Ballistic estates have become something of an Audi touchstone and they don't come any better than the latest RS4 Avant. Jonathan Crouch takes a look.
Ten Second Review
The latest Audi RS 4 Avant sticks with the V8 powerplant of its predecessor, but in this instance it generates a massive 444bhp. Courtesy of the standard fit launch control, that's enough to catapult this estate to 62mph in just 4.7 seconds. The RS 4 gets a seven-speed paddle shift gearchange and a fiendishly clever centre differential to direct drive to each of the four wheels.
Hand on heart I didn't see that coming. When Audi announced that they would be unveiling the RS 4 Avant at the 2012 Geneva Motor Show, it caused quite a stir. Rumours had abounded that the project would be canned and it wasn't until the eleventh hour that we saw a clear green light. What nobody really expected was the fact that the RS 4 would have eight cylinders under its bonnet. Most felt that Audi would plumb in a version of its turbocharged 3.0-litre V6 engine in the name of efficiency, but no. The charismatic eight-pot is present, correct and quite magnificent. Just don't dwell too long on the fuel economy figures. Of course, the RS 4 has some big boots to fill. It's the third model to wear the badge, but the first car in the line was the RS 2, co-developed with Porsche in 1994 and cracking out a hefty 315bhp. It set the template for devastatingly rapid quattro all-wheel drive Audi estates and was followed in 1999 by the 375bhp RS 4 with its 2.7-litre twin turbo V6. This was dubbed the B5 by Audi insiders. There was no RS 4 version of the B6 model, so we had to wait until 2006 for the incredible 414bhp B7 RS 4, with its naturally aspirated 4.2-litre V8 powerplant. This latest B8 car develops 444bhp from its V8 and brings a whole host of mouthwatering design features.
If the engine choice was surprising, the same can't be said of the RS 4's fundamentals. Quattro all-wheel drive is a given and the fitment of an S tronic seven speed twin clutch gearbox wasn't a shocker, nor indeed was a 40-60 rearward biased torque split. Forgive a quick delve into slightly arcane engineering, but the RS 4 gets a clever crown-gear centre differential. This compact and lightweight component can vary the distribution of power between the front and rear axles rapidly, smoothly and over a wide range, with up to 70 per cent flowing to the front or as much as 85 per cent to the rear. This works in concert with a torque vectoring system, which acts on all four wheels. If the load on the inside wheel is reduced too much in a corner, the torque vectoring system brakes it slightly before it begins to skid. The electronic stability programme (ESP) also offers a Sport mode and can be fully deactivated. There's also the option of a sport differential to shuffle torque between the rear wheels. It's all fiendishly clever. The upshot of all this is 0-62mph in 4.7 seconds on the way to an electronically governed top end of 155mph. Should you wish, you can have the speed limiter removed, allowing acceleration all the way up to 174mph. Like its predecessor, this engine does its best work right at the top of the rev range, with peak power being made at a screaming 8,250rpm. An inbuilt launch control feature renders the RS 4 nigh-on unbeatable in a wet weather traffic light grand prix. Dynamic steering and carbon ceramic brake discs can also be specified as options, although the standard 365mm steel front rotors and eight-piston callipers hardly look underspecified.
Design and Build
The Audi RS 4 has always blended just the right amount of discretion and malevolence. They've never been head turners but let your eye linger long enough over one and there are enough clues that this isn't your garden variety load lugger and that continues with this B8 model. Chiselled sill extensions and gently flared wheel arches hint at the car's potency, while the RS4 also has unique bumpers, a matte aluminium effect for the front grille and mirror housings and a small roof spoiler. Twin oval tailpipe caps and a small diffuser are visible from the back of the car, which is the view most other drivers will get of the RS 4. The Audi RS 4 Avant is 20 millimetres longer, 24 millimetres wider and 20 millimetres lower than the standard A4 Avant and while there's a decent colour palette for the paintwork, the interior of the RS 4 Avant is finished completely in black, with the exception of the roof lining, which is optionally available in Moon Silver. Carbon inlays are standard, with brushed matt aluminium, Aluminium Race, a piano black finish or a light stainless steel mesh available as options. The standard heated front sport seats with integrated headrests are power-adjustable and covered in a combination of black leather and Alcantara. Sporting cues continue with the leather multifunction sports steering wheel which is flattened at the bottom, featuring shift paddles in an aluminium effect. Pedals, door sill trims and air vents also mirror the aluminium look while the instrument cluster bezel is trimmed in contrasting piano black. It all feels agreeably expensive.
Market and Model
It's vaguely pointless to try to assess the value proposition of the RS 4 because it effectively competes in a class of one. Yes, you can buy rapid estate cars from other manufacturers but the RS 4 has a very specific appeal, four wheel drive and commands a loyal customer base. Needless to say, Audi will have a queue for every car it imports. Standard kit includes polished 19-inch, ten-spoke forged aluminium wheels shod with 265/35-series tyres. For an even more aggressive stance 20-inch five-V-spoke design wheels with 265/30-series tyres, or five-arm rotor design wheels with two different finishes, can be specified. There's also a Driver's Information System (DIS) with a colour display which includes an RS menu with a lap timer and an oil temperature gauge. Audi offers high-grade leather packages for all seating options, including a design package with honeycomb quilting for the figure hugging bucket seats fitted to the RS 4. Options for the luggage compartment, which offers up to 1,430 litres of cargo space, include a rail system with load securing set and a power-operated tailgate. As you've probably figured out, it's possible to go quite large with options on this car.
Cost of Ownership
Come on. You don't expect to be able to run a petrol-powered V8 estate car that makes 444bhp and not have to put your hand in your pocket with some frequency. The RS 4's figures aren't bad when set in context, but should you get anywhere near replicating Audi's quoted 25.7mpg combined fuel economy figure, then you're driving the RS 4 in a manner which probably means you're missing the point of the vehicle. Depreciation on RS 4 models hasn't been as bad as you'd think for such a thirsty car, but it's worth keeping an eye on how you specify it. Go for pricey options like the carbon ceramic brakes, the Dynamic Ride Control (DRC) with its three damping modes or the communications features with internet and Google Earth satellite navigation mapping with the MMI navigation plus and you can easily tack a huge amount to the asking price that you won't see back come resale time. Of course, these features are undoubtedly nice to have, but just make sure you've done your sums and thoroughly weighed up the value proposition beforehand.
The Audi RS 4 Avant has managed to carve out a specific and profitable niche in the performance car market and with good reason. If you have the funds not to have to worry unduly about trifling matters like fuel bills, then it's the consummate all-rounder. It's crushingly fast, effortlessly discreet, beautifully finished and genuinely practical. It'll do anything that a regular A4 Avant will and a whole lot more besides. It's as quick as a Porsche 911 yet it's good for both the school run and a kerb-hopping lap of the Nurburgring. This latest model will probably be the last of the line with the big and characterful V8 powerplant. It already seems a bit of an odd choice to fit this engine given that there are smaller, lighter and more efficient alternatives available to Audi, but we're not complaining. It's one of the great production car engines but it seems as if it's had a stay of execution rather than a new lease of life. The lucky few won't complain.