On Friday I drove the new RS4 at Oulton Park courtesy of Audi and much fun was had. However, this story begins about 18 years ago in a Ferrari. My first experience of a supercar was a 308 GTS (all very Magnum PI) with a ‘massive’ 255bhp. The sonic scream of that engine beyond 6000rpm is a sound I remember to this day. At the time, from my 205 GTi driving perspective, it seemed as if that car had the power to spin the world backwards. The 308 GTS needed a service every 3000 miles at about the same cost in pounds, a lot of money back then. The car was collected by a transporter (to avoid running miles on the car for servicing) and returned a few days later. About 8 years later I was lucky enough for the same Ferrari owner to let me drive his 360 Spider on track. This time the car had just over 400bhp. Both cars demanded respect to drive. The H pattern shift would not be rushed. The clutch required Herculean effort and the steering was a workout. Both these drives are up there with my very best motoring moments and when I look back I find it hard to believe how far we have come in just a few years.
Forgive my historical ramble if you will but I thought to set this write up in context. Yesterday I drove the new RS4 in all its 450bhp, S-tronic, wave form brake disc glory. This is a 5 door family car that can happily carry your family and the dog while easily outperforming supercars from just a few years ago. Add to that the fact it is effortless and intuitive to drive quickly and it becomes something even more special.
Back to the matter at hand, the RS3 vs the RS4. Let’s start this by saying if you drive either of these cars you are pretty much a winner in life. The average salary in the UK would never get you close to either of these cars. Cars which are as remote to most people as the F40 or Porsche 959 posters on my bedroom wall as a kid. There is no ‘winner’ here, if you own an RS3 or an RS4 you’ve already won.
Initial Impression of the RS4
The initial impression of the RS4 is that it is lazy, in comfort mode the throttle pedal seems long and a little unresponsive and the ride is cosseting on both the 19” or 20” wheels. Being fooled by this is like being fooled by a bathing alligator or basking male lion. Get close enough to poke either with a stick and you’re in for a surprise. The same is true of the RS4, give the throttle a good shove and you are greeted with an almighty roar just before all hell breaks lose. The throttle blip on downshift is intoxicating and the fuel droplet exploding on the up shift adds a real sense of aural drama. I found myself seeking out any opportunity to change gear just to hear that noise again and again and again…
Launch control in the RS4 is brutal. Disengage the ESP, select Sport mode on the gear box, left foot on the brake pedal, right foot hard down on the accelerator and that big V8 starts growling, popping and banging in WRC 3,2,1 go style, as the system holds the revs at about 3K. Release the brake pedal and the ferocity of the launch rearranges your internal organs as you are forced back in your seat. Although it’s probably a fraction slower to 60 than the RS3 I think the extra mass the RS4 has to move makes the experience more visceral. Were in shades of greatness here of course there is less than a few 10ths of a second between the 0-60 times. In the RS4 the power feels much more like its pushing you rather than a more pulled sensation in the RS3. And keeping this in perspective with those supercars of old you’d probably have needed a trip to the dealer for various next transmission parts if you were as brutal as this with them.
I love the noise of the 5 pot RS3, I regularly turn off the stereo and drop the window a touch just to listen to the sounds in Sport mode. On a twisting A & B road blast you need no other sound track. It came as a complete surprise to me just how much louder the RS4, with the sport pack including sports exhaust is. As with the RS3 if you just drive normally both are refined and quiet but once you pile on the revs the RS4 makes your spine tingle. I’d estimate the RS4 is about half as loud again as the RS3 in sport mode. The sound itself is familiar, it’s slightly deeper and has more bass but it’s the same basic rhythm. Hearing another RS4 on full throttle during the road route from outside it just sounded fantastic. It’s a noise straight from the racetrack and one you’d never tire of. In comparison to the RS3 it’s like someone turned up the noise level from 8 to 10. Jumping back in to my RS3 I was still happy with the soundtrack but the experience did leave me wanting that extra volume…looks like Miltek are probably going to make some more money!
I’m not a big fan of the standard Audi seats I find them hard and unforgiving especially in leather. For that reason the RS4 Super Sports seats deserve a special mention, I think these standard seats are the perfect solution. They offer almost as much support as the RS bucket seats but are that bit more comfortable. I’m sure most RS4’s will spend more time on road than track and as a result I’d keep the standard seats, they look good too. The RS4 Bucket seats are a little bigger and more comfortable than the RS3 buckets with more thigh and lateral padding. On track they are superb and really hold you tightly in place which helps you exploit more of that incredible grip. I’d say the bucket seats also take up more space and that might be a concern for people who carry back seat passengers / child seats etc regularly. Returning to the RS3 the bucket seats are still perfect for me and add to the whole RS experience, it will be a much tougher choice between Super Sports and RS bucket seats in future. In fact scrub that, if I was speccing an RS4 today I’d keep the super sports seats, save the 2K and put the cash toward the 4K ceramic brakes.
For a big and relatively heavy car the handling of the RS4 is incredible. I was also surprised by just how well the car seems to wrap itself around you, it feels no bigger than the RS3 from the drivers seat. The Audi A7 I drove recently by contrast felt massive and unwieldy on British roads. Push to the limit of grip and the RS4 is neutral and balanced. Entering a fast right hand corner and feeling the start of a slide, then adding just a touch of throttle to drive out of the corner lets you feel power shift toward the rear of the RS4. When the race driver took the same corner at full speed later he actively brought the rear of the car into play, using a few degrees of rear movement to angle the car into the apex and then fire though. I was amazed how early he could get back on the throttle. As the race driver said at the end of my lap “if you never take your own RS4 on track at least you know now what it can really do”, he was right and what it can do is awe inspiring.
You can also take massive liberties with the car, it’s utterly failsafe. During our first track session I was a passenger with another guest who by his admission had no track experience. Road only drivers tend to make too many and excessive control inputs – I know I used to. The RS4 just shrugged this off. Now I wouldn’t recommend you try any of these actions but as I was a captive – oops I mean passenger – when they happened it was interesting to see the results. Left in sport mode with S-tronic deciding when to shift the RS4 changed gear mid way through a fast sweeping corner with no drama. Entering a chicane, at the first apex point the S-tronic box shifted down, again no fuss or drama! Try this in a manual RWD car and aside from needing the dexterity of a gymnast, you’ll likely have a very big moment. Shift lock it seems is something you don’t have to worry about in the RS4. When the instructor in the lead car upped the pace things got a bit more ragged. Adding lock mid corner, again the RS4 just complied, there is grip to spare. Finally we entered a corner too fast and all 4 tyres began to slide but again no drama the systems quickly brought everything back in to line. Those old Ferrari’s or even something like a C63 AMG would have bitten much harder and one of more of these actions would probably have ended in an expensive accident. That little track session was ended when the passenger in the following RS4 asked if we could slow down because he was feeling sick, which gives you an idea of how wild it had got yet the RS4 just sucked up the abuse and carried on.
Back in the RS3 and there was quite a contrast. The RS4 is much more rear biased when grip is exceeded. The RS3 feels like it pivots around the front wheels and the rear feels a little light when grip is exceeded, it takes quite a bit of provocation to get the power to shift rearward. The rear of the RS4 is more planted and gives a much bigger shove when you ask the engine room for more power. Again we are in shades of greatness, the RS3 covers cross country roads like no other car I’ve owned but for sure I would like a bit more of the neutrality and rear bias I experienced in the RS4. The RS3 did have one advantage in handling – it feels much lighter on it’s feet and more keen to turn in initially but this is to be expected as the RS3 is quite a bit lighter.
Ride & Steering
In comfort mode the RS4 is a relaxed cruiser for driver and passenger. In dynamic mode it’s a bit uncomfortable for passengers but feels good from the drivers seat. The RS3 is somewhere between the 2 modes on the RS4 – the same is true of steering weight. Oh and ignore all the rubbish that journalists write about the drive select system being complicated, we live in the age of the smart phone. Press the drive select button 3 times and you switch effortlessly between the 3 modes comfort, auto and dynamic – job done you need mess no further. On road the RS4 is best in comfort or auto. On track dynamic gives the shaper throttle response and the steering weights up nicely, if slightly heavier than the RS3 which I think has this balance just about spot on.
I remember Evo reporting that the previous RS4 was busy under braking well this new one is utterly stable even during the most extreme race driver “I’m going to scare you witless” braking. The ceramic brakes deserve a special mention if you like the track because with the standard pads the brake pedal quickly becomes quite soft and spongy, the brakes still work fine but it’s a bit disconcerting. The ceramic brakes by contrast are incredible remaining utterly consistent despite repeated abuse – they smoke like an old steam train and smell like a chemical weapons factory though, a small price to pay for the incredible performance and I think £4k is reasonable compared to what some others manufacturers charge, you could easily pay this for a decent brake upgrade so I’d say they were well worth it.
The brakes in the RS3 are superb and no matter how hard I’ve driven on road they pedal has always remained consistent. There is no real difference between the RS3 and RS4 to report here. If you drive on road the brakes are more than adequate for the job.
The same DNA
The RS3 and RS4 clearly share the same basic DNA and philosophy. Driven back to back with the RS4 the RS3 feels a little more highly strung and ready for action at any moment, the advantage of turbo charging. The RS4 demands you work the engine a little more to extract the full performance but once you do it is devastating. The RS3 makes a fantastic noise that is the centre piece of the car. The RS4 ups this to a V8 symphony. Both are fabulous and demonstrate RS at its best. But which is quicker? Totally subjectively I’d say the RS3 has the edge on launch but the RS4 continues to pile on speed past 3 figures at a greater rate. There wouldn’t be much in it at all across country, both feel narrow enough and wrapped around the driver to push on. In the RS3 you can rely on the turbo for more accessible power, you work harder holding on to the revs for longer in the RS4. At the limit of grip the RS3 pulls, while the RS3 pushes. Neither is better or worse, they are just different.
20 years ago the idea of 450bhp car that was easy to drive, could carry the family, was utterly reliable despite using all the performance and at the same time devour the track for fun was inconceivable. Now it’s a reality and an engineering marvel with the ability to stir passion. The RS4 then, is clearly the RS3’s big brother, the same basic DNA but just that bit more grown up, offering slightly more of everything which I’d imagine is exactly what Audi intended.