It’s no exaggeration to say that the Audi RS4 was one of the biggest automotive triumphs of 2005/2006. The press’ adulation for the S4 model waned surprisingly quickly, with a non-stop litany of complaints about terminal understeer, and a bone-jarring ride. Given Audi’s track record to date with the RS models generally following in the same direction, no-one had huge expectations for the RS4. What they discovered, though, was a car whose virtues astonished everyone, and which quickly won over every single motoring journalist as an absolutely cracking car. I’ve owned and driven (when not in test cars!), an S4 for the past three years, and 70,000 miles, and while I agree that the ride is less than yielding, have never found the understeer to be a problem on the road (and never taken the car on a track!), so am generally very happy with the basic car – if you can call an S4 “basic” – so I was really looking forward to testing an RS4 for a weekend. How, you might wonder, did that even come about? So, when I put in a request to our Fleet Management for some test cars, I included a couple of Audi models. Audi UK then phoned me, a little puzzled as they said that it appeared I had a request in for an S4, which was now obsolete. After I clarified my requirements, they asked if l also would like to test an RS4. As if they needed to ask! So, that is how I was able to borrow an RS4 for the weekend …………… The test is over now, and I have to say that I am really very disappointed!
Now come on, you don’t really expect me to say that it was the car that disappointed me, do you? No, the problem came from conversations with the Audi Dealership before the test car was delivered. I knew that production of saloon models ceased sometime in 2007, and therefore no new ones were left in the dealer network, but Avant production did continue into 2008, and I had high hopes that this really could be my next car. However, about a month ago, it disappeared off our car ordering system, and a call to the dealer, who spent some time sleuthing around the Audi UK dealer computerised stock management and ordering systems elicited that the car was indeed no longer orderable, that none are in stock, and none are in transit. So, the Avant is also now an obsolete car. That meant that I would not be able to order one as a replacement company car, a fact which saddened me, theoretically, at the time.
Then the car arrived, and I drove it. My sadness went from theory to reality. This truly is an awesome car. If I wanted to avoid setting anyone else’s expectations for something they can no longer obtain new, I could and should end the test here. But, I think I need to explain why it is just so impressive. Indeed, it is not hyperbole to say that the car is pretty much perfect! About the only thing I did not like was the shiny pretend metal bit on the bottom of the steering wheel! I could live with the very cheap nasty twang made by the noise of closing the boot lid (it sounded very different from the S4!). Otherwise, this is just a stunning car. It takes all that is good about my S4 – which in my opinion is virtually all of it – and smooths out the rather hard ride and then adds a just astonishing engine. Not only does it sound glorious from the moment you press the “start” button, but it continues to sound glorious, at various decibels, all the way to the red line. You might have thought that an extra 71 bhp over the regular S4 would be not that noticeable. Well, I can assure you it is!
So, RS4 Goodness starts with the engine. Although the motive power is based on the 4.2 litre V8 that sees service in the S4, it is completely reworked for the RS4, and that is very evident. It even looks different when you gaze longingly under the bonnet. Once you get in the car, twist the key, put your foot on the clutch, and press the “start engine” button, mounted in the centre console, it sounds different, too. Not endowed with the V8 rumble that was so pleasing in the S5, perhaps, but a spine-tingling noise at idle, that just gets better and better the more you rev it. I had been told that this engine needs to be revved, and while that is true if you really want to get the best out of it, it is actually not strictly necessary, and in the interests of staying within the law, you may find that you have to limit when and how much you do push it hard. What really impressed me is the “never ends” nature to the engine – no matter what starting speed, or rev position you started from, pressing hard on the throttle just seemed to produce a non-stop explosion of power to a completely new level. However, the engine is also silky smooth, and if you are being less than violent with the loud pedal, it is not even intrusively noisy. This means that motorway cruising – surely the place where most owners of cars like this are bound to spend plenty of time – is very agreeable, because you know that if ever you need a sudden burst of acceleration it is there. Experience with the S4 shows that while feeding 8 cylinders with liquid energy can be a thirsty business, once the car is cruising steadily on the motorway, it is even decently economical. The RS4 proved to be exactly the same. I filled the car up at Reading services, and by the time I had got it back to base, the fuel needle had only moved a little bit – meaning that Audi UK got the car back with more fuel in it than when it was delivered to me.
The other dynamic attributes were all good, too. The gearlever is different to that in the S4, and so is the feel of the gearchange, though probably only a regular S4 driver would notice this. It is a good change, though, with the lever slotting cleanly and precisely into any of the 6 forward, or reverse gears. The gears are well spaced, so that 5th and 6th are high enough to make cruising a relaxed activity, and clearly all the available torque means that it is less necessary to change down than would prove the case in other cars. l did not test the car on a track, so cannot comment on whether any trace of the legendary Audi understeer is there, but I can advise that the steering is light and precise, the car handles well, the brakes are very reassuring, and the car rides surprisingly well. Indeed – and somewhat surprisingly – the RS4 actually rides better than the S4. Really rough roads, and big lumps and bumps do catch it out, of course, but driving on roads with which I am very familiar, it definitely did a better job at concealing the rough bits.
It also goes without saying that interior quality is beyond reproach. At first glance, the RS4 appears identical to an S4, but there are a few detailed differences. Most notable is the starter button, but also there is a special steering wheel. Actually, this was the one thing I did not like, as the metal effect flattened bottom of it was relatively unpleasant to the touch. There is also a nice RS4 graphic between the 2 main instruments that appears when the door is opened. As there is a standard Audi MMI system, the trip computer controls selected from the button in the end of the wiper stalk are not present, and the presence of the Sat Nav system means that the air con unit is mounted lower and therefore the extended cubby area in front of the ash tray in front of the gearlever is not there. Nevertheless, there are ample places for oddments, with a large glovebox (you do lose the handy shelf when the CD changer is mounted in there), big door pockets, a cubby above the driver’s knee, and useful storage trays under the front seats. I was intrigued to note that these appeared to have a front lid, rather than sliding out as they do on my S4. All the more so, as the S4-style seats were fitted to the test car. The overall impression is one of relative simplicity, and unfussiness. Something that I appreciate very much, and something which seems to have eluded Audi in the latest A4/A5 models.
Of course, the RS4 is basically a mid-sized four door family saloon, and so you would expect it to score well on practicality. And it does. There is ample room in the car for 4 adults and their luggage to fit with ease. A fifth could be housed in the rear, but they may enjoy the experience less, as the rear seats are shaped for two, there is a large transmission tunnel, and although there is adequate leg room, it is not massively generous.
You don’t get a spare wheel, though, as the under-boot area is taken up with a large battery, but there is some more oddment space under here.
I still think that Audi got the styling just right here. Unless you hear the engine running – when there is a rather big aural clue – you have to do a double take to spot the changes over the S4 (and the s-Line, for that matter), which is something I rather appreciate. A few people – including some “youffs” in a Micra who performed a dodgy manoeuvre at the bottom of the M32 late on Sunday evening spotted it instantly, and pointed excitedly out of their window, but it is not the same attention grabber say as an M3, let alone a Subaru or an Evo.
Summing up then, is easy. With the exception of the steering wheel, there was really nothing I found on this car to dislike.So, with more than some regret, I parked it up in the office basement car park last night, and handed in the keys. The S4 is a good car, but the RS4 is unquestionably a great car! Although there is a significant price premium over the equivalent S4, which empirically might be hard to justify, I was so impressed with this car that were it still available, I would have ordered one on the spot. It is not, though, and my quest for my own new car continues.