A friend of mine recently told me a story about when her dad was the sales manager at a large construction company in the early ’90s. There was a new directive from corporate regarding reps’ company cars; no more V8s. The shock, the horror, the emasculation! As he had long been the one negotiating the deals for his reps’ cars, he explained the new rules to the ever-keen, target-focused dealers, and it didn’t take long for them to come up with a solution. The XR8s and SSs that the boys were used to being refreshed every three years were out, and in were their poor six-cylinder cousins. Except the dealers agreed — to appease the higher-ups and keep the reps happy — to rebadge and register the eights as sixes so these guys were now cruising around in the best performing ‘six-cylinder’ cars in the land. Too easy.
Nearly 30 years later and we still love a V8 — modern versions of which are capable of even better performance and relative economy. But would we forego a couple of cylinders for a few dollars at the pump and a wink from Mother Nature?
Audi vs Audi
Speak to any Audi fan and, before you’ve asked, they’ll tell you that an RS in front of any number two through seven equals the best of the best the Germans have to offer. We’re not going to dispute that here. The Renn Speed folks have things well under control. However, a simple S also indicates something special can happen with the mash of a right foot.
The oft-sideways Chris Harris pitted the B8 supercharged against the newly released B8 RS4 back in 2013 (check out the video below). Not much of a fair fight on paper given the RS4’s extra 120hp, and those two extra cylinders we desire. But, as you’ll see in the video, something interesting occurred once the old ‘dog snotter’ was given a simple upgrade by way of an ECU remap: the S4 becomes a 415hp demon capable of keeping up with its top-of-the-line sibling in a straight line.
But that’s about where the similarities end for these two cars. They aren’t really all that comparable to most car buyers, with the RS4 still setting you back the best part of $100,000, while a pre-facelift B8 S4 can be picked up for a far more palatable $40,000 — with a tune costing around $1400 from any number of boffins around New Zealand. But what might be deserving of being compared with the S4, taking into account a budget of around $40K and a requirement for Audi refinement to make it a fair fight? What about an RS4?
But not that one, this one ...
The first thing you’ll notice about the RS4 and the S4 that we’re comparing is the difference in body shape. This RS4 is a sedan, not built for practicality and transporting things from garden centre to domestic bliss, but for punishing back roads with glee. The S4 we have is a more family friendly and arguably more Audi-esque Avant.
The B7 RS4 was released in 2006, beating BMW’s V8 M3 and Mercedes’ C63 to market, so for a while was the king of the small/medium powerhouses. Available as a sedan, a wagon, and a bizarre-looking convertible, the RS4 was something of a revelation for Audi, proving that there was still a decent customer base looking for a luxurious sports car with a third pedal.
Today, the RS4 holds up well. It still looks great, and has a feeling of a modern muscle car (the rev counter doesn’t hit red until 8000rpm, which gives a fair indication of where the compact V8 putting out 420hp wants to be playing), but maintains a certain luxuriousness with its gigantic, leather bucket seats and restrained splashes of carbon trim. As it was only offered with a six-speed manual gearbox, it requires the utmost patience in traffic but will reward you once you have the roads to yourself.
The newer S4 looks and feels like a much bigger car than the previous model, despite being in the same small/medium–car sector. Its long bonnet and smooth lines portray it as a car better suited for people who might enjoy an afternoon wine tasting rather than a 3am pub crawl. The interior carries on the sophisticated theme and feels slightly more modern, designed with function rather than form at top of mind. Rear passengers have room to breathe, and the large boot means plenty of room for the dog and the toys.
With a 3.0 supercharged V6 putting out 333hp as standard, the S4 is no bus. With the extra 80-odd horses added by way of a tune, it really does transform the wagon into a bona fide performance car, and a realistic option for those wanting the practicality of a wagon and a good dose of power.
It’s a doddle around town — despite the longer wheelbase — sporting a seven-speed paddle-shift DSG gearbox, and Dynamic mode offers sharp, intuitive changes — meaning you can have a bit of fun with this one too.
In a straight line, there’s not much in it. The RS4 possibly feels quicker due to the pure theatre it provides on the way to 100kph, but the immediacy of power in the S4’s supercharged V6, coupled with the quick shifts of the impressive gearbox, get you to the same speed smoothly — with some knowledge you’d better throw the picks out sooner rather than later.
Once the traffic thins and the roads widen, these two cars suddenly make a whole lot of sense. In the RS4, you’ll press the Sport button on the dash, the seat bolsters will tighten around your hips and you’ll suddenly feel the need to acquire some race overalls and a helmet. It feels like a go-kart; its limits feeling miles out of reach in the hands of a ham-fisted amateur such as myself.
The S4 is a different kind of fast. It will breeze you to the farmers’ markets and award-winning artisan cheese stalls that you’ll inevitably be visiting at a seemingly sedate pace, when suddenly, still sipping your cinnamon-infused decaf latte, you’ll realize you’re doing close to twice the speed limit, and have been in a high-speed chase for several kilometres, such is the smoothness of this vehicle.
The verdict So this $40K dilemma comes down to what you might require from your car on a day-to-day basis. Are prams, nappy bags, and rear leg room considerations, or do you prefer your dependents orange and swimming in a fish tank? Come Saturday, is it likely your wife will ask to go and collect unnecessary Trade Me purchases from far-flung small towns, or will you be heading to the beach with only your carefree lifestyle weighing you down?
Personally, because my patience in traffic is already zero and I’ve recently acquired the need to put another human ahead of myself, I’d take the S4 Avant with its big boot, remarkable performance, and double pedal set-up. But there is most certainly a large part of me that craves the thrill offered by something with a beautiful RS and a stonking V8. An RS4 Avant could almost make me reconsider working out the left leg once more ...