2018 Audi RS4 Avant review

Has the return to turbocharged V6 power been a backwards step for the Audi RS4 Avant? Or has newfound pace compensated for the lamented loss of the sonorous naturally aspirated V8?

With our first international drive of the new 2018 Audi RS4 Avant, initial impressions are, well, virtually surprise free. It delivers the holistic experience almost exactly as expected, characteristically familiar to recent forebears in broad strokes of natural evolution, downright predictable in its key headline change: a return to turbo V6 power after two generations of naturally aspirated V8s.

If that assessment looks a lukewarm response to Ingolstadt’s fiery family hauler, here’s one caveat: as a wool-dyed hot wagon lover, I’ve lusted after all three of the fourth-gen newcomer’s predecessors. And if first impressions are a true measure, this new and largely improved version does nothing to stymie my affection.

I loved the third generation and laid my beating heart bare sampling an example back in August 2016 believed, at the time, to be the very last showroom version in Audi’s worldwide possession. It was my last chance to sample its mojo-dripping, hard-revving, naturally aspirated Audi V8 in factory-fresh form.

Despite my fanboy filter, the old B8 RS4 Avant was clearly a generation off step – still loveable yet struggling to keep up with the times. It was thirsty, lacked the torquey kick of newer force-induced singes in contemporary ‘M’ and ‘AMG’ mid-sizers, and its glorious soundtrack couldn’t mask a patent lack of pace. In my musings, I’d predicted that its successor, the B9 generation, might become more homogenized in response to downsizing to turbo V6 power – a more useable, friendlier, more dolphin-friendly sort of predator.

I was concerned this new version might be the RS4 Avant losing form.

But if a couple of hundred kays pounding around the Costa Del Sol mountains of Spain at its international launch is any indication, Audi’s sweetest RennSport wagon – no disrespect RS6 Avant – has lifted the breed’s game. And in most of the right, heart-pounding areas.

Details of the new platform, the shift to 331kW/600Nm 2.9-litre bi-turbo V6 power, the eight-speed-loaded powertrain and other key changes in the RS4 Avant – almost all of which are shared with the new-for-Oz RS5 two-door coupe – have been in the public forum for quite some time. No need for rehashing too much, as you can find expanded rundowns for the pair here and here.

Newsworthy, though, is that the wagon’s April 2018 release will present a “mid-$150K pricing,” says Audi Australia, of next to no difference to that of the $156,600 coupe. Essentially, it’s the same go-fast hardware shoehorned beneath a choice of body styles labelled ‘parental guidance necessary’ and ‘adults only’.

More good news is that Aussie-spec RS4 Avants will get a high level of standard kit, with inclusions such as dynamic ride control adaptive damping, the tricky Sport differential and louder RS Sport exhaust system. Dynamic steering smarts and carbon ceramic brakes, at a cool $12K, will be cost optional.

In the flesh, the gen four’s styling adheres to the ‘subtly muscular’ brief that’s served Audi’s go-fast wagons so well to date. Like the RS5, Audi’s IMSA GTO racecar heritage inspired the ‘gaping vent’ front-end design, the guards are 30mm wider than the regular A4, and an RS-spec diffuser, oval tailpipes and roof spoiler add purpose rear on. Mostly, the RS4 Avant emits presence in proportions rather than wings, stripes or gaudy accoutrements, and is better for it. Be it in bright red, battleship grey or new heritage green hero colour, it’s a handsome, premium-looking jigger.

The 2.9-litre bi-turbo V6 is an absolute gem. No, the exhaust howl and heady rpm excesses are gone, but it’s quite a bit bolder, techier and more blissfully raucous than most of the nicer three-litre blown sixes out there. Be it sonics or energy, it’s a more ferocious animal than Audi’s tamer single-turbo 3.0-litre six (in S4), and gut feel suggests it’ll out-vibe Alfa’s and BMW’s hi-po sixes.

As expected, that extra 170Nm swing against the old V8, available in a fat 1900–5000rpm band, transforms the purpose with which an RS4 Avant will launch out of the hole. It’s said to be six-tenths quicker to 100km/h – a fair improvement then – and it feels much fitter by the seat of the pants, though its 4.1sec best is 0.2sec shy of the coupe and 0.4sec off big brother RS6 Avant.

The eight-speed auto is a ZF unit, who supplies many premium marques, and its familiar silkiness normal ‘D’ mode is as expected. In sportier ‘S’ self-shifting calibration is impressive, keeping the turbo six nicely on boil and shifting intuitively without hard-edged thudding or shunting. Seat-of-the-pants acceleration is more strident than breathtaking – despite losing 80kg on the weighbridge, a portly 1790kg kerb weight does seem to dull the urgency with which the wagon lunges towards the horizon slightly.

The narrow, smooth and impossibly twisty roads out of Spain’s seaside town of Málaga allow little pause for long acceleration spurts, but the relentless succession of corners. Even in Auto drive mode with the transmission set to Sport auto, it covers hotmix at an impressive pace while rarely need much more than half throttle. It piles on speed effortlessly during the occasional straight section of road, and the optional carbon ceramic brakes are impressively powerful and accurate when hauling the procession into the next curve.

Where the powertrain shines brightest is in rolling response, in gear flexibility and general co-operation. The engine has some serious low-rpm tractability and is very linear in delivery through to the surprisingly abrupt cut-out at around 6700rpm. Thankfully, the central tacho in RS-specific digital instrumentation and the head-up system display progressive, coloured shift lights to aid perfectly timed upshifts when the transmission is set to manual mode.

Throughout, the eight-speed remains a faithful ally, seamlessly plucking the right ratio, holding onto engine rpm and engine braking exactly when and where you need it. Yet more proof that the premium Germans’ collective move away from dual-clutch to more conventional automatic engineering in high-performance applications is a rewarding move. It is not without foibles, though: the blurting upshifts could be more immediate, and the ratios – particularly the yawning 1800rpm gap between second and third – could be more tightly stacked given there are eight available in the forward direction.

Dynamic mode really adds some tangible sting to proceedings, heightening the powertrain responses a bit, and adding artificial weight to the steering. The most benefit, though, comes from heightening the chassis response and adding extra poise and balance once the tyres break lateral adhesion. Our test car sits on huge 275mm-wide 20-inch Hankook Ventus S1 Evos – quality performance rubber – but the violent dynamic weight shifts of a big car on a small twisty road means that sliding about can happen without too much provocation.

It’s not merely off-the-rack-quattro tech plying dynamic talent: a mechanical centre diff for the spread between axles (40/60 torque split static, up to 70 per cent front and 85 per cent rear adaptive), wheel-selective torque regulation via ESC-integrated braking, and electromechanical rear-axle ‘sport’ diff are key to tuning the car’s on-throttle talent exiting curves. You need ESC Sport for the wagon to really express its playful best on-road or, if you’re foolhardy enough or have a circuit handy, stability smarts can be switched completely off. Narrow tracts of Spain's mountainside festooned with Alberto Contador wannabes isn’t the place…

Here’s the thing about the RS4 Avant package. Point to point, it’s wickedly quick. It can pile on huge lateral G force, track the driver’s chosen line accurately and is co-operative enough for pinpoint placement where you want it on the road. But it can feel too large a car for such a confined forum, at least for exercising the greater extents of its potential pace. It just feels like it would be more at home carrying speed through the wider corners of a racetrack than a succession of second- and third-gear switchbacks in the Spanish boonies. Which, it must be said, fares quite favorably for its high-performance credentials.

Audi claims some effort went into differentiating Dynamic from more comfort-oriented drive settings. And, sure enough, it’s very quiet and polite, and appreciably comfortable, at a cruise around town or on the smooth Spanish motorways. Unlike some premium performance rivals, the separation of Jekyll and Hyde is quite pronounced, its ‘comfort’ settings true to the word. The ride still errs towards a taut tune, but the adaptive suspension smarts inject enough compliance to make long-haul touring fatigue free.

Like we found with the RS5 coupe, the RS4 Avant’s steering is more than decent if far from excellent. So-called Dynamic steering smarts, which can vary the ratio by up to 100 per cent, continue to be a solution to a problem that doesn’t seem to exist, and in use it’s hard to discern what benefit such tech brings to the equation. A little more linearity and a touch more detail through the rim wouldn’t go astray.

Slicker, techier, more 'connected', the new RS4 Avant's cabin is better in every measure than anything last-gen Audi RS. For newcomer buyers, the cabin treatment deserves the expected awe and delight, though it is awfully derivative – for good or bad – of any other RennSport model. You could lose a fair chunk of like searching too hard for points of difference between the wagon and the RS5. If you opt for the funky Audi Exclusive Sonoma Green paintwork, you do get green rather than red stitching and highlights throughout the cabin.

Diamond stitching? Check. Beautifully ‘waxy’-feel leather and extra lashing of Alcantara? Got it. Pneumatically adjustable, form-hugging race-type seating and flat-bottom steering wheel? You bet. It’s not only richly appointed and genuinely upmarket in ambience, it straddles everyday comfort and hot punt weekender impressively for a vehicle that ought to shine across a gamut of driving uses, as did all mid-sized RS wagons before it.

Dimensions are larger generation to generation, but with gains of 13mm in cabin length and 11mm in shoulder room you’ll need a tape measure to find it. That’s no foul: the A4 Avant upon which this is based is a medium car creeping suspiciously close to categorically large – if you’ve mistaken the RS4 for RS6, you won’t be the first – and there’s really no impressionable area in either row of seating that feels to lack ample roominess.

As for other considerations of practicality, 505 litres of cargo space expands to 1510L with the handy 40/20/40 split-fold rear seating stowed, you get adjustable tether rails and an elasticised tie-down net, and there’s a gesture-controllable tailgate feature. Worth a shout-out, too, is that for the first time in its history, the feisty five-door performance wagon is offered with an optional towing pack that will tow a braked 2100kg.

In terms of outright safety features, driver conveniences and assistance systems, connectivity and the like, the RS4 Avant’s global menu of features is burgeoning, though it’s unclear right now how much will be fitted standard, or even available, once the five-door lands Down Under. That said, it’s a fair bet that few of the 30-odd driver assistance systems offered in the local RS5 coupe release will be omitted from the five-door package.

It’s the expanded duality of blending impressive comfort and convenience with newfound performance and dynamic prowess where this new fourth-generation wagon sticks true to what buyers and fans love most about the RS4 Avant breed.

It’s not as ferocious and hardcore as an RS6 Avant, but miles more focused and potent than merely fast wagons (Golf R, Octavia RS, et al), which is why the niche it carves is so sweet. That it, at times, verges on being too quiet and polite, while at others seems too ballistic to be amply stretched on public roads, is strength in evolution.