FULL CIRCLE

AUDI’S RS4 RETURNS TO ITS SIX-PACK ROOTS IN A WORLD WHERE BOOST BEATS CUBES

BY TRENT GUNCO+PICS NATHAN JACOBS

RUSHING IN peak-hour traffic is futile – especially when time the essence. My body’s natural coping mechanisms aren’t helping allay an anxious mind. My eyes glance at the clock repeatedly as if to somehow, by magic, make the digits regress my thumbs tap the steering wheel in a rhythm akin to a sporadic nervous twitch. It’s a manic dance performed daily on this occasion at least, Melbourne’s hustle and bustle defeated me. I’m hopelessly late.

“Did you pick up the RS4 on your way to work, Trent?” asks associate editor, Scott Newman. I pause – it’s the kind of fleeting moment where you teeter between fact and fiction – before admitting that I didn’t have the keys to a B9 Audi RS4 Avant in possession. Despite the myriad expletives running through head, the overarching thought stuck in my brain is, “how ‘forget’ about an Audi RS4?”

History uncovers the answer; ancestry doesn’t come much more revered. The previous-gen B8 RS4 is an aural watermark terms of atmo V8 delights. It wasn’t without fault, but a screaming 8250rpm redline certainly made it memorable. Even RS2 – a co-development with Porsche which started the line – and the original twin-turbo V6 B5 RS4 seem to carry more lustre. So, without even setting eyes on its pragmatic, purposeful silhouette, the new 2.9-litre TFSI twin-turbo Avant already has preconceptions to overcome. It’s been shrouded in controversy amongst fans and claims of it losing emotive appeal are rife. Buying into that narrative seems like the easy option. However, after finally making the trip to Audi, a Misano red RS4 sits before me, ready to disprove all the haters.

The weather reflects the controversies with storm clouds fast approaching, threatening to ruin a drive along The Great Ocean Road. The commute out of Melbourne offers a chance to assess exactly what this $152,900 uber wagon offers. Despite the cylinder-count cull, the ‘hot-vee’ six houses two turbos within its banks, resulting in an unchanged 331kW. Torque is boosted to 600Nm, all of which comes on board at a useable 19005000rpm, and is sent to ground via Audi’s quattro permanent all-wheel drive. Gone is the seven-speed dual-clutch, in its place is an eight-speed torque converter auto, and overall dimensions (on the MLBevo platform) have grown. Dynamic Ride Control (DRC), sports exhaust and Audi’s electronically controlled, torque-vectoring rear sport differential is standard. Audi drive select (Auto, Comfort, Dynamic and Individual modes) allows you to tailor certain mechanical parameters.

With the dense city gridlock an ever-fading sight, the lure of a roadhouse is hard to ignore. It also offers a chance to take in the design, one that at first glance seems a little too understated for a RennSport (RS) Audi, but unfurls its menace on closer inspection. Said to be inspired by the iconic Audi 90 quattro IMSA GTO, the pronounced quattro blisters sit 30mm wider than the S4 and give the hyper sibling an unmistakable stance. Milled 20-inch alloys fill the guards while large, oval exhaust tips sit purposefully within the rear diffuser. It’s the Red Light District for all the lovers of a fast wagon – ahem, I mean Avant.

Disappointingly, my luck with the weather has come to an end. Just past Geelong, the heavens open. As far as a cocoon away from the elements goes, the RS4 provides a sumptuous environment. The attention to detail impresses, from the proximity sensitive climate controls to the knurling of the dials, it makes you feel special. While it might not be overtly bespoke compared to the S4, it’s a cabin for those who revel in the finer touches, the intricate nuances and the overall tactility of it all.

The on-ramp out of the service centre is the first real opportunity to experience the new powertrain. To say the RS4 has a newfound turn of speed is an understatement. It’s bloody quick – almost verging on supercar pace. With 3mm of stroke taken out (now 86mm) and two turbos generating up to 21.8psi of boost, the reality is that the 2.9-litre six (shared with Porsche) is anything but a destroked, ramped-up S4 engine. It pulls hard from low revs, continuing all the way to 6750rpm. You can gather licence-losing speeds with a flex of your right ankle.

Even with the rain-soaked tarmac, suspicions are already gathering that the claimed 0-100km/h time of 4.1sec might be a tad understated. The highway squirt also uncovers the new V6 growl, which is unexpectedly enticing and far more cultured than you’d expect from a bent six. Yet, as night falls, the Matrix LED headlights strike through the mist and fog. Persistent precipitation means the road speed shown on the (optional) head-up display scarcely climbs to anywhere near the posted limit. Parked up in Apollo Bay, the dynamic indicators do their thing as the RS4 is locked away for the night.

IT’S A CABIN FOR THOSE WHO REVEL IN FINER TOUCHES, INTRICATE NUANCES AND OVERALL TACTILITY

TO SAY THE RS4 HAS A NEWFOUND TURN OF SPEED IS AN UNDERSTATEMENT. IT’S BLOODY QUICK

Daybreak provides another bleak outlook. However, the upside is winding roads free of tourist traffic. This is quattro territory. If the RS4 is ever going to shine, it’s on the soaked ribbons of tarmac that hug Victoria’s southern coastline. And the B9 doesn’t disappoint. With the adaptive dampers set to Comfort and the outright road speed curtailed by the conditions, the suspension soaks up the lumps and bumps with aplomb. At these speeds the extra travel inspires confidence without adding excessive roll, while the 275-section Pirelli P Zeros impeccably disperse rivers.

It’s a fight between car and mind; the car goads me to go faster and exploit its grip, yet my mind, seeing the conditions, forces me to check out. Despite the obvious dynamic talent, caution proves the better part of valour. Still, it’s hard to imagine a BMW M3 Competition or C63 AMG staying within earshot of the tied-down RS4 with this level of standing water. Just how it finds purchase on seemingly ice-like roads beggars belief. What’s more, the sound emanating from under the bonnet and out the exhaust is intoxicating. Muscular reverberations and matured histrionics continue long after the auto ’box has revmatched on down shifts.

However, there are some caveats. The adaptive dampers, combined with the new five-link suspension setup front to rear, aren’t always happy in Dynamic or Comfort modes. The former is harsh, and with abundant moisture, it makes the RS4 lose most of its composure. The ride quality becomes skittish and erodes confidence. Therefore the latter is certainly the default inclement DRC setting. Auto mode is supposed to be a halfway house in which the car determines the stiffness, but it doesn’t really work, either.

Mercifully, as the weekend comes to a close, the storm clouds dissipate. It’s time to see just how fast the force-fed six can get the 1715kg (the B9 is 80kg lighter overall) wagon down Heathcote’s drag strip. The RS4 bests its quoted 0-100km/h time by more than two tenths at 3.86sec. The quarter mile is covered in 12.03sec with a terminal speed of 186.24km/h, while 80-120km/h is achieved in 2.41sec. And yet, the crazy part about it is that it feels as though it’d do that on any surface – even with your grandmother driving. Simply activate the dynamic start and the rear squats, the front lifts and all fours savage the tarmac like a dog with a bone. The eight-speed auto shifts through the gears with dual-clutch-esque swiftness.

Away from the straight lines of Heathcote to the mountain ranges outside Melbourne, the dry-weather ability of the RS4 is revealed. The new V6 relieves 31kg from the front axle compared to the V8. Overall weight distribution is improved; hence the go-fast wagon is far from an understeering pig or solely a point-and-shoot proposition. You can really feel the quattro sport diff apportioning torque across the rear axles – up to 85 per cent of torque can be sent to the rear wheels. The RS4 also deals with changes of direction with deft responses.

Okay, it’s not going to perform lurid skids on corner exit, but set up for a corner correctly and the rear will rotate on entry in a progressive and satisfying way. The RS4 is so much more lively and fun on the limit than you expect, with the P Zeros offering just enough slip to feel the car moving underneath you. Sadly, the variable-ratio dynamic steering doesn’t divulge feedback as keenly (surprisingly, Auto is the best mode) and the brakes leave the party early if you go too hard on them too often.

On these smooth roads, Dynamic mode offers just enough compliance without the pitch and body roll Comfort induces. And there’s the rub. You won’t find a Goldilocks damper setting for every occasion. While Comfort offers new levels of suppleness over the harshest of city streets or broken bitumen and suits the luxe part of the Audi equation, it’s not perfect. Rebound, especially on vertical movements, isn’t controlled well enough and if you encounter a mid-corner undulation at speed the RS4 will leap out of it, sending you off line.

THE RS4 LIVES UP TO THE PERFORMANCE-WAGON GENRE AND REALLY COULD BE THE ONLY CAR YOU’LL EVER NEED

Conversely, Dynamic can be that bit too stiff and unforgiving – unless you find unblemished blacktop. However, there’s just enough leeway to find the magic. And when you’re on the right road and in the right mode, it does feel ‘just right’.

The fourth-gen RS4 was at risk of being sterile. However, in reality, it’s anything but. Preconceptions confine it to a performance car that goes about its business without tact – a ruthlessly effective equation that’s hellbent on providing only the answer. And yet, here I am, sitting in morning rush hour once again, being cosseted by a massaging seat and thinking that the twin-turbo V6 wagon is anything but an emotionless calculation. Every condition has been thrown at the RS4 and it has passed largely unscathed. It lives up to the performancewagon genre and really could be the only car you’ll ever need.

While the cylinder count and induction type is different, surprisingly, the B9 has a soul that honours the past and the future. There’s an innate and endearing nature that makes you want to live with it. Unlike its forebear, the B8, it isn’t a car you’ll fall for straight away. But spend some time with it and Audi’s RS Avant creates a new theatre that’s every bit as engaging. It turns out the RS4 is anything but forgettable.

03 SPECIAL RS4 FOREBEARS

B5 AUDI RS4 AVANT (1999-2001)

WH the RS2 might be genesis for bonkers Audi I Avants, the original RS4 utilised a twin-turbo V6. The 2.7-litre unit, co-developed with Cosworth, produced a healthy 279kW and could hit 100km/h in 4.9sec. Demand was double Audi’s expectations.

B7 AUDI RS4 (2006-2008)

TH ONL generation to spawn a sedan and droptop variant, the B7 RS4 also introduced the soulful direct-injection, naturally aspirated V8 – you could also have a manual ’box. The 4.2-litre eight produced 309kW and a 4.8sec 0-100km/h time.

B8 AUDI RS4 AVANT (2012-2015)

RETURNI NG to an Avant exclusively (the RS5 coupe and convertible shared the same drivetrain), the B8 carried over the vocal V8, but upped the power to 331kW. The hard-launching S tronic dual-clutch afforded a 0-100km/h time of 4.7sec.