You know how these David and Goliath encounters end. One large, overweight, overpriced, over-the-hill lummox meets a light, lithe and agile upstart, receives a knockout blow and gets to go home with a thumping headache. We have, after all, been here before.
Except maybe this time will be different. The Audi RS4 Avant is more than merely a great-looking, superb-sounding, beautifully built estate. It’s an excellent car, too, so much so that we signed off our road test saying “the latest RS4 will go down as not just one the fastest RS models, but also one of the finest”. So, and for the avoidance of doubt, although many RS Audis have been rightly bashed over the years for promising much on paper and delivering little on the road, this, emphatically, is not one of them. We really like this car and there’s nothing, not even a day in the Welsh mountains in the company of a Volkswagen Golf R Estate, that changes that.
2018 Audi RS4 Avant reveal
Ah yes, the Golf R. In hatchback form, I’d say it has as good a claim as any to be the best everyday driver’s car this kind of money can buy. As an estate? Surely, it’s the same but more so? We know that wagons drive pretty much identically to the hatches upon which they’re based these days, so what we appear to have here is even more of what was already a world-beating property. If only the truth were so straightforward.
Unsurprisingly, the statistical analysis appears stacked in Audi’s favour. Its engine has double the cylinder count, more than twice the capacity and half as much power again. It has more torque, too. But it’s heavy: 1795kg is properly porky for a compact estate and more than 200kg heavier than the Golf. There are diesel E-Class Mercedes-Benz wagons, the biggest estates on sale, that weigh less. So the Audi’s power-to-weight advantage is clear but not overwhelming, especially when you consider that in torque-to-weight terms it’s actually the Golf that holds the advantage.
More than just raw figures
Which is more than enough number crunching for now. I start in the Audi and at once step back in time. This is not simply because its interior architecture is decidedly old-school Audi but, more memorably and sadly, there is probably no species more critically endangered in our world than the highly tuned normally aspirated V8. Ferrari has given up on them and shortly so will Porsche. BMW abandoned them long ago, Mercedes only recently. But their days are numbered and you need only one look at that 26.4mpg fuel consumption figure to know why.
What the numbers don’t reveal is the hot bubblegum elasticity of its power delivery. By 6000rpm, it has been pulling so hard and for so long that you feel it must need another gear soon. But it doesn’t. It keeps serenading you with its sweet, fascinating and multi-layered voice past 7000 and 8000rpm, too. On the test track, you’ll find fifth gear works for any speed between 30mph and 140mph and although small-capacity turbos have many advantages, they don’t do that.
So the surprise is that the Golf motor competes at all. VW’s engineers deserve respect not for prising so much power from such a small capacity, for they could have done that 20 years ago, but for making the engine not merely flexible and responsive but also positively urbane in character.
You only know it’s turbocharged because there’s no other plausible explanation for almost 300bhp at just 5500rpm from just 2.0 litres. There is no lag and its sound is so clean and cultured that you’d think there was nothing interrupting the flow of its gases from combustion chamber to outside world. Despite the notable fall in revs from one gear to the next necessitated by the wide ratios of its six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, the wall of torque maintains thrust regardless. True, it lacks the Audi’s slightly deranged pace, soul-stirring soundtrack and yet more slick seven-speed transmission, but the Golf is closer in all these areas than the apparent disparity in specification suggests.
I question only VW’s decision not to make the same manual gearbox used in the Golf R hatch available in the estate. Clearly, there’s no engineering imperative behind it, suggesting the decision emanated from some confounded focus group. If there is a choice to be made, why not let your customers make it?
Playing catch-up (successfully)
Whatever little the Golf might lose to the RS4 in a straight line, it more than regains the moment you need to use the steering wheel. The Audi puts a huge amount of rubber on the road – a 265-section tyre even at the front on the optional 20in rims on the test car – whereas the VW’s tyres are fully four sizes smaller. And despite their extra workload, I’d not be surprised if it was the RS4 that was ultimately capable of generating greater lateral acceleration. But up here in the hills, g-force is not what matters: it’s confidence, and very few cars of any price inspire more of it than this Volkswagen.
The Golf is so damn quick on roads such as these partly because it is compact, has all-wheel-drive traction and offers proper chassis feel, but mainly because it is so damn accurate. You don’t have to set an approximate trajectory and fine-tune thereafter. You aim; it goes. You never use an inch more road than expected.
And yet there is something missing here, and it’s the last thing I expected: unlike most estates, the Golf R notices its extra bulk. It weighs 79kg more than the hatch and because it’s all hanging out the back, you might think the car would be more balanced and feel all the better for it. But it doesn’t. It runs a stiffer rear spring, too, and although all the hatch’s stability and accuracy remain, some of its gorgeous throttle-sensitive adjustability has gone. I doubt the car is significantly slower point to point, but it is less chuckable and less fun as a result.
Mind you, it still makes the Audi feel its age. At a fundamental level, the RS4 feels less structurally rigid than the Golf, providing a floppier platform for its suspension to work upon. There is little steering feel, but the Audi’s main issue is that it is less precise everywhere, which means more effort for you and less reward from it. There’s no questioning the entertainment on offer but it’s never quite the precision instrument you might hope or indeed feel the rightto expect a car of this specification and price to be.
Where it does beat the Golf, and hands down at that, is in braking performance. The VW’s left pedal does the job required of it, but the RS4’s anchors are simply superb. Carbon-ceramics are an option, but with a standard iron set-up as good as this, you’d only want them for prolonged track work, or showing off to your mates.
The practical touches
As estate cars, there’s not much between them. For passenger space, they are similar, even in the back, where the RS4’s leg room potential is eaten away by its vast, superbly supportive front seats. Extended estate rooflines mean that head room is generous in both. Look at the stats box and you’ll convince yourself that the Golf has a far greater carrying capacity, too, and I’m sure it does. That said, if you park them side by side and flip the seats up and down, the two actually appear to provide similarly proportioned luggage areas.
But there is no questioning the Golf’s superior ride quality, the cleaner and more cohesive layout of its instruments and controls and its superior refinement, especially on coarse and concrete surfaces, where the RS4’s seven-league boots make a frightful racket.
Then again, nor can you doubt that the RS4 provides a greater sense of occasion in its front spoiler than the bland-looking Golf does in its entirety. The Audi’s cabin may now be old, but it’s still a genuinely special place to sit, rather than merely a clinically effective operating theatre such as that provided by VW. See the Golf parked outside on a rainy Monday morning and you’ll be pleased about your choice of daily driver. See the Audi and your heart will skip a beat, at least until its horrendous fuel consumption bangs you back to reality.
So the Golf wins, as of course it must. These cars aim to combine both practicality and driving dynamics and the VW has a little more of both and that’s before you consider the huge price disparity between them. The truth is the RS4 is a dinosaur powered by an engine of no relevance to the needs of the modern tax-paying motorist.
And yet, to me at least, the David and Goliath metaphor does not stand up here. Not only does the RS4 have a charm that is both real and rare, the Golf R is unquestionably a less engaging driver’s car in estate form than in its genuinely phenomenal hatchback guise. What’s left is a superbly effective device but still a device, whereas thanks to both its looks and that monstrous motor, the RS4 is a flawed character, but a real character nonetheless. In short, the Golf is the better car, the RS4 the more memorable by an equivalent margin. Make of that what you will.