The Audi RS4
he Audi RS4 still has the ability to shock with big performance beneath an unlikely estate body. It's also still relatively good value - for now...
Every Friday night has one; the unassuming bloke who works for HM Revenue and Customs, wears Marks & Spencer shirts and thinks nothing of helping your gran cross busy streets. Yet chuck a couple of Jägermeisters in his direction and he’ll be outside, picking fights with the bouncers.
That’s the Audi RS4. Unassuming from the outset, but hard-as-nails and just a little bit fighty once we’re on first-name terms.
The fact that Greater Manchester Police pulled over for a polite chat when the RS4 was parked up on our photoshoot proves how much stealthy menace it exudes. Glimpse one with an untrained eye and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d just clocked a 1.9 TDI Avant, but the longer we linger the more it looks that this B5-era car is up to no good. The gills up front, the deep front spoiler and the nine-spoke, 18in alloys beneath bulging arches seemingly borrowed from The Incredible Hulk all give the game away; this is definitely an A4 mid-way through an all-nighter. Even the contemporary S4 can’t hold a candle to its slow-burning visual aggression.
It’s much the same story on the inside. Sure, there’s more black leather than the seedier bits of Soho and the thump of a Bose stereo – all 170 watts of it – to revel in but the rest of the cabin has all the flair and excitement of a German railway timetable. Same with the three-spoke steering wheel and perfectly positioned switches on the centre console – it's all very buttoned down. But then you notice the slivers of carbonfibre trim along the dashboard and around the gearlever, and the tiny ‘RS’ badge on the steering wheel.
Oh, and a speedo that’s calibrated for anything up to 200mph – despite the RS4 being officially limited by the gentlemen’s agreement in supersaloon land that it mustn’t do one jot beyond 155mph. Not that this Audi cares, because it has form for misbehaviour when it comes to outright oomph.
When it was launched in 2000 Audi’s engineers discovered that the RS4 prototypes could happily crack a 911-troubling 179mph around the Nardo high-speed bowl in Italy, while the press test cars would easily blast past 170. On a good day it’ll pound the Nordschleife in eight minutes and 10 seconds, putting it on par with a Lamborghini Diablo. Make no mistake; beneath the IKEA-friendly body is a seriously quick performance hero.
Not that we sense much of it from the outset. Settle into the plump Recaros and flick the key and there’s a muted rumble as the 2.7-litre V6 bursts into life, but at real- world speeds it feels more Clark Kent than Superman, masking its depth of ability with a relaxed driving position and a smooth, quiet power delivery. The only giveaways are the unforgiving thumps if we trouble it with speed bumps and potholes – it feels like the multi-link coil suspension is set up for fast lap times not comfy commutes.
But then the moment comes when youslot the six-speed gearbox, with its long but precise throw, down a cog and plant a forceful boot into the footwell. There’s a second or so when you can sense the V6 contemplating what you’ve asked it do and it glides forth gently – but the twin turbos kick in and overrule all. There’s an urgent bellow from up front as a 375bhp monster lunges free from its shackles, interrupted only briefly by the sound of the wastegates as they chatter excitedly. Within five seconds you’re shooting past 60mph.
With a power-to-weight ratio of 236bhp per tonne – on par with a BMW M Coupé and more than a Porsche 911 Carrera (996) or Honda NSX can muster – it’s clear the RS4 is an estate that can square up to far more obvious performance cars and deliver a decisive punch, but through the corners it’s a rather different story.
Boot a TVR or a 911 at the wrong point on a winding stretch of greasy asphalt and you’ll be reining in oversteer in the former, and at the very least contending with traction control riding to the rescue in the latter. But deploy the considerable oomph at the RS4’s disposal and there’s something reassuringly ordinary about it.
The chunky Pirelli P Zeros at each corner team up magnificently with the traction control and the Quattro all-wheel-drive system, working out between them the best way of keeping the four rings on the radiator grille pointing in the right direction.
The result of all this technology is a package that handles with more neutrality than a Swiss peace conference, and – if you really push it – a gentle hint of understeer to let you know that you really are exploring the boundaries of its considerable grip. All the while the steering is sending you live updates about what’s happening at ground level, but it isn’t goading us to go ever faster – the engine is more than capable of doing that all on its own.
It’s fast in a considered, calculated way that rewards you cerebrally rather than through the seat of your pants. No, it isn’t as raw and exciting as something low-slung and rear-wheel drive, but we’ll still be grinning long after a rear-drive hero's been introduced to a hedge.
It’s territory Audi has tackled before, of course. The RS2 of the mid-1990s is a Modern Classics favourite because it takes the formula of endowing estate car familiarity with supercar-troubling wallop. Seven years earlier the RS2 was shocking because putting so much performance into a shape associated with antique dealers and Labradors was unprecedented. Even Volvo’s 850 T5-R didn’t come close.
But by the RS4 B5's 1999 launch we were used to the idea of slingshot estates that could swallow bookshelves and do silly speeds. Mercedes had introduced a load-lugging version of its E55 AMG, Volvo’s V70 T5R was available with four-wheel drive and Audi’s own S4 and S6 could be ordered in Avant form. Audi needed to up the stakes – so it repeated the trick it pulled off with the RS2 and roped in some outside help.
Keen students of Audi’s original estate hero will know Ingolstadt paired up with Porsche to pull off the RS2. It wasn’t just the Carrera Cup alloys, 911 brake calipers and Stuttgart-sourced door mirrors that made the original a hit – 315bhp from the blown five-pot is as much Porsche’s work as it Audi’s. In the spirit of all good sequels, Audi replayed the same basic plot with a different character – Cosworth, which the Volkswagen Automotive Group had recently acquired.
The Brit tuning heroes transformed the S4’s 265bhp V6 – itself no slouch – into a high-tech slab of aggression, adding twin Garrett KKK turbochargers and free-flow intercoolers, and improving the intake and exhaust flow in the five-valve cylinder heads. The upshot is 325lb ft of torque and 142bhp per litre – comfortably enough to eclipse BMW’s E46-generation M3. And as all that torque comes in so early, you can use the 325lb ft more often.
It’s just a shame that Cosworth’s role is reduced to an uncredited cameo in the finished product – you’ll spot Quattro labels in the cabin and on theengine cover, but no mention of the name behind a generation of fast Fords. Perhaps slapping the C-word across the RS4’s rump would have given the stealthy performance game away.
Uncredited or not, the result of Cosworth’s contributions is acceleration that pins you back into the driver’s seat. And if you need to call on the stoppers? The RS4 is anchored by vented discs bigger than a Ferrari 550 Maranello’s.
The brilliance of the unlikely bodyshell and the phenomenal grip is that it is performance you can genuinely use and enjoy every day – well, until you discover points (ahem) definitely don't make prizes.
Cruise to the offices in it and it’s just as unintimidating and easygoing as any other A4, once you’ve grown accustomed to the harder ride over unforgiving surfaces. It’s a doddle to manoeuvre and see out of, and there are no ground-hugging snouts or overly flared arches to trouble street furniture. It is, truth be told, a bit boringly unassuming in the real world.
But that’s its genius, because deep down you know it’s just rooting to give all those sports car upstarts a damn good hiding. Just make sure you let the bouncers know before it all kicks off.
The drive leaves no doubt that the RS4 is a fully fledged – and delightfully understated – performance hero. It brings the best of Quattro and Cosworth together in a devastatingly effective package, can crack far more than its nominal 155mph limit suggests, and it is practical enough to take on a family weekend away.
It is a deserving inheritor of the RS2’s legacy, and the good news is that there’s also a network of specialists who understand its technology and can help you run, maintain and enjoy one on a regular basis.
The RS4’s blend of grip and gutsy performance – and unlikely practicality – make it the perfect Modern Classic. Here’s why you should buy one now, before everyone else cottons on…
Modern Classics' view
If you judge your cars on how much instant street cred they’ll earn you then the RS4 isn’t for you. Its appeal is entirely down to the engineering beneath the unlikely estate packaging – and for that we love it.
So few of its visual details let on that it’s anything other than a dowdy Audi with some big alloys. But sample it from 2500rpm upwards, when the twin turbos really wake up and transform the 2.7-litre V6 into a BMW-bating powerhouse and it really is a grin-inducingly good bit of kit.
The RS4 has all the qualities we love in the RS2, just with added power that’ll give more obvious performance icons a bloody nose when most of their drivers won’t be expecting it. And how many other 375bhp twin-turbo offerings can happily carry three of your mates, some luggage and a small cupboard at 155mph?
The RS4 makes us smile because hardly anyone outside our petrolhead realm realises what a superb all-rounder it is, but it won’t stay like that forever.
You have been warned.
We only have to look a little further up the Audi family tree to work out which way RS4 values are likely to head. While the RS2 is a rarer beast than the RS4 – with just 71 left on the UK’s roads – it offers a similar blend of sublime performance with estate car practicality and tuning knowhow behind it (albeit Porsche’s rather than Cosworth's).
Top-flight examples of those are now changing hands for about £30,000, and it isn’t hard to see the B5-generation RS4s heading the same way, thanks to rarity compared with BMW’s E46-generation M3.
Says Martin Adams of Audi specialist Unit 20. ‘You can still pick up usable projects for less than £10k, good ones for £12-13k and really nice examples for upwards of £20k, but they’re definitely going upwards. Rare colours like Imola Yellow attract a premium too.’
While we have seen RS4s in exceptional condition being advertised for upwards of £20k, the mid-teens is where to pitch your aspirations.
Not bad for a 375bhp twin-turbo estate car engineered by Cosworth – and we reckon the wider market is going to pick up on it. We wouldn’t hang around if you’re thinking of buying one.