EVER find yourself prowling AutoTrader on the hunt for random cars? A strange thing to non-car-loving people but absolutely normal to us lot and an enjoyable way to pass time when your mind wanders from hot hatches to supercars, taking in everything else between as you piece together your dream multi-car garage.
I’ll go from searching for former cars - the much-missed 106 Rallye and 182 Trophy mainly - and rue the days I sold both as they’re currently commanding three times the price. Then I’ll hunt down V10-engined M5s, convince myself they’re an affordable, perfect family car before reading about five-figure repair bills and my other half’s hatred of spending money on fuel.
I’ll look at a whole host of Porsche 911s - manual 997 Carreras to RS 4.0s - before jumping over to E46 M3s on the way back to check on mark two Focus RS prices. Yep, still £20,000 or so, still many examples for sale, still absolutely unjustifiable despite my eternal - and growing - love for them more than a decade on.
One car that’s a firm favourite in my search history is the RS4. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the earliest B5-designated example or the magnificent B8 which was the last to feature a naturally aspirated engine - for years it’s been my dream daily driver, a car you’d be happy with in any situation on just about any type of road thanks to the features it’s always had: Quattro stability, practicality thanks to its estate form, typical Audi quality inside, pace and one of the coolest badges in the oft-fickle motoring world.
Yes, motoring journalists will moan about four-wheel-drive understeer and a perceived lack of steering feel, but they’re the same people who think it’s acceptable to come to any form of conclusion having taken a near two-tonne estate car on track, so basically you can ignore everything they have to say about an RS4 as it completely misses the car’s point. In the real world, you’re going to be hard pushed to find something as fast, refined and utterly brilliant as an RS4 day-to-day, because it’s one of those cars that’s so good at everything; a nine-out-of-ten in all areas.
Looks-wise, it’s just brilliant. Typically Audi RS, bulging arches, wonderful presence. Inside, it’s even better thanks to oodles of quality, expensive materials and the best steering wheel I’ve ever grasped. Merc may have bridged the gap recently while BMW flounder, but Audi’s interiors truly are second to none and the RS4’s is a shining example.
Start it up and there’s a lovely V6 thrum. Recent RS4s may have had V8s, but you certainly don’t miss the extra two cylinders as what you lose in outright aural gratification, you make up for in accessible pace. Its 444bhp is the same as the previous V8, but the way it’s delivered is altogether different - the V6 feels punchier and its power is offered much lower in the rev range. Select its feistiest mode - RS - and the optional sports exhaust sounds fantastic. It’s muscular, brilliantly characterful and you get the odd pop every now and then on the overrun.
Fast Audis have regularly been criticised for being too dull, too clinical and lacking fun, but a spirited drive in an RS4 reveals some eye-opening traits. There’s genuine steering feel, a truly brilliant eight-speed gearbox and point-to-point pace that’s hard to explain. Its relatively heavy mass is disguised well, but that’s only thanks to Audi’s nous and how this car behaves; the brakes are phenomenal and the rate in which the RS4’s V6 piles on speed is alarming. Quattro does rob a degree of involvement, it’s true, but having that unerring stability and subsequent trust in a properly fast car is something that’s needed, especially in winter. In all conditions you have faith in the RS4, knowing full well it’ll be there for you come what may - it’s loyal, never once moans and is supreme in the way it devours a challenging road.
With that security does come a degree of detachment, though, as you’re not on your toes like you would be in, say, an Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio. The Italian therefore has the edge in dry conditions, as you’re on high alert thanks to its rear-drive set-up and extra 60bhp, but nine times out of ten I’d take the RS4 as it’s simply better in almost every scenario.
Key to its brilliance is its size, because it just doesn’t feel that big when you’re pushing on. It is an estate car, but it never feels a leviathan like its bigger RS6 sibling. It’s at home on countryside roads, it eats up motorways but truly shines on fast, flowing stretches such as the magnificent slither of tarmac from the Ribblehead Viaduct to Hawes in the Yorkshire Dales. It never feels chunky - or wide - and if ever there was a perfect road for the RS4, it’s most definitely this.
You can trust its brakes, you're in no doubt what the steering's up to, you revel in its handling and you're gobsmacked by the grip it conjures up. Each detail makes it a phenomenal companion on a tricky road.
The newest RS4 is not a typical, fast-but-predictable Audi. It’s so much more - it’s got a personality, it’s fun but most of all, it’s a beguiling proposition for every occasion. Forget AutoTrader and your hypthetical dream fleet of vehicles - you only need one and that’s an RS4.