No matter how he outlines it, Iain Robertson adores the sound of a proper engine working, which is a signature that has proven more difficult for carmakers to engineer into their models, in an era defined by ‘drive-by’ noise rules and other changes.
It is worth highlighting that ‘faux tones’, such as those offered by the current BMW Mini Cooper S and both Fords Fiesta and Focus ST models, are not what I consider to be musical in any way. While there is no denying the ingenuity applied to an engine mapping system that allows ‘pops and farts’ on the over-run, or with every upshift, to make them sound far racier than they are, tied to meeting exacting noise legislation standards, they are little more than a cheeky dabble in the water’s edge of automotive musicality.
Every ‘classic’ car emits a signature exhaust note, whether from the tearing calico of a Bugatti Type 35B, the bellowing US thunder of a Pontiac Grand-Am, or the siren screeching of a Ferrari 360 Modena. However, enforced by regulations and the re-application and recycling of exhaust emissions by turbocharged engines (that effect their own ‘silencing’), while some carmakers have attempted to plumb-in induction ‘roar’ to the cabin, using some form of sonic pipework, unless your car is equipped with an aftermarket (and often questionably legal) exhaust system, sound characteristics are largely ignored.
For a number of years, French carmaker Renault has employed a ‘symposer’ within its infotainment system fitted to its sportier (RenaultSport) variants. While not intentionally concealed, when you do locate the appropriate screen, you can dial-in anything from a Scania Truck to a Bultaco motorbike, and every rise and fall of the actual car’s engine notes are all reproduced and played-back faithfully through its speaker system, in the specific sound modes selected. Handing back a Renault test car, with the Bultaco, or F1 racing car sound simulation engaged at full volume is a typical journalistic jape for Renault’s long-suffering logistics personnel to endure. Sorry.
Yet, Renault is playing a politically-correct game, as the exterior racket is as subdued as most city-cars. Of course, I am not suggesting that fitting a ‘big bore’ tailpipe that is sure to upset the neighbours, let alone the local constabulary, while setting-off car alarms on narrow streets, where the subsequent sonic waves are reflected off high-rise office-blocks, is a means to a symphonic end. In most cases, such fitments would simply fail an MOT Test and what would be the point of that?
For Audi, the luxury/sporting arm of the VW Group, I still harbour fond memories of its five-cylinder Quattro engine yowling offbeat through Kielder Forest, accompanied by wastegate chirrups and the occasional explosive bang of an over-fuelled competition exhaust, during the 1980s peak of the UK rallying scene. It was both blood-curdling and ineffably exciting. At night-time, with brake discs glowing yellow, wastegate spluttering orange spumes and blue flames emerging staccato from a competition department tailpipe, it could be both terrifying and remarkably engaging.
For Audi business buyers of the latest TTRS, RS3 and V10 R8 models, it would be fair to state that the ‘symposers’ have returned. The evergreen TT and the fresher RS3 in their hottest guises develop not just 396bhp and sub-4.0s 0-60mph potential from their turbocharged 2.5-litre five-pot engines (the TTRS being the marginally speedier and more raucous) but also a cleaner, more refined soundtrack that accentuates the famous, full-throttle offbeat rumble redolent of Audi’s rallying past.
Invest almost twice the price in an 566bhp R8 (605bhp in performance form) and its glorious V10 engine also delivers similar visceral thrills, the guttural V10 lacking both the revviness of a multi-valve V8 and the silken flood of a V12. Of course, mention of price also ventures into telephone number territory, with the mid-engined R8 listed as starting from £128,295, rising to £162,885, when specified in performance carbon trim. It makes the RS3 Sportback look like a bargain at £46,285 (the saloon variant adds £1,000), while the TTRS starts at £53,905 in coupe form, the top Audi Sport Roadster (drop-top) version costing £59,655.
Naturally, as desirable as the R8 is, armies of potential buyers are not exactly going to overcrowd showrooms seeking an example. Even in ‘stock’ trim, this is a car that remains moderately rare. In fact, the Porsche 911, which is a car with an unmistakable signature exhaust composition, outsells it by a decent margin. On the other hand, with highly competitive corporate lease rates available from the dealer network and myriad online specialists, an RS3, or TTRS, falls within the bounds of relative monthly affordability, aided in no small part by strong residual values for the much-appreciated models.
With interior detailing to the customary high levels expected of an Audi, clad in finest Nappa diamond-stitched hide, or plush Alcantara ‘suede’, proper aluminium alloy trimmings (made, incidentally and specifically for Audi, by Danish hi-fi experts, Bang & Olufsen), tactile dashboards and door cards, it is little wonder that driver satisfaction comes as standard. Very few company car drivers want for much more.
However, appealing to senses that may have remained unstirred in recent times, it is the engine music and exhaust symphony that will seal the deal. The gruff five-cylinder and chocolatey V10 engines that are the pick of the crop from Audi’s stock cupboard are what make the difference. No. They are not excessively boisterous but you can hear the engines working and that is where the magic lies. Like a monk removing his tabard and venturing into civvy street following years of non-communicative cloisterisation, Audi is reflecting on its past and giving those of us able to afford its toys a reason to play the compositions.
If we could only market ‘scratch’n’hear’ technology, you would be captivated by Audi’s musical attractions. If you still have soul within, then the hottest offerings from Audi will be like a sweet chilli gumbo blaring sonorous New Orleans jazz. Try it. You might like it!