IN THE early 1990s on a television show watched each week by millions of people I tested the Ford Escort and said it was a joyless example of “that’ll do” engineering from a company that should know better. And it went on to become Britain’s bestselling car.
Later I said the new Toyota Corolla was a characterless white good like a fridge freezer. That went on to become the world’s bestselling car.
Then along came the Renault A610. “Oooh,” I swooned. “This is a magnificent car. Well priced, good-looking, unusual and fast.” And in Britain, in the following 12 months, the total number shifted by Renault was … drum roll … six.
I’m still at it. Two years ago I drove the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quattroformaggi and told anyone who’d listen that it was the Second Coming. Wheeled lightning. Thor’s hammer with Italian trimmings. A car that could and would kick every other sports saloon into a ditch. And so far I haven’t seen a single one.
I suspect lots of people would like such a thing on their drive. It has a Ferrari engine. It was designed by a Ferrari engineer. It makes the most glorious array of noises and it goes like a 500-horsepower bastard. There must be thousands who lie awake at night fantasising about owning such a car, but when push comes to shove, they buy something else. Usually a hot Audi of some kind.
The latest hot Audi came to my house last month, and I had to admit it looked very good. It was the RS 4 Avant. But why, I wondered, would anyone choose it instead of the Alfa? That’d be like thinking of taking your summer holiday in Tuscany and then deciding to go to Dortmund instead. Because if the bog were to go wrong, it’d be easier to find a reliable plumber.
Yes, Alfa Romeos were very unreliable. It’s fair to say that on, for instance, a GTV 6 every single part is a known fault. But judging Alfa on what it did in the 1980s is like not buying a Volkswagen because it made vehicles for the German army during the war. It’s time to move on. To give Alfa another chance. Or is it …?
The Audi RS 4 has not been consistently good. The 2006 version was a marvellous thing with a lusty V8 and he-man flared wheelarches. But the next attempt was a bit of a dog. And a fat dog at that. Much of the magic was lost in a cloying sea of blubber.
That’s what Audi has tried to address. This is a car that’s been sent to the Mayr clinic and then forced to run home: 15kg has been shaved from the body, 12kg from the axles, 3.5kg from the steering system, 12.5kg from the four-wheel-drive system and 1kg from the rear differential.
“Comfort? Not bad. Except in the back. If you’re sitting there, it’s so jiggly that any text you send is gibberish”
Then there’s the engine. That’s 31kg lighter, which sounds great. But to achieve this, two of the cylinders have been replaced by a brace of centrally mounted turbochargers. Yup. The naturally aspirated V8 is gone, along with its burbling soundtrack. And in its place is a lighter, fizzier, more polar-bear-friendly blown V6.
Is that a good thing? No, of course not. Unless you are Al Gore. That said, it’s one hell of a powerplant. The oomph it delivers, especially in the mid range, is strong enough to detach hair. And because it, along with everything else, is so much less fat, the speed that results makes you laugh out loud, nervously.
I can’t understand why Audi charges £1,450 to lift the top speed from 155mph to 174mph. And then demands £1,200 for a sports exhaust system and £950 for better steering. It’s as though it’s saying, “We’ve made a crap car, but don’t worry. If you give us all your money, we’ll make it halfway decent.”
Except “halfway decent” doesn’t begin to cover how well the RS 4 goes and stops and corners. The steering has been criticised for feeling dead, but this was by a road tester who also claimed he could feel the electronics shifting power between the axles. He’s obviously superhuman.
I couldn’t find anything wrong with the steering. No matter what driving mode I selected, it, along with everything else, felt giddy and brilliant. And, best of all, this was the first fast Audi I’d driven in years that didn’t have squeaky brakes.
And what was doubly hilarious was that I was driving a five-door estate. Which meant my dog could have enjoyed the fighter-jet G-force as well. And then been sick, probably.
The boot, however, is not terribly big. I learnt this while moving two fire pits from my Golf, into which they’d fitted perfectly well, to the Audi. Into which they also fitted. But only by tearing the roof lining to shreds.
Further forwards, it’s all very well screwed together and clever. You can, for instance, turn the entire instrument binnacle into a sat nav map. The downside of being in something this clever is that you spend a lot of time pushing buttons and twiddling knobs and then swearing under your breath because it won’t do what you want.
Comfort? Well, in full get-out-of-my-way racing mode, there isn’t any. The car bounces alarmingly if you go for this setup. But in the mode everyone will always use it’s not bad. Except in the back. If you’re sitting there, it’s so jiggly that any text you send is gibberish.
I’m picking nits because this is one of those cars that are hard to fault. I was expecting much of the RS 4’s heart to have been lost with the V8, but the V6 is better. And you have that four-wheel-drive system, which allows you to do a drift, and then go to Val-d’Isère and drive through one. It’s a very capable car.
For sure, it is better than the current M3, which is not BMW’s finest hour, but is it better than the Alfa?
No. Of course not. The Quattroformaggi is so much more charismatic. It’d come into your life like a new puppy. You’d want to take care of it and let it sit by the fire on chilly evenings. And if it did a little oil wee in the night, you’d tickle it behind its ears and understand. It is a car with a soul.
And plainly that’s not what you want from a car, so you’ll buy the Audi instead. And you won’t regret it because, crikey, it’s good. Really, really good.
Rivals: Audi RS 4 Avant vs Mercedes-AMG C 63 estate
|Audi RS 4 Avant||Mercedes-AMG C 63 estate|
|Boot space||505 litres||490 litres|