Star rating: 4.8 / 5.0.
- Model tested: Updated (2020) Audi RS4 Avant TFSI 450PS Vorsprung tiptronic (£83,845).
- Current Audi RS4 Avant range priced from £63,275 (July 2021).
- Current Audi A4 Avant range priced from £32,250 (Technik trim).
Performance estates will always fire our imagination in a manner few other vehicle types can. When we think of them, as can understandably be quite often, it’s nigh impossible to prevent the Audi RS4 and RS6 siblings from gate crashing our frontal lobes.
The German automaker almost single-handedly created the rocket-ship, family-shifter genre and remains inextricably linked to them. There is something hugely attractive about that genuine usability combined with grin-inducing performance. Mind you, as much as we think about them, not many of us actually buy a super-quick estate – which is a pity, because they’re bloomin’ marvellous!
This week, I’ll be taking a closer look at the smaller of those two performance estates, the RS4 Avant. The original (designated ‘B5’) model arrived at the turn of the century. The current iteration is the 2018, fourth-generation ‘B9’ first shown at the Frankfurt Motor Show (remember motor shows?) in 2017. In late 2019, the B9 received a series of subtle updates for its 2020 model year reviewed here.
Recently, ‘KY70CSF’ arrived for a week’s sojourn. It was an RS4 Avant TFSI 450PS tiptronic, presented in top-end Vorsprung spec and finished in metallic Tango Red paint (£675).
During its seventh and final day under my stewardship, I took it out for a final blast across the South Downs National Park before the bad man came to take it away. As I waited for the blood to return to my fingers and my eyeballs to fully rehome, I mentally construed a few notes…
As quick estates go, true rivals to the RS4 Avant are less common than Trump truths. The only likely ones are the Mercedes-AMG C 63 S Estate (£75,458) and (possibly) the Porsche Panamera 4S Sport Turismo, which at £96,130 is somewhat pricier, though.
If it’s all about performance and space and practicality aren’t a priority, there are a few non-estate super quicks to consider such as the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio Verde (a comparative bargain at £67,195) and BMW’s M3 Saloon / M4 Coupe Competition pairing (at £74,755 and £76,055 respectively) which share the same 3.0-litre, in-line six powertrain and eight-cog auto’box.
So, what’s new for 2020?
The current RS4 Avant received no new sheet metal, but the bumpers received a fair bit of Botox and swelled in their proportions resulting in front air intakes big enough to swallow oncoming traffic while the exhaust pipe finishers are the diameter of Johannesburg storm drains.
The 2020 model gets a wider and flatter single-frame grille, similar in style to the version found on the current RS6 Avant. It is filled with three-dimensional honeycomb in gloss black, typical of RS models. The RS4 adopted the regular A4’s most recent head and tail lights.
The side profile remains unchanged. The wheel arches are 30 mm wider at the front and rear compared to the regular A4 Avant. At the rear, a new twilight design should make it clear to the rest of the world that you are driving the latest and greatest. New air vents next to the oversized tailpipes are also evident. Otherwise, everything else appears untouched.
Inside little has changed except some updates to the infotainment system, while Audi removed some weight and tweaked the engine and transmission to produce better economy and emissions figures. It did so without changing the 444bhp output, or the 600Nm of torque that the 2.9-litre twin turbo V6 engine develops. It’s the same engine as deployed in the Porsche Panamera 4S Sport Turismo, mentioned above and below in our Technical Head-to-Head.
In recent years, Audi has gained an enviable reputation in design, quality and fit for its interiors and that of the RS4 is no exception.
The 2020 upgrade introduced aluminium highlights, soft Nappa leather and so on. It definitely feels better screwed together than the Alfa Romeo Giulia QV or Merc-AMG C 63 S Estate.
Exterior visibility is good – even via those Picanto-bearing hips at the rear – and what you miss during parking will be picked up by the standard front and rear parking sensors and rear-view camera. You also get Audi’s adaptive Matrix LED headlights included, which are always on high beam, except to traffic in either direction and provide superb night time vision.
Apart from the slightly offset pedals, the driving position is impeccable – almost on a par with the Alfa Romeo Giulia QV. The RS Sport seats are enveloping and there’s plenty of powered adjustment, including four-way lumbar adjustment and variable-action massaging facility. The steering wheel adjusts in all directions by a decent amount, too.
As with the regular A4s, the RS4 comes with Audi’s Virtual Cockpit as standard, replacing traditional analogue dials with a 12.3inch screen. Its graphics are bespoke with extra RS-specific displays available such as boost pressure, tyre pressures, power and torque output, and a G-force meter – which is probably the last thing you should be looking at while you’re cornering with any kind of meaningful G.
In fact, there’s so much information positioned just below your sightline that it makes the optional head-up display (standard on Vorsprung trim as tested) pretty much redundant, although I do prefer an HUD for essential info such as speed, speed limit, cruise control and those orange symbols of ‘disabled-because-irritating-in-an-urban-environment’ safety kit such as lane-keep assist, etc.
Slap in the middle of the dashboard is the stand-alone 10.1-inch infotainment screen, which houses car, system and other settings, the DAB/multi-band radio, navigation and smartphone links such as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, which are standard. Just below that sits the climate controls and a few frequently enjoyed convenience features.
Both units provide haptic feedback to confirm when you’ve touched an icon, but you still have to glance away from the road to hit them in the first place. BMW’s iDrive system is so much easier to use while you’re driving, thanks to its physical rotary control and shortcut buttons.
However, on a more positive note, wireless phone charging is standard across the RS4 Avant range, and the standard 10-speaker stereo can be upgraded to a B&O system with 19 speakers.
Practicality and space
The RS4 is as practical as the standard Audi A4 Avant estate, making it a tempting choice for those who regularly need to transport family, cargo or both but don’t want to sacrifice speed or the outright pleasure of owning a performance car to do so.
Both head and leg room is good all round and even at the rear, two six-footers will be content even if the front is occupied by people who are equally as tall, and three people will feel less crushed than in a Mercedes-AMG C 63 S estate or a BMW M3.
At the very rear there’s a wide powered tailgate and a low load lip to take the strain out of loading heavy items, and even at its narrowest point, the boot is still one metre wide which could prove a boon if you’re on an Ikea or I-need-a-new-shed run.
Folding the rear seats is the same process as in the A4 Avant and is simply a case of pulling levers that are positioned by the tailgate opening and the backrests fold in one action. It’s a 40/20/40 split arrangement, giving you more options when you need to carry long loads and people in back.
With row two in place, the 495-litre boot is one of the biggest in its class, slightly beating the 490-litres on offer in the Mercedes-AMG C 63 S estate. Drop row two and a useful 1,495 litres of flat load space appears (Merc 1,500 litres).
RS4 Avant – trim grades and equipment
The RS4 estate is currently available in three trims; the ‘regular’ Avant, the ‘Carbon Black’ edition and the top-spec ‘Vorsprung’ as tested here. There was a Bronze Edition released early 2020, but this was limited to just 1,250 units and has since sold out.
As you can imagine, being the top of the A4 estate range, all three RS4 Avant models carry significantly deep toy chests.
The standard RS4 Avant comes with sports exhaust, sports suspension, Audi’s Sport rear differential and 19-inch wheels. On top of this is a host of convenience features such as Matrix LED headlights, Nappa leather sports seats, full navigation and a virtual cockpit. All it really lacks is Audi’s Comfort and Sound Package for about £1,400 which brings advanced functions on the keyless go system, a 360 degree parking camera, LED interior lighting and a Bang & Olufsen 3D sound system. If you want your RS4 to sound as good outside as it does inside with that package then the RS Sport Exhaust is an absolute must, indeed, we’d be amazed if any are ordered without a tick in that box.
The Carbon Black model adds a lot of, well, carbon and black, for about £7,000. Carbon fibre is liberally applied to sections within the front and rear bumpers, side skirts and interior trim finishes. The window surrounds, badges, mirror caps and roof rails are themselves finished in black for the full stealth look, set off with a set of black-painted 20-inch wheels.
Vorsprung adds 20-inch wheels and gloss black exterior trim, upgraded suspension with Dynamic Ride Control, RS Sports exhaust, Bang & Olufsen stereo, three-zone climate control, heated rear (outer) seats, powered tailgate, adaptive cruise control, traffic sign recognition, blind spot recognition, 360-degree cameras, head-up display, panoramic sunroof and a top speed derestriction from 155mph to 174mph.
If you’d like your RS4 Avant presented in Nardo Grey, it will cost you nothing extra. However, opt for any of the seven metallic or pearlescent paint finishes and you’ll need to find a further £675, which, considering it’s a big car needing a lot of paint, is quite reasonable. A choice from a further nine ‘exclusive’ colours is available for £2,400.
The Vorsprung variant of the Audi RS4 Avant is so loaded with kit – as you would expect for almost £84k – that the options list contains very few items; There’s a ‘Storage Pack’ for £195, which includes handy things like a net on each of the front seat backrests to catch magazines and toys, plus an extra storage compartment on the driver’s side and a lockable glovebox in which to store your valuables.
High gloss red brake calipers with an RS logo are available for £460, while a full set of ceramic brakes will set you back a whopping £6,150. To be fair, they’re not really needed as the standard-fit steelies do a great job of stopping the car.
The accessories list is expansive, but a more useful one includes a folding towbar for £995. It folds away mechanically when not in use, so you don’t need to worry about it when you’re reversing or parking up, or removing layers of skin from your shins when rummaging around in the boot.
RS4 Avant – engine and transmission
Since 1999, there have been a few RS4s to get us to this current one, with each model all offering the same thing – performance, speed and space.
However, Audi hasn’t stuck to an engine type, with Mk1 (B5) having a 2.7-litre twin turbo V6. In the Mk2 and Mk3 (B7 & B8), a thunderous 4.2-litre, naturally-aspirated V8 was shoehorned into the front. Today, thanks to emissions and economy regulations, the Mk4 (B9) offers a super-efficient and omnipotent 2.9-litre twin-turbo V6.
This move gave initial cause for concern among V8 purists, but most were silenced by the fact that it produces the same 444bhp as its predecessor and actually has more pulling power. For its 2020 model year, the engine software was revised and the shapely RS4 load shifter continues to feel incredibly fast.
The Porsche-sourced V6 motor is paired to an eight-speed, ZF-sourced tiptronic automatic transmission dividing its 444 bhp power and 600Nm of torque between both axles – but with a 60/40 bias towards the rear under normal conditions.
On the road
When you eventually ‘fire up the quattro’ having appreciated its classy interior, there are few clues that this isn’t a regular, petrol-powered A4 estate. Only when you stomp on the accelerator does the RS4’s potential come to light. There’s a little hesitation as the turbochargers spool up, but it can cover cross-country routes with an incredibly indecent pace.
Stick the Drive Select into Dynamic mode (you can also choose from Comfort, Auto and Individual settings), and the accelerator response sharpens and holds each of the eight gears for optimal performance. It’s a dual-clutch automatic box and does a very fast, smooth job of changing gears. If you think you can do a better job, there are steering-wheel paddle-shifters fitted that fall easily to your fingers. I rarely used them except, of course, to show off.
If you stick the Drive Select to Comfort, the suspension softens, the exhaust quietens down and the shifts of the automatic gearbox become more smooth, making the Audi RS4 Avant easy to drive in town and impressively comfortable over bumps.
The steering is sharp and precise, but sadly has very little feel. Fortunately, the lateral forces that the RS4’s sheer grip cause make up for the lack of sensation at the wheel and the four-wheel-drive system grabs the tarmac and launches you out of corners. Don’t expect to playfully unstick the rear wheels though – the RS4 is more about security than showboating.
Even with its standard steel brakes fitted, huge discs ensure speed can be wiped off at a startling rate. Carbon-ceramic brakes are also offered as a £6,000 option and reduce the weight of the car by 32kg. The brakes also boost agility, with the torque-vectoring helping to turn the car in corners via gentle application to the inside wheels.
Acceleration from 0-62mph takes just 4.1 seconds – slightly less than the Merc’s V8 – and the lighter engine means less weight in the nose of the car, which has made a difference to how the RS4 Avant responds when chucked into a corner. Where the old car would run wide, the latest model has far more bite when you turn the wheel. Corners can be dismissed with a flick of the wrist instead of a laboured pull at the wheel.
With standard quattro four-wheel drive, the RS4 Avant doesn’t have quite the handling of the BMW M3 saloon, and although it can produce a sonorous soundtrack if pushed hard, it can’t match the V8 in the Mercedes-AMG C 63 S for sheer aural drama. It’s a very easy car to just get in and drive fast, though – it behaves in a benign way that instils confidence in even the most ‘normal’ of drivers.
During the test week, I spent a total of 11:46 hours piloting KY70CSF over a total of 333 mixed-road miles at an average speed of 29 mph. The average fuel consumption was recorded at 28.6 mpg, which was a fraction better than the official 28.2 mpg (combined WLTP data) given by Audi for the RS4 Avant Vorsprung derivative.
Note: During all my road tests, no attempt is made or conscious effort given to achieving an above-average mpg. However, I encourage the deployment of cruise/active cruise control at any given opportunity.
The regular Audi A4 saloon received a five-star safety rating from Euro NCAP and although it won’t be tested separately, it’s all but definite that the RS4 would achieve the same.
Standard kit includes pre sense city braking, multi-collision brake assist, Audi side assist, and parking system plus, while a Driver Assistance Pack is available as an option. This costs £1,200 and adds adaptive cruise control with traffic jam assist, automatic braking at higher speeds (up to 155mph), traffic sign recognition and lane keeping assistance.
The Audi RS 4 Avant has managed to carve out a specific and profitable niche in the performance car market.
If you are so deep of pocket 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 much 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 Nürburgring, should the mood so take you – and your insurance company let you. Drive it and you’ll experience a guilty thrill as if something this much fun really couldn’t be legal. From 2030, cars like this are expected to be legislated off-sale in the UK.
In the meantime, enjoy this one – and others of its ilk – while you still can.