Audi RS 4 Avant review
by Tom Stewart (28 September 2012)
While trickling along at a lowly 3500rpm, the new Audi RS 4 – even without the optional £890 sports exhaust system – emits an exceptionally deep primordial rumbling, the likes of which I've not heard in any car before. It sounds, I imagine, much like a petrol-powered V8 supertanker would, if such a contraption existed, only with the bass turned right up.
Though quite subtle it is very satisfying, and because the engine is turning relatively slowly and it doesn't need to be under load, it's an aural experience that is easily and frequently reproduced.
If I were Clarkson (who he?) I'd probably tell you that this symphony of internal combustion is worth the basic £54,925 price alone, but like the original RS 2 of the mid-90s and the two more recent RS 4 derivations of the noughties, this 2012 RS 4 Avant also has multiple strengths and skill sets – so many it's hard to know where to start.
Also like the original RS 2, the latest RS 4 comes only as an Avant, or estate (no saloon or convertible, and if you want a similarly-sized two-door coupé then check out the RS 5), and like the last RS 4 of four years ago, the latest version is powered by a 4163cc naturally-aspirated V8 FSI motor, although peak power is now up from 414bhp to 444bhp at a heady 8250rpm, while the torque figure of 317lb/ft from 4000-6000rpm remains the same.
Purists may mourn the passing of the earlier RS's six-speed manual Getrag gearbox, but the new seven-speed dual-clutch electro-hydraulically shifting S tronic transmission swaps cogs far more swiftly and smoothly than was possible before.
Almost needless to say, the new RS 4 distributes its power via all four wheels courtesy of the very latest quattro system with a Sports differential. And in common with steering response, ride settings, transmission shift points and more, the diff's responses are also adjustable via the car's sophisticated Drive Select system.
That's some of the fundamentals dealt with, so let's get out on the road, in this case, and unusually for a car press launch, a drive from Stansted Airport in Essex to a hotel near Neckarsulm, a little north of Stuttgart, where RS 4s, R8s and several other Audi models are built.
With the prospect of some unrestricted autobahn motoring ahead, the drive to the Chunnel near Folkestone was undertaken with restraint. I mention this because with a quoted 0-62 time of 4.7 seconds and the optional (£1300) derestricted 174mph top speed, the RS 4 is eager to say the very least – this despite the engine not feeling particularly torquey at lower revs. (Interesting to note at this point that the claimed performance figures for the 200kg lighter RS 2 Avant of 1994 were 4.8 secs and 163mph – not massively different.)
The road across northern France toward Brussels and beyond was also driven with laudable levels of self-discipline and, on the standard 19" wheels, in reasonable comfort too, especially with the Drive Select set to Comfort. But despite a continued conservative driving style a fuel stop was deemed prudent while still in Belgium, just 250 miles or thereabouts from Stansted.
The RS 4's combined figure of 26.4mpg represents a 27% improvement over the last RS 4, which is good, but unsurprisingly my travelling partner and I agreed that, for a continental trip such as this, a £6565 cheaper Audi A6 Avant with a three-litre, 313PS bi-turbo TDI engine, an eight-speed transmission, a 155mph top speed, a four-litre larger fuel tank and a 44.1mpg combined figure might have been the cleverer choice, had we had the choice. But that was all before we reached the German autobahn, or got close to the Nürburgring's Nordschleife circuit.
Had we followed any of the excellent satnav's suggested routes to Neckarsulm we'd have completed the entire journey by motorway, so it seemed a no-brainer to us to take a diversion to sample a variety of roads which would be more engaging and hopefully not too busy.
Soon after leaving the Belgian motorway near Eupen there's a quiet, straight and very bumpy concrete-surfaced road – probably laid by or for the Nazi military many decades ago – and it's about the sternest test of chassis rigidity, torsional stiffness and suspension compliance anywhere outside a manufacturer's proving ground. Ordinarily I’d drive it at about 50mph max, but the RS 4 was stable, taut and controlled at a steady 90mph.
Being a dedicated Nordschleife fanboy I'd checked the Nürburgring's website prior to departure and, on the day we were there in the RS 4, I knew that the circuit (officially a toll road) wouldn't be open to the public - cue bitter disappointment - but the normal roads of the Eifel region are still a driver's delight – wide, curvy, beautifully surfaced and far from busy.
Apart from the steering feel sometimes weighting-up somewhat artificially, the RS 4 steers, grips and handles more like a pukka supercar than a four-seater estate. In a corner and with the tyres squealing – which takes some doing – you'll almost wish for a g-suit, such is the lateral grip available.
The RS 4's new cross-drilled, ventilated wavy discs (with eight-piston front calipers) are immensely powerful and have good feel, although 'Ring regulars and trackday fiends may wish to opt for carbon ceramic discs (£4000) for even less fade and much less unsprung weight.
Having taken a comfort break and stared solemnly at the closed gates to the world's most splendid purpose-built circuit, we pressed on toward the autobahn south. Just as I'd love to be able to provide feedback on the RS 4 on the actual Nordschleife, I'd also like to report that we saw the speedo needle sitting somewhere close to the car's 174mph max, but due to traffic volume and a frustrating shortage of unrestricted autobahn south of Koblenz, it was not to be, so you'll just have to take my word that the RS 4 accelerates to an indicated 140mph with preposterous ease.
(Coincidentally I've previously seen an indicated 174mph on an autobahn near Berlin in a 417bhp Lexus IS-F, so with an additional 27bhp the RS 4 should at least match that.)
Despite frequent cruising at three figure speeds we covered another 250 miles before taking on more fuel, and by the time we reached our destination the trip computer showed an average of 23.1mpg, just 3.3mpg down on the official combined figure which, all things considered, isn't too shabby.
Sure, a beefy TDI-powered car could have completed the same journey in the same time or less, and used much less fuel, and quite possibly wouldn't have required refueling at all, let alone twice, but there’s no TDI I know of that thrills like a rumbling, bellowing high-revving V8. And, lest I forget, you can still put a dog or two in the back of an RS 4, or take the family on holiday in it. A future classic? I reckon so.