Audi owns the fast estate car genre. Mercedes might make some enticing AMG-models which allow you to bring the dog and kids along, but no car defines that genre better than the Audi RS4.
From March 2018 the RS4 arrives in its fourth-generation guise, available in estate car-form only. It's based on the A4 Avant that's been around since 2016, but in the process of turning that into a fire-breathing 450-horsepower monster, the RS4 undergoes a Peter-Parker-becomes-Spiderman kind of morphosis.
You can recognise the original behind the mask, yet this is really a very different beast to the car on which it's based. There are 19-inch alloys (or optional milled 20-inch versions), menacing black trim is applied left right and centre, it's three centimetres wider than normal at the wheel arches thanks to squared-off "Quattro blisters", and at the heart of the action is a 2.9 litre turbo-charged V6 engine.
Ringing the changes
People tend to complain that Audi's cars all look the same. But while the look might be evolutionary, the German maker has been ringing the changes when it comes to powertrain and technology.
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That V6 engine replaces a naturally-aspirated V8 in the previous generation RS4. On the face of it, that's bad news. While the old V8 made less power than this new V6, it also revved to over 8000rpm and sounded amazing. The last car also used Audi's super-fast S-Tronic gearbox with twin-clutches. The new car uses a more traditional torque converter gearbox with a single clutch, which means that despite it gaining an extra gear, on paper the new RS4 is a bit more "bread and butter"; a bit more normal.
It begs the question: has the RS4 gone soft? Not on the basis of our time with the car. It's a necessary change in an attempt to match its rivals and fall into line with ever more stringent demands to reduce CO2 emissions and fuel consumption (the new car kicks out 199g/km of CO2, and official combined fuel consumption bumps up to 32.1 mpg).
The RS4 has never won dynamic accolades from the big car magazines. The mighty BMW M3 and Mercedes C63 AMG are always heralded as more playful and more fun. But pulling big skids around the local Tesco car park isn't really an RS4 owner's style. They want the ability to go shockingly fast – with people, stuff and dog in tow – across country, come sun, rain or snow. And that's what the RS4 excels at. It never feels like it's about to spit you off the road, in the way that a Mercedes C63 AMG can do if you get over-exuberant.
Wait for the but…
There's a "but" coming though. Which, for once, is a good one. Whereas previous fast Audi cars have occasionally felt just a little wooden – even clumsy and confused when you drive them really hard – the 2018 RS4 feels different. We found one beautifully twisty bit of road on the car's launch and the RS4 shocked us with how agile, light and keen it feels (it's 80kg lighter than the old car). It turns with real sharpness, and while the steering isn't the most communicative when driving normally, up the pace and it starts to telegraph a bit more about what's going on, and more importantly, what's about to happen if you push harder.
More surprisingly, for a fast Audi, it is impressively resistive to understeer. At least until you're going silly, lose-your-licence hooligan fast.
Instead, the RS4 spears through a series of bends, putting a big smile on your face. It feels like it's dancing on its toes, encouraging you to keep the bit between your teeth and keep up with the spirited driving. This won't be enough for some, because even if you're absolutely brutal with it, the car doesn't allow you to power oversteer like a BMW M3 does. But this Audi can do fun. And if your number one priority is skidding round every corner, you're probably not reading this review anyway...
We think that ringing the changes has worked rather well for the new RS4. The new car is more fun to drive, it steers better, is keener to turn and – if you spec the dynamic suspension and leave things in comfort mode, the ride no longer behaves like it's trying to beat the road (and your backside) into submission.
Some will miss the feral shriek of the high-revving V8 engine that was fitted to the old car. To some extent we'd include ourselves in that group. But the new V6 is an impressive thing. It sounds good - particularly at higher revs - and it provides the useful low-end oomph that's characteristic of turbocharged engines. It doesn't offer quite the gun-fire sound of some of its rivals, though. At 450hp it's a little way adrift of cars like the Merc C63 S (510hp) and Alfa Giulia QV (510ps) in pure power terms.
For some, buying a car like this and losing a game of power top trumps will be a problem. However, on the road, the Audi never feels remotely slow. Instead the way it goes about delivering the power means you can explore the range of the engine a bit without always putting your licence at risk. And if you're worried about getting toasted in a traffic-light grand prix, fear not, because the Quattro four-wheel drive system should allow the RS4 to deliver a 0-62mph time of 4.1 seconds repeatably. The system will also get you off the line in those first crucial yards faster than the competition and their rear-drive setups. Particularly in the wet and cold weather we seem to be permanently enjoying in the UK, an RS4 will do it faster than a C63, M3 or Giulia – unless they're being driven by a professional racing driver.
The consummate family estate, with all the tech
Talking about 0-60mph, gun-fire exhaust sounds, and traffic-light grand prix is all very well. But it's also a bit anti-social, not core Pocket-lint. And have you seen how busy roads in the UK are? Increasingly, such chatter feels a little irrelevant. And in this context, it's advantage Audi.
Because what the Audi RS4 does best is not demolishing a deserted moorland in the early hours (although, as we've found out, it's quite adept at that). Instead, its true talent is in covering ground at speed and providing the most comfortable, tech-rich experience of any of its rivals. To be honest, that's always been an Audi's forte – and the new RS4 is no different.
It starts with the front seats. Called RS Super Sports seats, they look great with diamond stitching, but also manage to combine the advantages of a bucket (keeping you held firm in tight bends) with the comfort of a luxury car. These seats have a massage function as standard, too. The regular Audi A4 uses technology like double-glazed, acoustic windows to reduce sound in the cockpit and the RS4 benefits from this too. So when you're not in hooligan mode it's refined and quiet.
Virtual and analogue delights
The cabin and dashboard isn't as far ahead of the competition as Audi used to be, but all the plastics remain soft-touch, everything is where you expect to find it – and when you reach out out, the knob, button or switch moves with an oiled, Swiss-watch bezel class of "clack, clack, clack" as you spin or press it. This includes the MMI (that's "multimedia interface") touch scroll wheel and its shortcut buttons, which control the MMI Navigation Plus infotainment system.
This haptic system is just like the unit found in other A4s – it's not yet moved over to the new touch MMI we've found in the A8 (and which will appear in the forthcoming A7 and A6). The "plus" in the system's name signifies that the RS4 gets the bigger, 8.3-inch infotainment display screen (other A4's have a 7-inch system as standard) and it comes with connected services allowing things like online search, live traffic info and Google Earth display. Audi throws in Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, too, so synching with your phone is a breeze.
Also standard is the Audi Virtual Cockpit, which we've seen and loved elsewhere in the Audi range. In the RS4, Audi has developed a couple of new interface designs (unique for the RS4) to show telemetry data, info on power use, oil temperature and other performance relevant information. We generaly just left it in the mode with the big central rev counter, and revelled in spinning the bi-turbo V6 round to the red zone.
You can enjoy all of this in a spacious cabin, sat on seats trimmed with nappa leather. In the back there's space for two adults to sit behind two similarly sized adults.
The boot, at 505 litres, outpoints a BMW 3-Series Touring (which you can't have in RS4-rivalling M3 spec anyway) and there's a variety of fetching accessories to help you lifestyle-up your RS4 too. May we suggest slinging a roof box and some skis on top, throwing the family in the back and driving to St. Moritz tomorrow? It's what the RS4 was made for.
Easy option spends
Standard spec on the RS4 is pretty good. To the point that we certainly wouldn't complain if someone handed us the "basic" RS4. Which, by the way, starts at £62,175. As ever with Audi's cars, though, a £10K up-spend is an easy few box ticks away. And sure enough our test drive model came with a price that started with a seven, not a six.
For the new generation car, Audi has changed a few things in the specification approach, and for £72,175 you get the "carbon edition", complete with 20-inch milled wheels, privacy glass, matrix LED headlamps (which provide incredible road illumination and clever awareness of oncoming traffic), and the RS sport exhaust (which does really help the V6 engine find its voice).
Other key options to look at include RS Sports Suspension Plus with Dynamic Ride Control (DRC) for £2,000 – we drove two cars to compare, and would definitely tick this box. There's also Dynamic Steering – a box we wouldn't tick. For those thinking about track work, carbon ceramic brakes are an expensive option (£6,000), one we'd avoid unless you really know you need them and know the specific ways of driving required to do the protective heat-cycling that these types of brakes demand.
Tech-wise, the Comfort & Sound pack (B&O stereo, hands-free boot opening, keyless opening and start, rear view camera) is tempting at £1,295 – although you could argue the camera and keyless ought to be standard. Wireless phone charging is £325, but there's a standard embedded SIM providing a Wi-Fi hotspot function. You do also have to pay extra for much of the driver-assistance tech (autonomous parking, rear cross-traffic alert etc) that some brands offer as standard.
The RS4 successfully continues the bloodline of the fast Audi estate. Despite a smaller capacity engine with fewer cylinders, the RS4 hasn't gone soft. It's actually faster than ever, and more usable with it.
The main changes – losing weight, going turbo-charging, upsizing the cabin and fitting a standard auto box – just make the RS4 easier to live with. The body style and bigger boot add to its appeal when comparing to its sister car, the more expensive coupe RS5. They mostly make it a better thing to drive fast, too.
The RS4 looks class, but it doesn't reek of money or shout about its arrival like some rivals. For certain buyers that will mean it lacks appeal, they might even call it dull. The RS4 can now do fun, but its power delivery and the Quattro system means it remains what it has always been: just about the best thing on four wheels for moving four or five people, and their luggage, quickly across country - regardless of what the weather outside is doing.
The RS4 continues to define its genre of the fast estate car. Arguably, it now does it better than it ever has before.
Alternatives to consider
It's not an estate, nor available as one – more's the pity. But if you can cope with a saloon car, the M3 is hardly cramped, and it is an awful lot of fun. It's recently received a host of upgrades too, which make it less spikey on the limit. Rear drive means that it won't keep you moving in snow like the RS4, but it will allow you to skid sideways at will. Curiously, it doesn't sound as good as the Audi, though.
Read the full article: BMW M3 review
Alfa Giulia Quadrifoglio Verde
Our surprise package car of last year – the hot Giulia delivers entertainment and thrills in spades. Over 50 horsepower more punchy than the RS4, with rear-wheel drive and a race mode that switches all the driver and stability aids off, the Giulia QV is the antithesis of the Audi. It's a handful alright, but that's just the way some like it. For most, it would prove annoying 80 per cent of the time - when the Audi was being the perfect car. But for the 20 per cent of the time when the road, weather and context is right, nothing will touch the Alfa for fun, thrills and a sense of occasion.
Read the full article: Alfa Giulia QV review
Volkswagen Golf R Estate
Bear with us on this one: the Golf is almost half the price of the Audi. Ok, so it's significantly less sophisticated, and the kit and tech takes a significant hit compared to the Audi. However, as a core proposition, the Golf is also auto-only, four-wheel drive, shockingly fast and has pretty much the same amount of space inside as the RS4. It could very much be considered, therefore, as the thinking person's RS4.
Read the full article: VW Golf R review