The Audi RS 4 Avant returns for its fourth outing, having lost some cylinders and engine capacity in the transition from the old car. It gains no additional power over its V8-propelled predecessor; however, the return to the Avant's biturbo V6 roots has worked wonders for the RS 4, which is one of the finest Audi Sport products yet for driver involvement. It's also ferociously quick, thanks to a big hike in torque.
In the metal
Look, no Audi is ever what you'd call ugly - although the Q7 and the front end of the Audi A5 get a little too close for comfort - and the S/RS models have always had tremendous kerb appeal. This latest RS 4, however, over and above everything else in the manufacturer's catalogue, looks the absolute nuts. Everything about it is just so right: the IMSA-inspired boxy arches, the broad stance, the ridiculously mean gaping intakes at the front, the gorgeous (optional) 20-inch alloys with their slender 30-profile tyres, those twin oval exhausts... it's an absolute stunner from nose to tail.
The interior is as exceptional as you'd expect of Audi, although you have to pore through the spec sheets of the test car to try and work out what's going to be optional and what's standard fit. So, don't get too attached to the sublime Alcantara wheel or door cards, or the lashings of carbon fibre draped across the lower half of the Audi's dash, because they're all likely to be four-figure extras. Nevertheless, with the exquisite 12.3-inch Virtual Cockpit standard fit in the cluster, the beautifully solid fixtures and fittings and a general air of premium goodness, the RS 4's cabin is a lovely place to spend some time. It's so ergonomically correct, right to the nth degree, that it's impossible to fault it, really.
Time for some details, then, on the Audi's physicality. Throughout its life, the RS 4 has normally only ever been an Avant estate; it was only the second-generation car, codenamed the 'B7', that you could also purchase as a Saloon or Cabriolet. This MkIV RS 4, however, will only be sold as a wagon. It is longer, wider and lower than before, with a stretched wheelbase and a 50-litre bigger boot. The 2.9 TFSI engine up front clocks in at 182kg, fully 31kg lighter than the old 4.2 V8, and plays a key part in the entire car being 80kg trimmer than its predecessor.
That smaller twin-turbo V6 doesn't deliver any extra horses when compared to the normally aspirated V8 it replaces, both standing at 450hp (which kind of seems quite tame, when you consider the original RS 4 of 17 years ago had 380hp from its biturbo 2.7 V6...), but what has happened is a whopping surge in peak torque. Where the FSI 4.2 V8 RS 4 delivered 430Nm at most, the 2.9 TFSI doles out 39.5 per cent more oomph from 1,900- to 5,000rpm, its mighty 600Nm being an incredibly useful and telling number. That beefier torque, coupled with the weight reduction (power-to-weight is up 11hp-per-tonne to stand at 262hp) and the use of an eight-speed Tiptronic torque converter auto in place of the old seven-speed S tronic dual-clutch gearbox, means the new RS 4 trims a notable six tenths off the preceding car's 0-100km/h time, stopping the watch at just 4.1 seconds.
On-paper data is all well and good, of course, but the valediction for Audi's RS 4 weight-loss campaign comes once you're on the move. This is a giant step forward from the old car. It turns in with a clean, unflustered keenness time and time again, never once feeling nose-heavy or like it wants to understeer straight into the scenery, and once it is loaded up with lateral g-forces, you can feel a balance to the chassis that speaks volumes of the quattro system's rear bias - in normal driving, torque is split 40:60 front-to-rear, but in cases of wheel-slip being detected, up to 85 per cent of the grunt can be flung at the leading axle while a maximum of 70 per cent goes to the back.
This fluidity manifests itself in genuine oversteer. OK, we're not talking tyre-smoking, drifting stuff, but the back end of the Audi will move around under power and weight transfer if you want it to. The RS 4's preferred cornering stance is pure neutrality, which makes it a devastating point-to-point machine in the dry, yet it's nice to know you can get its attitude to change significantly mid-bend using the throttle alone.
We tried versions of the rapid Avant both with and without Dynamic Steering (we couldn't discern a huge difference, to be fair, with both systems feeling nicely accurate and weighty, with some feel evident), as well as RS 4s fitted with the Dynamic Ride Control adjustable suspension. This is perhaps a little too soft for fast-road driving when in Comfort, and a little too hard in Dynamic for general daily duties, but overall it strikes an impressive balance between body control and ride quality. The eight-speed Tiptronic transmission is a peach and the brakes do a fine job of hauling the Audi in from big speeds repeatedly, so the optional carbon ceramic items are probably wholly unnecessary on a family vehicle that is unlikely to spend any time on track.
Naturally, for standard motoring speeds, the RS 4 functions as civilly as any other A4 Avant, gliding along in a high level of comfort with a strong refinement game. And it's phenomenally ingratiating as a result. It just feels as though it will handle any traffic situation, weather conditions or road surface you care to throw at it, with the minimum of drama. That's precisely the long-standing, core appeal of RS Audis; what's welcome is the increased handling finesse. Oh, and two final points to cover - the RS 4 obviously goes like a bullet from any point on the rev counter if you want it to, the suspicion being that 450hp might be a modest assessment of its prodigious output, while it sounds particularly good all the way around. OK, it's not quite a V8 track, but there's a hard, raw growl to the Audi as it closes in on the redline and while the twin exhausts rumble, thud and burble as often as you'd expect from one of these modern-day performance turbo cars, the noises they make are just a little more subdued and mature than they are on the similarly-equipped Audi RS 5. This is a good thing, trust us; Audi has judged the RS 4's soundtrack perfectly.
What you get for your money
Prices are not yet confirmed for Ireland, but the RS 4 Avant will almost certainly be beyond the €100,000 mark. It comes with a wealth of equipment as standard, with the chance to add much more in the way of cost options, so it's likely most cars leaving showrooms will be more like €120,000-plus - but even then, the finished product emphatically feels worth such robust money. It even manages to avoid drifting into the most punitive Band G for road tax, thus avoiding a €2,350 annual levy in favour of the €1,200 tariff.
A massive step forward in driver engagement is what marks out the latest Audi RS 4 as a great machine. Like any RS 4 that's gone before it, this Audi wagon is bonkers fast in all conditions and incredibly stable, but it manages to layer on top some useful feedback and chassis playfulness to make this Avant a far more alluring proposition. Experienced drivers might still have more fun at the wheel of a Mercedes-AMG C 63 Estate, but the dynamic gap between the two German rivals is not enormous and the Audi compensates with other strengths, like its striking looks, exquisite interior and its unerring ease-of-use. So, it's as simple as this: the RS 4 Avant is one of the best hot Audis ever made, and one of the greatest ballistic estates you can enjoy.