The Audi RS4 Avant is back to prove again that wagons can be very cool indeed. And very fast.
It’s also further confirmation that Audi is now well past that baffling strategy of building only one RS model at a time.
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The Audi RS4 Avant joins the TT RS and its coupe twin, the RS5, in Australia, with an RS5 Cabriolet due in the third quarter of 2013, and (if you need an even faster wagon) the RS6 Avant in late 2013.
This is the third-generation Audi RS4 Avant, released nearly 20 years after the very first RS Audi – the 1994 Audi RS2 Avant co-developed with Porsche and with which it shares DNA.
The previous RS4, sold here between 2006 and 2008, was available in three body styles: sedan, wagon and convertible.
As with the original RS4 of 2000-2001, though, the new version is available as a wagon only. Audi believes the RS5 coupe and cabriolet take care of other customers.
There’s always been something hugely appealing about the RS4 Avant’s blend of subtly muscular design, sports car performance, and family-minded practicality.
And for the latter, we can tell you that the new Audi RS4 Avant comes with an automatic tailgate as standard, there’s plentiful storage, and up to 1430 litres of cargo space if you fold the rear seats.
We suspect most readers of this review, and prospective buyers of the RS4, are more interested in what’s loaded in the front of the wagon.
Under the bonnet the RS4 again employs a 4.2-litre V8, shared with the RS5 that relies purely on inducted air rather than following the recent trend for downsized engines with turbochargers or superchargers.
The V8 still achieves the dual targets of increasing both power and efficiency.
Outputs are up from 309kW to 331kW, with torque now rated at 430Nm.
The Audi RS4 Avant slurps 20 per cent less fuel than before, registering an official combined fuel consumption figure of 10.7 litres per 100km. Emissions are lowered to 249 grams of CO2 per kilometre.
That looks after the green in environment. For the green in race-start lights, the RS4 wagon has reduced its 0-100km/h sprinting capability from 4.9 to 4.7 seconds.
That’s not quite supercar pace, but press the RS4’s accelerator pedal towards the carpet and you will think ‘super wagon’.
We drove Australia’s fastest diesel the day before getting into the RS4 – the new Audi A6 3.0 TDI Biturbo – and it made for an interesting comparison.
The Biturbo A6 will get to 100km/h in a not-too-far-behind 5.1 seconds, but the RS4’s acceleration feels far more exhilarating.
It’s like the difference on take-off experiences between a big jumbo and a small charter jet. The A6 TDI Biturbo is the jumbo that feels relaxed and seemingly slow, whereas the RS4 is the jet where the thrust has a more noticeable physical effect on your body as your back is forcefully thrown back into the seat.
The engine just gets better the harder you go, and the sound of the RS4’s V8 is utterly addictive – gargling with intent at lower revs before doing its best impersonation of a NASCAR racer on its way to its stratospheric 8500rpm limiter, and a possible top speed of 280km/h (if requested).
Keeping the engine good company is the seven-speed dual-clutch auto that induces parps from the exhaust as it shifts into higher gears, will hold gears if manually selected, and blips the throttle as it changes into lower gears as you pull on the downshift paddle lever (or automatically if you’ve chosen Dynamic mode from the Audi drive select system).
The ability to go around corners carries equal if not greater performance in these upper realms of German luxury cars, however.
Audi closed the gap to the venerable BMW M3 with the previous RS4, and for now it’s again our favourite RS model.
The steering is direct in Dynamic mode but the weighting is unnaturally heavy and in terms of feel doesn’t read the road surface like braille as an M3 does.
You can feel the wagon’s additional weight through corners compared with the RS5 coupe, and the RS4 exhibits more body roll – but the latter is actually a positive.
Like a Ford Focus ST hot-hatch, the leaning never comes at the expense of tightrope-walking balance - with the RS4’s clever AWD system providing a form of safety net, especially on slippery roads.
We only experienced dry roads in our day with the RS4, but here its level of tyre grip is staggering whether you’re having a fun run on country roads or going even faster around high-load sweeping corners as we did at Sydney Motorsport Park.
(Most owners won’t take their RS4 to the racetrack, of course, but the fact you can simply cements the reputation.)
That applies to the standard 19-inch wheels, though we spent most of our road time in an Audi RS4 Avant equipped with optional $7200 Dynamic Sports Package that brings 20-inch wheels (rather than the standard 19s), a sport exhaust, and Dynamic Ride Control.
DRC engages diagonally opposed, valve-actuated shock absorbers to help reduce body roll, dive and squat.
And speaking of dive, the RS4’s brakes are also worthy of mention. While the brake pedal feels overly hard on initial contact, as pedal travel progresses there’s a reassuringly commensurate amount of slowing force applied.
That’s especially welcome when you’re looking to shed speed from in excess of 210km/h on the racetrack.
If you take your Audi RS4 Avant out of the crate without options, a rear sports differential and clever AWD system are still part of the deal that will set you back nearly $20,000 less than the old model: $149,400 before on-road costs.
The diff is a form of torque vectoring that actually transfers more torque to the outer rear wheel – rather than some other system’s that just brake the inside rear wheel – to help push the wagon around corners.
The default AWD set-up is rear biased at 40:60 but a crown gear centre diff can apportion 70 per cent of the engine’s torque to the front wheels if it detects a loss of traction at the rear wheels. And, if it’s the front wheels struggling to bite the bitumen, the diff can switch up to 85 per cent to the rear axle.
If you’re simply driving around the city, the RS4 is also easy to live with.
There’s a firmness to the ride that’s expected of a performance-focused vehicle that’s also fitted with big wheels and thin rubber, but the RS4’s suspension keeps nasty bumps and joins from intruding on cabin comfort.
The RS4’s dual-clutch auto is also one of the best we’ve experienced of the computer-controlled transmission breed in urban driving, although purists will bemoan the lack of a manual transmission in this new generation.
Differently calibrated to the dual-clutch gearbox in the RS5, there’s a surprising smoothness to the seven-speeder’s operation in stop-start driving.
A magical blend of luxury, practicality, liveability and sportscar-fighting performance, then, make the Audi RS4 Avant a rare specimen in Australia: a genuinely desirable wagon.