For many, the iconic RS4 will be one of the most eagerly awaited releases from Audi, and we were lucky enough to give the latest – and perhaps greatest – a spin at the recent international launch in Malaga, Spain.
Audi shook up the car world when in 1994 it offered the world something never really seen before – an outrageously fast estate car. This was the RS2, which was co-developed with Porsche and was based on the humble Audi 80 Avant. With a 5-cylinder turbo engine and Quattro all-wheel-drive, it was unsurprisingly a quick car even with its station wagon outer skin.
From this, Audi was onto something. When the 80 product line was replaced by the ‘A4’ moniker as we know it today – starting with the B5 generation – an RS4 came with it, and the iconic status of fast Audi estates was firmly engraved into automotive history.
Fast-forward nearly two decades and we find ourselves in sunny Malaga, face-to-face with the very latest RS4 – the B9 generation. The headline-grabbing change with this latest model is that it harks back to the aforementioned B5, as it uses a biturbo V6 engine like the original, whereas the B7 and B8 models that sit between the two used high-revving, naturally aspirated V8s. Time to see if its reputation really does precede it.
Glance at the RS4 and there’s no mistaking it for anything less. Audi naturally chose to treat us to the Carbon Edition (a £8,115 option), which includes a whole host of exterior and interior carbon fibre additions as well as LED matrix headlights, 20″ alloy wheels, privacy glass and more.
Hit the start button and the new V6 doesn’t have the raucous drama of the old B8’s 4.2-litre V8, but it does have a sense of purpose to it. It has the same horsepower as before (444bhp) but boasts an extra 125lb ft, enough for some serious performance gains. Especially considering the new car is down 80kg over the outgoing model – so far, so good…
Audi knows how to put together an interior – that much we already knew, and the RS4 does not disappoint. It seems that each and every inch has been carefully considered and plotted, and trimmed with premium leather or glossy carbon fibre, broken up with aluminium highlights.
The controls are well laid out, with everything falling to hand naturally. A neat new touch is that the heater controls are now touch-sensitive, helping you easily navigate the buttons by highlighting their function on the small screen when your finger is hovering over the buttons. There’s plenty of these neat little additions that just make the RS4’s interior easy and quick to use despite the depth of functionality.
Our test car was fitted with the Bang and Olufsen sound system, which comes as part of the optional Sound and Comfort package. Sound quality is exceptional, and smartphone integration – whether iPhone or Android – is easy and quick. With the latest iPhone you can also charge it wirelessly just by placing it in the centre console.
Perhaps the pièce de résistance of the interior is the RS Super Sport front seats. They’re incredibly supportive and offer immense adjustability to suit all frames. Heating and massage capabilities also come as standard, and are both very effective.
If Audi’s interior quality is a benchmark, then their exterior trademarks are not far behind it. Subtle aggression is a term that would be most appropriate, and the new RS4 has it in spades. The design language is something new over the B8, but does share Audi’s almost Stormtrooper-like features.
The box arches have been toned down a touch – though still present – but everywhere else the B9 has been turned up to 11. There are new air scoops next to the headlights, the bumpers feature larger grilles than ever before and the rear diffuser is also more prominent than in previous generations.
Interestingly Audi have taken the trademark RS4 aggression a step further than the coupe version, the RS5. The coupe is 15mm wider per side than the standard model, whereas the Avant is some 30mm per side. It looks fantastic, especially with all of the carbon fibre touches as part of the Carbon Edition package as seen.
The new heart of the RS4, the 2.9-litre V6 Biturbo, is an interesting development on the 3.0-litre V6 seen in the latest breed of S4s and S5s. Rather than a single turbo sat in between the banks of cylinders, the RS engine has a pair.
As well as this, a re-jig of the internals means that compression has been upped to 10:1; don’t let the small drop in capacity fool you, this engine is designed to be very much more potent than its lesser counterparts. The result of this is 444bhp (450 metric horsepower) – the exact same figure as the old RS4 – but 443lb ft which is a 125lb ft gain.
This down-sizing from a 4.2-litre V8 to a turbocharged V6 is of course as a result of ever-tightening EU emissions regulations; however, Audi Sport’s engineers have pulled advantages from that and not just with that bolstered torque figure. The new engine is lighter, too, and that means a drop of 30kg from the new RS4’s nose to significantly improve the handling balance.
Joined to the back of the new V6 is ZF’s 8-speed automatic transmission – a move away from the 7-speed dual-clutch unit we’ve grown used to seeing from Audi in numerous models for some time. It can be operated manually via paddles or with the gear selector when in the relevant mode – of course it can also be simply left to do everything by itself, which it’s very effective at doing.
The final piece of the puzzle is Audi’s trademark Quattro all-wheel-drive, complete with Quattro Sport Differential. It allows power to be shifted between the front axle (which can be sent up to 85% of the engine’s power) and the rear axle (which takes up to 70%).
RS Sport suspension comes by default, however Dynamic Ride Control (DRC) is available as a £2000 option. The brakes are steel discs as standard, with Ceramics available as a £6000 option. For us, both come recommended as you’re about to find out.
On The Road
Jump into the new RS4 and, once you’ve adjusted your seat and mirrors, it starts to become clear that you’re in a very high-tech cabin. With the (optional) heads-up display projected onto the windscreen, you barely even need to take notice of the Audi Virtual Cockpit. Using Audi’s Drive Select system the RS4 can be put into Dynamic mode, opening the RS Sport exhaust system’s valves, sharpening the suspension and drivetrain and changing the displays to make the rev counter the centred focal point – the RS is ready to go.
As we made our way out of urban Malaga to head towards the winding Spanish mountain roads, it’s immediately obvious that the RS4 isn’t an intimidating car to drive. RS cars of old have always had a feeling of wanting to be driven hard at all times, whereas the B9 (even in Dynamic mode) is just as happy gently weaving through traffic as it is launching from the first red light we find.
However, it’s when we finally get to those twisties that the RS4 comes into its own. Despite being the best part of two tons and having so much power, it never feels beyond control. In fact the chassis is easily exploitable and can be surprisingly playful – flick the big Avant into a corner while trailing the brakes and the rear bring itself around nicely, meaning you can avoid the understeer trap that has plagued Audis in the past; no doubt the reduction in weight across the nose has helped this balance; it is still understeer-biased but not excessively so.
Despite this, it’s probably the ‘brain-out’ pace that the RS4 can give that really impresses. With minimal need for concentration, it can cover ground at an absolutely astonishing rate. The steering, gearing, brakes and throttle input feel utterly intuitive, and with the heads-up-display it’s never difficult to stay on top of your speed and gears. The steering has pretty good feedback as do the brakes, even when ceramics are fitted. They’re immensely powerful but easy to control with precision, and with the pace the RS4 can carry they are certainly recommended. There seems to be only one real weakness.
That shortfall is the gearbox. I’m a big fan of ZF’s mighty 8-speed auto but when every other part of the car has been engineered to be razor sharp, it’s something of a letdown. Every now and then it’ll bang through a crisp perfect shift but the majority of the time there just isn’t the urgency, consistency or precision that the old dual clutch offered.
It is a shame because the new V6 biturbo motor is a good one. It has torque in spades, no real sign of turbo lag and unlike many turbo engines these days, it feels rev-happy and pulls all the way to the redline. It doesn’t have the aural drama of the V8 but it has its own character. It’s got guts, and practically demands to be adored.
What’s amazing after all of this noise, speed and aggression is that when you select ‘Comfort’ the RS4 takes on a completely different character. It’s incredibly quiet, the ride is sublime and the drivetrain is buttery smooth. You couldn’t be blamed for thinking that you were in an A8, which is aided even further with those massaging RS seats. It really is astonishing.
The RS4 is – almost unquestionably – the ultimate Jekyll and Hyde sportscar with an estate body. It’s everything the RS2 originally promised and more, and in many ways it’s unrivalled in its field. BMW, Alfa Romeo and the other brands offering fast saloons will offer just that; only a fast saloon. Mercedes are the only ones to offer a true rival with the C63 AMG estate.
The C63 however is around £10k more at list price. That said, the RS4 becomes alarmingly expensive once you add a few options – many of the elements mentioned in this feature are highlights of the B9 but are not standard. The Carbon Edition package (£8,115), Comfort and Sound Pack (£1295), Head-up Display (£900), Ceramic Brakes (£6000), Dynamic Steering (£950) and RS Sport Suspension Plus with DRC (£2000) as fitted to our test car, along with numerous other additions bring the total price to an eye-watering figure.
The RS4 has always distanced itself from the C63 by offering a razor-sharp dual-clutch gearbox and to an extent with price, but with the B9 having a less precise gearbox and a painfully expensive list of extras, it puts itself a dangerous step close to the Merc. Could the best RS4 ever’s only two downfalls be the ones that curse it?
We’ll just have to get it alongside the mighty Merc to find out…
Spec – Audi B9 RS4
- Drivetrain: 2.9-litre V6 Biturbo, 8-speed automatic gearbox, Quattro all-wheel-drive
- Horsepower: 444bhp
- Torque: 443lb ft
- 0-62mph: 4.1 seconds
- Top Speed: 155mph, optional limiter increase to 174mph
- List price: from £62,175
- As tested: £83,185
If you like our review of the Audi RS4 Avant you might like the flagship Audi R8 Spider review.