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Audi RS Avant megatest: the greatest fast Audi estate cars head-to-head

We bring together the very best Audi RS Avants to celebrate 30 years of quattro-equipped fast estate cars

There were fast cars, and there were estate cars, but there were no truly fast estate cars before Audi and Porsche got together and unleashed the RS 2 Avant upon the world in 1994.

In the same year, the Channel Tunnel was opened by The Queen, while McLaren unveiled the mighty F1 which, by the way, the four-wheel-drive, 311bhp RS 2 could out-accelerate – up to about 38mph...

During the 29 years that have followed, Audi has crafted the RS Avant into a breed of its own, creating a car-culture unlike any other in motoring. Along the way there have been numerous versions to choose from boasting different powertrains, all of them four wheel-drive, each of them

eye-wateringly quick. Some have been good, some have bordered on genius, while others haven’t been so memorable.

Here we’ve chosen what we believe to be the seven most significant RS estates from the last three decades, starting of course with the RS 2. From there we go straight to the first RS 4 from 1999 (codenamed B5), boasting what was back then a thoroughly outrageous 375bhp from its Cosworth-modified 2.7-litre twin-turbo V6.

Then we jump forwards to the first RS 6 (the C5) and on to the second RS 4, the endlessly magnificent B7, the first RS estate car not to use a turbocharged engine. The second such example was the C6 RS 6, which warrants its place here not because it’s one of the greats, far from it, but because it’s powered by a 572bhp V10 that also appeared in the back of a Lamborghini. It was, and remains, arguably the most outrageous RS estate of all.

Then again, anyone who’s driven or merely set eyes upon the latest RS 6 – the cartoonishly fierce Performance model with its 597bhp 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 and vast wheelarches – might think otherwise. Either way, to round things off we have the latest RS 4 Competition, a limited-edition version of an already great car that could be the best of the lot.

There’s only one way to find out, as they say…

Audi RS 2

Model:Audi RS 2 Avant
Engine:2.2-litre 5cyl turbo petrol
Power/torque:311bhp/409Nm
0-62mph:5.4 seconds
Top speed:163mph
Gearbox:Six-speed manual
Kerbweight:1,595kg

The RS 2 was a complete madman of a car when it appeared in 1994. I know because I helped conduct one of the first ever road tests on it back in the day, and for an estate car (for any car) it was mind-bendingly rapid.

Its 2.2-litre, five-cylinder turbocharged engine contained all sorts of technology that had been developed by Audi’s motorsport division, boosting its power to a whopping 311bhp and torque to 409Nm at just 3,000rpm. Its four-wheel-drive chassis was partially set up by Porsche to deliver maximum purchase near the limit, and featured not only a central differential, but also one at the rear, which could be adjusted manually inside the cockpit for extra driveability. The interior was almost Bauhaus sparse for a road car and contained two high-set bucket seats and some arresting white dials, but not a lot else in terms of luxuries.

It wasn’t the most delicate car to drive, the overall emphasis being on grip and the delivery of huge power to the road rather than fingertip finesse, but that didn’t matter. Where it counted, the RS 2 delivered, and then some.

Externally it was distinguished by its Nogaro blue paint and a quartet of beautiful 17-inch Porsche Carrera Cup wheels. It looked mean and menacing back then, but today it appears almost dainty beside its bigger, altogether more brutal looking successors.

It still feels properly quick, though, does the RS 2, with a torque wave that doesn’t do much until about 3,000rpm but then comes with a rush from thereon after. At its peak, between 4,000-5,000rpm, the RS 2 still goes like a rocket, which it should do, given how outrageous it felt in 1994.

The steering feels less numb today than it did back then somehow, maybe because we’ve got used to less feelsome electric power steering systems. But what hasn’t changed is the firm ride, the eye-popping traction from the car’s still-clever all-wheel drive system, or the rousing soundtrack from the five-cylinder turbo engine.

The RS 2 looks a bit puny when lined up beside its more modern contemporaries, but to drive it feels every inch as exciting as it once did. You can’t say that for many cars that are three decades old.

Audi RS 4 (B5)

Model:Audi RS 4 Avant (B5)
Engine:2.7-litre V6 twin-turbo petrol
Power/torque:375bhp/440Nm
0-62mph:4.9 seconds
Top speed:155mph (limited)
Gearbox:Six-speed manual
Kerbweight:1,620kg

The very first RS 4 (codenamed the B5) was damned with faint praise when it appeared right at the end of the last century. Commentators at the time liked the way it looked, loved the way it was built and had nothing but wide-eyed admiration for the way it went in a straight line.

Thanks to its Cosworth-modified 2.7-litre twin-turbo V6 engine, it produced a thumping 375bhp and 440Nm between just 2,500rpm-6,000rpm, which was enough to catapult it from 0-62mph in less than five seconds and make mincemeat out of most full-blown sports cars back in the day. It was also a great-looking car, with blistered wheelarches front and rear, all four of which were filled perfectly by a set of gorgeous 18-inch alloy wheels.

Yet critics said it lacked delicacy on the road and had a hard ride, clumsy steering, a clonky six-speed manual gearchange and brakes that were powerful but jumpy. It was a bit of a blunderbuss, they said.

But maybe they were wrong, because the B5 you see here feels surprisingly sharp and fast today. Its steering has more feel than we remembered, its ride is firm but not horrendously so, and boy does it still go hard when you introduce the back of the accelerator to the footwell. The 2.7-litre V6 revs with an enthusiasm that few turbo engines before or since can match. Even the gearbox feels far more ‘connected’ than we remember.

In short, we expected less than we got from the B5 RS 4 Avant. In places, a lot more. We’re not sure about the bright-yellow paintwork of Audi’s heritage collection car, or the practicalities of the competiton-spec seats, but in most other ways this was the most surprising car of the group. In a very good way.

Audi RS 6 (C5)

Model:Audi RS 6 Plus Avant (C5)
Engine:4.2-litre twin-turbo V8 petrol
Power/torque:474bhp/560Nm
0-62mph:4.6 seconds
Top speed:174mph
Gearbox:Five-speed Tiptronic auto
Kerbweight:1,865kg

It was always the flared wheelarches that made the original RS 6 (codenamed C5) seem so menacing. It looked so cool, in fact, it was often chosen as THE car to be driven by ‘the bad guys’ in films at the time, including the notorious London gangster movie Layer Cake, starring a young Daniel Craig.

Beneath its bulging bodywork, the RS 6 Avant boasted a Cosworth-modified 4.2-litre twin-turbo V8 with 40 valves and a thoroughly wild sports exhaust system. Towards the end of production, the Plus model, as tested here, produced a thumping 474bhp and 560Nm, enough to fire it from 0-62mph in just 4.6 seconds, despite burdening the scales at 1,865kg.

However, the RS 6 was never an especially rewarding car to thread along a twisting road. It was far better as an Autobahn monster, and 20 years later, not much has changed. The car’s straight-line performance is still mighty, and the noise from the twin-turbo V8 remains pretty spine-tingling. But in corners the C5 RS 6 feels as clumsy as it ever did, while its brakes, although powerful, lack delicacy in the way they respond.

But the most disappointing aspect of all remains the transmission, which is a clumsy five-speed Tiptronic automatic gearbox. No manual option was ever offered for the C5-generation RS 6, and to be honest the ancient piece of engineering connecting the engine to the wheels hampers the car’s appeal, perhaps even more so today than it did two decades ago.

The bottom line is that the C5 RS 6 Avant is a great-looking car, but dynamically it’s not one of Audi’s better efforts. Those would come a little later, as we’ll see.

Audi RS 6 Performance

Model:Audi RS 6 Avant Performance
Engine:4.0-litre twin-turbo V8, petrol
Power/torque:597bhp/700Nm
0-62mph:3.4 seconds
Top speed:174mph (limited)
Gearbox:Eight-speed auto
Kerbweight:2,277kg

The latest RS 6 Performance isn’t a subtle car by any stretch of the imagination. But it’s a very good one – even in this esteemed company – and that’s because it’s been engineered from its wheelnuts up to feel and behave like a completely different car from the one on which it’s based. Some RS 6s haven’t always felt like that, but the Performance puts any such doubts to rest in a heartbeat.

It is, in every way, the real deal. A proper AudiSport RS. And not just because it is lung-bustingly fast in a straight line, although having 597bhp and 700Nm from a 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 does mean its performance is pretty special, despite the fact it weighs a whopping 2,247kg. But that’s the thing about the RS 6 Performance; on the road, it doesn’t feel as big or heavy as its on-paper credentials suggest it should. Nor does it seem as wide as it appears on the outside when you’re behind the wheel.

Subjectively it’s a car that shrink-wraps itself around you once you climb aboard and start driving, and that’s down to a combination of factors. Its steering is lighter and far sharper than you might expect. Its ride and handling are extremely well resolved, thanks to some highly sophisticated electronic trickery that works on its dampers as well as the diffs. And its brakes aren’t just enormously powerful but also have tons of feel engineered into them. Plus its twin-turbo V8 feels instantly responsive under foot – in all its drive modes but especially in Dynamic, in which you’d be hard pushed to even tell it’s turbocharged.

The overall result is a car that’s not just very fast indeed, but also one that’s easy to engage with emotionally. Unlike some of its predecessors, the RS 6 Performance is laden with feel. It is, and always will be, one of the greatest RS Avants.

Audi RS 4 Competition

Model:Audi RS 4 Avant Competition
Engine:2.9-litre twin-turbo V6 petrol
Power/torque:444bhp/600Nm
0-62mph:3.9 seconds
Top speed:180mph
Gearbox:Eight-speed auto
Kerbweight:1,729kg

In theory, there isn’t much to distinguish the latest RS 4 Competition from the regular RS 4 Avant on which it’s based. It has the same amount of power and torque from its 2.9-litre twin-turbo V6 (444bhp and 600Nm), the same eight-speed automatic gearbox and from the outside it even looks pretty much identical.

But beneath its familiar skin the RS 4 Competition has undergone all sorts of tweakery to make it a better, more involving car to drive, and the overall result is quietly spectacular. The standard RS 4 was already a good car, but the Competiton now borders on the brilliant, and most of the improvements are subjective and involve the bits that arguably matter most.

Such as the steering, which has more response than normal; the ride and handling, both of which can be tailored electronically and manually via adjustable springs to suit your surroundings; the sound it makes thanks to a sports exhaust; and the grip it has, which has been significantly improved thanks to the standard fitment of Pirelli P-Zero Corsa tyres.

The individual differences are fairly subtle, but collectively they add up to a far sharper, more alert version of an already fine car – to a point where we reckon the latest RS 4 Competition could be the RS Avant’s finest ever moment. Strong words, strong car.

Either way, the RS 4 Competition is a fittingly high note to go out on, even if it feels like a bit of a cop-out on the surface. In reality it’s anything but.

Audi RS 4 (B7)

Model:Audi RS 4 Avant (B7)
Engine:4.2-litre V8 petrol
Power/torque:414bhp/430Nm
0-62mph:4.8 seconds
Top speed:155mph (limited)
Gearbox:Six-speed manual
Kerbweight:1,785kg

The B7 RS 4 Avant from 2006 is one of Audi’s finest ever cars, full stop. And it remains so even in 2023. Not only does it still look knee-tremblingly lovely, but beneath its delicate lines it contains some rare genius in its powertrain and four-wheel-drive chassis, both of which have stood the test of time remarkably well, if the example you see here is anything to go by.

In 2006 the B7 RS 4 was one of the great high-performance road cars of its era, and if anything its appeal has grown exponentially since then.

It was the first naturally aspirated Audi RS model, its 4.2-litre V8 having been tuned to deliver a rousing 414bhp at 7,800rpm with a rev limiter set to allow a screaming 8,250rpm. It also had a deliciously crisp six-speed manual gearbox, which today feels even sharper and snappier than it did 17 years ago.

The steering features a small ‘Sport’ button, which unleashes yet more response and sound from the V8, while the chassis features Dynamic Ride Control adaptive damping, which is subtle but works a treat.

The result? The B7 has a natural feel to it on the move, with great steering, lots of feel and balance to its handling, strong brakes and unprecedented agility for an Audi RS. Its cabin is also a deeply wonderful place in which to find yourself, with a pair of great sports seats and a level of build that remains breathtakingly impressive.

Of all the cars here, this is the one I’d take home for keeps. Without a moment’s hesitation.

Audi RS 6 (C6)

Model:Audi RS 6 Avant (C6)
Engine:5.0-litre V10 petrol
Power/torque:572bhp/650Nm
0-62mph:4.6 seconds
Top speed:155mph (limited)
Gearbox:Six-speed auto
Kerbweight:2,025kg

On paper, the C6 RS 6 from 2008 had it all. A screaming V10 in its nose without a turbocharger in sight. A four- wheel-drive chassis with a 40:60 rear bias that had been tuned, claimed Audi, to deliver much more adjustable handling than the regular S6 Avant. Plus an even more sophisticated version of the Dynamic Ride Control adaptive damper system that made the B7 RS 4 such a weapon on country roads.

Yet in practice, this generation of RS 6 somehow never quite hit the spot. Its handling wasn’t anywhere near as sharp as Audi claimed, the ride was awkwardly stiff, the steering lacked feel, and although it went like stink in a straight line, the clumsy six-speed Tiptronic automatic gearbox blunted its overall appeal. Despite its theoretically outrageous powertrain, it was admired rather than adored, and not much has changed today.

Yes, the V10 engine is still a thing to marvel at, even in 2023. The noises it makes are perhaps a bit more muted than you’d expect, but the performance it delivers beyond 4,000rpm in a low gear remains deeply magnificent. But dynamically the C6 RS 6 lacks sparkle, today just as much as it did when new in 2008. This is partly because it weighs a whopping 2,025kg, but the details also lack finesse.

Ultimately it feels too much like a regular Audi A6 with a nutcase engine installed, rather than a full package, although for its engine alone it warrants a place in this list.

The impossible verdict

What a fascinating collection, what a legacy to have created, and what a shame that there will be no more cars like this from Audi in years to come.

To pick a favourite would seem unfair, because each of these cars is extraordinary, but for different reasons. The RS 2 (above) remains an incredible machine, not just because it created the breed; it’s also surprisingly rapid even in 2023. The first RS 6 also looks as menacingly beautiful today as it did 20 years ago, while the latest RS 6 Performance is a car you can’t help but be blown away by – both technically and dynamically.

If we have to pick a favourite to take home, it would have to be the B7 RS 4. In its day this car was good enough to put one over the BMW M3; 15 years later, it still feels every inch as special as it did in 2008. More so if anything, thanks to its mighty V8 engine and manual gearbox.

They simply don’t make ’em like this anymore. So we should enjoy and celebrate them all while we still can. Not just the RS 4, but all of these great Audi RS Avants. And do our best to look forwards to whatever comes next.

What's your favourite fast Audi? Let us know in the comments section...

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