In recent years, Audi has become synonymous with terms like "luxury" and "refinement" and less so with "edgy" and "sporty." But with the arrival in mid-2006 of the second-generation RS4, Audi created a high- performance driver's car that competes with and, in many ways, betters the best of the breed.
The competent and well-rounded A4 provided Audi engineers with an excellent starting point for the RS4. Visually, the two cars are clearly related yet distinct. The RS4 is slightly lower and wider than its sibling, and its exterior styling tweaks are for function, not just for show. Larger air intakes feed the 4.2-liter, direct-injected V-8, while slightly pumped-up bumpers and flared wheel arches accommodate the standard nineteen-inch rubber. There's also a small, integrated rear spoiler. Maybe it was our test car's sprint blue paint - a $750 option - but despite its tastefully modest cosmetic changes, our RS4, as one staffer noted, "gets everyone's attention, from schoolkids to grizzled old geezers." We all agreed with road test editor Marc Noordeloos, who loved the "aggressive but subtle exterior."
The RS4's interior also features a nice balance of sports car styling cues and simple, straightforward - if a bit plain - design. Naturally, it has the superb fit and finish that we expect in a modern Audi. The perforated leather on the steering wheel and the shifter, along with the red backlighting on the dash and the console, in particular, drew compliments. One driver described the cabin as "very German and orderly. You don't have to think too hard to operate anything." The fact that Audi eschews a start button for a traditional key says a lot about the overall feel of the RS4's interior: uncomplicated, in a "we want you to focus on driving" kind of way. We especially liked the steering-wheel-mounted thumb-wheel that controls the stereo volume. "It's so much better to use than the up-and-down buttons found in most cars," commented persnickety senior online editor Jason Cammisa. A loose shift knob was one of our few problems, but it was more a nuisance than anything else and was fixed under warranty.
The heavily bolstered, leather Recaro seats were loved by drivers and passengers alike, no matter their size. The chairs provided excellent support and made light work of long drives. Executive editor Joe DeMatio also praised the seating position, calling it "just right." Senior editor Joe Lorio concurred, adding, "The car seems wrapped around you, like a brand-new pair of running shoes." Most drivers agreed that the RS4 felt as if it were fitted to their frames.
On a family road trip, Noordeloos was impressed with the RS4's interior space and relatively massive trunk. "The RS4 easily accommodated me, my wife, my daughter, and enough gear to fill a small SUV." Another staff member - who will not be named for his protection - declared that the Audi's trunk could have fit "several dead guys in addition to our luggage." Compared with a BMW 3-series, the Audi felt bigger in nearly every way.
What sets the RS4 apart from lesser A4s, of course, is what's under its hood. In this regard, the Audi was highly praised. Its high-revving, normally aspirated V-8 engine accelerates like the Energizer bunny: it keeps going and going and going. The acceleration is so linear and consistent that it feels as if the Audi is strapped to a jet at takeoff. As Lorio put it, "if you're not wide awake when you climb into the RS4, the first time you lay into the throttle, you will be." The absurdly wide torque band - 90 percent of maximum torque is maintained consistently from 2250 to 7600 rpm - makes downshifting nearly unnecessary, even during passing maneuvers. This effortless acceleration belies the RS4's considerable mass - a pinch under 4000 pounds - as do the robust brakes, which were borrowed from the Lamborghini Gallardo. The downside to this endless power and the massive weight is pretty dismal fuel economy: we averaged only 17 mpg over the course of a year.
The sound of the RS4's compact V-8, on the other hand, received mixed reactions. Logbook comments ranged from "sweet Jesus, this car sounds so awesome" to "it sounds like a thundercloud . . . and that's not really a good thing." Although the majority of us liked the sound track, a vocal contingent, led by Cammisa, thought that it needed much more exhaust fanfare to compete with the RS4's characteristic underhood whine.
Cammisa was so irked by the whine that he lobbied successfully to get an aftermarket Milltek exhaust installed (compliments of Stratmosphere, Inc.). The new exhaust wasn't universally loved or hated, but most people agreed that it was too boomy and just plain loud, especially at low rpm. Then again, technical editor and resident curmudgeon Don Sherman, who initially had been critical of what he perceived as the RS4's lack of character, thought that the stainless exhaust gave the RS4's "introverted personality a nudge." In retrospect, though, we probably ought to have chosen the resonated version of the Milltek system, which would have quieted things down a notch without losing the aggressive exhaust note.
The Audi's steering was quite good - light, direct, and communicative - but, as copy editor Rusty Blackwell put it, it was "not up to BMW standards." Also, the gearbox could have used slightly more positive and direct shift linkage.
Our feelings about the RS4's chassis were unanimous: we loved it. The terms "perfect" and "near-impeccable" popped up repeatedly when testers described the firm but never harsh ride. "The RS4 has a balance of damping, wheel travel, and body control that is rarely achieved by any manufacturer in a car at this performance level," enthused Noordeloos. "Despite nineteen-inch wheels, the ride quality almost makes the 3-series feel like a truck."
Smitten we were. More than a couple of staff members complimented the RS4's combination of a superb powerplant, brilliant dynamics, Quattro all-wheel drive, an impressive interior, and everyday livability while declaring that no other vehicle is as sure-footed or comes close to matching the RS4 as a high-performance, all-around, all-weather four-seater. Although, with a base price of $68,820, it doesn't come cheap.
In the final entry in our Four Seasons logbook, motor gopher Tom Baroch expressed his affection for the bright blue Audi, and in doing so, spoke for the entire staff. "It's not very often that we get emotional about a long-term car leaving, but the RS4's departure brings a tear to the motor gopher department's eye. I am really going to miss this car."
We couldn't agree more.
The RS4 is the second Audi RS model to come to the United States; the first was the 450-hp, twin-turbo V-8 RS6, which was imported for 2003 only. The RS4 is also Audi's first normally aspirated RS model. The rev-happy RS4 traces its roots back to 1994, when Audi introduced its RS line via a collaboration with Porsche. Audi sent its 80 wagon (the predecessor to the A4) to Porsche, which installed a 311-hp, 2.2-liter turbocharged five-cylinder engine and 911-style brakes, wheels, and side mirrors. The result was a 163-mph grocery getter, the Audi RS2.
For its next RS model, Audi introduced the RS4 badge on a version of the first-generation A4 wagon. This time, Audi chose the British firm Cosworth rather than Porsche for the project, not that it much mattered, as the RS4 was another rocket ship. Its twin-turbo, 2.7-liter V-6 developed 375 hp and 325 lb-ft of torque, enough to launch the RS4 to 60 mph in less than five seconds and on to 124 mph in just seventeen seconds. The original RS4 doesn't have the RS2's cult following in Europe, but it set the stage for the second-generation RS4, the one that we've enjoyed since 2006 in the United States.