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The Clarkson review: Audi RS4 Avant (2012)

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From a road-tester’s perspective, the good thing about Audi’s RS cars is that you never quite know what you’re going to get. Some are nearly as good as their rivals from BMW. Some are forgettable. Some are dire. And then we get to the car you see pictured this morning: the new RS 4 Avant. Which has just provided me with one of the worst weeks of my entire motoring life.

Bad is a small word that doesn’t even begin to cover the misery. Misery that was so all-consuming that, given the choice of using this car or taking the Tube, I would head straight for the escalator. Not just would. Did.


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Day one involved a trip to a place called Stoke Newington that pretends to be in London but in reality is an hour north of the capital, just outside Hull. And straight away I knew there was something terribly wrong.

I have driven bumpy cars in the past. My own Mercedes is extremely firm. But the RS 4 was in a different league. It was like sitting in a spin-dryer that was not only on its final frantic cycle but also falling down a very long, boulder-strewn escarpment. I couldn’t begin to imagine what Audi’s engineers had been thinking of. The interior was typical of the breed. It had all the toys. All the features. So it didn’t look like a stripped-out racer. But that’s what it felt like every time I ran over a pothole or a Catseye or a sweet wrapper. It was, in short, a nicely finished brogue — with a drawing pin poking up through the sole. I hated it.

I tried to test some of the features, but so vigorous was the shaking that I gave up. I’d aim my finger at a button, but by the time it got there I’d have run over a bit of discarded chewing gum so it’d bounce off course and hit something else. Usually a bit of carbon fibre that had been added . . . to save weight.

That’s another issue with the RS 4. It felt like it was set up to scythe round Druids with no roll at all, and yet it weighs more than 1Ç tons. Some of that is muscle from the big V8. But most of it is fat.

And then the brakes started misbehaving. This meant that every time I pulled up, they made a sound exactly like I was running a wetted finger around a wine glass. This made passers-by look at me very crossly.

But the worst thing, by miles, was the steering. There’s absolutely no feel at all when you are going in a straight line. It’s so floppy, you actually begin to think, as you bump along, that it may be broken. And then, when you get to a corner, it suddenly becomes extremely heavy.

That’s why on day two I used the Tube and taxis to get around. But on day three I had to go to Luton, and then Chipping Norton. So I slipped into the same sort of padded underpants I’d wear when being beaten at school and headed north.

You may imagine I’m going to say things got better. But they didn’t. So violent was the bumping and so alarming was the steering that I stuck to 55mph on the M1. Listening to Radio 3. I’d wanted Radio 2 but my finger had cannoned off the roof, the wiper switch and various other bits and bobs before alighting in completely the wrong place.

What’s interesting is that wherever I went, squash-playing lunatics in other Audis and people on the street would bound over to ask what it was like. I can’t remember a car attracting so much interest. And all looked terribly deflated when I explained that it was utter, utter crap.

All weekend I didn’t drive it at all. Why would you? But then on Sunday night, with a heavy heart, I climbed back on board and set off back to London. As I drew near, it started to rain, so I reached for the wiper switch. Unfortunately I ran over a white line as I did this, and as a result my arm boinged into a button on the dash marked “drive select”.

And everything changed.

The steering suddenly developed some feel. The ride settled down. The revs dropped. The RS 4 stopped being a wild animal and became a car. It turns out that “drive select” alters the entire character of the machine. It changes the engine, the steering, the suspension and even the noises that come out of the tailpipe.

It’s there so you can tailor your car to suit your mood. Which does raise a question: what sort of mood was the delivery driver in when he left it at my house, set up to achieve a new lap record in the Saturn V engineering shop?

I have never met anyone who would want, ever, to put their RS 4 in what’s called Dynamic mode. I can’t imagine such a creature exists. Because on all the other settings it’s a good car. So good that I rode into town on a wave of guilt and shame, remembering what I’d been telling people about it. And how they’d be better off with a diesel BMW. Or a pogo stick. Or some new shoes.

In Comfort mode it’s quiet, the steering is light, the seats are seductive and the double-clutch gearbox creamy and smooth. And because it’s so relaxing, you can sit back and enjoy the firepower from that big V8.

Unlike the engine in most modern performance cars, this one is not turbocharged. The upside of that is crispness and lots of hectic goings-on at the top of the rev band. The downside is that a polar bear could get a bit of asthma at some point in the very distant future. This was one of the world’s best engines when it was introduced six years ago. And nothing’s changed.

Handling? Well, in the past all Audis have been determined understeerers, partly because they were nose-heavy and partly because of the four-wheel-drive system. In this one much work has been done to shift some of the weight aft. And at the back there’s a locking diff. So now you have the grip, but when you get to the end of its tenacity, it’s the rear that starts to feel light, not the front. This, of course, is better, because if you go backwards into a tree, you don’t see it coming.

You could buy one of these cars, and, provided you never, ever, put it in Dynamic mode, you’d be very happy. Your dog would also like it because in the boot there’s a bit of equipment designed, in my mind, to stop him falling over. It works for shopping too.

However, I thought pretty much the same thing when I drove the original RS 4. I liked it very much indeed. But it was not quite as good as BMW’s M3. It lacked the Beemer’s liveliness and, ultimately, its speed.

The new RS 4 bridges the gap and is therefore quite a tempting proposition. But I can pretty much guarantee that as soon as you take delivery, BMW will launch a new version of the M3 and that will once again surge ahead. It was always thus, I’m afraid.

 

Verdict ★★★☆☆

BMW does it better.

Factfile

Audi RS 4 Avant 4.2 FSI quattro

Price:
£54,925
Engine:
4163cc, V8
Power:
444bhp @ 8250rpm
Torque:
317 lb ft @ 4000rpm
Transmission:
7-speed sequential auto
Acceleration:
0-62mph: 4.7sec
Top speed:
155mph (limited)
Fuel
26.4mpg (combined)
CO2:
249g/km
Road tax band:
L (£815 for the first year)
Dimensions:
L 4719mm, W 1850mm, H 1416mm

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