Audi breathes new power, grip and audible drama into its classic-recipe, full-sized, fast 4x4 estate car

Something clearly changed at Audi Sport headquarters during the genesis of the current Audi RS6 Avant. Maybe some collective light-bulb moment occurred over burning midnight oil and schnapps. Whatever the cause, it was evidently better understood than it ever had been what people really want from a modern fast estate car - and how far the design and dynamic mission statement of this iconic, do-it-all, any-weather driver’s car could be pushed as a result.

Just looking at the blistered wheel arches, foursquare stance, voracious-looking grille and menacing rear diffuser of the current car, when it first appeared back in 2019, told you as much. Caution had finally been thrown to the wind. It had been realised that while RS6 buyers may feel they need space, versatility and Audi-brand on-board technology, they want something that feels much less tempered by everyday practicality. Something a little wild and unhinged.

Those new 22in wheels and grippy Continental tyres seem to empower the RS6’s active rear differential. The RS6 Performance really rotates under power, on an apex, more sweetly than the standard car.

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In the C8-generation RS6, they certainly got a fast Audi that looked the part – and now, as the car nears the end of its life, its mechanicals have been dialled up to the same, wicked-strength extent. Audi has turned up the outputs of the car’s twin-turbocharged V8 - but it has also cultivated the appeal of its audible character, fitted some new lightweight wheels, beefed up its equipment levels - and hiked the price of the resulting Audi RS6 Performance to match.

The power and torque hikes aren’t huge, and I won’t claim that they make huge differences on the road. An extra 30 horsepower, and a similar gain on torque, has been delivered through larger turbochargers. That those gains act on a 2.1-tonne estate car is what makes it a little hard to feel the difference. The RS6 was, let’s face it, indecently rapid already. It needed extra grunt about as much as dive planes and a periscope - and the reason it’s got it can’t have much to do with real-world performance.

While the V8 is perhaps a little freer-revving, you’re much more likely to notice the way the car sounds. Audi has removed just enough noise insulation to allow greater combustion noise into the cabin, to blend with the V8 exhaust note. There’s that bit more authentic audible character about the engine when it’s hauling hard as a result. It isn’t louder than a standard RS6, just a bit less artificial-sounding and more listenable. It’s a welcome development.

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Meanwhile, Audi has simplified the RS6’s suspension and steering specification options by moving to a Performance-only UK showroom offering, so all cars now come with four-wheel steering and a torque-vectoring rear differential, as well as Quattro four-wheel drive. The RS6’s diagonally interlinked, coil-sprung and adaptively damped DRC sports suspension system remains an option, though (air springs are standard, our test car had DRC); carbon-ceramic brakes are likewise; and the new 22in forged alloy wheels and Continental SportContact 7 performance tyres that Audi Sport has chosen for the car only come on upper-level trims.

Combined with weight-saving carbon brakes and those new lightweight rims, the RS6’s sportier suspension is less punishing than it used to be. The more aggressive operating modes of the Dynamic Ride Control set-up certainly feel firm on UK country roads, and make the RS6 quite grabby in its body control, and given to pogoing a little on uneven surfaces. Pick the middle-ground suspension calibration using the driver-configurable RS1/RS2 settings, though, and the ride has greater suppleness.

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The RS6 Performance has greater tactile steering feel than so many fast Audis, too – but, more strikingly, it has a really purposeful blend of four-wheel-drive tenacity and traction, of really linear yet walloping performance, and of surprising throttle-on handling vivacity and balance for something so big. It puts you in mind of a Nissan GT-R station wagon, or some two-tonne Porsche 911 Turbo with room for the whole family and their luggage - because the chassis and steering have that kind of tied-down composure and tactile feel.

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There is an edge to this car’s performance character it didn’t quite have in standard guise: a bite about its handling and greater unfiltered rawness to its general flavour that shouldn’t really belong on a luxury performance estate car. But somehow they do. 

The C8-generation Audi RS6 Avant, it seems, is going out on a high: certainly in terms of price - but also, I’d say, as one of the most likeably brutish fast estate cars that Audi has made. And will Audi’s better-heeled RS owners even blink at being asked to pay proper super-sports car money for it? Not for a second, I’d wager.

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Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.