Audi’s New RS6 Avant is out now!

The latest generation of Audi's legendary 'bahn-stormer hits the roads!
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Still nobody does the uncompromisingly large, uncompromisingly fast and supremely usable performance estate car quite like Audi. Even now, with the concept so familiar that we’re at risk of taking its continued existence entirely for granted, with imitators closing in by degrees, and with almost as much in-house competition for the subject of this week’s road test to contend with as exists outside of the showroom.

It’s funny to think, then, that the biggest, quickest and most desirable of all of the wickedly purposeful but deliciously understated wagons to which Audi puts its name – the RS6 Avant – has yet to reach its 20th birthday. The very first came along in 2002; and yet the car has quickly taken on the inscrutable persona of one that has been around forever and must likewise survive that way not least because to lose it would be to lose one of the performance car ether’s true archetypes.

With this fourth-generation version, the RS6 will tear into its roaring 20s. Having dallied briefly but memorably with turbocharged V10 power a decade ago, the new version retains the turbocharged V8 engine type that has helped to define its character for so long. It also retains the permanent quattro all-paw driveline that has had equal influence in the casting of its character and place in the world.
And yet the list of new technology that’s ready to reinvent the dynamic abilities of this new version is long. From mild hybridisation adopted to boost the car’s socially responsible fuel efficiency to four-wheel steering adopted to keep pace with a set of increasingly purposeful rivals, there is plenty that promises to make this Audi ’bahn stormer even better than its predecessors. Stand by to find out exactly what it all amounts to.

Design & Styling

There are quite plainly some notions of wider Volkswagen Group performance car hierarchy to which the new RS6 is wonderfully immune.

The car’s 3996cc V8 replaces the 3993cc unit that was co-developed with Bentley and first used in 2011. It’s the same mill you’ll find in a current Bentley Continental GT, Bentayga V8, Porsche Panamera GTS and Porsche Cayenne Turbo.

In the RS6, however, the twin-turbocharged lump (now with a perfectly ‘square’ cylinder bore/ stroke ratio; the last version’s V8 was slightly long-stroke) is allowed to develop more power and torque than in any of those other applications: fully 591bhp, and 590lb ft over a near-2500rpm spread of mid-range revs. The related RS7 Sportback is no more potent and neither is the new RS Q8 super-SUV. Within wider VW Group circles, only the madcap Lamborghini Urus uses the same motor to more spectacular effect, along with Porsche’s Turbo S E-Hybrid models (in which outputs are, of course, electrically assisted).

Ironically enough, the motor does have some hybridisation here as well. A 48V electrical architecture and starter/generator allow the engine to ‘harvest’ power at up to 12kW under regenerative braking and also mean the RS6 can coast at cruising speed in an ‘ignition-off’ state for periods of up to 40 seconds. It retains cylinder deactivation technology as well and all of that means the car tops 30mpg on the extra-urban test cycle of the outgoing ‘NEDC equivalent’ fuel economy lab test.

Like the last RS6, the new one has full-time mechanical four-wheel drive with a passively locking Torsen centre differential that splits 60% of drive to the rear axle by default, varying it by as much as 85% as traction deteriorates up front.

Rearward torque is then split actively and asymmetrically by Audi Sport’s locking rear differential, which can overdrive the outside wheel using a system of electrically controlled clutches. The car also uses brake-based electronic torque vectoring.

For suspension, the A6’s multilink front and rear axles have been specially redeveloped by Audi Sport, with tracks that are 40mm wider than a regular A6’s and a ride height that cradles the RS6’s body 20mm closer to the road – and ‘actively’ lower still at high speed if you stick with the car’s now-standard air suspension set-up. Steel coil springs with diagonally interlinked dampers – Audi Sport’s time-honoured RS6 suspension set-up labelled Dynamic Ride Control – come as standard if you opt for top-of-the-line Vorsprung trim, or as an option elsewhere.

This is the first RS6 to adopt four-wheel steering in addition to torque-vectored four-wheel drive – and it’s standard on all UK cars. Carbon-ceramic brakes are available but remain among the options for most RS6 trim levels.

Interior

It’s a tribute to Audi’s interior designers that the brand’s big-car cabin architecture hangs together equally well for a luxury, high-quality feel in an A6 as it does in an RS6. This cabin is as tech laden and electronically sophisticated as you’d expect a flagship Audi to be, thanks to its sharp display screens and well-judged combination of cool metal and glossy black surface treatments.

The usual tasteful yet typically restrained sporting details do help to differentiate this performance model from its lower-order A6 siblings, though. Contrasting red stitching stands out on the black leather upholstery of our test car and the Alcantara steering wheel and gear selector feel suitably motorsport derived. There’s an impressive sense of space in the front half of the cabin, too, afforded in part by the optional panoramic glass sunroof but also by the Audi’s sheer girth.

This airiness extends to the second row, where our tape measure recorded typical leg room of 720mm. Although that’s 20mm less than in a BMW M5, the Audi has more head room (990mm versus 920mm). In any case, there’s more than enough room for two adults to sit comfortably and enough overall width for three children to fit across the back seats without too much complicated tessellation of booster seats.

The boot, meanwhile, has a seats-up capacity of 565 litres, extending to 1680 litres with the rear seats folded flat. The aperture itself is usefully wide; the boot floor is close to flush with the opening, which makes loading heavy stuff easy; and for stowing cargo, you’ll find rails, nets, hooks and a handy elastic strap in the RS6’s boot, all of which help to prevent what you’re carrying from smashing itself to pieces while you’re enjoying what we’re coming to next.

Audi’s flagship MMI Navigation Plus infotainment system and 12.3in Virtual Cockpit come as standard on all versions of the RS6 Avant.

The quality of the graphics and the rate of response to your inputs are, as we’ve experienced in the past, impressively crisp, but it remains a slightly awkward system to use on the move. The need to apply a fair bit of pressure to garner a response is one drawback, but the need to avert your eyes from the road for longer than you’d like is its greatest issue.

Still, the Virtual Cockpit is impressively configurable and the addition of an RS mode will no doubt appeal to some – even if some testers thought it looked a bit naff.

A Bang & Olufsen sound system was fitted to our test car as well. It’s pricey, certainly, but when set up correctly, it’s one of the best car stereos that we’ve come across.

Performance

We’ll start with the negatives. If the RS6’s immensely powerful 4.0-litre V8 disappoints in any aspect, it’s in the way it sounds. There’s a richness and an aggression to its deep, growling timbre that’s eminently appealing when you can hear it, but compared with the more expressive V8 of the Mercedes-AMG E63 and, to a lesser extent, the BMW M5’s, the Audi’s engine just sounds a bit restrained.

Even with the optional RS sports exhaust fitted, the way in which its soundtrack swells into the cabin is akin to listening to a favourite music album from another room. In this sort of car, you’d just prefer to be able to hear it in more detail and at apparently closer range.

The other slight sticking point is that we averaged just 19.5mpg during our time with the car – a figure that dropped to 9.8mpg during performance testing. Allowing for the fact that this engine develops 591bhp and the car weighed 2.2 tonnes on our scales, fairly extreme fuel consumption isn’t exactly a surprise. However, it does erode the car’s everyday ownership appeal a bit and reveals that Audi’s economy-boosting measures will have a rather limited effect should you choose to stretch the car’s legs.

And you will – because on summer tyres and a dry track, the Audi’s appetite for speed is even more voracious than its need for fuel. The RS6 lunges off the line with incredible ferocity, although it takes a couple of runs and a bit of heat in the tyres to launch it completely cleanly. Initially, the rearward weight transfer as the car springs forward can make the front wheels momentarily scrabble for purchase, but from there on out, the rate at which the Audi accrues pace is nothing short of incredible for a car of its size. Excessive? Probably. Unnecessary? Without question. But, above all else, utterly spectacular.

Our test car hit 60mph from a standstill in an average time of 3.3sec. The run to 100mph, meanwhile, was dispatched in 7.8sec. So it’s a match for the M5 up to 60mph, although the lighter BMW pips it by 0.3sec to 100mph. And while the Audi’s in-gear performance is certainly strong (30-70mph in fourth took 4.6sec), it’s still not quite as quick as the M5’s 4.0sec effort. Either way, you’d have a very hard time convincing anyone that the RS6 needed more grunt.

The eight-speed gearbox is well mannered. Aside from a slight tendency to shunt a bit at step-off, it changes gears swiftly and smoothly when up and running. The carbon-ceramic brakes, meanwhile, can be a bit grabby at low speed, but their power and robustness when you really need them is unquestionable, as our braking test results clearly show.

Ride & Handling

Those used to fast front-engined Audis of old might be in for a surprise the first time they steer an RS6 towards a corner. At least, they might if the RS6 is fitted with the coil springs of our test car, which, even with optional winter tyres and standard four-wheel steering, was responsive. (We tested the car on both ‘summer’ and winter tyres but performance tested it solely on ‘summer’ ones.)

In the past, the way to make an Audi estate feel really agile would have been to buy an RS4 instead, but at last here’s a big Audi wagon with a keenness that takes it from its traditional positioning of being ‘fast if a bit inert and uninvolving’ to something you really can compare to an M5 or E63 S – although few people would claim that it handles quite as incisively as those rivals. Unlike either of those competitors, the RS6 can’t be placed into rear wheel-drive mode, nor is its four-wheel drive system as rear biased as those of its major rivals.

It doesn’t do precisely what big fast Audis always used to do, which is to understeer a bit on the way in to a corner and then a lot on the way out. Instead, it grips very well on the way in and now can be cornered very neutrally on the way out, thanks to its RS-tuned active rear differential. We’re not talking about daft speeds to feel this, either. This is the kind of demeanour you can sense in everyday brisk driving, not track lunacy.

Here, the active rear steer is really nicely judged, too. It’s rare that a manufacturer tunes these systems to feel as natural and predictable as Audi has done. You don’t end up cornering as if navigating the rim of a 50 pence coin. Rather, you just turn the moderately weighted, slightly soft yet accurate steering and feel the RS6 want to point towards a corner.

Unless, that is, you’re on the open road, in which case the rear wheels assist high-speed stability – which, even on winter rubber with some squidge in its tread blocks, is as good as you’d hope for a car with a top speed as high as the Audi’s. On proper ‘summer’ performance rubber, it’s very good indeed.
One of the first things you appreciate on track in the RS6 is the reduced need to consider its width compared with fast road driving. But even without oncoming traffic to contend with, the Audi still feels really quite large on Millbrook’s Hill Route.

That said, its four-wheel steering gives it surprising agility through tighter corners such as T2, but this doesn’t come at the expense of perceived stability. Grip levels are tremendous and, although you’re aware of its mass during quick, twistier sections of track, body control remains steadfast. This affords the car the ability to carry impressive speed through corners, although you never really shake the feeling that it’s more precise, grippy and assured than out-and-out fun.

The RS6’s steering is mute but predictable and makes you comfortable quickly, its relatively sedate on-centre response sharpening up naturally as you wind on lock.

Comfort and isolation

Another trait of previous fast Audis was a certain brittleness to the ride, especially if you screwed up when choosing from the myriad suspension and wheel options. Well, even on a lowered, steel-sprung chassis with Dynamic Ride Control adaptive dampers and 22in wheels with 30-profile tyres, that’s not a criticism that we’d level at the latest RS6, which absorbs most bumps and surface lumps with admirable efficiency.

And because this particular car wasn’t air sprung, it also rode without the occasional hollow, echoey ‘sproing’ that can afflict cars that have a bag for a spring on each corner.

A good portion of our test took place on winter tyres, whose movement in the blocks, designed to find purchase in horrid conditions, undoubtedly gives the car a slightly softer edge than usual. Even on ‘summer’ performance rubber, though, the RS6 rides with surprising fluidity, dealing with more testing surfaces better than either of its performance rivals from BMW or Mercedes-AMG.

Noise isolation is also first class. It probably helps that Audi’s 4.0-litre twin-turbocharged engine is naturally more muted than any comparable AMG unit or even a BMW V8, but with low idle, cruising and revving noise, and with a fine-quality sound system, the RS6 is perhaps the easiest-going car in this class.

Verdict

Audi Sport’s flagship super-estate is now even more devastatingly fast, remorselessly purposeful and more incredible looking than it ever has been. But while the RS6’s altogether more hawkish appearance might hint at a heightened capacity for engaging its driver, this impression isn’t fully in sync with the way it drives.

The RS6’s unflappable all-weather traction leaves you in awe of its ability to cover ground, but its tight-lipped steering still doesn’t do as much to really involve you in the process as rivals might. Meanwhile, the disparity between the slightly muted audible character of its V8 and the volcanic straight-line performance it affords can be puzzling.

The BMW M5 and Mercedes-AMG E63 S are both more thrilling devices for different reasons, although only the latter comes in estate form. But the Audi’s luxurious, practical cabin, well-judged ride and overall refinement give it a suitability for everyday use on imperfect roads that neither of its rivals can match.

Being the most usable all-rounder in the class doesn’t necessarily equate to class champion. Even so, the appeal of the RS6 remains impossible to deny.


 

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