The son of seven-time world champion Michael is edging closer to an F1 drive
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£60,920 when new
What sort of fast Audi have we got here? The all-new RS4 Avant – the quintessential all-weather, all-occasion, all-the-pace, posh, small-ish estate car. No, I mean which fast Audi stereotype is this? One of the surprisingly brilliant ones, or one of the disappointingly aloof ones? I’ll come back to that, promise. But if you’re arriving on the page not expecting rapturous praise, that’s fair enough. The last RS4 was a frustrating experience: blessed with a razor sharp V8 engine, cursed by a rock-hard ride, and pretty one-dimensional as a result. The new one no longer has a naturally-aspirated, 8,000rpm V8, because it’s basically the new bi-turbo V6 RS5 Coupe with a rucksack on. And that’s about as divisive as fast Audis have got lately. Don’t the RS5’s specs suit what we want from a small super-estate, though?
Exactly. This is where the new RS4 starts to ripen. A four-door estate car with a 505-litre boot is obviously a lot more likely to be transporting valuables and irreplaceables – lifestyle equipment, pets, children – than a sleek two-door coupe. So it’s going to be used in workaday scenarios, and have to excel in a different skillset. In a coupe, you want some exuberance, some fizz, as a reward for buying the serious drivers’ car. The RS5 misses that by acres. In an estate, lots of foolproof traction, stability and easy-access performance are higher up the wishlist. The RS4’s drivetrain is bang on the money here. The 2.9-litre bi-turbo V6 develops not one more horsepower than the old V8, delivering 444bhp. It’s all about torque though, the RS4. The quantity (443lb ft, up from 317lb ft) and the availability (er, permanent). In fact, you never even need use the full 1,900rpm-5,000rpm band of punch. Honestly, short-shifting at 4,000rpm keeps the RS4 pummeling along at a phenomenal rate, and keeps the V6 in the woofliest sound sweet spot. Noise can’t be a patch on the V8 though, right? Right. What else is? The RS4’s burble reverberates harder through the estate bodyshell echochamber than it does in the restrained RS5, at least. But it’s lacking the crispness of the (saloon-only) Alfa Giulia Quadrifoglio’s bi-turbo V6, and nothing else for this size and £60k gives an AMG C63 singing lessons. Audi Sport says that’s because its recent newcomers (RS4, RS5, RS3 facelift) already meet an upcoming EU noise regulation that’s clamping down on cheeky valved exhausts. Apparently, AMG, Alfa and BMW will have to calm down their rivals within a few years too, so Audi’s simply getting a dull job done ahead of time. Still, nothing wrong with a subtle super-estate. Quite. This generation of RS4 wears its poker face smugly. Yes, you get square-topped wheelarches for a stance the flabby RS5 can only dream of, but it’s an under-the-radar overall shape, especially if you spec the various grilles and skirts in gloss black (or carbon weave, as part of the fully kitted out Carbon Edition on the gorgeous, 8kg-saving machined wheels). That’ll set you back £71,625. A standard 1,715kg RS4 is £62,025 (or a grand cheaper if you order by the end of 2017), popped competitively between the AMG C63 and C63 S. And that’s your lot, so far as rivals go. Two-horse race. But if you’re talking spec, it’s what you can’t see that’ll really change how your RS4 behaves. Why? Is this a German options list moan? Not a moan, but the RS4’s an option-dependent bit of kit. Procurement of extras is a tightrope that makes or ruins it. You get the sport differential that’ll shuffle torque between the rear wheels and vary the standard 40:60 drive split as standard, but multi-speed Dynamic Steering (boo), Dynamic Ride Control (hmm) and a Sport Exhaust (yay) are all optional. As usual, the best compliment about Dynamic Steering is to stop noticing it’s on board. It’s miles improved versus the early versions in, say, the S8 Plus, but does the RS4 have sublime steering? No. It likes being poured into corners with a mild trailbrake, settled steady-state, awaiting a two-footed jump onto the throttle. And bye-bye C63. Yeah, this is a fast car. Claims of 0-62mph in 4.1sec and top speeds of 155mph or 174mph depending on the boxes you tick and money spent don’t do it justice, as ever. Partly because they’re blatant lies, obviously. We clocked an RS5 from 0-60mph in 3.2 seconds in the UK. How crackers is that? And the RS4’s extra weight over the rear should aid a cleaner getaway… The old V8-powered RS4 cracked 0-62mph in 4.7 seconds, by the way. It was rapid. The new car is a rocketsled. Point-to-point, it’s a teleportation pod with ambient lighting and diamond-stitching, and though you’ll occasionally catch it napping off-boost on part-throttle mid-corner, there’s no doubt it’s the quickest, most effective wagon for this money. It demolishes the old V8 on pace and a C63 can’t deal with the purchase the ruthless RS4 claws from the surface. But the C63 driver will have more inappropriate, antisocial, ineffcient fun… It’s the DRC suspension that’s going to be the tricky one to decipher, I reckon.
Why’s that? It says ‘Dynamic’ in the title. That’s Audi shorthand for ‘buy me’… Similar to a McLaren Super Series car, DRC adds three-mode dampers to the RS4, which are then diagonally linked with hydraulic fluid. Accelerate hard and it pumps up the rear to stop the car rearing up like a startled racehorse. Jump on the carbon-ceramic brakes and it keeps that V6-laden nose off the deck. Change direction like you’re avoiding missile lock and each side gains instant support to stay level (handy when the massaging seats lack some torso support) and it’ll work the tyres as effectively as Newtonian laws allow. Result? First off, the RS4 is superb at going slowly. It’s so agreeable at town speed. It mooches pleasantly in Comfort mode. Go a little quicker and it softens the edges off nasty roads. The ride is busy in Dynamic mode, so you just opt back into long-travel Comfort. Body control is ace, and you have to attack a gnarly mid-corner compression before the RS4 thinks about dropping its composure. An RS5 with a loft conversion shouldn’t be anything like this accurate. Why do I feel like there’s a ‘but’ hurtling in my immediate direction? Because this would traditionally be the point where the fast Audi falls apart for having the handling depth of a Scalextric car. But (there it is), after fifteen minutes of pasting an RS4 up some very senior Spanish hillside roads, I was awash with an uneasy feeling that the car was much more preferable to the RS5. Problem is, I couldn’t put my finger on why. More driving needed. And lots of mode-swapping. What you have to do is learn to trust the slightly uncanny abilities of the DRC, erasing the old-school body roll and pitch movements that betray a car’s close to its ragged edge. The RS4 is mega composed, but much better balanced than the RS5. Less nose-heavy. More all-wheel drive, really, like it’s working all four tyres equally. Sounds unusual for a fast Audi… Maybe it’s the taller, heavier body shifting the weight bias. Maybe it makes improvements to the stock A4 more oblique than the RS5 does to the A5. Audi says it’s improved the DRC system since RS5 too, but it’s got the same hardware, so it can only be a software map to thank. Either way, once you’ve got the car flowing down a twisty road, it’s bloody impressive. It’s not nape-prickling or scintillating, but if you live for estate cars that marmalise tyres on the front page of Instagram, you want a C63 anyway. The RS4 thrives on usability, like a big hot hatch. It’s a step on from the old V8, as a tool. The RS4 does all the standard Audi traction-weapon tricks, but with proper agility. Unlike the RS5, you can feel it’s 80kg lighter than the predecessor, too. The more I drove it, the more I liked it, and fell under its merciless road-conquering spell. The opposite to the RS5, then. But it’s not an addictive thriller. Speccing one ought to be interesting when UK sales kick off on New Year’s Day 2018. You promised me you’d sum up what sort of fast Audi this is, remember… I do. And it’s simple. There’s no situation when you couldn’t extract almost 100 per cent performance from the comfortable, refined, tightly finished and rather clinical new RS4. It’s not just a good fast Audi. Right now, it’s the definitive one.