Expensive, but one of the finest fast Audis yet - look out M3.

It’s easy to be nonchalant about 414bhp when you’ve a comfortable chair to sit in and the engine in question idles away politely under the watchful eye of two all-powerful electronic processors.

Any early 1970s F1 driver would have been content with that output, and Ickx, Fittipaldi and company would have extracted their toenails with pliers to combine it with 317lb ft of torque spread charitably across the rev range.

Yet the latest sports saloon from Audi now totes more than the magic 400bhp figure. Of course, unlike those frail, circuit-bound racers from years ago, the RS4 is weighed down by modern requirements of comfort, safety and emissions regulations, as well as a four-wheel-drive system that, as ever, forms an unshakeable part of any sporting Audi’s DNA. But there’s another weight squashing the fat Pirellis into the road – that of expectation: after all the hype, promises and spec-sheet posturing, is this the Audi to really put drivers first, and is it worth nearly 50 grand?

Shunning turbochargers for the first time in an RS, the RS4’s engine is based loosely on the V8 found in the S4. The 4162cc unit has new pistons, conrods, crankshaft and cylinder heads. With FSI fuel injection technology – developed on Audi’s all-conquering R8 Le Mans racers – delivering up to 550 shots of petrol per second directly into the combustion chamber, the V8 can run with a high compression ratio of 12.5:1 and rev until its staccato cutout at 8250rpm. Peak power is produced at 7800rpm and maximum torque arrives at a relatively high 5500rpm, although in reality 90 per cent of that figure comes over a broad spectrum between 2250rpm and 7600rpm.

This prime German motive force is fed through a six-speed gearbox and distributed through the aforementioned four-wheel-drive system, with drive split front and rear by a Torsen centre differential as usual. Usually, 40 per cent of power goes to the front and 60 to the rear, but under cornering loads up to 85 per cent is sent to the back axle, hopefully quelling some of the nose-heavy attitude of previous sporting Audis.

The RS4 sits 30mm lower than a standard A4, supported by bespoke aluminium sports suspension. Gorgeous 19-inch alloy wheels and 255/35 tyres deploy the power and fill the extended arches with the help of a track that’s 37mm wider at the front and 47mm wider at the rear.

It’s the wide track of the RS4 in front that makes the biggest impact as I leave the car park at Pirelli’s test track in northern Italy and head onto the local roads in our test car. Viewed from other angles the RS4 is undeniably chunky and menacing with its skirts, spoilers and intakes – if a little contrived – but from the rear the sheer width sends the clearest message of intent.

Press the ‘sport’ button on the steering wheel and the previously subdued V8 growls menacingly with increased volume and the seat side bolsters contract, squeezing you tight. The throttle response is also supposed to sharpen, although in practice it’s hard to tell. The steering wheel is perfectly sized and the hand-hold cutouts are superb, but the flat-bottomed section in flimsy plastic feels cheap and nasty in your grip. Great in the designer’s sketch book, less so in reality.

Still, that’s enough pontificating: time to get accustomed to the alloy pedal on the right. The V8’s throttle response is immediate and clean from just about any revs, but without the savage kick that turbo Audis used to have. Weighing 1650kg can’t help, despite Audi having kept a careful eye on the kerbweight by using aluminium wings and bonnet, which also reduces mass at the front of the car, but you need to keep your foot down to get real force from the engine.

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You’ll be glad you did. As the revs rise, the V8 adopts a pure howl that continues to rise in pitch if not in tone. And it just keeps going and going and going with utter smoothness as if it would like to do this all day long, braying constantly until the fuel tank was dry. Shift into third with the quick and surprisingly satisfying gearchange and the RS4 suddenly feels very, very rapid. It’s the sort of power delivery that just keeps flowing as you snick up through the gears, so you can’t help growing horns and wanting to drive it flat out as much as possible, revelling in the extra 1000rpm over other performance engines, just as you might in a BMW M5.

These straights can’t go on forever, though, certainly not when they’re being consumed at this rate. And so a heavy application of the middle pedal slows matters with authority thanks to eight-pot calipers with 365mm discs working overtime.With a sequence of corners upon us it’s time to start asking some searching questions. Turn the RS4 into a corner and you sense the weight of the V8; open the bonnet and the engine, with its red cam covers and carbonfibre shrouding is entirely in front of the front axle. But the steering is far more incisive around the straight-ahead and better weighted on-lock than previous Audis’, even if it’s not especially communicative.

Grip is impressive, as you’d expect, and traction on the way out of corners superb. Apply the power early in a tight corner and you can sense the rear moving out slightly as it’s fed the greater portion of power, before the traditional understeer and traction return. The RS4 won’t entertain at its limits like a well-balanced rear-drive car might, but it brings satisfaction through its pace, poise and body control.Perhaps most striking of all is the composure: far from possessing the crashy ride of previous Audis like the RS6, the RS4 seems to absorb poor surfaces with greater sophistication. Admittedly, such roads were in short supply on our test route, and the RS4 is firm, but the damping seemed to deal with ridges and potholes with real authority.

And so it’s at this point that a verdict can split into two directions. The first is a traditional, tightly driver-focused judgment that bemoans the lack of tyre-smoking entertainment and interaction with the driver. Yes, its four-wheel drive gives you confidence in the wet, but the RS4 is not a circuit car – despite its pit-lane chic and technology – and a confident and skilled driver who demands finely tuned controls and a machine that can be steered on the throttle will remain disappointed. Perhaps the next A4, due in 2008 and which suggestions indicate will have the engine mounted further back in the chassis, will have a more balanced feel.

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But it’s a question of expectations, and the alternative verdict is that this is a landmark car for Audi. Despite being ultimately hamstrung by its nose-heavy layout, the RS4 is an extremely rapid, capable ground-coverer with a beautifully built interior and a heap of driveway appeal. It’s also surprisingly poised and enjoyable to drive at speed, without the lumpen ride and stodgy feel of previous fast Audis. As such, it’s a really rather likeable, even at 50 grand.

Adam Towler

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