Is there a more iconic embodiment of Audi than the RS4 Avant? TT? Maybe. R8? Sexy as hell and the pinnacle of the brand, but the RS4 Avant combines Audi’s pillars of practicality, luxury, quattro security and solidity in one box-arched bundle of fun. And there’s something about the understated cool of a fast wagon that makes a car enthusiast slightly weak at the knees. That the aesthetic isn’t dominated by a waist-high stance or towering wing gives the fast wagon an appeal way beyond its humble two-box origins. With nameplates such as RS2, RS4 and RS6, when it comes to uber Avants, Audi has been defining the genre for a quarter of a century. You can trace the lineage of the current-generation RS4 back to the 1995 RS2 on page 100, but it’s clear that it remains true to the original idea of packaging supercar performance within a practical, dogs-and-all body style.
Obvious RS4 cues such as the pumped-up and squared-off guards remain for the fourth-generation, but there has been a dramatic switch under the bonnet. Gone is the sonorous naturally aspirated 4.2-litre V8 that has served the RS4 for two generation; in its place is a 2.9-litre twin-turbocharged V6. While the change is an obvious reflection of the downsizing and turbocharging trend that is sweeping the industry, the RS4 has history with this configuration, launching back in 1999 with a 2.7-litre twin-turbocharged V6.
With 331kW, the new engine matches the power output of the old V8, but its 600Nm torque peak is a full 40 per cent more robust and it’s available over an incredibly broad plateau (1900-5000rpm). The 331kW peak is on song from 5700-6700rpm, and the engine is keen to hit those high notes. Perhaps more importantly, the new engine (fully dressed with ancillaries, turbos and associated plumbing) is 31kg lighter than the V8 it replaces. And that saving is directly over the front axle where it can provide most benefit to the new RS4’s dynamic character. Overall, the 1715kg gen-four RS4 is 80kg lighter than the car it replaces, and you can save a further 8kg by optioning the forged alloy wheels of our test car, and another 8kg by opting for the carbon ceramic brakes. And the brake and wheel savings are reductions from the unsprung mass of the RS4 for even greater dynamic benefit.
Not surprisingly, the RS4 drives in a very similar manner to the closely related RS5 – a car that we’ve praised previously, especially so after prolonged exposure on our Fast Fleet. Our long-term experience with the RS5 highlighted that its charms very much grow on you over time. That’s not to say that the initial impression is lacking, just that on first acquaintance, it doesn’t grab you by the lapels and shake you off your feet like the more boisterous German coupes and sedans are prone to do.
However good the RS5, it’s inevitably that the RS4 generates the most anticipation. That’s what a certain amount of tradition can do for a car, and in the RS4’s case it has effectively annexed the super-wagon market with a thoroughness verging on default status.
The latest version has most in common with the B5 original of 1999-2002. For a start, it’s powered by a turbocharged V6 of under 3.0-litres displacement, no longer a rev-hungry V8, and once again it will only be available in the wagon body style (the RS5 Sportback is the effective replacement for any RS4 sedan). However, one aspect it shares with all of its forebears is that it is a natural looker – it seems no one can do fast estates quite like Audi Sport. With our test car’s lustrous Misano Red paint, deeply dished optional 20-inch milled aluminium wheels and those familiar box arches, you won’t be mistaking this RS4 for a 2.0 TDI A4 Avant. Ever.
Climb into the driver’s seat and you’ll find the cabin either pleasingly functional or drearily predictable. It’s an A4, of course, and as rational, upright and upstanding in its Germanic delivery as you’d expect, yet at the same time there’s a keen sense that what matters has been executed ruthlessly well. Your hands grasp a delectable, flat-bottomed, Alcantara-covered wheel, while the gear selector is similarly clad; admittedly, the Alcantara is an option in both cases, but the sports seats are standard, and have moveable bolsters and an extendable base cushion for a snug embrace. The driving position, for me at least, is without fault.
Thumb the starter button and the V6 fires through the sports exhaust (optional in other markets but standard in Australia) with the same extrovert whoop as an RS5, but then quickly quietens and idles away with a subtle murmur of considerable depth. Prime Comfort on the Drive Select and tug the gear selector down to D and the car moves away with oily ease, riding with a suppleness completely alien to RS products prior to recent times. Whenever the road’s topography gets lumpy there’s a clear sensation of the Dynamic Ride Control dampers using up their full stroke to combat unwanted movement, rather than of the car fighting the road in aggressive retaliation.
It’s at this precise moment that the path ahead forks two ways towards your ultimate view on the RS4. Feel bitter about the lack of a charismatic, rumbling and soaring V8? Dislike the effortless steering, the softer ride, the sheer normality of it all? You’ll probably be in the same camp of people who also have issues with the latest RS5. But if this sounds like an enticingly comfortable and useful means of extremely rapid everyday transport then read on, because plenty of that is in store, and a lot more besides.
Like can occur with the RS5, the inattentive RS4 driver might think that he or she has learnt all that there is to know after a few high-grip corners. Both models hang on with a level of uncommon tenacity, making full use of the power and vast torque reserves. In the wrong environment, and with the wrong attitude, the RS4 might come across as one dimensional – fast and secure but lacking in flair. But invest the time to get to know the RS4 (and RS5), and it reveals real depth of character, performance and practicality that is close to unbeatable. It’s a genuine head scratcher to short list other cars that combine such an impressive blend of traits.
There’s no denying that the twin-turbocharged V6 lacks the operatic drama of the howling V8, but its bombastic mid-range goes a long way to soothe that loss. It is possible to mooch around in the RS4 all day long and only access a fraction of its performance, but inevitably the temptation to floor the throttle soon proves too strong. Do so and you’ll discover a notably more natural voice than in the RS5, a richer, more authentic tone, but with the same chesty snuffles and thuds through the exhaust system when the revs die back down below 3000rpm. Thankfully, the distant artillery from the tailpipes is relatively random in its delivery.
A sudden input of throttle and the RS4 reveals its haymaker: a massive surge of acceleration violent enough that a pre-emptive squeeze of the right-hand paddle is necessary if you’re not to tag the limiter in second gear when driving in manual mode. Whatever the revs, the V6 seems to simply explode into action, surely a benefit of its 600Nm torque peak being developed from an impressively low 1900rpm.
We’ve already spent over 2000km getting to know the RS4 and it’s impressed at every turn. Audi’s confidence in the new model was on open display at the Australian launch, that took in the twists and turns of the Oxley Highway and Thunderbolts Way. It proved to be a staggeringly quick cross-country device in the style of its coupe relation, only with vastly increased load and passenger space. Turn-in is immediate and positive, and the effects of the Sport Differential at the rear are blatantly obvious, because under full power it’ll even adopt a few degrees of slip at the rear. It never feels blunt, flat-footed or one-dimensional, the ceramic brakes are tireless, and the gearchange is crisp enough, although occasionally lacks the bite of the old twin-clutch alternative.
After a solid day in the saddle, I knew that I’d relish any long journey in this car. And a few weeks after the launch, I pointed the nose of another RS4 south down the Hume for a family schlep to Cootamundra. It swallowed suitcases, pillows, sleeping bags and a spare mattress, then ate up the mundanity of the trip without complaint, nor without provoking any from the junior road testers in the back seat. Three days and 1000km later, it hoovered up the evo Australia airstrip (see page 92) and recorded a set of performance numbers that would make a junior supercar lose sleep.
The new RS4 continues to be the standard bearer for practical performance and I’m struggling to think of a more desirable daily driver for an ‘evo type’ with the usual commitments and requirements of everyday life. Jesse Taylor