There's no sense in holding out. The truth is so important, it needs to see daylight right here and now: The 2006 RS4 is the purest driver's car from Audi in the past two decades. Although Audis have always been sporty machines, the company's reputation for harder-edged performance dates back to the 1982-86 Coupe Quattro. That car used the first iteration of Audi's Quattro all-wheel-drive system and housed a 160-hp turbo five-cylinder under its long hood. The flared-fender coupe was underpowered and expensive ($35,000) in U.S. trim, but it was nothing short of iconic. It was astonishingly easy to drive fast in the dry, and its wet-road grip bordered on the sublime. Between 1982 and 1984, Audi Quattros effectively dominated the World Rally Championship. They also single-handedly ended the two-wheel-drive rally-car era.
What was most important about the Coupe Quattro, though, was its on-the-street personality. Talkative steering and forgiving handling made the car fun and tossable and helped it belie its 3115-pound weight. Although only 664 examples were sold in the United States over four years, the Quattro revolutionized Audi's thinking about road cars. Every important production Audi since has had some form of all-wheel drive.
Unfortunately, the most significant quality Audi took away from the original Quattro experience wasn't that car's chuckable, telegraphic nature but its easy, all-weather speed. Subsequent high-performance Audis grew ever faster and more refined, but they moved away from the Quattro's unique combination of grip, character, and raw soul. For nearly all Audis that followed, low relative weight and nimble reactions were sacrificed to the gods of luxury, refined manners, and all-weather surefootedness. And although Audi's S cars--the S4, S6, and S8--have always been as capable as their rear-wheel-drive competition, they've also been missing something.
Somewhere, deep within Audi's research and development department, there is a team of engineers who know this to be true. And it drives them freaking nuts.
But in the early '90s, somebody--or a team of somebodies--in Ingolstadt convinced the accounting wonks to bankroll a line of hard-core models above the S status quo. This could not have been an easy argument for them to make. After all, the standard cars turn a decent profit, and there's no justifiable, black-ink need to build derivatives whose entire production runs never crack five digits.
But that argument was made, and it was successful. The 315-hp RS2 Avant was the first RS model to see production, in 1994; the 380-hp RS4 Avant followed five years later. Both were heavy, turbocharged, all-wheel-drive wagons. Although neither car came here, they obliterated Audi's sales estimates. Sticking a toe in the water, Audi brought the next RS model across the Atlantic in 2002.
That car, the 450-hp, S6-based RS6, wasn't exactly a dynamic success. Like most fast factory Audis, it had huge turbo power, monstrous torque, and a chassis somewhat at odds with itself. Respectable sales, however, firmly established America as a worthwhile RS market. And so, two years after the RS6 left showrooms, we've been given yet another RS car: the $68,820, S4-based RS4.
Among the RS4's key ingredients: A normally aspirated, 8250-rpm, 420-hp V-8 that shares only water and steering pumps with the S4's V-8. One horsepower for every 9.4 pounds. Ninety percent of maximum torque available from 2250 to 7600 rpm. A six-speed manual as the sole transmission. A far stiffer suspension than the S4's. And a lap time around the old Nrburgring that hovers just above eight minutes.
With those numbers, we figured two outcomes were possible. The RS4 would be either a finely honed tool, a well-balanced treat, and proof that the four-rings crowd still remembered the almighty Quattro--or it would be an unholy, undrivable, fast-lapping mess.
It is not an unholy, undrivable, fast-lapping mess.
The sound of the V-8 is the first thing that gets you. To be honest, it's a little wheezy and strange when you first turn the key. Fuel-pump whir mixes with valvetrain clatter, fan whoosh, and some oddball background noise that vaguely reminds you of supercharger whine. Blip the throttle a couple of times, though, and it suddenly makes sense: the RS4's engine sounds funny because it sounds mechanical. In an age when most machines have been muted and muffled and beaten into legislated docility, the RS4's V-8 sounds, if not perfect, then at least very, very real.
Visually, the RS4 still resembles an A4, although the two cars share only their roof panels and front doors. Standard brushed-aluminum trim is tastefully laid over the grille surround, window frames, and mirror housings, just like it was on the old RS6. Softly flared fenders, an angry-looking air dam, and a cool little ducktail spoiler complete things. The nine-inch-wide, nineteen-inch wheels and the gigantic oval tailpipes appear on no other Audi. RS4-embossed, heavily bolstered sport seats fill the interior, along with optional no-cost carbon-fiber trim. Red needles pepper the blacked-out gauge cluster, where the 4.2-liter V-8's rev counter goes to 9000.
That 32-valve, 317-lb-ft mill is a pretty big philosophical departure for Audi. While almost all previous high-powered Audis have been turbocharged, the RS4's powerplant makes do without forced induction. Therefore, it's much more highly strung than any other Audi. Direct fuel injection and a 12.5:1 compression ratio help facilitate a lofty 7800-rpm power peak; at 8000 rpm, average piston speeds hover at about 82 feet per second. (For reference, Formula 1 pistons average 82 feet per second but peak at about 130.)
The RS4's all-wheel-drive system also departs from tradition. Standard Quattro practice usually favors a 50/50 front/rear torque split, but here, a 40/60 split is meant to grant the Audi more Mercedes- and BMW-fighting ammunition. A new version of the S4's Torsen center differential also allows up to 100 percent of the engine's torque to go to either axle if needed. The end goal, Audi claims, was to marry the chassis balance and steering feel of a rear-wheel-drive car with the grip and idiot-proof nature of all-wheel drive.
That's all well and good, but it doesn't change the fact that the V-8's noise keeps blowing your mind. Although vaguely fussy and sewing-machine-like at idle, it turns into a deep-throated growl in the middle rev ranges and a muted howl past six grand. That's before you hit the little S button on the dash. Tap it, and a valve opens in each side of the twin-pipe exhaust, engaging freer-flowing muffler chambers. What was a subdued, guttural thrumming suddenly becomes a glorious crescendo. It sounds like an angry, drunken bear being shot from a cannon.
That brain-warping noise isn't a false pretense. As you'd expect, the RS4 is by no means slow--60 mph comes up in 4.8 seconds--and yet, it never delivers that insane, punchy rush of fast Audis past. What it does serve up is the innately more defined, linear, and lag-free powerband of an old-school, small-block sports car. Although low-end grunt is brawny and a through-the-roof redline run can make your toes curl, the V-8's most impressive quality is midrange torque. Lazy, three-grand shove comes cheap and easy all day long, even though the RS4 is just as happy ripping its tach needle off the post.
Like most Audis, the RS4 isn't superlight. Nor is it superbly balanced. Weight distribution is a less-than-ideal 58/42 percent front/rear, even though the engineers made several concessions for lightness and for reduced front-tire load. The battery is mounted in the trunk; the hood, front fenders, and most of the V-8 are aluminum; and the no-cost sunroof-delete option knocks off fifty pounds while adding headroom. The curb weight checks in at 3957 pounds--88 pounds heavier than the S4 and 542 pounds heavier than a BMW M3.
Surprisingly, that weight isn't as much of an issue as you would think. The stiff spring rates, the almost comically overcapable brakes (borrowed from the Lamborghini Gallardo), and the sharply focused dampers go a long way toward concealing the effects of the Audi's heft. Unlike the S4 and the S6, the RS4 doesn't plow indifferently into understeer when you push it or go wheel-numb when you start to dial in throttle under load. You can tell there's a lot of weight being tossed around, but it's never at the front of your mind. The rack-and-pinion steering is obviously muddied by that big, heavy engine perched ahead of the front axle, but it's also more direct, linear, and communicative than any Audi in recent memory. The harder you push the RS4, the more it tells you.
Plop down the RS4 on a track and, suddenly, what worked well on the street begins working even better. As on the street, mild understeer dominates, and it can be made worse if you're hamfisted with the wheel. Unlike in most Audis, however, the front-end push can be tamed with the throttle. If you turn off the high-threshold traction and stability control, you can rotate the back end under power--but only until the Torsen diff starts diverting torque to the front wheels. At that point, the chassis gently pulls itself back in line, you start to cackle, and the endless forward thrust continues. There's an almost-too-calm, might-get-you-lulled-into-trouble stability at the absolute limit, but the chassis balance is nevertheless intuitive and forgiving.
That's not to say that everything is hearts and flowers behind the wheel. As is the case with almost all Audis, ride quality isn't perfect; single-minded dampers give the RS4 excellent wheel control, but it gets tiring over rough roads and expansion joints. The steering is underboosted, it isn't as crystal clear and unadulterated as you would find in the best rear-wheel-drive sport sedans, and it remains somewhat vague at around-town speeds. The RS4-specific sport seats are supportive and stiffly padded but nevertheless become uncomfortable after extended freeway driving. And while that S button instantly turns everything into magic ear candy, it also switches on a more aggressive throttle calibration that makes smoothness difficult.
So, yes, Audi's new whiz-bang rocket ship isn't perfect. That's part of its charm. You're willing to write off its faults as the price of such asinine, iconic fun. Tear down a winding road, with pavement ripping into pieces under your right foot, and all is forgiven. The RS4 is Audi taking chances. It's special. It has soul.
The best part, though, is that the RS4 is still an Audi: It's an incredibly efficient tool for serious, controlled speed. And that's the key. The RS4 may be the evolution of the original Quattro, but more important, it's what we've always hoped every great Audi would be--flaws and all. Just when we thought the Ingolstadt crowd had gone soft, the RS4 reminds us that, once, even pedestrian Audis weren't just about cold, precise mobility. They were about driving.