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Performance behemoth sheds two cylinders. Is that progress for the mighty Audi RS6?

Ah, an Audi RS6. By definition a car interesting enough to set the Autocar-to-Mira test track hotline ringing, but not the unknown quantity it once was. RS Audis have become more consistent of late; have found their own character. 

No more the unexpected extremes of brilliance in the 2007 RS4, but neither the shocking brittleness of the 2004 RS6 Plus. 

The hottest variant of Audi’s executive saloon arrives in the UK in Avant form only, about which we have no qualms at all

Instead, the silver-mirrored performance benchmarks have adopted a more coherent theme: fast, undoubtedly, and with a minor reduction in their feeling of heft in the nose, while without ever seriously challenging for class honours in the markets in which they compete.

Until now? We’ll see. The hottest variant of Audi’s executive saloon arrives in the UK in Avant form only, about which we have no qualms at all because, ever since Volvo launched the 850 T5 wagon, quick estates have given us quite the giggle.

But Audi hasn’t been alone in enjoying fast big estates – you can’t get a BMW M5 Touring, but every one of Audi’s other major rivals offers a car in this class. And some of them are very good.

Audi’s first flirtations with fast estates cropped up in the earily 1990s (the ’93-’96 RS2), but the first RS6 appeared in 2002. Powered by a twin-turbo 4.2 V8, it was fast in a straight line but not especially loveable. Neither, to be fair, was the replacement that appeared, after an RS6 absense of three years, the 2008-released sporting variant of the big wagon.

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What did strike a chord, though, was the allure of a turbo V10 powerplant. The RS6 was fitted with a 5.0-litre V10 (mainly unrelated to the one in a Lamborghini Gallardo, contrary to popular belief) giving it a titanic 571bhp.

But this generation RS6 is downsized to use Audi's twin-turbocharged 4.0-litre V8 powerplant, which is available in two states of tune - 552bhp for the standard car and 596bhp for the RS6 Performance. So power is not in question here, just whether Inglostadt has been able to instil some character into this super estate.

 

DESIGN & STYLING

Audi RS6 Avant rear

Audi’s performance models might not have always had a predictable level of ride and handling competence, but one thing you can say for them is that they definitely have a consistency of appearance: this is a fast Audi, and no mistake the Audi RS6 is cut from the same cloth.

Where it does go slightly off the script is in its engine displacement. We’ve mooted before whether cars launched half a decade ago would represent some kind of unwelcome pinnacle for the industry, and if the Audi is any kind of gauge, welcome to the new world: the RS6 features a 4.0-litre, twin-turbocharged V8 making 552bhp, in place of its predecessor’s 571bhp 5.0-litre V10. 2016 saw the Audi give the RS6 a power boost taking the Performance's output to 596bhp.

We’ve mooted before whether cars launched half a decade ago would represent some kind of unwelcome pinnacle for the industry, and if the Audi is any kind of gauge, welcome to the new world

That car weighed 2145kg when we popped it on our scales in 2008. Today’s RS6 tipped them at 2010kg. Still no lightweight, but progress of a sort.

The body is all but five-metres in length and a mixed-metal monocoque (mostly steel, but 20 per cent aluminium), inside which is that longitudinally-mounted V8, whose two, twin-scroll turbos sit between the cylinder banks, with exhaust valves, unusually, on the inside of each head to shorten the distance from cylinder-exit to turbo.

That drives all four wheels through an eight-speed gearbox, a torque-converted eight-speed rather than a twin-clutch unit, and the driveline features a self-locking centre differential and a limited slip rear differential, to counter some of the natural result of a 55 per cent weight bias towards the front and four-wheel-drive.

The RS6, however, doesn’t resort to the sort of trick that the Audi Audi RS3 does, in having thinner rear wheels than fronts; instead wearing 285-section rubber throughout, on its optional 21in rims backed by (at the front) 390mm discs – 420mm carbon discs are an option. Suspension is, as standard, by air springs, but our test car wore coils. 

INTERIOR

Audi RS6 dashboard

The Audi A6’s interior is a bit dated now, but you wouldn’t know it. Thanks to the crispness of the LCD display in front of your nose, and the fold-out 8-inch display above your left hand, the architecture has the hi-res highlights required to keep the Audi RS6's interior box-fresh.

The standard RS6 is certainly well-equipped as you would expect of a range-topping model, with sat nav, DAB, LED headlights, Bose sound system and a leather upholstery all part of the package. But this is an Audi Sport creation, so expect a dramatically aggressive bodykit, RS decals and badging, but the RS6 gets an enhanced braking system, electronic differential, RS-tuned adaptive air suspension.

Just as the chassis barely demurs under your bodyweight, so the facia stands up to your touch

Upgrade to the RS6 Performance and you get 596bhp at your disposal, a titanium styling pack, 21in alloy wheels and a leather and Alcantara interior.

Without trying too hard (BMW’s problem) or not trying hard enough (Mercedes-AMG), the dashboard hangs together quite beautifully; the foot-wide centre console and sweeping horizontal lines - picked out with aluminium - cementing the notion that the RS6 is an impeccably cultured ground-hugger.  

Just as the chassis barely demurs under your bodyweight, so the facia stands up to your touch. Its switches and toggles click with elemental assurance. The three-spoke flat-bottomed steering wheel is a fist-filler and a trademark, while the embossed ‘super’ sports seats have mighty bolsters that lock you in position.

The material tactility of a concrete elephant suits the atmosphere down to the ground: shutting the door seals you into a 45dB compression chamber - at 70mph it’s only 1dB louder than the 3.0-litre TDI we tested. The sanitisation lessens under load; max revs in third gear registered a tummy-rumbling 76dB.

A desirable driving position is not hard to find thanks to standard electric adjustment, and enthusiastic owners will find enough range to neatly countersink themselves behind the dials.

In the rear only uncommonly tall passengers will feel shortchanged by the typically generous legroom (although the middle seat is, again, a particularly small one) on offer, while the 1050mm-long boot floor retains plenty of space to throw the dog around in. Like the standard car, there is practically nothing that can be touched - fore or aft - that will offend even the most spoilt eyes or fingers. Save, perhaps, the carbon effect trim that appeared on our test car.

But then you can’t have it all, can you?

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

4.0-litre V8 TFSI Audi RS6 engine

You might want to sit down for this bit. The standing start acceleration numbers the Audi RS6 recorded are genuinely staggering. This is a luxury estate car – five metres in length and more than 2.1 tonnes in weight with a driver aboard, remember – that could outsprint the last Porsche 911 GT2 RS we figured to 60mph. 2070 kilograms, 3.7 seconds, without the aid of launch control: unprecedented stuff.

And it would still be in touch with the mega Porsche – just two tenths of a second behind, in fact – going through a standing quarter mile. 

The standing start acceleration numbers the RS6 recorded are genuinely staggering

Of much more import is the fact that the car roars through 100mph more than a second sooner than the last RS6 could (8.7- versus 9.9sec), and three tenths of a second before the current BMW M5. The BMW’s the faster car from 120mph onwards, but it’s also the lower, lighter option.

If taking two cylinders away from a car always had this effect, the whole industry would be doing it. The speed never feels savage, but on a less-than-perfectly-grippy surface the car can be spinning power away at both axles well beyond 60mph with the ESP switched out. It’s full-on and unrelentingly urgent, though, until well into three figures, the engine as flexible as it is brutishly potent under full load.

Funny thing is, that same engine is subtle, suave and affable at lighter loads. The accelerator pedal is calibrated with expert judgement. The first inch of travel is gentle enough to allow an easy wafting step off, and the urgency under foot builds steadily as you dig deeper. Only when you get into the last inch-and-a-half before the carpet does the car really bare its teeth, when the exhaust finally clears its throat and issues a tuneful multi-tonal bellow.

So the car’s easy to drive and delightfully mannered when want it to be – which, let’s face it, is most of the time. The eight-speed torque converter transmission imposes absolutely no compromise on shift smoothness. It could be a bit quicker in manual mode at times. But, like the rest of the car, it mainly just leaves you in awe that such bald speed can be packaged with this much luxuriousness and onboard space.

 

RIDE & HANDLING

Audi RS6 rear cornering

We’d love to be in a position to be writing about newfound ride comfort and greater breadth of dynamic ability for the Audi RS6 here. The standard air-sprung car may very well have both, if our experience of air-sprung Audi A6s in general is anything to go by.

Buy an RS6 on steel and you’ll find it behaves very much akin to its direct forebears. Even on 21in rims, the car’s motorway ride is quite good, just as it is on smoother surfaced A-roads that seldom disturb its two-tonne kerbweight. On those roads, you’d say that Quattro had made a worthwhile improvement to rolling refinement, giving the car more of the balanced control and compliance we approve of in its rivals.

Buy an RS6 on steel and you’ll find it behaves very much akin to its direct forebears

But pretty much everywhere else, the sport suspension confounds that impression. Try to take a sunken cross-country road apart as you might in a Jaguar XFR and you’ll be dealing with some fairly aggressive high-frequency vertical body movement, as the uncompromising extremes of the RS6’s body control attempt to steamroller the bumps out of the road like ripples out of a fireside rug.

The car hardly pitches or rolls, but it is inclined to heave at high speeds. And, regrettably, that heave isn’t checked with much finesse.

To steer, the car’s direct and precise enough to suggest that, bit by bit, Quattro’s beginning to put that optional ‘active’ rack to good use. But it’s still a resolutely detached relationship you have with the front wheels.

While there’s weight in the rim, there’s precious little feedback, making it hard to judge the precise point at which this big estate begins to understeer. And, under power, whatever the conditions, it progressively but inevitably will. 

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Audi RS6 Avant

In the past, Audi has had a way of negating any subjective concern with its RS models’ dynamic limitations by machine-gunning them with big (or impossibly small) numbers.

For the Audi RS6, unsurprisingly, it’s that minuscule 0-62mph time – and the unique market position of its quattro drivetrain – which will be used to coax buyers away from the rear-driven BMW M5, Jaguar XFR-S and Mercedes E63 AMG Estate.

We averaged economy of 19.6mpg over the whole test, a figure marginally bettered by the XFR we tested in 2009

While the latter is capable of flattening Audi’s luggage capacity boast (providing 130 litres more space with seats up, and a full 270 litres more with them down), none can lay claim to a sub 4-second sprint, and none offer the flexibility or reassuring stability of all-wheel drive. 

We averaged economy of 19.6mpg over the whole test, a figure marginally bettered by the XFR we tested, but an improvement over the catastrophic 16.8mpg of the V10 model. 

As a range-topper, the standard kit list is typically decent, although this being an Audi there is a healthy option list to inflate the final price – hence the £91,450 sticker that would normally have appeared on our test car’s windscreen.

 

VERDICT

Audi RS6 rear quarter

Even though the Audi RS6 is clearly built with the autobahn in mind, it actually offers a rather compelling solution to the fraught and frustrating business of making decent progress on an intensely overcrowded island.

It will transport you and yours in hushed, handsome surroundings, accommodate the dog, not get stuck in the snow and look a mean million bucks.

Breathtaking performance partnered with familiar dynamic failings

The Audi will also devour whole rows of slow-moving traffic in face-squashing, space-defying bouts of genuinely unearthly acceleration.

No one who could claim to be enthusiastic about cars would deny that transforming a two-tonne Avant into a reusable skyrocket isn’t at least moderately irresistible. As a throttle and brake hotrod, hot-wired to a guffaw and a head shake, the RS6 stands alone. 

But, the discontinued, yet better-rounded RS4 below it, quattro GmBH has failed to add a third dimension to its new bludgeon. Neutered by its haphazard steering and insistent chassis, the car too often obliges you to hang on rather than take the reins.

That distinction won’t trouble everyone; for us it remains the difference between the merely memorable and the truly marvellous. 

 

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Audi RS6 Avant 2013-2019 First drives