Audi's last-generation RS4 Avant has finally been put to pasture, marking the end of production for the legendary, high-revving 4.2 FSI engine. We farewell the last of the four-ringed marque's naturally aspirated V8 engines
The lyric “sunrise doesn’t last all morning” floats around my brain the moment the 2016 Audi RS4 Avant’s chiselled grille locks onto line through a blind left-hand sweeper, waiting for its fat 265mm Pirelli P Zeroes to clip the yet unsighted apex, hidden beyond the rock face, with millimetre accuracy. It’s the wee hours of Sunday, early enough to get the jump on the bicycle and motorcycle crush that’ll soon swarm this once-great, if now speed-strangled, driving road on Sydney’s outskirts, and the opening line from the late George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass buries itself in my brain. And despite the glorious eight-cylinder symphony from Ingolstadt attempting desperately to drown out the ex-Beatle.
All things must pass. These four words, in song and album title, were Harrison's message to his former band mates shortly after the demise of what many consider music’s finest ever act. It was closure. And as I sink the hyper-wagon’s throttle beyond the blind apex, wringing 4.2 litres of bent-eight fury out to its impossibly lofty 8250rpm redline, the V8 ‘brapping’ loudly on an upshift to third gear, I cannot think of four more fitting words for this moment in this car.
That’s because, in this moment, I’m uncorking one of the very last naturally aspirated V8s Audi’s Rennsport skunkworks ever built. This epic engine survived in RS4 Avant and its RS5 two-door coupe twin up until both models ceased production in Q3 2015. According to Audi Australia, only two RS4 Avants remain in its network. One example has been on loan to the NSW Police since August last year. The other is our review car, the very last RS4 Avant that will soon hit a showroom somewhere with whatever 'demonstrator' kilometres yours truly might add to the odo. This moment is surely my last ever chance to sample a factory-fresh version of one of the greatest engines of a wondrous bygone era that also produced the now defunct BMW M 4.0-litre and Mercedes-AMG 6.2-litre naturally aspirated bent-eights.
“It’s not always going to be this grey…”
In its Sport Classic Grey paintwork, the German five-door has an appealing balance of subtlety and menace as it sits smeared across the hot mix. It's a good look – one that's pierced many a wagon-loving petrolhead's heart – and this example is enhanced by carbon-ceramic front brakes and one-inch-larger 20-inch wheels, which are part of its fitted Dynamic Sport package. These respective $13,500 and $7200 cost options would've lifted the RS4 Avant's 'new' price to around $170k before on-roads though, given the circumstance, it's unclear how much cash will change hands for this slightly pre-loved and absolutely last V8 RS4 Avant which only one of you may happen to buy.
Climb inside and its interior betrays its advanced age. This RS4 Avant is of old ‘B8’ stock; it’s a generation older than the ‘B9’ A4 Avant that has been moving through Audi showrooms for months now. And when the next B9-bred RS4 Avant finally arrives, it’ll be more homogenised in its shift towards today’s engine convention: smaller-capacity, two fewer cylinders, two turbochargers, probably thicker in low-to-mid-range torque delivery to better service all-round driving habits, and it'll undoubtedly be more dolphin friendly. A force-induced six will also hark back to the original RS4 Avant, launched in 2000, which adopted a 2.7-litre biturbo V6 offering 275kW/440Nm.
The 4.2 FSI V8 lived for mere decade. In fact, it was the first 'Fuel Stratified Injection', or FSI, engine in road car production, essentially direct-fuel injection technology that had trickled down from Audi's Le Mans racing development that debuted on road, in 2005, in the then B7-generation RS4 range.
Prior to the FSI engine's release, a number of Audi and Volkswagen models had featured a 20-valve, long-stroke, all-aluminium 90-degree 4.2-litre V8 that, in A6 Allroad as one example, produced a decent 221kW (at 6200rpm) and 380Nm (from 2700rpm).
But this bespoke 16-valve 4.2 FSI engine was something else. Featuring revised construction, forged bottom-end internals, a completely new top end and engine management system, and stratospheric 12.5:1 compression ratio, this toughened version revved more freely to produce 309kW at 7800rpm while delivering 430Nm, if very high in the rev range, at 5500rpm, a threshold where a great many engines make peak power.
In sedan form, this RS4 generation could hit 0-100km/h in 4.8 seconds, and using the only transmission available at the time: a conventional six-speed manual.
By the time the B8 version of the RS4 lobbed at the 2012 Geneva show, the sedan had gone the way of the dodo but the 4.2 FSI V8 had become, at once, both more powerful and driveable. Now producing 331kW at an incredible 8250rpm – the old engine’s rpm ceiling – though was, in Audi’s words, “designed for 9000rpm” operation. However, the carryover 430Nm peak torque was lowered to a more useable 4000-6000rpm band, producing an incredibly linear character from idle to electronically governed cut-out.
With high-silicon cylinder barrels, oil pump on-demand, a (now lower) 11.0:1 compression and 42 degrees of variable inlet and outlet camshaft timing and dual-ECU management, the revised 4.2 FSI is a relatively sophisticated and precision-engineered powerplant when compared with a great many volume-produced V8 alternatives – be it naturally aspirated or force induced – available even today. Technically speaking, not much separates the dry-sump version of the eight-pot wunderkind mid-mounted in the R8 super sportscar to the wet-sump version shoehorned into its mid-sized wagon counterpart.
With a seven-speed dual-clutch as transmission of choice, the RS4 Avant is said to sprint to 100km/h from a standstill in 4.7 seconds – very rapid, if not quite on the pace in the emerging turbocharged company of latter-day rivals such as Mercedes-AMG’s current C63 S Estate. In the decade of the 4.2 FSI’s production, the power war raged among the premium Germans (and, of course, others) and, in line, performance naturally escalated. Today, the C63 S's 4.0-litre twin-turbocharged V8 tops the heap with 375kW and 700Nm, and the sign of the times read 4.1 seconds for the 0-100km/h, a six-tenths advantage the RS4 Avant has no hope of closing with its evergreen, if no longer red-hot, powertrain credentials.
“A mind can blow these clouds away…”
So I find myself, on this Sunday morning, lining up yet another right-hand sweeper, the RS4 Avant pinned to its line Scalextric-like, this time its V8 ‘brapping’ on downshift, its responses needle sharp as the tacho wavers around the 4500rpm mid-range. It’s a punchy bugger, full of herbs and vibrant urgency, if not quite to the level today’s buyers – or reviewers – have become accustomed to...
Days prior, I’d happened to be stretching the legs of a (331kW/550Nm) BMW M3 and a Mercedes-AMG C63 S sedan with similar enthusiasm. By comparison, Rennsport’s naturally aspirated 4.2L V8, lumbered with the Avant’s 1870kg weight, lacks the sheer visceral propulsion of today’s German, medium-sized turbocharged crop (though, of course, BMW has yet to furnish wagon lovers with a suitable five-door M3).
But as sweeper becomes switchback becomes hairpin, the RS4 Avant, sampled in isolation, is making one helluva bold statement, if one perhaps one that mightn't placate the more-is-more crowd and its unquenchable thirst for ever more output. But what this Audi offers is, by reasonable and useable measure, more than ample.
Set to full-Dynamic drive mode, the RS4 Avant is too much car for even a very good driving road. The seduction at play is the supremely linear engine delivery mixed with an utterly magnificent, tubular soundtrack that howls louder as the tacho needle hones in on 9000rpm. It’s so intoxicating that you don’t want to lift that right foot. Because the RS4 Avant doesn’t quite explode out of one apex en route to another, you can keep this V8 pinned longer.
That said, the RS4 Avant is so swift that its neck doesn’t demand to be constantly wrung. Try it, and the hot Audi outgrows the public forum quickly enough.
“So I must be on my way…”
Excessive outputs can be a short-lived fix. Why? Because oftentimes piling on the power and torque won’t necessarily yield a quicker device. Instead, it merely forces the driver to get out of the throttle pedal between apexes earlier and to get on the brakes and gathering up the handling package sooner. On road, at least, the RS4 Avant allows you dig in long and reasonably hard before the wrong side of the speed limit arrives. And digging in is the fun bit, right?
The RS4 Avant mightn’t have numbers magic enough to top the timesheets, but during fairweather punts across twisty public hotmix, I, for one, could care less what the stopwatch says. It’s more about good vibes, driving engagement and lifting the heart rate without raising too much of a sweat, and the Rennsport engineers have skewed the relationship between the powertrain and the dynamic handling and braking package that, outside of a racetrack, the RS4 Avant strikes a sweet balance within itself without getting ragged, unruly or too antisocial.
It really takes heightened driver heroics and the privacy of an off-street circuit, with ESP switched off, for the quattro system and its clever support systems – the self-locking centre differential, four-wheel active torque vectoring – to tap the RS4 Avant’s ultimate dynamic talents. Throw its weight around and the wagon becomes surprisingly playful and more than a little lairy.
“Daylight is good at arriving at the right time…”
The last time – and perhaps the last time – I drove an RS4 Avant on track was on Victoria’s famed Phillip Island racetrack, the kind of ‘power circuit’ almost tailor made for its 400kW-plus twin-turbocharged V8 stablemates in the RS6 Avant and RS7 Sportback… both of which I’d just climbed out of before sampling the naturally aspirated five-door. And yet while the more illustrious turbo twins were categorically quicker, the ‘little brother’ wasn’t merely more fun, it was the device I just plain preferred. It pushes my particular buttons just a little harder.
That the RS4 Avant doesn’t have all the bells, whistles and excesses of other Rennsport machinery is, for me, appeal in itself. It's purer and simpler. Even when it comes to active safety, this old-gen machine is thin-on for standard-fitment goodies commonplace on the newer B9 A4 generation: blind spot monitoring ($1200) costs extra, and if you need active lane-keeping and adaptive cruise ($1800) in a machine with this level of driver intent then you might well be shopping in the wrong aisle.
Those 380mm carbon-ceramic six-piston front brakes have excellent cold stopping power and the around town feel is exemplary, but if you're not clocking up regular track time the $13,500 investment is questionable given how good the regular ‘wave’-design 365mm steel disc with eight-piston monobloc caliper combination is.
That $7200 Dynamic Sport Package, though, adds the ‘plus’ sports suspension with adaptive dampers, ‘sports’ exhaust and presented, in times past, a choice of 20-inch rolling stock (up from the regular 19s). As a suite, the pack adds character and brings out the beast’s best, and is perhaps the only essential optional extra necessary for enhancing the RS4 Avant experience.
It's not a car without fault. The seven-speed dual-clutch is grumpy in first gear during the peak hour crawl, the Dynamic steering mode is laborious, the left-foot ‘dead pedal’ is misplaced and it takes fiddly readjustment to find that oh-so-right driver’s seat adjustment. Nearly everything about the B8-gen cabin became old hat the instant the B9 A4 range arrived months back, and I guarantee that the first time you drop a liquorice strip Pirelli into a pothole will be the last. Oh, and when you flex its ‘personality’ – as you should and often – that claimed 10.7L/100kms becomes a fairy tale.
But it’s that personality, its particular combination of key elements, that ensures the positives crush the negatives into oblivion. In Comfort, it’s a quiet and undemanding cruiser – terse ride apart, there’s little about the luxury levels or the 490L-to-1430L convertible luggage space to rob from bona-fide family friendliness. For indulgence’s sake, dial up the Dynamic exhaust setting in the assignable Individual mode while keeping everything else (powertrain, dampers, steering, sports differential) in ‘auto’ to boost the around-town V8 soundtrack.
Form here, a quick tap of the console shifter engages the Sport mode, the engine note turns bass-y and bold, the powertrain instantly arms itself with a level of gusto perfectly suited to punching holes in the urban jungle on a whim. Thus set, the RS4 Avant is amply sharp and sporty enough to dive down a twisty back road on a sunny Sunday morning with serious intent, and that’s even before you need to dial up Dynamic mode to fully unleash its Hyde…
Swiss Army flexibility is the sensible side of the RS4 Avant’s appeal. But that doesn’t quite qualify the car’s ultimate and emotional allure. This car drips personality. And it's a particular type of personality that draws petrolheads to this hot wagon.
It yells performance without screaming it in your face. It exudes maturity without affecting its muscularity. It’s largely a stigma-free hero car. And there’s just the right amount of goodness, importantly, in so many of the right places.
Thing is, personality doesn’t factor in CarAdvice's vehicle appraisal. And it would be remiss of me to allow romantic warm and fuzzies to unduly influence the RS4 Avant’s critical ratings. It’s scored a nine from 10 in reviews past, and that doesn’t waver with this swansong. And there's a certain cold reality that, if sheer pace is your want, you’d go an RS3 that’s four-tenths quicker 0-100km/h that’s roughly half the price if offering much less, well, magic.
Yes, the RS4 Avant taps a certain magic formula. And deep enough that, in my week with our test car, half-a-dozen acquaintances in passing – my dad, three colleagues, a neighbour, some bloke in a café, for the record – would claim it’s their favourite car. The caveat, however, was clear-cut for some: “It’s the V8, right?” But any discussion of a twin-turbo V6 future is met, rightly or wrongly, with unilateral ambivalence…
The next, undoubtedly more powerful and quicker RS4 Avant will no doubt embody similar magic, if without that glorious heartbeat…
“All things must pass away,” I sing to myself as I wring that V8 to redline one final time.
Perhaps not all things, Mister Harrison. Just some of the really good things.
Click the Photos tab for more images by Sam Venn.