The new Audi RS4 is an A4 with attitude. Serious attitude. Yes, its available only in sensible A4 Avant estate guise, but it marries everyday practicality with supercar punch.
Beneath the muscular bodykit lies a thunderous 444bhp 4.2-litre V8 engine, which blasts the RS4 from 0-62mph in just 4.7 seconds and, with the right option box ticked, on to a limited top speed of 174mph.
Both the engine and the standard seven-speed dual-clutch S tronic gearbox are much the same as the ones in the RS5 coupe and forthcoming RS5 Cabriolet, but Audi has tweaked the steering and suspension to make the RS4 more enjoyable and engaging to drive.
Its designed to have a broad range of abilities, too. There are four drive settings Comfort, Auto, Dynamic and the customisable Individual which alter elements such as the gearchange speed, weight of the steering and the sound of the exhaust. These settings also control the optional Dynamic Steering system and adjustable suspension. The aim is to make the new RS4 Avant as capable on a twisty road as it is on the motorway.
What's the 2012 Audi RS4 Avant like to drive?
Go for a drive around town and you might wonder what all the fuss is about.
Don't be fooled by RS4's unassuming estate-car looks
At low speeds the engine is smooth and relatively quiet, while gearchanges are unobtrusive if you leave the car in Comfort mode. The ride, while firm, is bearable in this setting, too despite the fact the RS4 is lowered by 20mm compared with the standard A4 Avant.
Switch to Dynamic mode and crank up the revs, though, and the RS4 comes alive. The engine pulls with terrific strength especially above 4000rpm while the exhaust bellows at every lightning-quick upshift.
Like all hot Audis, the RS4 is fitted with quattro four-wheel drive, but its system can send up to 70% of drive to the front wheels and as much as 85% to the rears in an effort to boost traction and make the car more engaging to drive.
Theres no doubt that the RS4 feels very secure in corners, with immense grip and tightly controlled body movements. However, it still doesnt feel all that agile. You can feel the cars considerable weight shifting around under hard cornering, and the weight is even more noticeable when you get hard on the brakes; the nose feels like it wants to keep ploughing on rather than turn in.
The steering isnt ideal, either. Its pretty quick, but the slow initial responses mean you often find yourself apply the wrong amount of lock for your desired line, which then needs a correction. It has a rubbery feel, too, while switching to Dynamic mode adds weight, but no more feel or accuracy.
Still, this is a car designed to do lots of miles very quickly, and its reasonably effective at doing that. Its pretty quiet at speed, although coarse surfaces do kick up some road noise. The ride isnt great on the motorway, either. Its just about acceptable in Comfort mode, but you still feel more of bumps and expansion joints than desirable. Select the sportier modes, and youll be downright uncomfortable.
What's the 2012 Audi RS4 Avant like inside?
The cabin is the least exciting part of the RS4. Aside from sports seats in the front, there are just a few badges and splashes of carbon trim to indicate you're in a 55,000 performance car.
Still, the fact that the RS4 is so similar to a regular A4 Avant inside does mean there's decent space for four adults, and a well-shaped boot that's capable of swallowing up to 1430 litres of luggage.
The quality of the materials is good if not outstanding, as is the amount of equipment you get for your money.
Should I buy one?
If you want a car that can carry four adults, plenty of luggage and still be entertainingly quick on a twisty B-road, then the 3.0-litre V6 diesel versions of the A4 Avant make more sense. They'll do much more than the RS4's average economy of 26.4mpg and won't need refuelling every 280 miles, or so.
RS4 buyers probably won't be looking for the sensible option, though; instead, they'll choose it because they want a relatively comfortable cruiser and a high-revving sports car.
The big disappointment is that it doesn't play either role well enough. The Mercedes C63 AMG Estate feels more special more of the time.
What Car? says