2003 Audi RS6 Review

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The Car Connection Expert Review

Denise McCluggage Denise McCluggage Editor
February 17, 2003

How can you rate a car's desirability? According to the grapevine when the first half-dozen RS6 Audis were loosed in Paris, five of them were promptly stolen, including one belonging to Danny Sullivan.

It's too good a story to ruin by overzealous fact-checking, so let it stand.

At that if this rumored theft rate were projected to the U.S. it would scarcely make a blip on the grand theft auto statistics because at this moment only 1000 of these bi-turbo V-8 all-wheel-drive five-passenger sport sedans are destined to see these shores. And already the caterwauling has begun. "I want my RS6!" (Wail away, the number already has crept upward and might again under pressure.)

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Or adjust your sights slightly downward. The normally aspirated V-8 S4 Quattro is an absolute darling and 5000 of that model are destined for the new world. (The price differential might sway you: the RS6 is $85,000; the S4 is $45,000.) The 2003 Audi RS6 will start passing through showrooms in July. The S4 (a 2004 model) will arrive in the fall.


Like cooks salivate reading a cookbook, driving enthusiasts drool over the paper specs of the RS6. The powerplant is a variation of the aluminum 4.2-liter V-8 of the S6 (340 hp) with the R version bi-turbo producing 450 hp at 5700-6400 rpm.

Some features: new cooling methods for the five valves to each cylinder, new air-intake approach and a dual-chamber air cleaner tucked in the 90-degree V of the engine. (This tight packaging of components allows the engine to be amazingly short and compact.)

But what is clearly most gape-producing about this engine is its torque: 415 lb-ft of it beginning at a mere 1950 rpm. And that torque continues in a flatly beautiful mesa shape right up to 5600 rpm.

The knock against Audi has long been that the marque might be fine for Autobahn cruising. There you didn't mind a leisurely wind up to top speed because you could cruise at the max (maybe 150 mph) for great swatches of time. The American motorist, however, feels the need to get to speed quickly because a 75 to 85 top is all stern officialdom might allow. (The RS6 is governed to a top speed of 150-155 mph.)

Except for bragging rights, instant low-end torque for launch means more to drivers in America than does a mightily illegal top speed. We are talking some serious get-away punch for nipping by your inferiors on busy two-lanes, merging into clubby Interstates, darting across intersections or simply partaking of an occasional kinesthetic cookie by instantly shrinking one's road companions in the rearview mirror. Yes, Martha, torque is a good thing.

More technical points: the amazingly high (for a turbo) compression ratio of 9.8:1. Maybe it's this that increases the responsiveness of the engine and leaves no discernible turbo lag. Make no mistake: this is Instant Car. Add foot pedal and Houston, we have lift off. It will get you to 62 mph (100 kph) in 4.7 seconds and from 45 mph to 70 in 3.1. That latter may be the most used range on American highways.

What's more this V-8 comes with a guttural sound like that burble of warning deep in the throat of an arousing mastiff. Muscle-car muffler music. And it changes: under 1700 revs the exhaust valve is closed, over that it is open. Crescendo, maestro

Dynamics of performance

The RS6 is the first Audi with DRC in its alphabetical attributes. That stands for "Dynamic Ride Control," an active suspension concept with a mechanical-hydraulic connection between diagonal shock absorbers through a center-mounted apportioning control to instantly counter excessive roll and add stability in sporty cornering. It also levels the body under the forces of both braking and acceleration. Thus DRC is designed to enhance ride and handling characteristics.

Of course both the RS6 and the S4 feature the rally-bred full-time four-wheel drive Quattro system for better road bite whatever the weather.

The RS6 has only one transmission but a versatile one. It is a five-speed Tiptronic automatic with shifting paddles at the fingertips of a driver with hands properly positioned at 3 and 9 on the wheel. Left hand for downshifts, right for up. The tip is a quick one. (The backs of the paddles are corrugated for tactile recognition so you won't try a smart downshift with the direction indicator stalk. More than once anyway.)

New in the RS6 transmission is a sensing logic that hangs on to a gear beyond customary shift points if lateral acceleration warrants it. Thus no unwanted shifts in the throes of cornering.

Any car likely to spend any time on the Autobahn has excellent brakes. The RS6 with its 18-inch wheels is no exception. The brakes will bring the car down to 0 from 100 Ks (62 mph) in 2.6 seconds. That performance is aided in the final moments by an integral braking assist in the ESP (Electronic Stability Program) which shortens the white-knuckle distance by a critical meter.

Audi, like Fred Astaire, is known for style. The RS6 and S4 live up to expectations with some distinctive differences. What is bright work on the S4 (the backs of the mirrors for instance) is matte brushed aluminum on the RS6. There's a slight up-flip of the deck lid of the RS6 that is both restrained and functional at top speed. Would that all spoilers came to this.

On the inside the expected handsomeness continues although the optional carbon fiber on the RS6 dash and console seems a bit boy-racerish and dignity-sapping. Personal taste speaking.

But proof, cooks will tell you, is in the pudding. On the smoothly flowing superhighways and the gently sinuous byways the RS6 is a smooth flowing delight. With such ready power so immediate to foot pressure passing opportunities abound on the most double-lined of roads. Speeds seem to level out to that mile-eating consistency that makes long trips a delight.

Here comes the however. On a tight racing course (where road cars should really never be tested) the bloom leaves the rose. A sort of straining shows up. Awkward understeer. It's like spinach in the teeth of a beguiling smile.

Disappointed, I transferred to the S4. Now this is more like it.

2004 Audi S4

2004 Audi S4

Enlarge Photo
The S4 being tighter and smaller is not so out of place on the west course at Firebird. A delightful new six-speed manual gearbox with a shorter throw (AND a six-speed automatic) fit the S4 beautifully.

New steering in these Audis. The familiar ultra-light steering of the marque has gained enough substance to add more specificity to cornering. Something to lean against. It is more direct, too, with a steering ratio of just 14.5:1 on the new car (16 something on the A4). Crisper. And the variable steering is pleasantly present without getting itself noticed. The stiffer chassis is similarly appreciated.

The S4 gets Recaro seats as standard (only Germany in RS6) and they are wonderful with hugging side support.

In general, I was more generally pleased with the S4 — such a totality of fine attributes. My admiration for the engine in the RS6 did not spread throughout the experience. Maybe the result of early hype and high expectations. Okay, steal the RS6, but buy the S4.

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