Audi RS range drag race: is the R8 really the fastest Audi you can buy?

Audi’s top-of-the-range RS performance models have developed a reputation as rocketships that can trounce almost anything away from a set of traffic lights. Thanks to the firm’s quattro all-wheel-drive system and monstrously powerful engines.

The current range of very-very-fast Audi models stretches all the way from the £39,000 RS3 hatchback, past the roomy £79,000 RS6 estate up to the range-topping £135,000 R8 two-seat supercar.

Audi RS drag race
Vehicle Engine Power 0-62mph (claimed) Top speed
Audi R8 5.2-litre V10 610hp 3.2 seconds 205mph
Audi RS6 4.0-litre V8 twin-turbo 605hp 3.7 seconds 155mph
Audi RS3 2.5-litre five-cylinder turbo 367hp 4.3 seconds 155mph
Audi RS2 2.2-litre five-cylinder turbo 315hp 4.8 seconds 163mph
Audi S1 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo 231hp 5.8 seconds 155mph
Ducati 959 Panigale 955cc V-twin 157hp 3.2 seconds 165mph

We lined them up side-by-side on the runway at Bruntingthorpe in Lincolnshire to see how much the performance increases as you spend more money. OK, and because it sounded like a bit of a giggle. To see for yourself just how much fun we had, watch our 4K video (above). To keep things slightly down to earth we also got our hands on a relatively entry-level Audi performance car – the small-yet-potent S1, yours for a relatively reasonable £25,000.

Look closely and you’ll find plenty of evidence of Porsche’s involvement in the RS2

We were lucky that Audi liked the sound of our drag race so much it brought the very first production RS model to see how things have come along. Cue plenty of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from grown men as a mint 1996 Audi RS2 was lowered from its trailer, complete with Porsche brake calipers, classic Nogaro blue paint and just 1,720 miles on the clock.

Race 1: RS2 vs S1

To say Audi is precious about this particularly gorgeous RS2 is a bit like saying bears occasionally defecate in forests so, once its fluids were warmed up, we merely submitted it to a rolling-start quarter-mile drag race – giving the RS2’s original clutch an easy a time as possible. We also started the race with the RS2 at about 3,500rpm in first gear, so the turbo was already spooled up ready to fire it down the runway.

On paper, the RS2 should have won – a claimed 311hp and reputation for beating its contemporaries made it the hot favourite. In reality, the S1 stormed off the line – its 230hp 2.0-litre, four-cylinder engine outpunched the RS2’s venerable 311hp, 2.2-litre five-cylinder turbocharged unit. You can thank improvements in turbocharging technology for the S1’s superior acceleration lower in the rev range. The RS2’s 1,600kg weight also held it back against the relatively flyweight 1,300kg S1.

In the end, the S1 took the win by about two car lengths so, yes, Audi’s 2016 entry-level performance car is faster than 1994’s hottest offering. Time to send the aged RS2 back to its hangar and ramp things up with some more modern metal.

Our drag-race line up (L – R) – Audi RS3, R8, RS6, S1

Race 2: S1 vs RS3 Sportback vs RS6 Performance vs R8 V10 Plus

This was the big one. Despite Audi’s clearly defined model hierarchy, there were a few surprises here – we expected the 360hp RS3 with its weight advantage to keep the RS6 in sight for at least the first stage of the quarter-mile race but, in reality, the S1 was its closest rival, keeping almost level with the RS3 until two-thirds of the way down the drag strip.

The other big shock was the close finish between the 610hp RS6 Performance and the R8, which packs roughly the same power as the RS6, albeit without the estate car’s two turbochargers and far less weight. The RS6 was quicker off the line thanks to its simple torque converter auto gearbox – the R8’s dual-clutch system has a launch control function but, until you balance the brake pedal perfectly, it bogs down for a split-second on launch – enough time to let the RS6 get the upper hand and pull out a couple of car-lengths.

Once we’d learnt the idiosyncrasies of the R8’s launch control system, the supercar just romped off down the runway, its lightweight construction helping it fly through the quarter mile while the RS6 sledgehammered its way through the air around a second behind. Third place went to the RS3 narrowly ahead of the S1.

The lesson here is that, if you’ve spent £135,000 on your Audi R8 supercar, you only enjoy a slight straight-line advantage over someone in an RS6 Performance – and they’ll be able to terrify the entire family and dog at the same time. Given a long enough runway, the R8 would go on to more than 200mph, whereas the RS6 would hit its limiter between 155 and 190mph, depending on whether you’ve bought the optional – and pricey – speed limiter increase from Audi.

Physics favour launching a four-wheel-drive supercar over a one-wheel-drive motorbike

Race 3: Audi R8 vs Ducati 959 Panigale

A bit of a curveball this one. We then took the R8 and pitched it against Ducati’s baby superbike, the 959 Panigale.


Well, Audi owns Ducati and, at £13,000, the bike costs less than one-tenth of an R8, but still packs 157hp in its 955cc two-cylinder engine. In terms of claimed quarter-mile times, it runs the R8 very close, but our real-world experience was a little different.

Whereas the R8 is simple to launch, the 959’s lack of wheelie or launch control means the limiting factor when launching it is the rider’s skill and lack of inhibitions. We used an average road rider and, despite heroic attempts, he always lost three car lengths on the R8 – after which the bike’s power-to-weight ratio kept the gap with the supercar constant until they crossed the line. That’s the benefit of having four fat tyres putting power to the ground, versus one credit-card sized patch of rubber transmitting the bike’s efforts to the road surface.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, an automatic supercar is far easier to launch quickly in a straight line than a manual bike which bucks and rears off the line. It’s fair to say the latter is significantly more involving though…

Audi you like that?

Unsurprisingly, the overall winner of the day was the R8. Its exotic lightweight chassis, vocal high-revving V10 engine and all-wheel drive propel it well north of 120mph over the quarter mile. It’ll comfortably do it over and over again, and you’ll never tire of its V10 howl in the process.

In fact, we launched each car more than a dozen times on a very hot day and we didn’t hear a whimper of complaint from a clutch, gearbox or engine. Even the ‘baby’ RS3 is capable of such strident off-the-line acceleration that you’re left feeling a little queasy if you’re not prepared for the violence of the launch.

In conclusion, what we proved is that Audi’s fastest four-wheel-drive cars are, indeed, very fast, and you don’t have to spend six-figures to get truly stomach-troubling acceleration. But, if you can afford the R8, you should buy one immediately.

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