No single motorcar of the past quarter of a century has impressed Iain Robertson as much as the Audi RS6 Avant and the all-new, imperious, ‘master of all it surveys’ is being readied for January 2020 deliveries, in its most competent form ever.
The growth of the executive estate car market, which is intrinsic to the UK motoring scene, every bit as much as our demand for convertibles and sports cars, has been recognised by a number of manufacturers over the past few years. While Volvo is acknowledged as a brand serving that segment, it is not alone, with Peugeot, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Jaguar and, naturally, Audi all pitching their finest offerings into the ring.
However, with utilitarian and work needs central to the estate car’s existence, most of those carmakers tending to it relied on external suppliers, usually car tuners and their like, to produce limited numbers of higher performance variants, among which the 1980s AMG (Merc) Hammer and its in-house, current and thunderous E63 successor are prime examples. Yet, it was Audi that established a manufacturer-based option that would combine super-luxury with ultra-high-performance around 25 years ago, when it leant on its close relationship with Porsche to create the first RS2 Avant.
If the prospect of trans-continental, all-season travel, with partner, two children, granny and family pet on-board, out-accelerating Porsches and topping-out at close to 190mph has even an ounce of appeal, then you may start to comprehend the impact that the original RS6 had on me, in 2002, at its Scottish-based launch. A group of us flew into Edinburgh Airport, grabbed the keys to an RS6 and drove to the stately Balbirnie House Hotel, in Markinch, Fife, our abode for the night. We were joined by Audi fan, Jay Kay, lead singist of popular beat combo, Jamiroquai.
With its widened fenders, purposefully low stance and big alloy wheels, all enrobed by an estate car body and driven by a grumbling bi-turbo V8 petrol engine possessing a basso profundo exhaust tone, it was a touch of class that was doing what no other carmaker had dared to do before. In some ways, it was an intimidating and exciting machine but its quattro drivetrain, automated transmission with paddle shifters and impeccably good road manners ensured that, despite its ability to smash the 0-60mph increment in less than 5.0s, familiarity with its dimensions and immense potency grew rapidly and easily.
Four generations in and RS6 has been redressed. Personally, I feel that it looks slightly more ‘overkill’ externally, with (for Audi) a particularly heavy hand applied to some of its bumper detailing. Huge vents intended to gulp copious amounts of cold air at the front compete with similar outlets at the rear to exhaust pent-up heat. While not the conservative visual feast of the Mark One version, it remains beguiling. However, what lies beneath is the epitome of formidable RS engineering, with complex five-link suspension front and rear, a road-ripping 595bhp, fuel-sipping mild hybrid technology, illuminating LED laser headlighting and a promise of 0-60mph in a Tesla-taunting 3.3s (0-124mph in 12.0s). It is a confident statement of performance intent, terminating in the signature drainpipe exhausts; still of big oval design, just one at either end of the back bumper.
Developing a hefty 590lbs ft of torque, at the heart of the 4.0-litre V8’s potency is a 48v electrical system, with a 12kW lithium-ion storage battery for harvested energy. At speeds between 34 and 99mph, should the driver lift off the accelerator pedal, the engine will enter ‘coast’ mode for up to 40s, while also recovering energy. The mild hybrid belt-driven starter/generator restarts the engine imperceptibly, as conditions dictate. Combined with a ‘start:stop’ facility that works at speeds of up to 13mph, fuel savings of around one pint every 60 miles can be attained. Okay. It is not much but, when you take the RS6’s vast performance envelope into account, it is a practical means to a CO2-reducing and fuel-saving end. However, the engine also incorporates a ‘cylinder-on-demand’ system that, at low to medium loads, can switch off cylinders 2, 3, 5 and 8, by turning off their injection and ignition systems and closing their inlet and exhaust valves; once the throttle is re-applied, the engine bursts into life and returns to normal instantly.
Of course, it would not be an Audi RS, let alone a pinnacle RS6, did it not have some bravado in its armoury. An innocuous, flush-fitted switch in the centre console carrying an ‘exhaust’ graphic, allows the driver to select one of two ‘noise’ settings; one a just-letting-you-know-I’m-here level, with the other a more hell’s-bells blast of raucousness, which might be unseemly for a luxury estate car but, then, this is an Audi RS6 estate car.
The new multi-link, air suspension system uses aluminium extensively in its construction, while the comprehensively re-engineered power steering ensures remarkable levels of agility and vital feedback to the driver’s fingers. Audi’s fine-tuning engineers sought to achieve a series of significantly enhanced dynamic improvements to the car, partly to respond to requests for less heft at the helm but, also, to make the RS6 feel wieldier. Using the ‘Drive Select’ program, two specific chassis set-ups can be customised by the driver and an RS switch on the steering wheel activates them. While 21.0-inch diameter alloys are standard, the 22.0-inch option (pictured on the test car) equips the car with 285/30 section tyres in Vorsprung trim for even greater grip levels. Advanced ceramic brakes that save around 34kgs over the normal steel system provide prodigious braking potential.
The clear black, fully digitised instrument panel is activated at start-up and provides an enormous array of detail information that the driver can dial-up. In fact, with the sort of details that a race engineer might find mildly discombobulating, the readouts can include temperatures of drive components, levels of G-force and individual tyre pressures…when you would have time to look and contemplate any of them, is anybody’s guess. The ventilated and heated Nappa hide seats are luxuriously comfortable but still allow decent space fore and aft, with a load area that can grow from 565 to 1,680-litres, when the rear seats are folded.
Audi works to its own Kaizen system of constant product improvement. Just as you think that it cannot make its subsequent model better, it does so. For the company executive desiring Porsche performance but needing greater practicality, the new Audi RS6 Avant is an ultimate car in innumerable ways. Prices will be announced soon.