Waking up to snow on the ground, the first of the season according to locals, I was glad to have keys to the RS5 in my pocket. Yet despite possessing two of Europe's greatest performance cars, it didn't prevent day two of our epic journey becoming an exercise in hyper-miling.
Thirty miles of hills and valleys to the nearest gas station, with 20 miles range in the tanks, this would be an extraordinary contrast to the 140mph dashes we'd experienced the day before and, to be honest, the reason we were in a pickle now...
We were at 7800ft, so it would be a test of nerve and agility as we selected neutral and coasted down the very steep descents to our fossil-fueled salvation. This must be what driving an electric car is like every day: I'm not sure my nerves could cope!
Equipped with the brand-new 2013 Audi RS5 and BMW M3, we needed a remarkable road trip to unravel the mysteries within. But where do you take such legendary automobiles to give them context?
Dropping a pin in the map, we headed to the Land of Giants: a 700-mile round trip to the Sequoia National Park, home to the largest trees on the planet and the second oldest park in the country.
If you ever feel life is losing perspective, take a trip to California's Sierra Nevada mountain range and check out the groves of Sequoias. Growing up to 300ft tall and living about 3000 years, these redwoods are beyond majestic. Their ancient forests provided an incomparable destination for our journey.
Taking two steroidal V8s into a tranquil paradise might seem anathema, but we were careful to observe posted speed limits within the park to protect the abundant wildlife and avoid distracted visitors. Nobody needs two hooligans racing through such an idyllic environment. But the roads into and out of the park were fair game, and the granite rock walls created echo chambers for these high-revving V8s.
Ever since the original Sport quattro was followed by the RS2 circa 1994 there has been great excitement surrounding Audi's flagship performance models. Although the RS2 was the bastard child of a relationship with Porsche, quattro GmbH took the reins for the B5 RS4 and continued the trend for exciting wagons that have included the RS6, RS3 and the new B8 RS4 Avant currently waiting in the wings.
Until the TT RS came along in '09, every RS model had at least four doors and usually space for the dog, but the 2013 RS5 is the first to come close to replicating the formula of the original Audi quattro. In fact, the RS5 shares similar blistered fenders as a nod to its roots.
Yet rather than the Ur's five-cylinder 20v turbo motor, the RS5 uses an updated version of the B7 RS4's 4.2L V8. You've only got to look at its specification to understand Audi used the BMW M3 as its measuring stick during development. Of course, that's no surprise since Munich's finest is the benchmark for the entire industry. So while we originally toyed with comparing the RS5 to the Ur quattro for nostalgic reasons, common sense brought us back to the M3.
We also considered the Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG Coupe, since it competes closer on price and horsepower. It's 6.2L V8 makes 451hp and 443 lb-ft, accelerates to 60mph in 4.4sec and costs $64935 (including destination and gas guzzler), but specified to the same level as the RS5 it reaches $69795. Yet we felt it was less focused than these finely honed machines, so was excluded.
The first part of our journey would involve several hundred miles of Southern California's congested arteries. We set out early Sunday morning to avoid the traffic and made good time.
Starting in the RS5, I was won over by the comfortable surroundings: its supportive S sports seats in Fine Nappa leather, the MMI infotainment system, thick-rimmed steering wheel and the RS carbon fiber inlays.
Audi's Google Earth navigation is a great feature of the $3550 MMI Package that also included HD radio, Bluetooth, an excellent B&O sound system, parking camera, Audi connect and voice control. We had a few glitches with the nav taking us to the wrong destinations, but otherwise it seemed instinctive to use.
Although our M3 was a stripped-down version, to achieve the same level of equipment you'd need the $1350 nav, $1900 Enhanced Premium sound system and $380 parking distance control. Even then, it's not a precise match but you can get the $250 BMW Apps that allows you to access web radio, Facebook feeds, news, etc via your phone.
For sheer opulence, though, the Audi wins this round. It's a beautifully equipped interior that BMW can virtually match in specification and quality, but the M3's minimalist approach can feel less inviting. Undoubtedly it's a question of personal preference, as we'll repeat endlessly throughout this comparison.
However, there's another very important aspect of the interior, and that's the driving environment. Both have great seats, good positioning and chunky steering wheels, but the M3 is the only car with a conventional handbrake. It's also the only one with a manual transmission option.
At the launch of the RS5 (EC 11/12), quattro's head of development, Stephan Reil, explained to us how poor sales of the TT RS 6MT meant we'd never see another clutch pedal in an RS model. And while both Audi and BMW offer magnificent dual-clutch semi-automatic solutions, BMW confirmed it will continue to offer a manual transmission to enthusiasts who want it. Having run an M3 6MT for a year, I can confirm there's something magical about the three-pedal set-up in such musclecars.
Firing up the Audi V8 elicits a loud snarl that settles into a deep rumble. The noise is omnipresent and welcome entertainment. In Sport mode, the dual-clutch gearbox performs marvelous rev-matching blips that make you feel like a racecar driver, but it's in the high speed ranges where the engine comes alive.
Its exhaust note was deeper, louder and richer than we remembered the M3's but, side-by-side, the BMW sacrificed little. It was more restrained at lower RPMs but, screaming towards its 8500rpm redline, the more mechanical voice was no less enjoyable. Side-by-side, bouncing of valley walls and piercing the crisp morning forest air, we were treated to two of the finest songs ever sung. It was spine-tingling.
Put to the vote, the RS5 is more melodious. But an aftermarket exhaust on the M3 (which you can afford with its cheaper price) would make it a tie.
Despite the soundtrack, we were surprised to discover the noise falls away when cruising.
The Audi felt more relaxed than the M3, even though it didn't have the BMW's Electronic Damping Control. In fact, US versions lost the adjustable damping when bumper regulations sacrificed the system's mounting point. As a result, the Audi's "drive select" button affects steering weight, throttle response, shift points, sport diff settings and exhaust valves.
The M3's EDC allows you to choose three suspension settings, while separate buttons control throttle response, shift speed and traction control, with the optimum setting available via the steering wheel "M" button. That said, even in its comfort setting, the EDC couldn't match the Audi.
The RS5 proves that one good suspension setting is enough. Admittedly, adjustable suspension allows you to create either bone-jarring track or soft comfort settings, but which one best suits the coil springs? Or is everything a compromise? As it happens, the M3's EDC is among the best in the business but we preferred the RS5's overall compromise in most situations.