After too long a wait, Audi’s latest super-wagon wows on North American roads.
The first properly fast car I ever drove was a 2007 Audi RS4. It was Imola Yellow and had one of the best engines of the past 30 years: Audi's 4.2-liter V8. That screamer of a powerplant revved to 8,000 rpm and worked alongside a six-speed manual transmission with a big, fat knob on the top of it. The pairing was a delight, packaged in a gorgeous sedan body with wildly flared wheel arches.
I spent a lot of time thinking about that car and that first drive during a week with the 2021 Audi RS6 Avant, a dynamically marvelous wagon that should be as exciting now as that RS4 was to me at 25. But it isn't. Audi's latest RS car is an incredibly fast, powerful, attractive, and luxurious thing, but there's a standoffishness that makes it hard to love. Too often, it felt like I was just along for the ride, rather than an integral part of affairs. It's a hell of a ride, to be sure, but when it comes to Audi's RS line, you want to be in the thick of things. I never felt that.
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With respect to the Mercedes-AMG E63 and the Porsche Panamera Turbo S Sport Turismo, the Audi RS6 Avant is the most attractive car in the segment. Perfectly proportioned and with flourishes in all the right places, it should be Exhibit A when explaining to a non-car person why wagons are cool.
This car exudes menace, with its low and aggressive fascia and angry headlights surrounding a wide, gaping grille. The hood is muscular when viewed from head-on, and the swollen wheel arches are as purposeful as they are oversized. The profile is lovely, and it's hard to get over how well the long-roof body and the laser-straight beltline play together, with the former cutting ever so gently down into an incredibly fast D-pillar at the back of the car.
Again, the wheel arches highlight the view from the profile, although our tester's massive 22-inch alloys are plenty shouty too. The rear of the RS6 is a study in why wider is better – a strip of gloss-black trim joins the taillights and accentuates the already thicc backend, while the RS line's traditional oval exhausts jut out from a low rear bumper.
The cabin sports some RS6-specific enhancements, but far more than the exterior, it mimics the standard A6. Twin touchscreens occupy the center stack and a 12.3-inch display takes the place of traditional gauges. Swaths of matte carbon-fiber trim on the dash and doors play well with all the aluminum brightwork, and there are some lovely effects from the ambient lights at night. But even with carbon fiber and an RS steering wheel, shifter, and seats, this is still an A6's cabin – very good, but also familiar and not quite as special as the six-figure price demands.
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Massive 22-inch wheels riding on 30-series winter tires should not a comfortable ride make, and yet somehow the RS6 is incredibly plush. The ride quality is astonishing, soaking up all that Detroit's apocalyptic roads can throw at it and asking for more. Ride stability is high too, allowing the RS6 to bound across imperfections without transmitting any ugliness to the steering.
And somehow, the cabin remains quiet – tire roar, wind noise, and suspension impacts rarely reach the ears. Thank the standard RS-specific air suspension for this impressive performance. This Audi is loud when parked, though. That big V8 kicks its fans on after even the briefest journeys, leaving the car wheezing away in the parking lot in a way that might cause passersby to worry the car is about to overheat.
The RS-spec front seats are wide but heavily bolstered, and they offer huge amounts of support while cornering in addition to looking fantastic with their black hide upholstery and subtle contrasts. In back, there's plenty of space for two adults on the comfy bench seat. A max of 37.4 inches of legroom and 39.5 inches of headroom beats the Mercedes-AMG E63 by nearly 1.5 inches in both measures.
The RS6's roomy second row comes at the expense of the cargo area. The standard power-operated liftgate reveals a huge aperture, while loading and unloading things over the low bumper and into the 30-cubic-foot enclosure is a breeze. That space expands to 59.3 cubic feet if you fold the 40/20/40 bench down, but you'll find more outright cargo capacity in the E63 Wagon (35.0/64.0 cubic feet). At least the RS6 exceeds its corporate sibling, the Porsche Panamera Turbo S Sport Turismo (18.3/49.0 cubic feet).
The RS6 Avant's tech suite is both well done and familiar, consisting of a 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster, a 10.1-inch touchscreen at the top of the center stack, and an 8.6-inch display below it. The gauge cluster runs the latest version of Audi Virtual Cockpit, which includes an RS-specific gauge configuration that puts a hockey stick–shaped tachometer front and center, along with a gear indicator and a speedometer. As with the standard configuration, there's a compact and expanded view, so drivers can adjust which information is prominent.
The touchscreens operate here as in any other modern Audi: swift to respond and with attractive graphics and a manageable layout. If you're looking for RS-specific tweaks to the MMI infotainment system, though, the RS6 doesn't come through.
This RS6 tester's Executive package adds an impressive head-up display, that can relay all manner of info without requiring the driver to take their eyes off the road. My polarized sunglasses made sure I didn't get much use from the technology, though. And even if I had been able to see the HUD, it's not so dramatically better than looking at the digital gauge cluster.
Other than the no-cost screen real estate, the RS6 comes standard with heated and ventilated front seats, LED headlights, a Bang and Olufsen audio system, and a panoramic sunroof. The RS6 has an impressive list of standard gear that befits its $109,000 starting price.
While the RS6 Avant is new for the US market, the bits that make it go should be familiar to American consumers. Its twin-turbocharged 4.0-liter V8 powers a number of premium Volkswagen Group products, with the RS6-specific tune (together with a 48-volt mild-hybrid system) pumping out 591 horsepower and 590 pound-feet of torque, or the same as the RS7 and RS Q8.
The RS6 is down on output and torque on its chief rival, though. The E63 packs 603 hp and 620 lb-ft, and thanks partly to that advantage and to a slightly lower curb weight (4,725 pounds to 4,960), the Merc wins the bench race with a 3.4-second sprint to 60, a tenth quicker than the Audi. You will not notice this difference on the road.
There's a whiff of turbo lag, but it's almost like some evil German engineer wanted to lull the uninitiated into a false sense of security, because a second later the RS6 roars ahead on a huge wave of torque. The acceleration is so effortless and the way the V8 revs is so intense that I accidentally banged off the rev limiter on my first pull.
That's because, like a dumb-dumb, I was trying to channel the manual driving experience I experienced all those years ago in the RS4 but failed to upshift in time. Anticipate the way the V8 revs, though, and upshifts are sharp and predictable, while the gearbox is all too willing to drop multiple gears for sudden throttle inputs.
Getting the most of the RS6 means playing with the drive modes. There are the usual suspects: Comfort, Auto, and Dynamic. But the RS6 adds a pair of customizable drive modes, programmable via the MMI system and activatable via a pair of buttons on the steering wheel. Audi's approach mirrors BMW's and it works just as well, giving owners the ability to preload settings and quickly adjust on the fly.
Those specific tweaks include adjustments to the air suspension, the torque-vectoring differential, and the steering. Set everything to Dynamic, and the RS6 disguises its 5,000-pound curb weight with ease. This is a sharp, agile handler, thanks in no small part to the same excellent air suspension that makes the big wagon so darn comfortable. Shared with the A6 Allroad, the RS6's air springs are 50 percent stiffer. Rear-wheel steering is standard on US-spec cars, doing to the RS6's length what the air suspension does to its weight.
The RS6’s available carbon-ceramic brakes are a pricey proposition ($8,500) and really not all that necessary, although they are a prerequisite for the 190-mph top speed. The automaker limits cars like my tester, with its standard steel rotors (16.5 inches in front and 14.6 in back), to go 155. Pity the loss of top speed, but don't pity these brakes. They're still immensely powerful, using eight-piston front calipers to bring the big wagon to a halt. The pedal feels confident under repeated hard braking maneuvers, reinforcing our position that only a certain type of owner needs the upgrade option.
Despite all of this goodness, though, the RS6 Avant feels aloof. In many ways, it's like the Nissan GT-R – ultra-competent, but getting to know and bond with the car is a struggle. It feels like there are always layers to its abilities that you, with your fists of ham, understanding of consequences, and healthy fear of traffic cops, will never be able to access.
The source of this distance is likely due to the limited feedback. There's little chatter through the steering and that plush ride comes at the expense of communication through the chassis. The RS6 is a sterling performer, but it's like it's always saying, “No puny human, I got this. You just hang on.” Rationalizing the $70,000 premium of an equivalent Panamera Sport Turismo is tough, but based purely on the fun factor, I'd do it.
The RS6 Avant packages its excellent active safety gear in a $2,250 option package, and if you can afford this super wagon, you should be able to option it accordingly. The Driver Assistance pack adds full-speed adaptive cruise control with active lane keeping, intersection assistance, traffic sign recognition, blind-spot monitoring, and rear-cross traffic alert. The company's confusingly named Pre Sense rear system will even prime the wagon in the event of an impending rear-end collision.
Thankfully, I didn't test Pre Sense, although the broader suite of active safety gear is as good as anything else in the class. The RS6 exhibits excellent lane-centering ability and its adaptive cruise system handles sudden lane intrusions well, with restrained, but appropriate, braking force.
The RS6 isn't too much of a gas guzzler, thanks to smart and invisible cylinder deactivation technology. That said, it's the least efficient vehicle in this limited class. EPA estimates sit at 15 miles per gallon city, 22 highway, and 17 combined. The E63 takes the crown here, at 16 city, 19 highway, and 23 combined, while the class' power hitter, the Panamera Turbo S, comes in at 15 city, 21 highway, and 18 combined. No, we have no idea how the Panamera has the same city rating, a lower highway rating, and a higher combined figure. Naturally, everything in this class requires premium fuel.
It may not mean much when talking about six-figure super wagons, but the RS6 is the most affordable car in its class, with prices starting at $109,000, or $3,450 less than the E63 and an amazing $72,700 less than a Panamera Turbo S Sport Turismo. This test model added just under $9,800 in optional extras and a $1,045 destination charge for an out-the-door price of $119,840 (not even close to the max price).
About half of those options introduce functional upgrades. You want the $1,000 sport exhaust because you have ears and they deserve love too. The $2,250 Driver Assistance pack needs no introduction, either. But the $2,500 Executive pack is more of a dealer's choice than a must-have, adding extra leather upholstery, a head-up display, heated rear seats, and soft-close doors. Nice, but hardly necessary.
On the aesthetic front, the $2,450 Black Optic pack featured here presents a more menacing look without the gaudiness of the pricey Carbon Optic pack ($6,350). You can also pay $500 for the matte carbon-fiber trim and another $500 for red brake calipers. This tester's flashy $595 Tango Red paint rounded out the cost of extras.
RS6 Avant Competitor Reviews:
Gallery: 2021 Audi RS6 Avant: Review
2021 Audi RS6 Avant