There was a time when station wagons were the family mode of choice. South Africans (and motorists around the world) loved their extended wheelbases, their massive cargo spaces, their high-lift tailgates. You could fit in a whole school of kids, plus the dogs, and head for the hills. How things have changed! By DEON SCHOEMAN.
Mention the dreaded words station wagon, and most South African motoring types will immediately visualise a boring, stolid but oh-so-practical family vehicle.
Somehow, we tend to associate station wagons (or estate cars, if you prefer to sound posh) with toddlers, prams and camping cots. Or damp and smelly Labradors (and the damp and smelly Wellington boots of their owners).
But let’s not forget that there are station wagons – and station wagons. The Audi A4 Avant is sleeker and more sophisticated than most, with a premium sheen that makes its utilitarian capabilities seem less mundane.
But even the smart Avant can look pretty ordinary when it’s parked next to its muscle-bound, iron-pumping sibling: the RS4 Avant.
This is a station wagon that will make the heart of even the stoutest estate car critic beat faster, and with good reason: the RS4 Avant is an undiluted, hard-core performance machine first and foremost. It just happens to include space and versatility on its résumé, too.
From a distance, the RS4 Avant looks more station wagon than sports car. It’s the extended roofline, the pronounced tailgate and the shiny roof rails you see first. But moving closer, the details that emerge are anything but ordinary: this is an Avant on steroids.
The wheel arches are flared. The haunches are muscular and more pronounced. The stance is low and menacing. And the clearance between the sheet metal and those 20-inch alloys and their ultra-low profile tyres is so infinitesimal that the wheels look almost too big for the car.
But the most attention-grabbing detail of all is the sheer size and width of the drainpipe-sized exhausts. They look more like bazookas than tailpipes. And just as well: the V8’s angry howl deserves every inch of those large-bore pipes to communicate its high-performance message to the world. It’s a sound that singes your senses as the Audi rushes past.
As impressive as that is there’s a lot more to the RS4 Avant than an angry exhaust note. Once ensconced behind the wheel of this Audi, all thoughts of station wagon practicality disappear. This is a performance thoroughbred, with the muscle and the manners to match.
The cabin offers an attractive mix of RS-style sporty appointments, Avant-style utility and Audi-style premium quality and luxury. A pair of excellent high-backed bucket seats takes pride of place up front, while the rear bench seat also offers more sculpted seating positions than on the usual, family-oriented versions.
Boot space remains generous at 490 litres (1,430 litres with the bench seat folded flat), and the motorised tailgate ensures ease of access – and attracts envious glances from fellow shoppers at the local mall.
Since the RS4 straddles both luxury and performance roles, the list of comfort and convenience features is a long one. Expect niceties such as real hide, satnav live-linked to Google Maps, remote central locking, and Audi’s intuitive MultiMedia Interface.
There’s a decent multi-speaker sound system, but you need to pay extra for a cable that will allow your iPhone or iPod to communicate with the system. The same goes for USB flash drives – cheeky, considering the price tag of the car.
The grippy, thick-rimmed steering wheel is dressed in perforated leather and has a racing-style, squared-off rim, while the driving position can be set low and close enough to take full control of this Audi’s considerable dynamic potential – and make you feel like a touring car pilot in the process.
While much of the rest of the motoring world is in the process of adopting smaller-capacity, forced-induced power plants, the RS4 Avant’s motive urge comes courtesy of a normally aspirated, 4.2-litre V8. That’s not good news at Reef altitudes, where the thin air robs engines of up to 18% of their output.
In the case of the RS4 Avant, the result is a drop from the quoted 331kW of max power to more muted, real-world 271kW when driven on Joburg’s roads. That still represents an effective power-to-weight ratio of more than 150kW/ton, while the accompanying 430Nm of torque adds plenty of shove, too.
Best of all, the engine revs with great enthusiasm. The red line is beyond the 8,000rpm mark, quite astounding for a large-capacity V8, and the reason for the RS4’s spine-tingling soundtrack. The seven-speed S-tronic dual clutch gearbox is the only transmission option, while putting it all down on the road is quattro all-wheel drive.
The RS4 Avant is not for sissies or for dawdlers. On the move, the ride is firm to hard, steering is meaty but direct, and throttle response is crisp. Audi’s Dynamic Drive system allows these parameters to be muted or emphasised, depending on personal preference, driving style and road conditions.
The power delivery is deceptively smooth, but it lacks the low-down punch of a turbo-enhanced engine, preferring a more linear, more insistent delivery that builds, crescendo-like, as the engine piles on the revs with ever-increasing enthusiasm.
The result is a car that is deceptively fast. Acceleration is insistent rather than explosive, but the way the speedo needle spins around the dial tells you just how fast the RS4 gathers speed.
The factory figures claim a 0-100km/h sprint time of 4.7 seconds, while top speed is limited to 250km/h. But it’s clear that without the presence of that electronic nanny, the RS4 Avant’s top speed would be a lot higher.
If anything , the Audi’s handling is even more impressive. Those gumball tyres on lightweight wheels provide tenacious grip, while the quattro system’s traction ensures that no energy (and no expensive rubber) is wasted on spectacular wheel spins.
The optional quattro sport differential adds further composure by regulating the power delivery between the two rear wheels, which benefits both cornering speeds and the car’s ability to track the chosen line. No wonder that the RS4 Avant can muster face-distorting cornering forces!
It stands to reason that beefy brakes are a vital part of this package. Eight-pot front callipers bite onto dinner plate-sixed grooved and perforated discs up front, while the single-pot rear callipers and slightly smaller discs add further retardation potential.
So, who said that utility, practicality and high performance can’t be bedfellows? The Audi RS4 Avant shines on every front, but it’s the performance and the handling that are its brightest talents, as they should be in a car bearing the RS badge.
For all its poise and apparent politeness during normal driving, the tautness of the suspension, and the way the drivetrain flexes its muscles at the slightest throttle prompt, serve as constant reminders that this is a performance vehicle first and foremost.
Station wagon? Make that super-wagon – and leave the Labradors at home... DM
Audi RS4 Avant
- Engine 4,163cc V8, direct fuel injection
- Gearbox Seven-speed S-tronic dual-clutch
- Power 331kW @ 8,250rpm
- Torque 430Nm @ 4,000rpm
- 0-100 km/h 4.7 sec
- Top speed 250km/h (governed)
- Fuel consumption 10.7 litres/100 km (combined cycle)
- CO2 emissions 249g/km
- Retail price R875,000