2021 Audi RS6 Avant First Drive Review: Truly a Super Wagon

Audi is finally sending the U.S. a souped-up station wagon. We’ll take it.

Mike FloydWriterThe ManufacturerPhotographer

MALIBU, California—As we step on it coming out of an apex, the wagon we're driving unleashes a baritone exhaust note from its twin-turbo 4.0-liter V-8 that bellows across the canyons. Then we mash the binders into another hairy hairpin along a delightful stretch of narrow, twisted roads in the Malibu hills, the Pirelli rubber registering its protests. This is a big, imposing, and yet extremely capable vehicle, an auto enthusiast's fever dream come true. This is the 2021 Audi RS6 Avant, a hot-rod wagon for a new era—everyone rejoice and sing hallelujah, because the RS6 Avant is coming to America next year.

The rise and fall of the station wagon has been well documented, with the crossover all but erasing what at one time had been a dominant segment of the U.S. market. All the while, those in the know have been pining for wagons like the RS6 Avant, a vehicle whose lineage has tormented us from across the pond since the launch of the RS2 Avant (a joint project with Porsche) way back in 1994. But the one we really wanted but couldn't have was the second-generation RS6 Avant, a monster machine powered by a twin-turbo V-10 which made it the most powerful Audi of its day. That it didn't come here was just plain criminal. (We did get the sedan, but still.)

Officials at Audi have been more than aware of the hue and cry to offer more Audi RS models in America, and through its revamped Audi Sport division, a plan has been developed to do just that as part of a global RS push. No one at Audi is under any illusions that the RS6 Avant is going to be a volume seller and heavily impact the bottom line, but the four-ringed halo it imparts should more than offset any financial concerns.

Indeed, we've been told there has been rabid excitement from prospective buyers so far. And after our Malibu canyon fun runs, we can now unquestionably say they have every right to be jacked up. The 2020 RS6 Avant is a thoroughly modern super wagon, one that employs Audi's latest technological and styling advancements and enhancements to great effect.

Like any performance vehicle, it all starts under the hood. Audi's 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8 isn't a new engine, but it's been massaged for the latest RS models, including the RS Q8 and RS7. Pumping out an estimated 591 horsepower and 590 lb-ft of torque—Audi says the numbers haven't been finalized—the updated engine now features cylinder-deactivation technology. Audi's 48-volt mild-hybrid system has also been added to the mix with a belt-driven motor generator and a small lithium-ion battery that helps optimize the stop-start system operation (it works okay, but we turned it off ASAP) and aids in recuperating braking energy.

That's all well and good, but we were far more interested in how quickly the RS6 Avant fires out of the gate, with Audi saying it can launch to 60 mph in as little as 3.4 seconds when you engage its launch-control feature. You better believe we engaged it, and whoa, does it move its 4,575 pounds with authority. Top speed is as much as 190 mph with the Dynamic Plus package, or 155 mph in base form. The engine is backed by an eight-speed automatic that can rudely romp through the gears when called upon, or it can smoothly shift them away from a stoplight during those times when you're, say, carrying your mother-in-law in the back seat.

Most of the gee-whiz new tech for the RS6 Avant centers around how it amplifies performance through its numerous ride-and-handling systems. (So much dynamism and technik!) The core suspension components consist of newly updated five-link front and rear setups, but it's the standard RS adaptive air suspension and all-wheel-steering systems that get top billing, and rightfully so. The air suspension has been stiffened considerably over the similar setup in the A6 Avant, with a 50 percent increase in its damper tautness at a baseline level. But that doesn't mean 50 percent more harshness. On the contrary, when we were rolling along harmlessly along on the Pacific Coast Highway with everything set in Comfort mode, the RS6 Avant soaked up road imperfections without delivering any rude jolts, and it automatically adjusts the ride height up to 0.8 inch when it detects rough pavement. It also self-levels and can lower itself 0.4 inch at speeds above 74 mph.

When we were out in the canyons, we dialed everything up and got after it. One of the new RS features is the addition of an button—labeled RS, because of course—that allows you to preprogram multiple vehicle functions (engine and transmission management, steering, suspension, all-wheel steering, Quattro sport differential, engine sound) to your liking. Once you have your favorite setup dialed in, a push of the button will load your preferences. It's similar in scope to the BMW M buttons on the new M generation cars.

Audi's dynamic all-wheel steering is one of the other signature RS features. At its core, Audi employs a rear-steer system similar to other offerings on the market, with the rear wheels either tracking with the fronts at higher velocities to improve stability or getting out of phase a few degrees at lower speeds to decrease the turning radius. "Dynamic" all-wheel steering goes a step further by allowing the steering angle of the front and rear wheels to be adjusted independently, with an overall steering ratio that can vary from 9.5:1 to 17.0:1 depending on the driving situation. Add in the optional Quattro sport differential, and it makes for a potent handling package.

What all these systems do in a practical sense is to make a big car feel smaller than it is when you're really hustling. It pulls you in artfully when you've entered a tight right hander perhaps a bit too hot (ask me how I know), and it transitions easily when you're sawing left and right, with very little pitch or roll.

To make your choice even more difficult, Audi will also offer its Dynamic Ride Control (DRC) system for the RS6 Avant as an option, which switches out the air suspension for a hydraulic setup with steel springs and three-way adjustable dampers. DRC is said to be more responsive to pitch and roll angles than the air suspension, with a central valve that controls oil flow diagonally to the dampers in order to flatten out the car under hard cornering. We had a chance to sample a DRC-equipped car on the same route as the air-spring-equipped model, and honestly, it was difficult to tell any discernable difference other than the DRC car felt a smidge stiffer as a whole. For their part, Audi engineers on hand though made it clear that if you're going to wheel the hell out of your Avant, get a DRC-equipped model. Otherwise, stay with the air springs.

One box you're definitely going to want to check for the RS6 Avant is the aforementioned Dynamic Plus package, which will also net you the all-new RS ceramic brake system. Measuring 17.3 inches in diameter up front, these are some monstrous discs, and they're clamped by 10-piston calipers. (The discs are 14.6 inchers at the back.) They bite a bit when you first get into them, but then they progressively haul the RS6 down with controlled aggression. They're also some 75 pounds lighter than the steel units, which themselves are huge and hugely capable with 16.5-inch discs up front. The brakes took a proper beating as we repeatedly stomped hard on them into slow curves, and they flat-out refused to fade or exhibit any other disconcerting behavior. They're without question one of the RS6 Avant's standout features.

Then there's the RS6 Avant's strongest selling point: It's a wagon, duh! While there are RS models similar in scope and componentry to the Avant (see: the aforementioned RS7 and RS Q8), its form and function are a rare sight, with the Mercedes-AMG E63 S wagon and Porsche Panamera Sport Turismo being the only other vehicles in its stratosphere. We'd say the Avant is the looker of the trio, especially with the special, optional 22-inch wheels (it comes with 21s standard). It simply has presence with a capital P, with a low, wide stance; a mean-looking, angular mug with LED lighting (Audi's Matrix LED units with laser light are available); widebody-look fenders; rear roof spoiler; and huge exhaust outlets. All that makes it stand out, but not in a boy-racer way—there's more of an elegance and sculpted-beast refinement to its look. It's also functional as a good wagon should be, with 59 cubic feet of cargo space with the 40/20/40-split rear seatback folded down.

Inside, luxury appointments abound, including a newly updated Virtual Cockpit, an optional head-up display, and Audi's new MMI touch infotainment system, which deploys two high-definitions screens in the center stack that control vehicle features and show interesting graphics such as whether key vehicle systems are overheating or otherwise out of sync. If you're a fan of buttons, then you're probably not going to dig this setup, which is a pinch, zoom, and haptic-feedback capacitive approach. What you will dig are the RS6 Avant's right-sized steering wheel and sport seats that you can option with perforated Valcona leather and RS-signature honeycomb pattern with RS embossing. The cars we were driving were European spec RS6 Avants with no sunroof option, but all U.S.-market cars will come with a panoramic glass lid as standard kit. Alcantara, metal, wood, and leather accents are standard or available, with a base red or gray color scheme.

Safety technologies and other active and passive assist features are part and parcel of any new car these days, especially one in the RS6 Avant's stratosphere. This one doesn't disappoint in that regard, with more than 30 available systems depending on the package. Among the highlights: Adaptive cruise assist helps keep you in the lane when adaptive cruise is enabled; Audi's basic, front, and rear pre-sense; front and rear cross-traffic assist; and emergency assist that detects when the driver is drowsy.

The 2020 Audi RS6 Avant isn't going to singlehandedly make wagons great again—or more specifically, popular again—but it's a great one. And one that enthusiasts of a certain means will no doubt enjoy, especially when they have a canyon road handy.

2021 Audi RS6 Avant Specifications
ON SALE Spring 2020
BASE PRICE $115,000 (est)
ENGINE 4.0L twin-turbo DOHC 32-valve V-8; 591 hp @ 6,000-6,250 rpm, 590 lb-ft @ 2,050-4,500 rpm
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD wagon
EPA MILEAGE 17/25 mpg (city/hwy, est)
L x W x H 184.8 x 72.0 x 57.6 in
WHEELBASE 115.3 in
WEIGHT 4,575 lb
0-60 MPH
3.4 sec (est)
TOP SPEED
155/190 mph (base/Dynamic Plus)