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.