Rapid, sure-footed, practical, comfortable, classy: can the new RS4 Avant really be all these things?

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Rabidly quick estate cars seem to stoke the imagination of us enthusiasts in a manner few other vehicle types can. There’s something wonderfully improbable about genuine usability combined with performance that, out in the real world, would often do for more purpose-built machinery. Not many of us actually buy quick estate cars, of course, and in that sense, they’re a bit like supercars

This is truer of the Audi RS4 Avant than most. In fact, in the realm of online publishing, it’s not unusual for Audi’s mid-sized hammer-wagon to garner a similar level of attention to that you’d expect of, say, a new McLaren

By the numbers, the new RS4 Avant is a mighty thing

Audi’s formula has history on its side too. It began with the RS2 of 1994 – developed with Porsche, fantastically quick and, for its time, fabulous to drive – and led to the curvaceous form of the V6-engined B5-generation RS4 of the millennium. Quattro GmbH – now known as Audi Sport – then gave us the B7 version, which graduated to naturally aspirated V8 power and boasted a chassis of such finesse that you’d think it would be wasted on an estate car – except it wasn’t.

The most recent RS4 was also the most conservative in its styling and a little way from regurgitating the dynamic prowess of its forebear but was still a well-conceived machine. All of which nicely sets the scene for this new one.

Aggressive, isn’t it? By the numbers, the B9-generation RS4 is also a mighty thing. Fuel economy is improved by a fifth and CO2 emissions have fallen by a quarter. Shaving 80kg from the kerb weight (the first time a new RS4 has trimmed down) has also helped to take more than half a second from the 0-60mph time, and the twin-turbo V6 delivers almost half as much torque again as the engine it replaces.

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With 275-section tyres at each corner, this new car puts down a vast amount of rubber and yet rolling refinement will need to have improved. Being an RS4, its aesthetics are also tasked with generating a buzz befitting of a £60,000 car and yet mustn’t attract the wrong kind of attention. So can it possibly fulfil all of these tasks and still reward the person behind the wheel when the moment arises?

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Audi RS4 Avant

This new twin-turbo V6 engine is a 2.9-litre unit, shared with the Audi RS5 and derived from the 3.0-litre TFSI found in more conservative Audis. As is now common, the turbochargers are positioned within the valley of its cylinders with the aim of reducing lag, but the more promising attribute for a traditionally nose-heavy beast is that this powerplant weighs 31kg less than before.

It’s a vastly more potent thing too, developing 443lb ft from just 1900rpm. The car it replaces provided just 317lb ft if you made the requisite foray to 4000rpm.

I'm not particularly enamoured with this V6. It's brutally effective but a bit one-dimensional. The ESP is beautifully calibrated, mind

The drivetrain is more familiar, though. Audi might be experimenting with rear-wheel drive for the Audi R8 supercar, but all-wheel drive has been a defining attribute of the RS4 Avant and so it is with the latest model.

During normal driving, the system distributes a fraction more power to the rear axle than the front, although should those front tyres begin to slip, up to 70% can be sent through the rear sport differential. Likewise, this drivetrain can haul the car out of the slower bends by sending up to 85% of power to the front axle.

Wheel articulation is catered for by five-link suspension front and rear, and although the standard car rides on a passive set-up, Audi’s Dynamic Ride Control, with its hydraulically interlinked dampers, is available as an option and was fitted to our test car. All in, the RS4 rides 7mm lower than a standard Audi A4 Avant equipped with sports suspension, and the wheel arches are a chunky 30mm wider too.

Other giveaways that this car has a trick or two up its sleeve are huge air intakes at the front and plenty of honeycomb grille. Audi, perhaps dubiously, says the car’s details are inspired by the 90 quattro GTO, the spectacularly mad IMSA sportscar competitor of 1989. That car was turbocharged to dangerous levels. 


Audi RS4 Avant

Perceived quality is an area in which Audi’s rivals – in whatever class of vehicle you care to mention – have struggled to keep up of late. Certainly, the RS4 Avant’s chief rival, Mercedes-AMG’s C63 Estate, feels a level or two short of what has been achieved here in terms of materials quality and fit, even if it can claim to offer occupants the marginally warmer, more visually interesting environment.

The RS4 counters with a smart blend of leather and Alcantara – most noticeable on the door cards, although the steering wheel can also be so trimmed – and the kind of ergonomics whereby it takes only a second or two to find a particular button or switch for the first time.

Carbonfibre inlays have been a fast-Audi staple since the days of the RS2 and look slick. They're a £950 option here, mind

The fast-Audi hallmarks are here in abundance too: a flat-bottomed steering wheel, perforated leather, honeycomb stitching and plenty of RS logos. The standard seats, branded ‘super sports’, aren’t quite as supportive as they appear to be as you drop down towards them, although they do have a massage function – a combination of priorities perhaps indicative of the type of buyers Audi envisages for its hottest A4 Avant. 

And, let’s not forget, this car is fundamentally an A4 wagon. It means that despite the supercar-baiting performance, you still get 505 litres of boot space, which is 
more than anything from the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes C-Class ranges, and rear head room is generous too. Usefully, the rear bench also splits 40/20/40.  

One last thing: before you decide whether to have optional carbonfibre or knurled aluminium inlays, if you want the panoramic roof or head-up display, or whether to tape over the under-door lights that project ‘Audi Sport’ onto the pavement, know that the tremendously suave Lunar Leather Nappa upholstery is a veritable magnet for dark smudges from your indigo jeans. 

Given Audi’s MMI Navigation Plus 8.3in infotainment system and its 12.3in digital instrument set-up come as standard here, it’s very difficult indeed to find fault with the RS4 Avant’s provision of onboard information-technology.

You will have to pay extra for a reversing camera (£450), a head-up display system (£900) and wireless smartphone charging (£325), but you’d probably expect to do so for all three of those, even on a £60,000 car.  

The car’s infotainment system includes DAB radio, DVD playback, 10GB of onboard storage and online traffic information as standard. It looks great, responds quickly and is easy to use, and allows you to split mapping, entertainment and trip computer information between the central display and instrument binnacle almost entirely as you prefer.

We still think it’s a shame not to be able to retract and stow the car’s central display at times, when you want the dash to look cleaner or at night, to reduce technoglare. But it’s a minor demerit on an otherwise fine showing.


Audi RS4 Avant

You’d bet your last tank of unleaded that a new Rennsport model would pack more power than the car it replaces – and, in this case, you’d be running on fumes.

The B9-generation RS4’s 444bhp remains unchanged from its predecessor, although because this 90deg V6 is so different in character from that car’s V8, the same can’t be said for the way in which that power reaches the road.

The loaded front axle could struggle with aquaplaning a little under braking on our wet handling track

It comes as no surprise that this car has the chassis to deploy that power. On a damp day at MIRA’s proving ground, with ambient temperatures low enough to warrant a thick coat, our test car blitzed a 3.9sec sprint to 60mph on one particular run and took less than 10sec to reach triple figures. A Table Mountain torque curve illustrating 443lb ft between 1900rpm and 5000rpm did hint at that kind of pace, but it’s quite exceptional that the accelerative punch of an often docile, mid-sized family car only begins to taper at about 130mph.

This engine has delectable breadth too. Hitch fourth gear at 20mph and you’ll have doubled your speed in the time it takes to say ‘cylinder-selective adaptive knock control’.

Rather than going for a second clutch, as was the case for the B8-gen RS4, Audi has fitted an eight-speed torque converter. Perhaps our test car would have gone quicker with a dual-clutcher, but this engine develops quite a bit more twist than can be reliably put through Audi’s S-tronic transmission and, in truth, an effortless torque converter better suits the RS4 as an everyday car. 

Critics might contend that this is where too much of the focus lies. Peak power arrives at 5700rpm and is still on tap at an agreeably high 6700rpm, although using that end of the rev range is more often a matter of convenience than enjoyment and not strictly necessary.

This engine is clinical: obscenely potent and largely devoid of turbo lag but also capable of blending into the background and hauling the RS4’s 1790kg bulk along a motorway with the trip computer reading north of 35mpg. And despite all that, we’d prefer the old V8.


Audi RS4 Avant

The weight Audi has taken out of the nose of this car is apparent pretty quickly. We’ll come on to the various driving modes in a moment, but the overriding impression this car imparts on the driver is one of crushing agility. So far, so quattro. It’s a manufactured agility rather than a natural one, certainly, and dominated by grip and traction rather than any overt balance and adjustability.

Chiefly, though, it’s an agility that allows you to splice through even the most awkward corners without a second thought, and that is the appeal of the RS4. Sharp direction changes feel preordained in their security, even if this car’s steering rack is significantly slower and less feelsome than the one you’ll find in an Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio

Even sharp bends make no demands on the super-agile RS4 Avant

The B9-gen car isn’t entirely devoid of humour, mind. With the sport differential set to Dynamic, through longer (and preferably damp, and tightening) bends, it can be coaxed into steering from the rear, with the mid-setting of the three-stage ESC being lenient enough to reward you for chasing the throttle.

It doesn’t like surprises, though, and using enthusiastic weight transfer to initiate the kind of antics that are second nature for an AMG too often results in seatbelt pre-tensioning, puffed-up bolsters and the scramble of electronics. It’s a car from which to derive satisfaction from calculation rather than exuberance, for sure. 

On a chilly, damp MIRA dry handling track the RS4 Avant did what you’d expect it to do: it gripped, it turned, it handled with much better balance and more fun than many would believe, and it set a very creditable lap time.

Audi’s drivetrain makes for simpler and straighter-laced on-throttle limit handling than some of the latest rival systems, but that doesn’t mean the RS4 can’t be stable as well as lively and adjustable when conditions are just so. Leave the electronics active and the car is as sure-footed as they come, but fast, grippy and decently agile with it.

Turn them off and you can trail the brakes on turn-in, carrying plenty of attitude as you home in on the apex, and keep that attitude in the car even as you accelerate out – provided you keep a bit of positive steering angle dialled in. The RS4 is quick to straighten up as soon as you start to countersteer in a slide, but that doesn’t make its handling boring.

Dauntingly broad as the brief is for this sort of car, many RS4s will be optioned with the £2000 Dynamic Ride Control, which includes adaptive dampers. Having tried cars with both DRC and the standard passive set-up, we’re not convinced the extra expense is worthwhile. With dampers set to Comfort, the ride is laudably fluent but the chassis is robbed of that final portion of composure. Dynamic improves body control but introduces an element of brittleness, hampering the RS4’s sense of security. 

The passive set-up seems to strike a better sweet spot, and we’d also contend that it more cleanly articulates the car’s body movements.


Audi RS4 Avant

As ever, Audi has been wily enough to leave on the RS4’s options list a handful of items that are desirable enough to be considered compulsory orders on most cars. You get 19in alloy wheels, LED headlights, Audi’s electronically controlled active sport rear differential, heated seats in nappa leather, three-zone climate control, an MMI Navigation Plus 8.3in infotainment system and Virtual Cockpit digital instruments for no extra cost.

But you’ll probably want Dynamic Ride Control adaptive damping (£2000), dynamic active-ratio steering (£950) and Audi’s switchable sports exhaust (£1200) as well – and there’s a good chance you may want carbon-ceramic brakes (£6000) too. And although Audi has packaged some options together in a Carbon Edition, the bundle doesn’t actually include most of that lot and doesn’t seem like brilliant value.

It's expensive after options, but predicted to hold its value better than Mercedes-AMG and BMW rivals

Still, even if it costs you more up front than one or two of its opponents might, the RS4 should still be a canny purchase, with our market experts suggesting that it’ll retain 5% more of its showroom price after three years and 36,000 miles than a Mercedes-AMG C 63 S Estate.

The switch from V8 to V6 turbocharged power has delivered a sizeable gain in cruising economy for the RS4 Avant. We recorded 36.7mpg for the car on our touring test schedule, which the RS4’s predecessor would never have approached – although as your driving style becomes enthusiastic and the engine temperature rises, the motor’s economy becomes significantly less impressive. 

The RS4’s 58-litre fuel tank is five litres smaller than that of its predecessor but still makes for an impressive 468-mile real-world touring range – when you’re minded to drive conservatively, that is.

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Audi RS4 Avant

By any objective measure, this is an exceptional machine. A downsized engine combines effortless reach with an elemental punch that will be alien to owners of the old V8, and the quattro chassis conjures such stability that you suspect the RS4 Avant would simply drive away from its rivals on any road that was less than immaculately surfaced.

Fuel economy is also vastly improved, and the interior hits new heights in ergonomics and quality. There are limits to what this car can do operationally, but they are so high as to be redundant – and so Audi, somewhat understandably, will congratulate itself on a job very well done.

A hot estate that oozes class but is curiously short on charisma

So why only four stars? The reality is that there has never been an RS4 with a less identifiable character than the B9 tested here.

The thin-voiced 2.9-litre V6 takes a large share of the blame for that, but the design – a touch contrived and corporate – is partly responsible too. Mesmerisingly competent it may be but, in contrast to one particular compatriot, it fails to quicken your pulse at anything other than terrifically high speeds.

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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.

Audi RS4 Avant First drives