Audi RS4 Avant (2013) long-term test review

Published: 04 November 2013

Month 7 running an Audi RS4 Avant: goodbye to CAR's 444bhp RS4 Avant

Andy Green knows how it feels to come to a halt, breathless, at the end of a hyper-fast drive in a dead straight line. And now, after seven months behind the wheel of the RS4, so do I. Whatever else it is, this brutally quick estate car is not a connoisseur of corners, no devourer of deviations. You want to carve delicate B-road complexes, get yourself a scalpel. Or a Lotus. But if bludgeoning long distances to death is the plan then here’s your weapon – the bluntest instrument since the sledgehammer.

Audi might be disappointed to hear it. They set out the RS4’s stall to be more responsive and more emotional than the reviled RS5. The re-engineered Quattro system with its crown-wheel centre diff is designed to deal the torque like a card sharp, enabling lizard-spec grip at silly speeds, and the newly variable electrically assisted steering is intended to reunite palms with road. Both work – the grip is so ferocious it tips bravery into foolishness, and the steering in Dynamic mode is a decent reader of changing driver mood as speeds increase. But to get Dynamic steering you’ll almost certainly set Drive Select to Dynamic mode, a setting that results in suspension and damper settings so severe they might have been fettled by the Spanish Inquisition. Impossible to live with.

Switching one’s personal Drive Select to Hooligan does in part compensate for this, but results in driving everywhere so fast it’s literally criminal, while all the time not having absolutely masses of fun. It’s just a tiny bit frustrating.

On the plus side, the RS4 pays out more compensation than News International. From the moment you clap eyes on it you’re hooked by its chiselled heft, and once inside, Audi’s cabin magic works on you like pot smoke, its beautiful dark materials, taut surfaces and haptically precise controls installing themselves into your soul. I love the interior of this car – the chunky leather steering wheel, the solid-state wheel that controls the superb Multi Media Interface, the fabulous sporty seats, the slender, clicky shift paddles…

Ooh yes, the paddles bring me to the gearbox, Audi’s seven-speed dual-clutch S-tronic. Neither universally loved nor hated, it’s an approach to cog-shuffling that either suits the car or doesn’t. Here it’s in its element, happier next to the naturally aspirated V8 than Wise was next to Morecambe. I haven’t had a daydream about manual for weeks, now. And if I may torture the Eric and Ernie analogy for a moment, the gearbox is like Ernie, effortlessly laying the ground for the star to be brilliant… and this engine is a star.

The noise is like an Aussie petrolhead’s wet dream (our Damo likes it!), all growl and snap and thunder, and the easily reached torque pool backs up bark with a bite Crocodile Dundee himself might shrink from. I’ve driven very few cars that are, in reality, any faster than this Audi.

The price for this, as you might know, is 132.9p a litre. Times it by absolutely masses and you’ve got fuel consumption of just above 20mpg and a fuel bill to make Cyprus feel a bit better about its situation. But you knew that, and so did Audi, clearly, as they’ve thoughtfully given the RS4 wheelarches so fat they make a comfy shelf to rest your arse on during frequent refuelling.

The best cars, like the best people, have flaws, personality glitches, traits that deny them perfection. But who wants to be perfect? Our Georg Kacher asked the man who created the RS4, Stephan Reil, why no twin-turbo V6, why no cylinder deactivation, why no stop/start? His answer? ‘Wrong car!’ The RS4 is a massive dose of natural aspiration in a turbocharged world, and I reckon there’s a tiny hint of genius in Mr Reil and his band of trend-buckers. Flawed genius or floored genius? I’m guessing Andy Green would like it. And so do I.

By Greg Fountain

Month 5 running an Audi RS4 Avant: the RS4 heads to the Le Mans 24hrs

Spending 14-odd hours in a car to get to a 24-hour race may seem a little strange. The train is much cheaper, albeit less convenient, and of course there’s no chance that the Bombardier you’ll journey in will be the winning brand that weekend.

The RS4 is a superb car to cover long distances in, but more so in the company of the 24-hour crowd. Driving to and from this year’s Le Mans, there’s an array of desirable metal, new and classic. Plenty of 911s, the odd Ferrari F355, Astons, and Jags – you name it. So it’s here that the RS4 shows the sort of company it can mix with, and what it can truly outperform.

Among the crowd surrounding the Le Mans track, this RS4 is a hit. Its anonymous white body, covered in road grime delivered fresh from Great Britain, isn’t enough for enthusiasts to miss its pumped wheelarches and larger alloys signalling that it’s something special. The V8 – which sounds like an old-school American motor, especially on start-up – blends Euro sophistication with rev-head brutishness that I love, and that rawness is called for repeatedly with a big dose of revs by roadside fans (only doing my bit for future car enthusiasts). It took me back to kindergarten when I asked the driver of a Ford to boot the 302 V8 in his Falcon.

The sad thing is that the RS4’s dynamic ability isn’t really revealed on such a journey, with the little things more apparent. While the R18 E-trons are tying up the opposition at Le Mans, the nav in our RS4 has a particular penchant for traffic. It also sends us through Reims, whereas the Q3 TDI that I drove last year sent us a much faster way. Travelling this route the RS4 can’t get from London to Le Mans on a single tank, even when babied at the speed limit the whole time. And, while you’re resisting the temptation to have a go at the stickered-up old Bentley or odd Porsche that’s about to meet the French fuzz, there’s no music to listen to: this thing doesn’t have a USB or auxiliary cable, and my 18-month old iPod isn’t compatible with the Audi Music Interface. At this price, that’s unacceptable.

Yet one stab of the throttle and I feel like Homer Simpson and his relationship with television: ‘How could I stay mad at you?’ I fall for the Mad Max estate again and again, every time I get behind the wheel. Parked alongside the shinier versions at Le Mans, the dirty, angry-looking RS has way more cred than the show pony R8s, and doesn’t suffer like the RS5 at the hands of a rival as good as the BMW M3. The RS4 stands tall, despite odd steering that weights up unevenly on the motorway, like it has a mind of its own.

It does provide one of the most satisfying motorway drives though. On the way back from the race, a black E92 M3 sidles up next to the Audi, before pulling back into the slow lane. The RS4 then rumbles on with the M3 in tow. For hours, the two V8s swap lanes and give each other the space needed to carve through the slower traffic. It’s a display of mutual pride and respect. 

The handover back to Mr Fountain included giving the RS a good clean, so I had her treated at a car wash I’d been to just once before – with editor McNamara’s red A3 hatch. A week or two later it was my BRZ’s turn to visit the wash bay, and it was the first time the staff indulged in idle chitchat. ‘What happened to the Audi?’ they ask. They’ve completely forgotten about the A3, but the RS4, with its throaty burble and angry looks, made an impression on them.

By Damion Smy

Month 4 running an Audi RS4 Avant: should you spend an extra £23k to bag the faster RS6?

For an RS4 ‘owner’ driving the new RS6 is a risky business – like tasting the next champagne up from the one you can actually afford and finding it to be exponentially yummier. And to some degree my unexpectedly early punt in the bi-turbo V8-powered RS6 (with 108bhp more power and almost 200lb ft more torque than my RS4) did indeed leave me wanting to
be about 23 grand richer.

The RS6 is an incredibly adept steer for a near-two-tonner with ambitions both on track and at the garden centre, and its Fen-flat torque curve keeps you at all-tenths, even through the corners. It rides better than the RS4 too, although praise doesn’t get any fainter.

But the RS6 is 200kg heavier than the RS4, and it really feels it. However illusory the effect – which I admit is partly due to pumped up dimensions which suggest an RS4 with a gym fetish – it makes the sense of momentum that much greater, increasing the sense of disconnection from the front wheels. The RS4 may ride like a penny farthing but at least you know the exact shape of every pebble.

The RS4 is lithe and subtle, and also does it without a huge quattro badge emblazoned on its lower grille which, for me, is the border crossing between Tasteville and Lacking In Class City. It’s a checkpoint I won’t be passing through.

By Greg Fountain

Month 3 running an Audi RS4 Avant: how does the V8 RS4 compare to the diesel 330d?

You did what? I’ve lost count of the number of people who wanted to section me for turning down the chance to run an RS4 in favour of life with a diesel BMW. My defence opens every time with a swift reminder that a picture might be worth a thousand words, but seat time is twice as valuable. The RS4 looks and sounds so spectacularly good, no one wants to believe the reality doesn’t live up to the hype. Sadly, it doesn’t.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I haven’t enjoyed the RS4. I love the sound the thing makes when you wake it from cold and the throttle response that could only be achieved on a turbo-free motor. And I love the way the arches so discreetly enhance the stance of what is already a fine-looking wagon. I’ll even concede that, dynamically, the RS4 is infinitely preferable to the loathsome RS5 we used to run.

I’m not going to bang on about its inability to drift like the BMW because, really, that’s irrelevant for all but one in a million drivers. For the record, it is surprisingly throttle adjustable, but you need to be on a smooth racetrack to experience the best of it.

On UK roads the ride quality varies from a high of poor to a low of unusable, depending on which setting you’ve selected from dampers which seem as adaptable as Hugh Grant’s acting. Also, the fat front tyres seem to hunt out ruts and cambers, particularly under heavy braking.

And performance deserves a mention. I’ve no problem with the power being top-end focused, but the delivery is almost too smooth for its own good. Despite their similar capacity, cylinder count, 8000rpm capability and outputs, the soon-to-depart BMW M3’s engine is vastly more exciting. It sounds angrier, and kicks the gears home harder.

Other irritations could easily be solved. Why isn’t keyless entry standard on a £55k car? And why is the Dynamic Drive selector such a boringly anonymous black plastic switch instead of the really cool knurled rotary dial it should be?

There is a truly brilliant fast estate in there, but until Audi polishes off the rough edges, I’d sooner take a sweeter-steering C63 wagon (wearing winter tyres during the cold months). Or even a dull-looking black diesel that rides properly, kicks like a supersaloon in the mid-range, yet is averaging almost 40mpg. Greg, can I have the 330d back yet?

By Chris Chilton

Month 2 running an Audi RS4 Avant: launch control and Panamera comparisons

During a disgracefully childish ‘launch control stand-off’ at Rockingham Ben Pulman and I compared notes on his Panamera GTS and my RS4. To the simple-minded, our cars are similar: both V8-powered, both naturally aspirated, both four-wheel drive, both… white?

The Porsche in Pulman trim costs £91k – £30k more than the RS4 – yet I walk away with 20bhp more power. He’s got me licked on torque, though, with 384lb ft to my 317. I counter with 125kg less weight.

Hell with the figures, which car stirs the soul? The Audi is the shoutier drive – a blunt instrument of a chassis that throws power down, hurls you about, and shoots you in the arse with every loose chipping. The Porsche may look, feel and be the heavier tool but it feels delicate, micro-balanced – a simply incredible extension of the driver. No car of this size has any business being so deft. Which is better? That’s like asking: Beethoven or Mozart? Actually, no – it’s Beethoven or the Stones. Me, I’ll take the latter, which is the Audi. Pure drivers: go for Beethoven. And who won the launch control stand-off? He did. Git.

By Greg Fountain

Month 1 running an Audi RS4 Avant: the RS4 begins its stint at CAR

It's probably worth dealing with the question of ride quality before we go any further. Much has been written about the unforgiving nature of the RS4’s chassis, and some of that was no doubt fuelled by the angst of a certain Mr J Clarkson, who told Sunday Times readers the RS4 Avant had given him ‘one of the worst weeks of my entire motoring life’.  It took him another 11 paragraphs to ‘discover’ that he could adjust the car’s set-up via Audi’s ‘Drive Select’ system, but by then the damage – aided by a shouty headline and a picture of the writer pretending to have hurt his back – had been done.

So, for the record, you can adjust the ride – and the steering, the engine map, the throttle response – to suit your tastes, and in Comfort mode the result’s not too bad. Hard, yes, but bad, no. I’d characterise it as taut yet forgiving – a likeable pair of traits. Where JC was right, however, was in deriding the harshness of Dynamic mode. Bone-crushing doesn’t cover it; it rearranges your molecules. Leaving it alone seems an option, and if you do, the steering is actually rather splendid. Unrecognisable from the feckless helm of the RS5.

The RS4 is demonically, devastatingly fast. The magnificent 4.2-litre V8 engine is a work of finely wrought art, its snarly soundtrack entirely backed up by 317lb ft of easy-to-reach torque, and the job of banging 444bhp onto the road without flinching is, to a state-of-the-art Quattro drivetrain with its new ‘sports’ differential, like buttering toast.

More crucial than all this dynamic stuff, however, is the massive matter of how very, very cool this car is – to look at, to be inside, to delight friends with, to fill with freight (at 490 litres seats-up the boot’s not huge for an estate, but it’s still an estate). As much as any Audi I’ve yet owned the RS4 is purr-inducing – a car to peek through your own curtains at when nobody’s looking. The first flush of love will wear off, no doubt, especially when time spent on filling-station forecourts starts to outweigh time spent with family (61-litre tank + 20mpg = even graver poverty than that achieved by spending £62,110 on the car in the first place).

Hang on, £62k? Isn’t this a low-50s model? Yes, but we’ve had a brush with the options list – nothing serious, not like the £30k I accidentally splashed on my A8 three years back. The £1700 spent on sports suspension with dynamic ride control  (special shocks that dial-out pitch and roll) seems a good idea, though I have to admit to a few moments of conscience over the £1300 it cost to have the 155mph limiter lifted. I can now do 174mph, apparently, but hardly anybody’s impressed. Other bits and pieces I just failed not to tick boxes for include ‘Luna Silver’ leather chairs (£400), sat-nav (£470), Dynamic Steering (£725), Bang & Olufsen sounds with DAB (£600), CD changer and DVD (£305), heated seats (£280), folding door mirrors (£290) and rear side airbags (£255). I could go on, but storage packs and load area fixing kits and garage door openers I probably didn’t need. Ticking those boxes gets pretty addictive, though, after a while. I could have saved £435, but life’s too short for regrets.

Unless you’re Tim Pollard, of course. He left CAR for pastures new recently after clocking up the six years’ loyal service required to earn an RS4 as a long-termer. And there was I, lurking expectantly. Lucky, eh?

By Greg Fountain

By CAR's road test team

Our reviewers: fresh perspectives for inquisitive minds