It’s a hackneyed trope, but as much as American consumers don’t like station wagons, American enthusiasts love them. It’s one reason why my colleagues and I look across the pond with wistfulness as our European friends have unfettered access to everything from the BMW 5 Series Touring to the Hyundai i30. Well, Audi is finally throwing us a rather delicious bone with the 2021 RS6 Avant, a twin-turbocharged station wagon.
But it’s far from the only quick family transportation device – even within Audi’s own stable, the RS7 Sportback and RS Q8 force a rather difficult decision on customers. Journalistic ballyhoo about station wagons notwithstanding, are they even that different from one another? Each packs the same twin-turbocharged 4.0-liter V8 making 590 horsepower and 591 pound-feet, all of them route power to all four wheels via an eight-speed gearbox, and Audi claims a nearly identical 0-60-mph time for each. Which fast family Audi is right for you, then? Luckily, we’ve got a twisty road and a warm afternoon to find out.
There’s just something so wonderful about a station wagon wearing four rings on the front. Whether in traditional Avant, rugged Allroad, or outrageous Audi Sport form, the company knows how to build a tasteful family hauler. And the latest RS6 Avant carries on the legacy of its forebears (we’re looking at you, 1994 Audi RS2) in stylish and speedy form.
Thanks to Quattro all-wheel drive and an RS-specific torque-vectoring rear differential, the RS6 puts all of its mighty power down with zero drama, even on rough and gravel-strewn pavement. Its eight-speed automatic cracks off wonderful shifts, and although understeer is present, it’s relatively easy to counteract by easing up on the throttle and relaxing your grip on the steering wheel. While we wouldn’t call the RS6 Avant nimble (it’s a staggering 83.5 inches wide and weighs 4,960 pounds), there are few vehicles that can gobble up long, twisty stretches of pavement as well, even at high speeds and over varying road surfaces.
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An Audi through and through, the RS6 is a delight to behold. Our tester wore a rather dour Sebring Black Crystal paint job, but even in such a muted shade, its details shone brightly. Body side surfacing and flared front and rear fenders turn it into a distinct homage to the first Audi Quattro, which dominated its class in the World Rally Championship in 1982 and 1984. The box-flare tributes combine with huge 22-inch wheels and a surprisingly fast rake for the rear hatch, giving the RS6 a low and planted stance.
Inside, the Avant appealed to our flashier tastes, with signature RS seats draped in luscious Cognac extended leather contrasted against carbon fiber trim. As contributor Miles Branman said, it’s as though Audi spent a summer in Italy and came home keen on the artful flair of the Mediterranean. Sporting the new A6 family’s redesigned and tech-forward interior, the unusual upholstery/trim combination works brilliantly. And with 30.0 cubic feet of luggage volume behind the rear seats and space for four adults – our 6-foot-tall judges had no trouble getting comfy in back – the RS6 is a compelling daily driver.
In Audi parlance, the RS7 is a Sportback, with four passenger doors, a sloping roofline, and a cargo hatch in back. Mercifully, the company spared us the silly “four-door coupe” nomenclature of some competitors. That said, the RS7 feels somewhat sportier than the mechanically and functionally identical RS6. The cozy rear seats aren’t a match for the RS6 – headroom is down 2.4 inches – but the payoff is an intimate interior that seems tailor-made for the RS7’s slightly more aggressive mission brief.
Like the Avant, it boasts superlative grip out of corners thanks to Quattro and an Audi Sport rear differential, with ferocious power a mere twitch of the toe away. Once you’ve hit the throttle, there’s some turbo lag, even with the Audi Drive Select set to Dynamic mode. But once the snails start spinning, every passenger is in for a wild ride until the driver has had their fill of fun. Adding a bit more aural drama is a $1,000 sport exhaust system, with modes that range from sedate to snarling. After driving the RS7, we wished the RS6 were so equipped, so don’t hesitate to tick that box if you’re in the market.
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The Sportback we drove was subtly sinister, styling-wise, compared to the Avant, thanks in part to Glacier White paint and a black interior with darkened carbon fiber trim. It also wore a $2,750 Black Optic package, which swaps out the silver grille, badge, front spoiler, and diffuser trim for bits wearing gloss black. The 22-inch wheels on our tester are identical to the RS6, but they get black inserts as part of the package as well.
Although the RS7 is undeniably pretty, we didn’t think it looked as special or interesting as the RS6. That’s partly due to its smoother, flare-less body sides, although we also took some issue with the monobrow rear taillight that’s droopier and less graceful than that of the previous-generation Audi A7 family. However, its massive rear hatch hides plenty of cargo space, at 24.6 cubic feet. That’s far more than the similarly shaped BMW M8 Gran Coupe, and it affords the Audi RS7 with similar long-distance touring credentials as the RS6 Avant.
Over the past three decades, US consumers have sprinted away from luxury wagons toward the higher-riding SUVs. And naturally, those buyers demanded that those same utility vehicles become faster, stabler in corners, and more fun to drive. The Audi RS Q8, among many others, is the result of those demands. At 66.7 inches, it’s 8.1 ticks taller than the RS6 Avant overall, giving it the higher vantage point that SUV customers appreciate in heavy traffic.
Because of that height, it also carries 30.5 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats, and there’s 2.8 inches of additional rear legroom so even tall passengers can get comfortable. Put simply, the more upright Audi RS Q8 feels much more natural to drive in modern traffic than the low and lean RS6 and RS7.
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That’s not to say the SUV can’t kick some righteous ass, though. We might as well Ctrl+V everything we said about the RS Q8’s Avant and Sportback siblings, because all of their plaudits apply here as well. Once on boil, the engine serves relentless torque, while the eight-speed automatic/Quattro all-wheel-drive/sport differential combination puts it all to the ground without any issue. One significant performance difference for the SUV came in the form of massive ceramic brakes, borrowed from the Lamborghini Urus, that provided right-now stopping performance (at the expense of $9,000 and lots of low-speed squeal).
Also setting the RS Q8 apart from its kin is Navarra Blue metallic paint, the loudest and prettiest color in this trio. Like the RS7, the RS Q8 came equipped with $2,950 worth of Black Optic exterior trim – window surrounds, Audi badging, and black-accented 23-inch wheels – as well as a Carbon Optic upgrade pack that renders the grille surround, mirror caps, and bumper inserts in a sophisticated, expensive-looking weave. Curiously, on the SUV, the sport exhaust isn’t a standalone option, bundled into the Black Optic package instead. Again, it made sporty driving all the more enjoyable.
Each of these three vehicles rides on the Volkswagen Group’s modular longitudinal platform, and with identical engines and similar drivetrains, it’s not surprising that the RS6 Avant, RS7, and RS Q8 feel very much alike on the road. The 6 and 7 both sit on optional 22-inch wheels, while the Q8 gets massive 23-inchers, and yet, all three ride rather comfortably, even on broken pavement. That’s due in part to the Audi Drive Select Comfort mode, which softens the adaptive dampers considerably and calms down throttle response. Driven sedately, the Audis soak up coarse surfaces with little complaint.
But toggle the selector to Dynamic or enter one of two configurable RS Modes (via a button on the steering wheel) and each member of this large, luxurious trio transforms. The suspension stiffens up significantly (to the detriment of ride quality), the steering gets much heavier, the Audi Sport rear differential vectors torque more aggressively, and the throttle sharpens to allow the driver to explore the furthest reaches of the twin-turbocharged V8’s seemingly endless thrust. In each, standard paddle shifters work well to command the transmission, but it does a decent job of gear selection all on its own, too.
Audi’s sportiest four-doors haven’t quite erased the understeer that’s become somewhat emblematic of the brand, and in spite of the added weight in Dynamic mode, the tiller still isn’t very communicative. Also, owing to their sheer size, they’re not necessarily agile or easy to place in tight corners. But the RS6 Avant, RS7, and RS Q8 still offer a compelling mix of freeway comfort and effortless speed on a twisty route, with ample grip serving as a foil to their outrageous power levels.
After a few hours of “research” on the smooth ribbon of canyon pavement above Glendora, California, some distinctions between the three began to appear, given each vehicle’s form factor. Associate Editor and Video Producer Clint Simone said the RS Q8 felt a bit more visceral when accelerating, perhaps due to some rear-end squat from the SUV’s higher center of gravity. Meanwhile, Branman commended the RS7’s coupe-like view out the rear and over the shoulders, a side effect of the “Sportback” body style. In that vein, the RS6 Avant felt less unique behind the wheel than its siblings, a surprising outcome given its forbidden-fruit desirability.
Backing up that initial impression was the wagon’s relatively sedate exhaust note. The multi-mode sport exhaust is absolutely worth the extra cash, whether it’s a single option on the RS7 or part of a package on the RS Q8. Although the standard pipes let the engine sing out a little bit at full throttle, the base system is just too muted for our liking, especially having heard it back to back with the sport exhaust.
The exhaust isn’t the only difference that can be chalked up to the options sheet. Branman and I defended the RS6 Avant’s standard exterior trim – satin silver window surrounds and mirror caps, single-tone aluminum wheels, and bright Four-Ring badging seem so right on an understated, sporty Audi. Simone, however, enjoyed the more sinister look of the RS7’s Black Optic package, giving a nod to the RS Q8’s carbon trim as well.
Of course, any argument for or against exterior packages is ultimately moot, since Audi will happily build any of these three automobiles with aluminum, black, or black and carbon-fiber trim. Done quibbling about color choices and trim materials, we decided it was time to come to a verdict. After days of seat time, our fast-Audi crown rested, predictably, on the RS6 Avant’s head, with an honorable mention given to the RS Q8 after lots of debate.
In many ways, our decision came down to how special the RS6 Avant feels. As one of three hot-headed station wagons in the US market, RS6 owners aren’t likely to encounter too many vehicles that can rival its blend of gorgeously under-the-radar styling, interior room, and ballistic performance, and our vehicle’s as-tested price of $117,370 was lower than the RS7 ($125,140) and RS Q8 (hard-loaded at $137,990). And the RS6 drew more appreciative nods and questions from onlookers than either of its siblings, making its driver feel like a rockstar.
We have to include some caveats, the first being that any one of these fast Audis demands a sport exhaust to really show off its singing voice. Next, if you do get the RS Q8 (which we loved because of how effortlessly it integrates scintillating performance with modern-SUV talents), go ahead and skip the Urus-sourced ceramic brakes – the performance gain doesn’t seem worth the price. And finally, as much as we love the RS6, just about everything we have to say about it applies to its siblings too. Choosing one will be all about form factor, not performance, because all three do just about everything very well.
|2021 Audi RS6 Avant||2021 Audi RS7||2021 Audi RS Q8|
|Engine:||Twin-Turbocharged 4.0-liter V8||Twin-Turbocharged 4.0-liter V8||Twin-Turbocharged 4.0-liter V8|
|590 Horsepower / 591 Pound-Feet||590 Horsepower / 591 Pound-Feet||590 Horsepower / 591 Pound-Feet|
|Transmission:||Eight-Speed Automatic||Eight-Speed Automatic||Eight-Speed Automatic|
|Drive Type:||All-Wheel Drive||All-Wheel Drive||All-Wheel Drive|
|Speed 0-60 MPH:||3.5 Seconds||3.5 Seconds||3.5 Seconds|
|Efficiency:||15 City / 22 Highway / 17 Combined||15 City / 22 Highway / 17 Combined||13 City / 19 Highway / 15 Combined|
|Weight:||4,960 Pounds||4,938 Pounds||5,490 Pounds|
|Cargo Volume:||30.0 Cubic Feet||24.6 Cubic Feet||30.5 Cubic Feet|