Audi RS4 Avant estate
"The Audi RS4 is an incredibly quick estate that is a practical, comfortable and luxurious all-rounder"
- Beautifully built interior
- Very fast
- Expensive options
- Styling too understated for some
- Artificial steering feel
One thing sets Audi's fastest A4 aside from the BMW M3 and Mercedes-AMG C63 – the fact that the RS4 is only available as an estate. But this might be good news if you need to justify your performance-car purchase as practical for family life.
In fact, it's very unusual for load-carrying and lairy acceleration to live together in such harmony – and presented in what is quite a low-key package. Upgrades for 2020 mean it has become slightly more aggressive, with a wider grille and new headlights inspired by the Audi RS6 Avant. It's also easy to spot the latest version thanks to a thin slot at the leading edge of the bonnet, and there are also big wheels, plenty of black mesh cooling vents and gently flared wheel arches. However, this isn't a car that shouts about its performance - the RS4 only looks like a genuinely fast car to those in the know.
The game isn't given away by an ear-splitting exhaust note, either. In place of the V8 engine of previous versions (a layout also followed by the Mercedes-AMG C63), the latest RS4 uses a twin-turbocharged 2.9-litre V6 engine. This move gave initial cause for concern among V8-loving enthusiasts, but most were silenced by the fact that it produces the same 444bhp as its predecessor and actually has more pulling power. For 2020 the engine software has been revised and the RS4 simply feels incredibly fast.
Acceleration from 0-62mph takes just 4.1 seconds – slightly less than the V8 – and the lighter engine means less weight in the nose of the car, which has made a difference to how the RS4 responds when plunged 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 doesn't have quite the balletic handling of the BMW M3 saloon, and although it can produce a sonorous soundtrack if pushed hard, it can't match the Mercedes C63 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 gives even 'normal' drivers confidence.
With the latest RS4, Audi has succeeded in creating an impressive all-rounder that is fit for virtually any task you could realistically want your car to perform. It’s incredibly quick when you want to have fun but is also an accomplished cruiser, a practical load-lugger, as well as a comfortable and luxurious family car. It may not set your heart pounding on every trip, but it can still excite when you ask it to. The only obvious off-putting aspect of owning one is the high list price and expensive upgrades.
MPG, running costs & CO2
The move from a 4.2-litre V8 in the previous Audi RS4 to a turbocharged 2.9-litre V6 in the latest model has meant an improvement in claimed economy, which climbs from 26.4mpg to 29.1mpg. In the real world, economy is likely to average between 20-25mpg unless you’re on a racetrack or pushing the car hard on a twisty road, in which case it’ll be even lower. In similar fashion, CO2 emissions have improved to around 210g/km, down from 249g/km in the old RS4.
The Audi RS4 will cost £145 A year to tax, plus a £320 surcharge in years two to six of ownership because it costs more than £40,000 to buy. Insurance, servicing and consumables, such as tyres and brakes, will be more expensive than average because the RS4 is a performance car.
Engines, drive & performance
The Audi RS4 is only available with a turbocharged 2.9-litre V6 petrol engine. Despite being significantly smaller than the engine in the previous RS4, the introduction of turbochargers means the V6 produces the same 444bhp as the bigger V8 engine used in the previous model.
We reckon the RS4's quoted 0-62mh time of 4.1 seconds is a little on the pessimistic side. In the right conditions, it seems that dipping into the three-second bracket could be possible. If you don't stop at 62mph, you can carry onto an electronically limited 155mph if you can find a safe, unlimited road. Choose the Vorsprung Edition and you can have that limiter upped to 174mph. While there's no extra power, new engine software for 2020 is said to make the engine even more flexible, but you'd need to hop between the old and new cars to spot a big difference.
Starting the engine, there are few clues that this isn't a regular, smooth, petrol-powered A4. Only when you plunge the accelerator into the carpet does the RS4's potential come to light. There's a tiny hesitation as the turbochargers spin into life, but it can cover cross-country routes with indecent pace if you keep the engine spinning above 2,000rpm, and the power continues relentlessly up to almost 7,000rpm.
A 'dynamic' mode brings a sharper response to the accelerator and holds each of the eight gears for optimal acceleration. It's a dual-clutch automatic box and does a very fast, smooth job of changing gears, but there are steering-wheel paddles fitted in case you think you can do better.
The steering is arcade-game sharp and just as precise, but sadly has as much feel as a computer game, too. 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 and drift like a C63 will let you, 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, reducing the car’s weight by a total of 32kg. The brakes also boost agility, helping to turn the car in corners via gentle application to the inside wheels.
It's undoubtedly quick but the Audi RS4 poses something of a dilemma – is going fast really everything? If so, it's almost unbeatable in the class. On a demanding country road or even a race track, there's little chance of an M3 or C63 getting ahead. But are you in search of a lap record or having fun on the way? If you're looking for sheer speed, the RS4 will suit you down to the ground, but the C63 is a more visceral, thrilling driving experience.
Interior & comfort
The Audi RS4 is designed to be an excellent all-rounder as well as a performance car. Part of this brief includes being a comfortable, luxury cruiser that’s an appealing companion for long journeys, and the RS4 is more than capable of playing this role. The optional Dynamic Ride Control setup is a useful extra in this regard, as it alters the suspension setup depending on the mode you select.
In Comfort and Auto, the ride is more supple and compliant, and the exhaust note more subdued; in these settings, the RS4 will glide very smoothly and quietly along at motorway speed, with little in the way of road or wind noise. The Dynamic mode makes the car lower and more squat for tighter body control when cornering quickly but it also means the firm ride transmits more of the road imperfections into the cabin.
The supple ride is complemented by the interior, which is true to Audi’s reputation for stylish, high-quality interiors. The sports seats in the front are very comfortable and the tactile materials are beautifully finished and solidly assembled. The RS4 has Audi’s Virtual Cockpit as standard, which replaces traditional dials behind its flat-bottomed, Alcantara suede-trimmed steering wheel with a 12.3-inch digital colour screen.
There's a new 10.1-inch dash-top screen for 2020, which is now touch-activated instead of controlled via a control wheel. 'RS monitor' is also included, giving real-time updates of how the car is performing, with G-force readings, tyre temperatures and lap times. Sat-nav, an Audi Smartphone Interface and Bluetooth connectivity are all standard, too.
Along with the standard RS4, buyers can also choose a Carbon Edition that comes with 20-inch alloy wheels, carbon-fibre interior trim highlights and black exterior trim, including the grille. The range-topping Vorsprung Edition adds a panoramic sunroof, Bang & Olufsen stereo and adaptive suspension but it costs more than £80,000.
Practicality & boot 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 pleasure of owning a performance car to do so.
Head and legroom is good for all passengers, whether in the front or rear of the RS4, and the 505-litre boot is one of the biggest in its class, beating the 490-litres on offer in the Mercedes-AMG C63.
Reliability & safety
The standard A4 was rated just below average for reliability in our 2019 Driver Power satisfaction survey; almost 22% of owners who participated reported faults in the first year of ownership - problems with the electrics were the biggest issue. Audi has a generally good reputation for reliability, however, and the RS4 engine and mechanicals have already seen action in the Audi RS5.
The standard 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 do 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.