Jump forward nearly 20 years and the subtle yet racy styling that helped the RS2 gain cult status is still a big part of Audi’s fast estates. And the new RS4 is one of the best yet.
At the rear, twin oval exhausts hint at the potential of the 4.2-litre normally aspirated V8 – and this engine is the star of the show.
It doesn’t have the torque of the C63, but it’s gutsy and high-revving, with a relentless wave of power building through the rev range all the way to the 8,500rpm red line.
Peak power is at 8,250rpm – the Mercedes peaks at 6,800rpm – but even though it has 170Nm less torque than the C63, at 430Nm, the Audi is fearsomely fast and very flexible.
Pile on the revs, and you can savour the incredible sound, but in truth there’s so much performance on tap, you’ll rarely have space on the road to trouble the V8’s upper reaches. It’s best to save the full-rev experience for the lower gears if you value your licence.
With a test track at your disposal, you can enjoy the RS4’s explosive performance to the full. The combination of launch control and quattro all-wheel-drive traction gives neck-snapping acceleration off the line, but if you study our performance figures, it’s clear how closely Audi benchmarked the RS4 to the C63.
Both cars weigh 1,795kg and cover 0-60mph in 4.4 seconds. Only in our in-gear test was there any real difference – and even then the Audi was ahead by a mere nine-tenths when accelerating from 50-70mph in sixth, posting a time of seven seconds flat. But neither model feels anything other than scorchingly fast.
The RS4’s dual-clutch transmission is a joy, with every change fast and effortlessly smooth. As you shift up through it, there’s a lovely warble from the exhaust, while every downchange is accompanied by a throaty bark, as the automated throttle blip helps the next ratio slot crisply home.
Clever quattro and sport differential technology allows the RS4 to divide power front to rear and distribute it across the axles in search of grip. So the new car is predictably surefooted and never feels anything other than planted on the road. It doesn’t respond quite as quickly as the edgier C63, but with taut body control, massive reserves of grip and strong brakes, it’s effortlessly capable.
The electric steering feels a little artificial, although the standard Drive Select system lets you fine-tune the weighting, along with the throttle response and speed of the gearshifts – although the sportier settings don’t improve feel. And while you can take the tech tally even further, with optional carbon brakes, adaptive dampers and dynamic steering, the complexity of the Audi is already a bit overwhelming as it is. Still, there’s nothing wrong with the RS4’s cabin, with its first-class materials and subtle RS detailing. There’s a lovely flat-bottomed steering wheel which – along with the driver’s seat – is widely adjustable, and you get a more comfortable driving position and a greater sense of space up front than in the Mercedes.
The Audi’s roomier and fractionally more upmarket interior is every bit as desirable as the driving experience, and it has the edge on practicality, too: with the rear seats in place, the boot offers 10 litres more space, at 490 litres.
But while our RS4 was slightly better to drive, it’s worth bearing in mind that it had the optional sports exhaust, Dynamic Steering and adaptive dampers – to make the ride less hard-edged – which inflate the price. Yet even with these desirable options, the RS4 undercuts the C63, so it’s going to be a close finish..