I can’t quite remember when I saw my first B5 Audi RS4 Avant, but I guess it was around the start of the new millennium. Either way, I was hooked. This was something special. Big performance outputs from a modest displacement, lowered race-car stance, and plenty of tasty kit on board. Most of all, it was a wagon.
It had sleeper status from the get-go given its body style and unique 2.7-litre twin-turbo V6 developed and manufactured by celebrated Formula 1 engine supplier, Cosworth.
This was no ordinary engine, featuring enlarged intake and smaller exhaust ports on the cast-alloy cylinder heads, two water-cooled parallel BorgWarner K04 turbochargers with two larger side-mounted intercoolers, reinforced piston crowns, stronger connecting rods, larger intake ducting, a fatter exhaust system, and a Bosch Motronic ME 7.1 engine management system.
The engine itself had a service weight of just 200kg and sent 280kW of power between 6100 and 7000rpm, and 440Nm of torque at 2500rpm to all-four wheels through a six-speed manual transmission. The B5 RS4 could go from standstill to 100km/h in 4.9 seconds with a top speed of 250km/h.
Yes, the RS4 was a giant-killing family wagon with instant icon status amongst the enthusiasts.
The second-generation B7 didn’t hit the streets until 2006, this time with various body styles and with a sweet-sounding naturally-aspirated 4.2-litre V8 under the bonnet. In fact, the quad-cam powertrain formed the basis of engine for the R8 supercar.
It made 309kW and 430Nm with had a redline of 8000rpm for similar performance to its predecessor, at least in the Avant, though 0-100km/h times for the sedan were said to be as low as 4.5 seconds.
The normally-aspirated 4.2-litre V8 continued with the next-generation B8 and gained a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, which gave it the quicker sprint time of 4.7 seconds despite tipping the scales at 1795kg.
Our 2020 RS4 Avant tester is a refreshed version of the fourth-generation B9 model introduced in 2018, powered by a 2.9-litre twin-turbo V6 mated to a traditional eight-speed automatic.
Most won’t pick the updates, but new LED head- and tail light signatures that play a cool light show at unlock is the easiest way to set the new car apart. The 2020 makeover also sheds 45kg, which is encouraging given its sizeable outputs and lower-than-ever emissions.
Above all, you can’t fault the styling. Low, wide, and properly aggressive with trademark bulging wheel arches, it’s unique in the performance car segment – especially this tester in Tango Red metallic with 20-inch wheels in gloss black to cap it off.
I can’t get over how low it sits. This is the practical high-performance car that makes complete sense to me.
At $147,900 before on-road costs, the RS4 Avant is the least expensive offering of the three-pronged, 331kW range of RS models that also includes the RS5 Sportback and coupe.
While the RS4 Avant is exceedingly well equipped by any standard, there are still a few options to choose from such as 20-inch wheels in gloss black ($400), Audi rings and badges in black ($700), and the carbon twill inlays ($1400) fitted to our tester.
The big-ticket extras include carbon ceramic brakes for $13,600, dynamic ride control with adaptive dampers priced at $4400, and variable-ratio steering for $2300.
You won’t need the mega brake package, and my take on adaptive suspension and dynamic steering is that both should be standard on RS models at this price point.
There are also two packages available including the Carbon and Black Styling Package ($11,200) which adds front spoiler blade and side blades, side sill extension inserts, rear diffuser insert, exterior mirror caps, and rear lip spoiler.
The RS Design Package in red is the second such package that adds the Alcantara steering wheel and gear selector in black with contrast stitching in crescendo red, and is an absolute visual treat on this car.
Direct rivals for the RS4 Avant amount to just one: the Mercedes-Benz C63 S Estate, priced from $168,535 before on-roads with a 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 under the bonnet making 375kW and 700Nm for the same 0-100km/h performance as the Audi.
For BMW fans there’s an M3 Touring on the way as part of the sixth-generation M3/M4 range but don’t expect it here until late 2022/23.
In the meantime, Alpina has the new B3 Touring about to drop locally with a 3.0-litre bi-turbo straight-six delivering 340kW and 700Nm for a 0-100km/h sprint time of 3.9 seconds. It’s priced from $145,900 before on-roads.
The equipment list is pretty much a carbon copy of that of the updated RS5, which is to say it’s comprehensive. Highlights are many but the high-value items include the massive digital instrument display with RS graphics and the accompanying infotainment touchscreen measuring a substantial 10.1 inches.
Like all Audis at this price the fit, finish and quality of materials here is first rate. However, the screen is not as neatly integrated into the car as it is on the brand’s newest-generation models.
As a driver it doesn’t bother me. In fact, I prefer a few nicely-knurled knobs to fiddle with over the multi-screen look that’s devoid of all switchgear spreading across the range.
Our tester wasn’t equipped with the optional Alcantara steering wheel, but I still rate the standard flat-bottom tiller wrapped in tactile perforated leather, discretely hiding some proper alloy paddle shifters. The sports leather seats are another Audi standout, providing superb comfort and solid bolster – though I’d like a bit more.
Sadly, the RS4 Avant misses out on the laser light component in its Matrix LED headlights, but both front and rear lights get dynamic indicators and put on a light show whenever the car is locked or unlocked. I’m a big fan of Audi’s latest light signature.
Exterior mirrors are heated, folding, and dimming and with a kerbside dipping function.
There’s a panoramic sunroof, RS Sports Exhaust with oval pipes in black, Fine Nappa leather upholstery with honeycomb stitching, illuminated front door sill trims, sports alloy pedals, and powered front seats with heating, lumbar support, massage, and driver memory.
There’s also three-zone climate control, a frameless auto-dimming rear mirror, ambient lighting, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, factory navigation, wireless charging, and park assist.
Audio is courtesy of Bang & Olufsen with 19 speakers and 755W for what is excellent clarity through both the highs and lows.
Just like the RS5 models, RS4 Avant buyers can also option the Carbon and Black package which adds a few nice strips of lacquered carbon-fibre in key spots like the front spoiler, rear diffuser, mirror caps and side sill extensions for the cool sum of $11,200.
You’d have to be keen for that kind of money.
You can also have your RS4 Avant in seven colours other than Tango Red and all of them, including the metallic and pearl effect finishes, are a no-cost option. As much as I like deep glossy red there’s not much stealth value there, so it’s between Sonoma Green or Nardo Grey.
The Audi A4 was tested in 2015 and achieved 90 per cent in adult occupant protection, 87 per cent in child occupant protection, 75 per cent in vulnerable road user protection, and 75 per cent for safety assist.
Bear in mind, the new RS4 is equipped with eight airbags and all the latest active safety systems including adaptive cruise control with stop/go, traffic jam assist, and active lane-keeping assist with corrective steering intervention.
The Avant also gets autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian protection up to 250km/h, Audi pre-sense rear, collision avoidance assist, rear cross-traffic alert, exit warning, blind-spot monitoring, and turn assist.
There’s a 360-degree camera, front and rear parking sensors, a rear-view camera, and a head-up display which shows speed, revs and gear position.
Audi gets the balance between driver focus and luxury just right, particularly with its RS models. The Fine Nappa leather upholstery is superb to the touch and the bolsters are spread wide enough to accommodate larger frames, although they can be adjusted for the perfect fit.
The attention to detail is evident throughout the cabin of the Avant, whether it’s the proper metal accents or the knurled switchgear. The optional carbon fibre twill inlays are simply stunning on the eye and to the touch.
What hard plastics there are don’t detract from the overall ambience, either.
Up front it’s wide enough to feel spacious but out back it’s not comfortable for three across the split-fold bench – mainly due to the centre console intruding, though the hump in the floor itself is small. That said, rear legroom for the outer passengers is spacious.
As a (summer-only) surfer I covet rear cargo space and the RS4 Avant in generous in that regard with up to 505L behind the rear seats, expanding to 1495L when folded – though it’s not completely flat.
Loading is easy, though, with an electrically-operated tailgate operated by foot gestures as well as a convenient cargo net. I’d forgotten just how useful these things are in securing multiple grocery bags while still able to enjoy the drive home.
Same motor as the RS5, which is a 2.9-litre twin-turbocharged V6 meting out peak power of 331kW between 5700 and 6700rpm, and 600Nm that’s available from 1900 to 5000rpm.
It’s sent to all four wheels via all-wheel drive through an eight-speed automatic transmission.
In the RS mode (activated by a simple push of the RS button on the steering wheel), the Avant can blast from rest to 100km/h in 4.1 seconds, two tenths slower than the RS5.
Audi cites urban fuel consumption at 12.9L/100km, though we saw a consistent 16.9L/100km on a mostly suburban driving with the odd 80km/h sections thrown in.
It’s been years since I’ve been behind the wheel of an RS4. Given this is the latest, I’m pretty keen to see how it goes as a daily.
This wagon has real presence just sitting in the driveway. The driver’s seat is set low in the car, which is always a good sign. And these RS seats are extravagant in their soft leather, and wrap you up nicely – at least after I tweak the bolsters for a tighter fit.
The V6 fires into a bark – deeper than I expected, and very satisfying – before settling into a high-tempo burble with plenty of volume from those oversized oval exhaust tips.
Kick off in Comfort and the RS4 is nice and docile for the 50km/h limits in suburbia. Throttle response is noticeably dulled in this setting which kills some of the fun, as it exposes some annoying lag if you need to get back on the gas.
It’s easy to hit the RS button and liven things up immediately. The switch brings more noise and more immediate throttle response. It’s very aggressive in this mode so you need to be moving at a decent clip, because the right-hand pedal feels nervous on small inputs.
Given some clear road ahead the RS4 Avant delivers a real kick. Off-the-line traction is also quick in this mode, while rolling off the throttle produces plenty of pops and crackles. It’s not over the top, but you’ll know this is not your average family wagon.
Even on the upshifts there’s some shenanigans with the exhaust note. It’s perhaps a little over the top.
The ride is firm over all but smooth tarmac, or so my passengers said. I found it firm but not jarring as the complainants would have me believe.
Bear in mind, our tester was fitted with the fixed Sports suspension and not Dynamic Ride Control with adaptive dampers, which is a $4400 option on the Avant.
Lean on it through the bends and body control is kept in check with this suspension system, leaving little or no roll. In fact, the harder you push the more sorted it gets.
It’s easy to forget you’re driving a wagon in this setting, as it’s beautifully balanced for the more serious stuff.
Our tester was fitted with Hankook Ventus S1 Evo 2 tyres and, while we might have expected Michelin’s finest, they provided impressive grip even when attacking the tighter stuff.
After an Audi RS4 sedan? Bad luck, it's only available as a more practical wagon
The steering gets better when you start to push, but it felt a tad disconnected at lower speeds. The brakes are superb though, with big stopping power, and great pedal feel and progression.
Audi is yet to following rival Mercedes-Benz in offering a five-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty, instead offering buyers a three-year warranty.
Servicing is every 15,000km or 12 months, whichever comes first, and buyers can purchase a three-year service plan for $1950 or five-year plan for $3050.
The RS4 Avant is not perfect by any means. The firm in-town ride ride and low-speed lag can be annoying, and then there’s the heavy fuel consumption.
But that won’t matter to fans of high-speed family wagons that look this good and go like stink. If you’re one of them (and I certainly am) you can’t go past the RS4 for its blend of performance, style, and practicality.