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Audi RS4 review (2012 onwards)
Summary - the Audi RS4 is back in estate form only with no manual option but a raft of technology. However, has this left it souless?
We like - performance, sure-footed handling, estate practicality
We don't like - technology feels like the car is doing the work, not you
It's all very well having megatons of power under your right foot, a noise that will awaken a hibernating hedgehog and a chassis that can turn even the feeblest of drivers into a hero, but when a performance car lacks soul, all this is in vain.
Fast, RS-badged Audis over the years have sometimes succeeded and occasionally failed to deliver this mystic thing we call soul. The previous RS4 had it by the tipper load, the RS2 was and still is a legend, but the RS5, RS3 and TT RS of recent times haven't been able to quite hit the right note.
A great driver's car?
So it will be intriguing to find out if the new Audi RS4 can instil some of that charm to make it not just a great performance car - which it is - but a great driver's car, too.
Keeping it simple, the RS4 will be available as an estate only as Audi reckons cabrio and saloon buyers have shifted to the RS5. More controversially, however, Audi will only offer the RS4 as a seven-speed, double-clutch semi-automatic.
However, of the ream of options to choose from you can also spec carbon brakes, dynamic ride control and dynamic steering.
The RS4 receives a new 4.2-litre V8, as already previewed in the RS5, offering 450hp, 30hp more than the old RS4, and the same torque figure of 317 lb/ft spread between 4,000rpm and 6,000rpm.
That gives a 0-62mph time of 4.7 seconds, which is only 0.1 seconds quicker than the previous car due to an additional 75kg of mass to haul around. Consequently, the RS4 has to work hard before you feel that extra oomph.
Drive with reckless abandon
Still, with this sort of naturally aspirated firepower, you might expect the RS4 to scorch down the road like a bird that's spotted a prowling cat, but at moderate revs it feels merely quick, not ferocious. The key is to drive it with, for want of a better phrase, reckless abandon, taking each gear out to peak power at 8,250rpm. Now it behaves like a super-estate should. Over Austria's toboggan-like mountain roads in the wet, this car is untouchable.
Even the seven-speed auto does a fantastic job of handling the power quickly and efficiently, though it would be nice to see a clutch and stick option. With the 'box in manual mode and flipping the paddles behind the wheel for changes, it feels frenetic, like you're the star driver in a computer game.
If you want to be really lazy, you can also nudge the gearlever into Sport mode but we didn't like the way it would hold onto gears for so long or downchange unnecessarily at will. Nor were we enamoured with the drivetrain shunt when you come on and off the throttle in the Audi Drive Select's most extreme dynamic setting.
However, when it does drop a cog you are treated to a wonderful and aggressive blip of the throttle, while elsewhere the exhausts emit a tuneful song that gets more hardcore as the intensity rises.
Ride & handling
The optional Dynamic Ride Control (£2,250 as part of a wider package) fitted to this car allows you to fettle the suspension settings across three parameters, Comfort, Auto or Dynamic. Likewise for the dynamic steering, though this is one option I wouldn't bother ticking.
It's light at low speeds but when you up the pace and throw a few corners into the mix it suddenly weights up, giving an inconsistent feel and not delivering much in the way of feedback.
This has a curious bearing on handling, too. With four-wheel-drive, a torque vectoring system that dishes out power evenly at each corner and a rear sports differential (optional) and central diff, the RS4 devours bends like the Cookie Monster let loose in a biscuit factory.
The RS4 amazes in its ability
However, while it turns in and grips confidently, there's an aloofness to the front end and a 'driving-on-glass' feeling as it appears to reach the limit of adhesion. But that is an anomaly because learn to trust the beast, push through the voices in your head begging you to behave and the RS4 turns into a different machine.
Arrive very quickly at a corner, even on these wet Austrian roads, and the RS4 amazes with its ability to take everything you throw at it. Excess speed can push the rear end out (as much as 85% of the torque can be sent to the rear wheels) making this an RS model that loves to go sideways. But simply drive through it and you can feel the systems at work, correcting the angle, tucking the nose in and clawing at the road like a horror-movie victim attempting to escape from a cellar.
This is the curious thing about this car: to give its best you have to drive at nine-tenths and, with a big V8 providing the propulsion, that means illegal speeds.
On a track the dynamics were even more amplified, with a bootful of throttle easily spitting the tail wide rather than spearing you off into the Armco in wheel-wrestling understeer.
Surely everyone needs a fast estate in their garage? If so, the RS4 doesn't disappoint. Beneath that beautifully sculptured and beefy exterior sits a load bay that accommodates 1,430 litres of space with a powered tailgate to avoid mucky paws.
Up front, the interior looks classy as you'd expect, with a black finish and the option of a silver roof lining. Chrome, aluminium and carbonfibre also feature to mark this out as a premium product.
The standard sports seats are accommodating and very adjustable but I'd opt for the optional RS bucket seats for those moments when you feel the need for g.
Standard equipment is top notch as you'd expect, with sat-nav, Bluetooth and iPod connectivity. Options include the Technology Package, a £1,420 extra that adds a hard-disk sat-nav with jukebox, reversing camera and, if you include mobile phone preparation, the wonderful Google-based mapping system and onboard wireless LAN.
Economy and safety
Driving the way we have been, you will be lucky to see even half of the claimed 26.4mpg combined fuel economy but you should see mid-20s when you don't thrash it. Audi boasts that economy is up 27% over the old model.
Improvements have been made to emissions as well, with the exhausts now emitting 249g/km, a 24% improvement.
Huge brake discs shed speed immensely well, with the option of carbon discs if you fancy a track day or two, and an ESP system that, while effective, isn't overly intrusive.
MSN Cars verdict
This latest RS4 doesn't quite live up to the old model's talent, but it's still an animal that gives the biggest rewards the harder you push it. The problem is it's a clinical car. It's a technological masterpiece, but this computer-aided approach makes you feel that the car is in charge, not you.
Make no mistake, this is by far the best RS model on sale, and for some people the promise of four-wheel-drive usability and a stonking V8 will appeal, but if you want a properly rewarding driving experience you might be better suited to a BMW M3 or Mercedes C63 AMG.
|Need to know|
|Engines, petrol||4.2 V8|
|Torque, lb ft||317|
|0-62 mph, secs||4.7|
|Top speed, mph||155 - 174 (limited)|
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