Audi Sport is proving that there is plenty of life left in the performance estate car yet.
The performance subsidiary of Audi has had a rebrand, changing its name from Quattro GmbH to Audi Sport and broadening its field of play accordingly. Fear not, because fast, four-wheel-drive vehicles will continue to remain core to the range and the all-new Audi RS4 Avant represents the latest in absurdly rapid daily drivers.
Estate cars may have experienced a serious loss of potency in the UK, as new car buyers switch camps to the all-conquering SUV – but the RS4 Avant proves the cult of the performance wagon is still alive and kicking.
This is the fourth iteration of the Audi RS4 Avant since the original version was unveiled in 1999. It loses the naturally aspirated 4.2-litre V8 of its predecessor (the B8 RS4), returning to its V6 twin-turbocharged roots (the B5 RS4) with an all-new 2.9-litre TFSI petrol engine. Compared to the previous RS4, it develops an identical 444bhp, but offers a whopping 442lb ft of torque – that’s an increase of 125lb ft.
It’s incredibly mean and purposeful to look at. That is, of course, if you know what you’re looking at. To the uninitiated, the RS4 Avant could just as well be another posh estate with a split-folding three-seat rear bench, a 505-litre boot and a power operated tailgate. Yet for those in the know, they’ll spot the 7mm lower ride height, double-take those twin oval exhausts and silver-capped (or, in our test car’s case, black-capped) door mirrors, or dream of 1980s rallying Quattro dominance when ogling around the 30mm blistered arches. Spec the RS4 Avant in more muted gunmetal grey rather than this exclusive Sonoma Green metallic (pictured) and this is as genuine a Q-car as you can buy today.
It’s beautifully screwed together, too. You get the impression that somebody has put as much care and attention into the click-click tactility of the heater controls as they did going insanely fast. Standard equipment includes 19-inch alloy wheels, a sport differential that offers a standard 40:60 front/rear-drive bias, a RS-specific digital display that Audi calls its ‘Virtual Cockpit’, massaging sports seats and LED headlights and taillights with dynamic indicators.
Both the brilliant Matrix LED headlamps and sports exhaust are optional on the RS4 and standard on the RS4 Carbon Edition which, for another £10k, adds a carbon diffuser and door mirror housings, 20-inch alloys, Super Sport seats, privacy glass, red brake calipers plus a matte aluminium finish to the radiator grille. Ceramic brakes are a lavish-if-unnecessary option that help shave 8kg of weight, as does a set of milled, rather than cast, alloy wheels.
What’s it like?
Climb aboard the beautifully finished cabin, sit in the generously sculpted and supportive seats, fire up the twin-turbocharged V6 and murmur out onto the road. It’s clear that turbocharging has become a key way for companies like Audi to curb its emissions output while maintaining performance, but much of the sonic charm from the previous, naturally aspirated soundtrack has been lost.
What is welcome is the vastly superior low-end response. There is a bucket of torque available from this V6 (where said bucket equates to 442lb ft of twist), accessible across an impressively expansive 1,900rpm-5,000rpm. This gives the new RS4 far more in-gear flexibility than before, and makes it feel noticeably faster cross country. The 0-62mph sprint can be demolished in a Porsche 911-rivalling 4.1seconds, while top speed is electronically limited to 155mph. If you ask Audi nicely, or just tick the option that nulls the limiter, the RS4 can top out at 174mph.
It’s lighter, too. Losing two cylinders from the engine has saved 31kg up front, while further diet plans for the body, axles and suspension has helped shave a further 49kg of unwanted mass. That doesn’t exactly make the RS4 Avant a lightweight (it tips the scales at 1,715kg), but it feels more pliant on its springs and turns more keenly while still offering immense all-weather traction. Even over the UK's torturous, muddy and pitted rural roads, it finds traction easily and makes silly speeds feel nonchalantly easy. There can be some rear-wheel slip in the tightest of hairpins, but the sports differential and torque vectoring work so well in tandem, transferring drive from front to rear, left wheel to right, that it takes oversteering off the menu. This is searing pace of the safe and secure kind.
Audi engineers told Motor1.com that the company’s dual-clutch transmission couldn’t cope with such big increases in engine torque, which is why this RS4 Avant uses a more traditional torque converter automatic. In real world driving conditions, you’d be pushed to notice; the shifting remains clean, quick and crisp.
What you do notice is the steering. Audi has been developing its optional Dynamic Steering system for a few years now, and employs a variable ratio rack in Comfort and Normal driving modes. The aim here is to make the car feel less nervous on motorways, while being more manoeuvrable around town without all the arm twirling. Sounds great in theory but in practise, the steering is too vague off-centre for such a performance vehicle and it makes your cornering inputs feel unpredictable. A linear ratio has now been prescribed for dynamic mode, which is welcome news, but there remains a tendency for Audi to equate ‘shportiness’ with adding a load of unwanted weight and inertia into the steering. We also sampled the standard steering setup which, although artificial in feel and void of feedback, is still preferable to the Dynamic Steering setup.
Ultimately, it's the veiled steering feel that makes the RS4 more point-and-shoot weapon than precise, absorbing enthusiast's sports car.
Should I buy one?
If you’re after absurdly rapid, refined, dependable daily transport, then the Audi RS4 Avant is a fine option. It is sufficiently compact to drive anywhere, big enough to deal with the family and the dog, yet comfortable enough to not upset any of them.
Whether it will go down in history as one of the all-time great RS4s is less likely. The latest RS4 Avant may be the quickest version yet, but it feels too disconnected to be considered a true driver’s car. Rivals such as the Mercedes-AMG C63 Estate may not be able to match this RS4 for extreme all-weather performance or even residual values (45 percent plays 38 percent after 36 months, according to the residual experts at Cap), but it does offer sweeter steering, a fiery soundtrack and a more visceral, engaging drive.
Where your priorities lie will determine which path you choose, but however you look at it the RS4 is a spectacular car.