There appear to be more potential electronic chassis and powertrain configurations of the new Audi RS4 than there are bodystyles for the Ford Transit. With the optional MMI Individual mode and the Dynamic steering fitted, there are 12 different permutations of damping, powertrain, steering and locking differential. How you greet this information will to some degree determine how you respond to the RS4. Anyone who loves to tinker and fiddle, walk this way.
Big V8, estate body, great noise - welcome back!
The rest of you, listen hard. The RS4 is in many ways a very good car, but it can also be very frustrating.
You know the basic numbers by now: 450hp at 8,250rpm, 317lb ft at 4,000rpm and an empty kerb weight of 1,795kg. Now it would be ridiculous to suggest any 3 Series-sized car with 450hp was lacking guts, but compare the torque-to-weight ratios of this and the previous B7 RS4 and they don't tell a pretty story for the new car. They share the same 317lb ft - although you waited 1,500rpm longer in the old car - and yet the B7 weighs 80kg less. It's 177lb ft per tonne versus 186lb ft per tonne. That is not progress. For the record, a C63 AMG, even without the power-pack, has 442 lb ft.
Who said the drivetrain options are complex!
All the gear...
Nor, for some people, does the deletion of a manual gearbox in favour of a dual-clutch unit with seven forward gears represent an improvement. The chassis is effectively an updated version of the S4's 4WD system with the clever Sport Differential travelling through lighter aluminium suspension components and some very fancy, optional 20-inch forged wheels.
To these eyes, the RS4 absolutely looks the part - I'm sure it has the showroom battle already won for many people with those blistered arches, that matt chromework and a suggestive shoulder-line. This car does subtle-threatening as well as anything in recent memory. The cabin is standard Audi A4 with extra trimmings and new clock faces - which means in many ways it's beginning to look and feel a bit dated, some of the plastics are unpleasant, but the RS touches really lift it. Our car had the standard seats, but buckets are an option. Good to note that the standard chairs go nice and low.
Engine is basically as before, rest has moved on
To me it is a point of great frustration that the new RS4 isn't a one-stop-shop. You cannot just get in it and expect to have all bases covered as you might hope. For starters there's all that configuring going on. There are pre-sets that simply take all parameters and lock them either in Automatic, Comfort or Dynamic but none of them quite hits the spot. I found the best balance on the road was Comfort chassis (Dynamic is absurdly harsh), Dynamic differential, Dynamic powertrain and Comfort steering. But then driven in automatic mode, the 'box was upshifting too late for my parsimonious tastes.
Simplicity, made complex
I have nothing against toys and some level of adjustment theatre, but the RS4 is too complicated for me. This is a car that is supposed to do all things for most people - lump children, dog, grandma and wardrobe and then reward the driver when he or she is alone. That was one of the best things about the last RS4 - it just worked out of the box.
S Tronic only this time round, sadly
The S Tronic transmission is very impressive and, despite missing the manual, I will concede that for most people it will be a welcome addition. Manual shifts are incisive and delivered with a crack from the exhausts. It doesn't matter if you're outside or inside, this car sounds the business - and there's the option of a sports exhaust too.
The optional Dynamic steering (variable ratio) is probably best avoided. In the heaviest setting it's dead and requires way too much effort and the way it adjusts the amount of lock required according to speed is sometimes counter-intuitive. I didn't get to try the standard electro-mechanical steering, but a man I trust said it was better but still incapable of drawing you into the experience. I want to drive a car on 19-inch wheels and with normal steering ASAP.
RS4 really comes alive when thrashed
Driven to distraction
Strangely, this is a car that actually comes alive when you absolutely grab it by the scruff and hammer it: then you really reap the benefits of that 8,500rpm limiter, the fast shifts and a 4WD system that remains neutral through a turn and then allows some slip from the rear axle. It's not a drift king, but this car doesn't feel front-driven - and that's the biggest advantage it holds over the B7 RS4.
This leaves the RS4 in a slightly confusing situation. Push very hard and it reminds you that Audi's RS engineers are willing to de-specify the brand statement understeer, but at sane speeds this car is both lacking in sparkle and low-effort performance. Ride comfort will be marginal in the UK too - even on the softest setting.
Nice to see the rev counter still has an '8'
Other stuff? The brake pedal is good for an Audi - we had the normal steel discs that measure 365mm up front. The top speed is limited to 155mph, but that can be lifted to 174mph. Claimed fuel economy is 26 percent better than the last RS4, but much of that must be down to the longer 7th gear and the electric steering. Drive it hard and this is still a very thirsty machine.
For many people the RS4's blend of badge, all-weather performance and brilliant styling will already have sealed the deal. I agree that it's a compelling recipe. But it isn't perfect and in lacking that one-stop omnipotence and not having enough torque for low-pulse devastation, for me it doesn't have the magic of the B7 version. The first time you drove one of those, you just found yourself thinking, "This is pretty much bang-on-the money." The same isn't quite true this time around. Equally, if you just love revving the tits of an amazing V8, this might just be the car for you.
Standard A4 cabin with added RSness
It's a better car than an RS5 though - whose chassis was quietly and successfully updated with these RS4 attributes earlier this year - because it is more practical and therefore will appeal to a wider audience.
Engine: 4,163cc V8
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch auto (S Tronic), 4WD
Power (hp): 450@8,250rpm
Torque (lb ft): 317@4,000rpm
Top speed: 155mph (limited, increasable to 174mph 'on request')
MPG: 26.4mpg (NEDC combined)