Audi's RS4 Avant is a good car, but is it much better than its predecessor? Every year I drive about 100 cars, but the actual number is much larger than that. Or much lower. It depends how you count.
Most models come in a variety of body styles. If I drive the sedan, does the coupe count as a different car? How about the wagon? Or convertible?
The problem multiplies when you factor in engines and transmissions. Both can change the character of a vehicle completely. By the time you get to the differences between the bottom and top of a well-populated range, say the span from a BMW 320i to an M3, there's an awful lot that separates them. But where do you draw the line?
When I play the motoring parlour game of, “If I had to buy one of (brand), which would it be?”, the RS4 Avant is usually the Audi answer. Compared with a standard A4 Avant, it has been lowered, has aluminium-rich suspension, a wider track and a sports rear differential.
It's a practical wagon that's not too big, not too showy, has all-wheel drive and a big, high-revving naturally aspirated 4.2-litre V8. Just the thing for a trip to Ikea. And since Audi has given up its former ban on producing more than one RS variant at a time, it's also very like the RS5, the RS5 Cabrio and probably some other RSs I haven't encountered yet.
Which leaves you wondering why there has been a five-year gap since the last RS4. There is one way, though, that you'll know the difference between the 2013 car and the one from 2008: price. At $149,400 plus on-roads, this one is about $20,000 cheaper. On that basis, I'm prepared to say it's absolutely all new.
When is a new car really “new”? When every last nut and bolt has been redesigned from scratch is one answer. But that rarely happens, if ever. A proportion of the same bits carry over from one generation to the next.
Car companies like to gloss over this. Regardless how minor an upgrade, every car is “new”. The term has become so devalued that “all-new” is now the default. And that means “Mostly stuff we've used before” as well.
Often, large swathes of engineering are carried over and only the pressed metal is different. If that's indistinguishable, then you're really in trouble. This problem is starting to creep up on Audi. Any Audi you see on the road is unmistakeably from the Ingolstadt maker, so distinctive are its designs.
But which one? Is that the new A3 or the old?
Inside it's a similar story. The Audi cabin was lauded as best-in-class a few years back. Then Audi set the backrest to a comfortable angle and put its feet up. The materials and layout have barely changed and the novelty of having to press a button umpteen times to change the fan speed has long worn off. Now when I enter an Audi cabin I'm craving innovation.
The newcomers include two of the fastest diesels you can buy in the A6/A7 3.0 TDI, which develop 230kW thanks to clever turbocharging. They leverage Audi's race success with diesels at the Le Mans 24-hour race, which it has dominated since 2006, and employ some of that know-how to hit 100km/h in a whisker over five seconds.
They feed an increasing fondness for diesel engines in Australia, with 43 per cent of Audis now sold with one. At 4.7 seconds to 100km/h it's quicker than the previous RS4, too, by 0.2s. A seven-speed double-clutch automatic transmission replaces the previous six-speed unit and the engine has been reworked to deliver 21 per cent better fuel economy.
An A7 example driven to Sydney from Canberra left me cold. The engine sounds good when you're giving it an absolute hiding, but most of the time it doesn't sound like much at all. There's a distinct lack of drama or excitement.
The suspension was unsettled by country roads and the ride was poor even in comfort mode. There's the performance of a V8 but the diesel lacks the fizz of an old-fashioned petrol donk and I looked forward to the next day, when the latest RS4 Avant was available.
It's terrific to be driving a non-turbo engine for a change and this one revs freely, delivering sound and power in equal measure all the way to 8250rpm. Now I'm sure if I drove old and new back to back the differences would be glaring. I'd probably notice the extra couple of hundred kilos for a start.
This one feels like a heavy car. It would certainly be more than simply, “It's been a long time since I've filled up -- 21 per cent longer than I thought it would be.'' But it wasn't possible to do that, so the way I feel about the RS4 is unchanged.
On one hand, it has the sort of performance any enthusiast would like in any vehicle, regardless of function. It's a wagon, but it goes like stink. If you must go shopping, then it might as well be in one of these. It's a prize fighter in civvies who knows he can whip anyone in the room. Because of that, it's the sort of car you end thinking can be exploited fully only on a track.
Then you go to a track and it's confusing because it doesn't seem quite right there either. The all-wheel drive system is amazing and you can feel it shuffling torque from front to rear as grip levels change. In some fast corners this can also be a bit disconcerting. It's not the simple equation delivered by a rear or front-drive car, where you get a sense of its limits.
In an RS4, it's difficult to work out where they are. The all-drive system always seems to have tricks up its sleeve. The result is invariably that you go steaming into corners a bit too quickly and get understeer -- going straight on when you want to turn. You're going faster in the first place because it's possible, and because it's difficult to tell how fast is too fast.
I remember this from other performance Audis and perhaps it's a question of familiarisation. A few laps wasn't enough last time and isn't enough this time.
Is it new? Well, some of it is. The bits that deliver an extra 18kW and burn less fuel. In approach and much else, it's the same.
Audi RS4 Avant
Price: from $149,400
Vehicle: Performance wagon
Engine: 4.2-litre 8-cylinder petrol, 331kW/430Nm
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic, AWD
BMW 335i M Sport Estate
Price: from $112,600
Engine: 3.0-litre 6-cylinder, 225kW/400Nm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic, RWD
Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG Estate
Price: from $154,800
Engine: 6.2-litre 8-cylinder, 336kW/600Nm
Transmission: 7-speed automated manual, RWD