We’ve wanted to do this test for a long, long time. As people who rack up miles on their respective motorcars, we always indulged ourselves daydreaming about this sort of motorcars. What’s great about daily-driver performance cars is that you can immerse yourself in your passion during your routine or when you’re stuck in traffic. There’s massive satisfaction in listening to the low frequencies of a properly sorted engine, while sitting in leather bucket seats, staring at an aggressive cluster.
By themselves, super-wagons are the ultimate daily drivers: hedonistic enough for you to have a dice with sportbikes or the occasional 911 but also altruistic enough for you to carry other people and things around. Even more importantly, with the right colours, they can be discreet and won’t draw attention when you drive by. No one can build fast wagons like the Germans. Nowadays you can choose between the Porsche Panamera Sport Turismo, the C63 AMG, the Alpina B3 and B5, not counting the entire RS Wagon range from Audi. In their own way, these cars bring the excitement of a proper sportscar with loads of practicality at your disposal.
To be able to drive a car such as the RS2 back-to-back with its modern counterpart, the RS4 is definitely a treat. It’s hard to find an RS2 which is in good running conditions but thanks to our friends of Gulf Blue we found it and we couldn’t be happier. Sometimes awesome days like these happen: two great cars and the best roads you can drive in Italy, in the hills around Bologna. Designed by the Gods of speed, these roads seem to have been made for driving and for proper testing of two super wagons. Finally, we’re able to tell how these cars feel behind the steering wheel. When driving both vehicles, the words that spring into mind are “competence” and “balance”. They’re competent because they’re the do-it-all sort of car, and balanced because all the elements they have are so well connected together that they result in one of the best driving experiences a car can offer. They do not drive like an Audi first and foremost. There’s hardly any understeer and the direction change is instantaneous, linear and well calibrated: there isn’t a single aspect on these cars that might put you off and spoil the fun.
The RS2 is perhaps the biggest surprise, as it doesn’t fell like and Audi at all: no wonder why it became the car that started the genre. No roll, no understeer, just precision and fun. It hails from the time when joint collaborations between manufacturers involved building cool cars such as the Opel Omega Lotus, the Renault Clio Williams and this Audi, which was made together with Porsche. With details which were taken from the 993 such as the mirrors and the front headlamps and from the 968 Clubsport such as the wheel, we must say that no other wagon had quite the same appeal. The 2.2 turbocharged 5 cylinder engine was tuned to produce 320 hp which at that time allowed the RS2 to embarrass supercars almost anywhere. The “touch” of Porsche is evident and not just because it’s such a powerful car, but because of how it drives. The permanent Quattro four wheel drive works its magic anytime you put the car into a corner allowing you intuitively to follow the ideal line between corners, in an almost natural way. Just point the car where you want it to go and she’ll be there in an eyeblink, falling into the apex and then powering herself out of the corner, all with minimal effort from the driver. The Quattro system works its magic and you clearly feel the rear end working to pull you out of the corner.
There’s a duality with this car, which is perhaps what made the RS2 successful and that’s between the most composed wagon to the most ferocious rally car. You can drive it normally but after 4000 rpm, all hell brakes loose. When the turbo spools up, you hear its wine and in a fraction of a second you’ll find yourself at the redline. There is plenty of power and the Quattro system of the car matches so well with the 5 cylinder engine. It’s when you drive the RS2 hard that all the heritage from the Group B S1’s begins to be felt: the sound is mesmerizing, the turbo and the wastegate hiss furiously as you can clearly picture the road ahead as a rally stage. It’s not difficult to imagine yourself being like Hannu Mikkola, somewhere flat out in the Finnish 1000 Lakes rally. The visibility out is good and the ride is just superb. There is no roll and the front end never ever feels heavy and reluctant to change direction while the tall shoulder tires provide the most excellent ride comfort.When you quick-shift it, the RS2 behaves very likely to an Impreza or a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution: as soon as you lift off the throttle and depress the clutch, you feel the turbo still boosting the cylinders and you hear a clear “bang” from the transmission as you shift. It’s not as harsh as one of those Japanese purpose-built saloons, but it’s definitely felt. Only Porsche could have been able to turn a boring Audi 80 Avant into a true “Autobahngewehr” (Autobahn weapon): there is nothing boring about this car, nothing: from the Nogaro Blue paint to the Porsche wheels and that magnificent 5 cylinder engine, it’s the most complete package you can wish for.
Interestingly, many details that are found on the RS2 are to be found on the new RS4. At first, we were skeptical to this car. We just kept thinking “nah, we know the drill, this will be all marketing and no satisfaction”, but we were wrong. In many ways, the new Audi has retained that qualities that made the RS2 great in the first place. No, it’s not engineered by Porsche, but it’s no boring Avant either as it has superb handling and retains that fabulous duality that makes these cars so appreciated. The new RS4 is a surprising car by all means, as it’s such a fun car to drive. Not overly powerful, as 450 hp from the 3 litre twin turbo V6 provide more than enough poke for today’s standard, it’s balanced in many areas. Like the RS2 it retains such a lovely balance between sporty and practical elements that it’s a package which is hard to beat. The V6 is perhaps seen as a comeback to the very first RS4, the B5 model, which had its engine developed by Cosworth.
Besides all the technological trickery it packs, it’s the way it handles that it’s most exciting. No understeer, very intuitive handling and a lovely rear end sports differential which multiplies the grip when exiting the corner. The torque and the overall nature of the car’s dynamics actually require very little gearbox action and you can drive the RS4 almost in one gear. There’s no turbo lag and power is instantaneous with a very homogeneous delivery, thanks to a proper set up of the turbos and the Audi Valvelift system. It’s intuitive, fast, safe but exciting and satisfying at the same time: it’s a pleasant surprise and a very compelling package that leaves you wanting for more. It doesn’t overwhelm you but it does satisfy you as a driver and as an enthusiast. The handling is intuitive and paired to the not exaggerated power delivery, make the RS4 a joy to drive fast. A positive aspect is also the wonderful sound insulation of the cabin which after a long day is appreciated.
So… can you beat an RS wagon? No and after years they can still have the same feeling as the original. Evolution at times is great but sometimes, sticking to a well proven rule cannot be foolhardy, can it?