One of the best fast estate cars out there just got a tiny bit better, as the updated Audi RS 4 Avant is a belting all-rounder of a machine that competes, pretty much, in its own rarefied market segment.
In the metal
Can you make a hot estate vehicle look any better than this? Seriously, the Audi RS 4 Avant is close to visual perfection and it makes you seriously wonder why you'd need to step up to an RS 6. Little has changed for the 2020 model year, although, in terms of the aesthetics, it's the area in which the RS 4 has been most obviously altered - for instance, you might easily spot those funky LED lamp clusters front and rear, which have distinctive patterns within them, or the triple-slats cut into the nose of the car above the radiator grille. Elsewhere, it's as you were, with 20-inch alloys, hulking great wheel arches and a magnificent stance, while inside, the 12.3-inch 'Virtual Cockpit' dashboard has been refreshed, as have the graphics on the 10.1-inch infotainment touchscreen - but this still looks a bit dated, sitting perched atop the dash, when Audi now widely favours the three-screen display that debuted in the current A8 for its interior architecture.
If you were to take a cursory glance at the technical specification of the new Audi RS 4 Avant, you'll think nothing has happened for the 2020 model year update. The same 2.9-litre biturbo V6 is pressed into service, driving all four wheels through quattro four-wheel drive with a rear-axle 'Sport' differential and an eight-speed Tiptronic automatic gearbox. The maximum power's still 450hp. The torque still peaks at 600Nm. The 0-100km/h time's still 4.1 seconds. So what's new?
Plenty. For starters, this slatted-front RS 4 is 45kg lighter than the pre-facelift model. Audi attributes this to a reduction in sound-deadening, in the main, although there must be more going on than that. The adaptively damped suspension has been reworked, too, to enhance ride comfort without sacrificing an iota of the RS 4's iron-fisted body control. The gearbox has been recalibrated to improve shift times, while the quattro system is also tweaked and continues to favour a 40:60 front-to-rear-torque split, sending as much as 85 per cent of torque to the back axle when required.
So, while you might not see the mechanical updates, you sure will feel them. We've always liked this generation of RS 4, believing it to be a level above previous 'point-and-shoot' fast Audis because it's a car with a significant degree of driver involvement. To that end, nothing has changed; sure, to get the RS 4 dancing, you need to take a lot of liberties with it that probably won't be approved of on public roads, but it will move around notably on the throttle and the brakes, belying the myth that it's some sort of inert, dull grip-monster that can be driven to the max by any driver.
Which is not to dismiss the RS 4's traditional quattro talents. Its high-speed grip levels are indeed immense, so you can thunder through big, open and well-sighted sweepers at speeds that seem like you're in some sort of racing sim where the physics engine doesn't quite work properly; seriously, once you've got the RS 4's outside two tyres loaded up, you can ease on the throttle and it will simply arc around a bend in a devastating display of adhesion, pace and competence. Ditto its supernatural powers of traction, which mean you'll only get understeer coming out of a corner if you're on black ice. Once the car is balanced, which doesn't take a huge amount of effort, this Audi is unbelievably gifted for handling.
OK, so it perhaps lacks the final few degrees of driver interactivity that its phenomenal appearance seems like it should merit, but as an all-weather family chariot that can do everything, it's really hard to fault. And then we come to the ride quality. This is the single biggest improvement to the 2020 model year RS 4 Avant. While the pre-facelift car rode well enough for a high-performance estate, the new one is a step on again, as our test car was on optional 20-inch wheels and it never once crashed, thumped or jiggled its way across a truly appalling array of road surfaces. As a better comparison, on the same event as this RS 4 was driven, there was an RS 7 Sportback available on 22s. Despite the fact the RS 7 is supposed to be the grand tourer of the pair, there's little doubt the RS 4 had the far superior ride quality.
What you get for your money
We can't mark this section as yet, as the 2020 RS 4 Avant has yet to be priced up by Audi Ireland. It's likely it will cost more than the €103,000 base price of the pre-facelift model and there could be high-spec derivatives like the Carbon Black, Vorsprung and possibly also Bronze Edition cars to further push the ticket up. As standard, the RS 4 Avant should get the adaptive RS suspension, LED head- and taillights, 19-inch alloys, climate control, MMI Navigation Plus, Virtual Cockpit, cruise control and dynamic indicators at the least, which might go some way to mitigating its six-figure starting price - but perhaps the better selling point for the RS 4 Avant is that it doesn't really have any direct all-wheel-drive rivals (see below).
The changes wrought to the Audi RS 4 Avant's ride comfort should be enough to tempt you into this wagon, because it's a brilliant, well-sorted machine that can adeptly cover a wide array of different and challenging driving scenarios. It's not cheap to buy and it won't thrill the oversteer heroes, but when the RS 4 looks like it does, goes like it does and sounds like it does, there's precious little to dislike.