the automobile. The front two sit in magnificent comfort while we discovered that the rear plus two seats are comfortable for short stints even for adults, but you wouldn't be driving the family to a wedding in one of the these.

It is really sad that the distance between Mumbai and Pune is so short. A 96km on the expressway and you start seeing the signs that say the glorious road is coming to an end. That congested roads, slow traffic et al lie just ahead. So hard is the transition that we still, years later, have to consciously alter our driving state of mind, slow down, and drive as cautiously as India normally requires.

In that sense, the RS5 and the expressway are both liberators. The Audi is no luxury sedan, but while remaining a firmly sprung sportscar, its adaptive suspension regularly showed that it had the chops to deal with our roads. It didn't smother away bad roads, but given its other well-developed assets, it brought the ride to a point where the stiff ride quality wasn't a prohibitive issue in daily use. There's the little bit of tramlining from the low profile tyres, some movements both vertical and lateral over undulating roads and even a bit of crashing noises from the suspension over really, really badly ripped up surfaces, but nothing that suggests that the car is too fragile or too stiff for our roads. Whenever I slowed down enough, the electronics and the car make me comfortable. It liberates me from wanting a sporty car and having to buy a second more realistic car to drive on a daily basis. Spend the ` 75-odd lakh (ex-showroom) and you're done.

And then just drive out to the Mother Road. Leave the chaos, the potholes and the indiscipline behind. There's still a few idiots out on the expressway, but their population in the mix is far lower. Set up a high-speed cruise, burn through the sweepers and the corners and arrive at either the motorcycle capital of India, or the commercial capital of India feeling refreshed and cheerful just an hour or so later. It's pure brilliance.

If you haven't experienced this road, you have still to drive the best road in India. You still have to experience the answer to that annoyingly pessimistic question. Just remember one thing, if you see a red RS5 gaining on you, indicate left, pull out of top lane and wave as I roar by.

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