I’m nervous. Hit with conflicting feelings. The Audi RS2 is a car I know I should want to drive with every fibre of my being, and yet, I’m not sure I do at all. It seems like a hero I probably shouldn’t meet.
Largely developed by Porsche and assembled in the same Rossel-Blau plant as the 959 and the Mercedes 500E, the RS2 is a bonafide performance car legend. A game-changing, inline-five monster that launched a fast estate dynasty which continues to this day with the new RS6. But it did so a long time ago - the one I’m clutching the key for right now is 24 years old. What if it feels slow? What if it underwhelms?
If the experience doesn’t pan out as I’m dearly hoping it will, the example I’ve been allowed to pilot certainly can’t be blamed. The 1996 model hasn’t even hit 4000 miles yet, has been meticulously looked after by Audi UK’s heritage fleet people for years, and is even finished in the right colour - Nogaro Blue.
Sliding into the driver’s seat (complete with blue insert - natch), I’m treated to a view of the outside world only briefly obstructed by piddly A, B and C pillars. You have to love the glasshouses of older cars, and also the simplicity - built long before the days of start buttons and drive mode switches, setting off in the RS2 merely involves twisting the key in the barrel and setting off.
Having been driven to our shoot location by someone else, the RS2’s 2.2-litre, 315bhp inline-five is already warm. Porsche really went to town on it, fitting the S2-sourced lump with a bigger turbocharger along with a new intercooler, camshafts, injectors and a fresh exhaust system. And boy, does it go. Eventually.
That bigger K24 turbo spends a significant portion of the rev range letting you know what it’s about to do, before finally coming on song from 4000 - 5000rpm. It’s worth the wait - at that magic point, the RS2 aggressively launches forward, warbling five-pot soundtrack present and correct.
315bhp can be extracted from extremely ordinary engines these days, but with the RS2, you get a real sense of it pushing the limits of what was possible at the time. It’s brimming with excitement and energy, ready to burst at any moment. Well, so long as the revs are sufficiently high.
I’ve no trouble at all believing this is a car capable of hitting 0-60mph in 4.8 seconds. Perhaps even more impressive, Autocar tested the 0-30 on an RS2 not long after its debut, and it took just 1.5 seconds to do the deed. It could shout about it a little more, though - the stock pipework is noticeably hushed.
The 2.2 still needs to be revved to get the best of out of it, despite peak torque of 302lb ft coming in at 3000rpm. Once it’s time to change gear, you call upon a six-speed manual gearbox which gives a satisfying mechanical feeling with every short-throw shift. Best not think about the fact Audi doesn’t offer a single one of its performance cars with a manual any more.
Scrubbing off speed involves the use of another Porsche part - brakes pinched from a 968 CS, which sit under Carrera Cup wheels. They do the job well enough, with good pedal spacing making for easy rev-matching on corner approach.
In classic quattro Audi fashion, the cast-iron block five-pot is mounted longitudinally and far forward, meaning nose heaviness is unavoidable. It doesn’t hamstring the RS2 as much as expected, though, partly down to the traction from its all-wheel drive system. Even back then, Audi was a master at building cars capable of throwing down big torque figures on greasy surfaces without even a hint of wheelspin.
Even compared to the modern S6 TDI I was in earlier today with its clever electronics, rear-wheel steering and air suspension, the RS2 is supremely capable. It will even give a little nudge at the rear axle from time to time. There’s some body roll, but the damping’s composed and well resolved, on the whole, settling down quickly whenever taxed.
Although Audi is keen for this car to be used, there are limits to how far one can push the mileage. I ought to get back and return this RS2 to its hibernation, but just one more session on this twiddly bit of road can’t hurt, surely?
Returning the RS2 a little later than anticipated, I’m just about satisfied. I’m left wanting more, but I’m not sure the thirst for five-pot Audi RS goodness can ever be quenched - this is a car you’ll never want to stop driving.
My fears, it turns out, were for nothing. Not all performance cars stand up to modern scrutiny, but the RS2 has blitzed my expectations with a furious throaty warble.