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Car reviews - Audi - A4 - RS4 5-dr wagon

Our Opinion

We like
Engine, braking, handling, exclusivity
Room for improvement
Gearshift, suede interior trim, rear passenger accommodation, no spare tyre

Audi logo13 Jul 2001

By TERRY MARTIN

HIGH performance cars are not supposed to be like this. Devastatingly quick, utterly composed - yes. But a station wagon? A practical, convenient carriage of progeny and poodle?

It is both confusing and commendable that the most potent of all Audi A4s should be disguised as a mode of family transportation, one that attracts the confident, not the cavalier ex-altar boys, not boy racers.

But we need not be surprised. The TT aberration aside, Audi has made a habit of understating the potential of its sporting models - and the limited edition RS4 is no exception.

Though the black ink, blistered fenders, 18-inch wheels and bold front bumper leave an impression on the mind, enormous performance still counts for everything.

Peerless in the estate market, the RS4 prompts rival nameplates such as 911 to be regarded, discarded and then returned to, time and again, such is impression it makes both on the blackboard and the blacktop.

Answers lie in the detail. Where the outstanding S4 achieves 195kW from the 2.7-litre 30-valve twin-turbo V6, the RS4 finds a startling 280kW - essentially a result of UK affiliate Cosworth Technology installing bigger turbos and intercoolers, redesigning the cylinder-heads, modifying the inlet and exhaust ports and enlarging the cross-section of each turbo's air ducts at both the intake and thrust side.

The figures make compelling reading. Those 280kW are available from 6100rpm through to the 7000rpm redline 440Nm of torque is on tap between 2500rpm and 6000rpm 0-100km/h is claimed to be reached in 4.9 seconds top speed is a governed 250km/h power-to-weight ratio is an outstanding 173kW per tonne and the driver's heart beat...

Though the kerb weight is a stout 1620kg, the engine ensures superb acceleration from standstill and, perhaps most impressively, loads of pulling power from low engine speeds.

So much torque available right from idle helps make the RS4 simple to drive in town and country alike. The engine is seamless and smooth, surging onward and upward in all gears including sixth - though with just over 2000rpm in the bank at 100km/h, it needs a flick back to fifth if a quick move is called for peak boost doesn't arrive until closer to 3000rpm.

Gear ratios from the six-speed manual gearbox are handsomely matched with the engine, however the shift itself requires the left hand to push through great wads of rubber. The firm clutch pedal also takes getting used to.

The brake pedal, on the other hand, offers good feel and its use reveals an outstanding level of braking performance through the huge, composite-type ventilated disc brakes at each corner. ABS and electronic brake-force distribution (EBD) cap it off.

It's easy to forget that you're driving a station wagon - an unladen one at that - for the combination of quattro permanent four-wheel drive and ESP stability control keeps the RS4 stuck to the road.

Suspended 20mm lower than the standard A4, it shows impressive body control and hangs on for dear life in a corner before descending into understeer at a point that's probably best encountered on Turn One, not the Alpine Way.

The steering is well weighted and sharp, and is the easily the best Audi steering we've experienced, although it does allow some vibration up through to the driver's hands when the front wheels meet a series of bumps mid-corner.

Perhaps surprisingly for a sports-luxury estate, the handling bias comes at the expense of ride quality. Compliance isn't a word that springs (pardon the pun) to mind here and the firm, strongly damped suspension serve to remind the driver exactly where the RS4 lies in Audi's performance car peckingorder.

This is one seriously capably supercar and, consequentially, botoming-out and a poor ride over road typical Aussie road irregularities are niggles RS4 occupants must face.

On the flipside, there is refinement with such raw speed, including relatively muted noise from the low-profile tyres.

A number of details inside the cabin reinforce the fact this is no run-of-the-mill A4.

All seats are of the Recaro species and clothed in a combination of leather and suede, with the front buckets offering reasonable support, heat treatment and electric lumbar support (though no electric fore/aft). Matching suede is also used on the steering wheel and gearknob, though it was worn and unsightly on our 7000km-old test car. One wonders how long the seats will last in pristine condition.

Genuine carbon-fibre inserts are used effectively across the dash and centre console, and the RS4 instrument panel includes a speedometer to 310km/h.

As ever, a large number of controls are presented to the Audi driver, most within easy reach and requiring no great cerebral challenge. The cockpit still lights up like a Las Vegas brothel at night and the 170-watt Bose CD/radio/cassette audio system has the requisite thump we've come to expect.

Of course, the station wagon body style means the RS4 enjoys almost all the benefits of the A4 Avant wagon, including a comfortable load height, a reasonably deep (1030mm) load area, a 60/40 split-fold rear seat, skiport and an integrated, retractable cargo net that creates a barrier between cargo and humans. If used with the split-fold, the vertical net only operates when both sections of the seatback are folded.

There's also an excellent underfloor storage bin that exists because a spare wheel is nowhere to be found. A puncture repair kit is all that's standing between go and tow.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment with the RS4 comes in the lack of rear seat room - in all directions - and the omission of amenities such as cup holders, storage pockets and air-conditioning outlets. A centre armrest made the grade, however, along with the full gamut of passive safety features such as airbags and pretensioning three-point seatbelts.

Add up the vast array of safety, luxury and convenience items - and considering the mechanical genius contained within - and the RS4 launch price of $165,000 seems a fair deal, even when the vast consumption of top-shelf premium unleaded is accounted for.

It's a pricetag and a proposition most Australians couldn't entertain. But the blend of school run and weekend eruption is a concept many of us can, at the very least, relate to.

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