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.