Europe's Fastest Wagons: Audi RS4, BMW M5, and Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG

Chris Harris
Barry Hayden

Then, last year, along came the latest RS4 Avant. I suspect this is the car that forced BMW to reconsider its BWS (Ballistic Wagon Strategy) and get things moving for the current M5. Here's an Audi that retains all of its dependable Audi-ness but has been ramped up with a 4.2-liter V-8 that twirls beyond 8000 rpm, a steering rack willing to communicate with the driver, and the option of ceramic composite brakes. Audi might as well have called it the "What M3?" for the manner in which the RS4 has undermined sales of the BMW and forced a rethink on the general subject of Audi dynamics. Boz, who has spent the past seven months in the back of my RS4 Avant, admires the car's secondary ride and unbeatable all-weather performance.

But if 420 hp sounds lively for a wagon, there is still more ridiculousness around the corner. As you will know, Mercedes didn't feel it had stretched the boundaries of common sense quite far enough with the supercharged E55's 469 hp, so it roused AMG's lunatic department and issued orders to have that car's weakling powerplant replaced by a normally aspirated, 6208-cc V-8 that produces 507 hp. Even Boz's ears lower perceptibly at the thought of the E63 on full afterburner.

The reason for this story, however, is the new M5. If the RS4 and the E63 bring their own unique talents to the table in the form of four-wheel drive (Audi) and a slick autobox (Mercedes), then the M5 wagon sits somewhere in between. American customers won't be offered this practical beastie; instead, they must make do with the 535xi. But they were sensible enough to inform BMW that the new M5 sedan's SMG transmission spoiled an otherwise excellent machine, and the company has acknowledged this by wedging a six-speed stick into the old girl. And then dictated that the stability control must remain on at all times. Heigh-ho, Americans get the proper gearbox, Europeans get the wagon. All is fair in love and global model structures.

So, this car has an SMG--a paddle-shifted, hydraulically actuated seven-speed manual, or whatever else you want to call it. I tend to call it rubbish, but let's not prejudge this newest application. The wagon has the identical 500 hp as the sedan, and its body is unchanged, aside from the wagon parts. But there is some funniness going on underneath the rear axle: a cross brace sits underneath the differential, and the exhausts run under it. The result is that they're very low indeed, low enough to snag on stuff. We shall see if this poses a problem.

Any sensible assessment of practical, versatile family wagons should of course begin with some kind of customer clinic. So we headed straight to a test track. Despite my best attempts to persuade security that Boz was an integral part of this process and that his doglike appearance shouldn't detract from his skill base, they enforced the "no quadrupeds on site" clause. Whereupon Boz was tied to a tree adjacent to the security men's vehicle--which I saw him lightly sprinkle as we headed to the mile-long straight.

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