Epiphanies are few and far between in my motoring life, but getting behind the wheel of Audi's RS4 in 2006 was definitely one. For someone who'd got used to four-hooped performance cars that were quick but numb, the B7 RS4 was the first Audi RS that truly felt like a great. Incisive handling - at last! - and a revelatory V8 powerplant combined to make the RS4 B7 utter magic.
Looks far daintier in presence of new car
And that feeling has never waned: the B7 RS4 remains a huge hero with me, and most of the rest of the world. The B8 of 2012 has suffered (unfairly in my view) from following-act toughness. And seeing as how the current B8 RS4 has now left production, it seems an apposite moment to get the behind the wheel of both recent generations of RS4 and ask the question: which one really is the better bet?
It won't take you much time on PistonHeads to appreciate just how much more love the B7 gets than the B8. I'm going to say up front that the B7 is indeed the purer car to drive, with its manual gearbox and relative lack of driver aids. But I'm also going to say that, epic car though the B7 RS4 is, the B8 is actually the one to have.
Figuring it out
First off, some numbers. The first set concerns just how small the B7 is - it looks more like a Golf than an A4 alongside the newer car. It's a mere 4,586mm long, versus the B8's 4,719mm. Most of the extra length is in the B8's wheelbase - 162mm extra, in fact - which boosts its practicality (far more rear legroom, loads more luggage space). Of course, that extra bulk makes it heavier by some 85kg, but the power-to-weight ratio marginally favours the B8 at 250hp/tonne versus 245hp/tonne.
Hardly a dramatic evolution but a welcome one
Ah yes, power. Here's where the B8 scores its next blood, with 30 extra horses under the bonnet (450hp versus 420hp). The 4.2-litre V8 in both cars is of a type that's rapidly fluttering out of existence. Such a lunking great non-turbo V8 was arguably old-school even in 2006 - but one drive of either car at high revs is enough to convince you that it's one of the all-time great powerplants. Rev the V8 up to its limit (up to and beyond 8,000rpm) and the occasion will be etched permanently.
The B8 reaches its peak power even higher up the rev band at 8,250rpm (versus 7,800rpm) and ultimately, it's the faster car, too: 0-62mph comes up in 4.7 seconds, rather than 4.9.
Here's the killer for many people, though: the gearbox. The B7's six-speed manual is a thing of beauty and wonder. Audi's seven-speed S Tronic dual-clutch can't hold a candle to it - can it? Well, I'd argue it can. It changes cogs far more quickly than the manual, it's easier to drive around town and switching it to 'loud' mode makes the exhaust burble and crackle intoxicatingly on downchanges.
Here was nice Audi cabin c.2006
Steering feel is one area where the B7 does get the nod. It is simply more communicative than the B8's electronic system, which suffers from a too light/too stiff feel in Comfort/Dynamic modes. But this is far less of an issue if you avoid Audi's Dynamic Steering option: the standard B8 set-up actually feels less on-off, and much closer to the B7's connectedness.
Slightly wider profile 265/35 R19 tyres also give the B8 more turn-in bite, and the siting of the engine further back endows it with an inherently more balanced feel. Both cars ultimately understeer, but the B8's Comfort, Dynamic and Individual settings allow you to play around with things. All you can do in the B7 is press the 'S' button on the steering wheel to open up the exhaust flaps and sharpen the throttle response.
One other clear area of superiority in the B8 is its cabin. It just feels much nicer, is ergonomically superior and has loads more kit in it, including Audi's rather wonderful MMI system.
Great car, but Chris prefers the B8
B7s have acquired a semi-mythical status, keeping prices painfully high. You won't find one for much below £15K, while the
from Ashtead Motor Trading in our photo shoot is nudging £20,000. But get this: top whack for a
That's hugely expensive for a nine-year old car. For a mere £5K more (under £40K) you can have a B8 RS4 with virtually the same mileage - and a car that's only three years old.
And let's not ignore fuel economy, which is a significant issue if you use the performance. On paper, the combined figures are 20.8mpg for the B7 and 26.4mpg for the B8, and that gulf is borne out it real life. Over a week with the B8, I averaged 22mpg, including a lot of London commuting. In contrast, I had to fill the B7 up twice during our photo shoot, during which time it did no better the mid-teens. Over the course of a life-cycle, that's a lot of cash down the filler flap.
Yes, it's hard to ignore the fact that the B7 has a more connected feel as a driver's car. But with prices for B7s and B8s rapidly converging, would you REALLY rather have a B7 over the faster, plusher, more adjustable, more sophisticated, newer B8? I'm not sure I would. But tell me I'm wrong.