Audi's RS4 has the get up and go

AUDI RS4: The Albatros L39 in the background is only slightly quicker.
AUDI RS4: The Albatros L39 in the background is only slightly quicker.

I've always preferred Audi's high-performance wagons to their sedan equivalents and it looks like much of the market agrees. The new RS4, the hottest-yet version of the latest A4 range, will only be available as a load carrier or Avant.

The RS4 is the latest in a line of purposeful-looking Audi wagons that started in the mid 1980s with the first aero-designed 100 and 200 models. However, the first truly high-performance wagon from the Ingolstadt concern was the RS2 of the early 1990s, which turned the Audi 80 (the predecessor, size-wise, of the modern A4) into a rocketship of a load carrier.

Despite its turbocharged five-cylinder engine only being of 2.2 litres swept volume, its 235kW made it a very fast machine to this day.

AUDI A4 ALLROAD: Brings the SUV/wagon in to the sub $90k bracket.
AUDI A4 ALLROAD: Brings the SUV/wagon in to the sub $90k bracket.

The RS2 gave way to the first RS4, which gained some capacity and another cylinder in the form of a twin-turbocharged 283kW version of the company's then staple 2.7-litre V6.

The first RS4 to gain a V8 came in 2004 and became the first naturally aspirated RS4, using a specially shortened and lightened 4.2-litre V8 adapted from Audi's standard engine lineup. That car was put together under the aegis of Wolfgang Hatz. He must have been good, as he now heads up Porsche's research and development division. That first V8 RS4 spawned a sedan as well as a wagon and for some markets, a cabriolet.

That RS4 model finished in 2009 and in the interim, the RS5 coupe worked in loco parentis before the new model RS4 arrived this year.

The latest car looks the part and with big squared-off wheel arch blisters - a nod to the great Quattro coupe of the early 80s - it looks much bigger than the A4 on which it is based, especially on optional 20-inch forged-aluminium wheels and 265/30 tyres. The 19-inch rims are standard fare, and probably better on lumpier commuter routes.

It may be an A4, but the RS4 has its own front and rear bumpers and roof spoiler as well as big and very necessary air intakes. It also has a special front splitter and a rear valance book-ended by massive oval exhaust pipes - the valance and splitter can be optioned in alloy finish or gloss black.

Inside, special RS4 seats are optional because previous customers found them too tight but every RS4 comes with a chunky flat-bottomed steering wheel.

The engine is the same as its predecessor, a wonderfully free-revving direct-injected V8 that runs to revolutions that create a Nascar-meets-Nurburgring blare that would raise the neck hairs on anyone with a bit of benzine in their blood. It produces 331kW at 8250rpm, while maximum torque is an earth-turning 430Nm, which means that with seven-speed double clutch transmission there is a gear and sufficient torque available any time. So the factory- quoted 0-to-100kmh time of 4.7 seconds is entirely believable.

That doesn't go anywhere near illustrating the massive mid-range grunt on tap however, for from 50 to 100kmh in seemingly any gear, hand shifted or automatic, the lunge is seat-crushingly effective. The top speed is limited to 250kmh unless you opt to have the governor removed which allows up to 280kmh. Audi New Zealand chief Dean Sheed says no customers in this country had that modification to the previous RS4 and they're not expected to opt for it with this one either.

It has to be said that the previous car's manual six-speed transmission will be missed, but the seven-speed S-tronic has its own benefits in that it blips the throttle sympathetically on down shifts and upshifts with such immediacy that manual input with a stick-shift would inevitably be slower.

Paddle changes can be effected by the driver, but left to its own devices, the transmission is almost pre-emptive in its responses.

For most driving, the RS4's torque allocation is 40:60 per cent front to rear. The use of a locking crown-wheel centre differential can allow this to be automatically and immediately changed according to sensors, road surface and driver input from a maximum front split of 70 per cent to a minimum of 15 per cent. Another sports diff also distributes torque between the two rear wheels according to need.

Braking is top-notch, with standard all-vented disc brakes, though for those who get really serious and do a little track driving you can specify an optional carbon-ceramic disc package for $17,000. The options also include adaptive cruise ($2500), Valcona leather ($12,250) and the RS4 bucket seats ($7950).

On an airfield-based slalom test, the Audi's clever electronic chassis aids can be put to their ultimate test and if anyone knows the Ardmore surface, they'll know it's not the smooth tarmacadam you expect from such a facility. It's only then that you realise that the RS4 isn't as big as it feels, it flick-flacks around cones and special drive routes with a nimbleness almost out of character with its muscular externals and deep-throated, almost eruptive lava-flow of power and torque.

On the road, the car rides better than most on 20-inch rims and for a daily commute I'd call it one of the most relaxed of supercars. And a supercar it is, as all the figures indicate barely sub-Ferrari acceleration times, while cornering power is irrefutable.

The new RS4 is priced in the showroom at $154,000, and can be optioned out to close to $200,000 if you have the wherewithal. But you don't need to, and though that sticker is a big one to most mortals, the fact is this quicker cleaner, lighter, better RS4 is $15,000 cheaper than the old model. Now that doesn't happen very often, does it?

New A4 Quattro AllRoad

We recently noted that the A4 AllRoad was on the way. Well it's here, with a standard 2.0-litre 130kW/380Nm TDi turbodiesel four and a seven-speed S-tronic transmission. With 18-inch alloy rims as standard, Milano leather trim, halogen lights, and options aplenty, it's yours for $88,900.