Before we test-drove the 2003 Audi RS 6, a 450-horsepower performance sedan that continues to boost this German automaker's reputation as a risk-taking company, we had the chance to talk to former Formula One driver Johnny Herbert. Herbert now races the Audi R8 around the United States and in Europe. "In the old days, an Audi used to be a poor man's Mercedes," he says. "Now, it's getting close to being the other way around. Audi is a very strong-minded, futuristic company." You can tell that upscale jump immediately by the price of the RS 6 -- $85,610 for our test car, which was tricked out with a silver interior and a sound-enhancing exhaust system. Our main question: Is the RS 6, Audi's most powerful production model to date, also a respectable family sedan? SHE: On paper, I was ready to give the RS 6 a black eye. Any car whose top speed is electronically limited to 155 mph seems excessive to me. But there's no doubt that Audi was thinking far beyond the boy-racer mentality when the automaker designed this sedan. I felt that it was about as far from a Viper-style ride as you can get. There are heated seats in the front and rear. The cabin craftsmanship is elegant, with gray poplar wood trim on the dash, console and door panels. The ceiling is swathed in a suede-like fabric. The interior is roomy and the trunk is huge. But how many people are willing to pay $80,000-plus for their family car? It's like those 22-year-old girls who convince their parents to pop for a $10,000 wedding gown. HE: Good thing I didn't have daughters. I'd buy my son an $85,000 Audi before I'd buy my daughter a $10,000 wedding gown. So what was your point again? SHE: I was trying to appear open-minded. HE: Remind me never to let you help plan our sons' weddings. And while you may have locked onto all the luxury aspects of the RS 6, I sure fell in love with car's sheer performance. I also like the fact that the RS 6 is something of a stealth street fighter -- there's no racing stripe down its back or big, bulgy, muscle-bound fenders to give anything away to unsuspecting eyes. I'm mildly amused by the boy-racer cues like the paddle shifters behind the steering wheel so you can have more fun with the five-speed tiptronic-style automatic transmission. You may only be going out for milk, but you can still feel like you're on the Mulsanne Straight at LeMans. SHE: I liked the RS 6 better when I was behind the wheel. In that position, you don't notice the harsh suspension as much as you do from the passenger seat. But I didn't find it particularly easy to drive. Even though it has a tilt-telescoping steering column with a tilt-away feature for easier entry and exit, the RS 6 didn't have adjustable pedals. It was difficult to find a perfectly comfortable driving position. And the steerin g felt a little heavy. It requires more effort than something like a Chevrolet Malibu. The family aspect only goes so far, too. There was a first-aid kit in the rear, but there were no rear cupholders. I had trouble reaching the oil dipstick. You have to wedge your hand down in the engine compartment and reach to get at it. But that hood opener is one of the coolest things I've seen. No more fumbling under the hood to find the latch. When you pop the hood latch, a black tab with a red arrow pops out of the grille and you pull on it. Excellent little feature. HE: As much as I loved to drive the RS 6, I'm not sure it's a better car -- or a better value -- than the BMW M5, which stickers for just over $70,000 and delivers pretty decent 394 horsepower. Of course, you don't get the kick in the pants with the M5 that you do from the Audi's twin turbochargers. SHE You can talk about performance, but I was impressed with the safety features on this Audi. The RS 6 has standard side airbags and air curtains -- you can even get optional rear side air bags. There are standard antilock brakes and a sophisticated anti-slip traction control system. HE: It's safe, it's fast and I'm disappointed to hear that Audi may not sell the 2004 RS 6 in the United States. But there's still the Bimmer. 2003 Audi RS 6 Type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, five-passenger sport sedan Price (Includes $660 destination charge): Base, $82,700; as tested, $85,610 Engine: 4.2-liter V-8; 450-hp; 415 lb-ft torque EPA fuel economy: 15 mpg city/22 mpg highway Key competitors: BMW M5, Jaguar XJR 12-month insurance cost (Estimated by AAA Michigan. Rates may vary depending on coverage and driving record.): $2,712 Where built: Germany Anita's rating: Above Average Likes: Beautiful cabin craftsmanship. Huge trunk. Could pass as a family vehicle. Gorgeous "suede" headliner. Cabin feels roomy. Good storage in doors. Standard side air bags and air curtains. Heated seats front and rear. Coolest hood opener -- pull back tab that pops out of grille. Dislikes: Harsh suspension, especially for passengers. No rear cupholders. Wish it had adjustable pedals, but that would probably be too wimpy. Steering requires some effort. Difficult to reach oil dipstick under engine. Paul's vehicle rating: Above Average Likes: Stealth speedster with a whopping 450 hp engine. Ultra-quick with those twin turbos. Race-inspired shift paddles behind steering wheel. Subtle styling is still sexy. Precise control and road-holding ability. Dislikes: Not sure if it's worth a $12,000 premium over the BMW M5.
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