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THE SPACE RACE

|   Audi B5 RS4 v B7 RS4 v B8 RS4 group test   |


Few cars blend pace and space like Audi's omnipotent RS4. With prices of the first three generations within touching distance, we find out which one offers the biggest thrills
 

By Craig Toone   |   Photography by Ben Midlane, Isaac Hunter & Dan Hamilton

ain. On certain days it's therapeutic, cathartic. On others it’s frustrating, but today it's downright maddening. The clouds above have gone through fifty shades of grey, dropping every type of torrential from the fine drizzle that penetrates every single layer of clothing to Forrest Gump style big ol’ fat rain. Only Ben, the photographer, is as persistent as the precipitation but even he’s

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starting to lose all feeling in his fingers.

You might think these are the days where a Quattro equipped Audi would shine but any minute now our convoy of RS4s is expecting Noah’s Ark to come past on the inside. Tread depth and bravery are the barometers of performance right now, not bhp & lateral G. Still, most other performance cars would have long packed up and gone home, or not even left the driveway in the first place so who are we to deny a couple of V8’s and a duet of turbochargers from singing in the rain?

The origin of the high-performance estate car is up for debate, but arguably no manufacturer has the market cornered like Audi. Volvo made a bid for the crown in the mid-nineties but for all its image re-defining boost and touring car attitude, the T5R never troubled the rear mirrors of an RS2. Not much would – the uber wagon could famously outpace a McLaren F1…to 30mph. The RS badge morphed into the four and later expanded by introducing the six, but the ability to humble supercars remained - just as the dictionary states ‘see BMW M5 ’ under the super saloon definition, Vorsprung Durch Technik is the byword for plastering the family hound to the back window.

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The RS2 spawned in 1994 as the offspring of a joint venture between Audi and Porsche. Audi supplied the donor S2 Avant whilst Porsche quite literally stamped their mark on the brakes, chassis & power delivery - lift the bonnet of an RS2 and it's the iconic Porsche font that greets you, not the four rings of Ingolstadt. Porsche's engineers were rightly proud of extracting 315bhp from the S2's turbocharged 2.2 litre inline five - an increase of 50% courtesy of a bigger KKK turbo, new intercooler, uprated engine management system, larger injectors and freer-flowing exhaust. To cope, the suspension was lowered by 40mm and Porsche fitted their own 17 ” Cup alloys from the 964 turbo, which hid four-piston Brembo callipers that also carried the Zuffenhausen seal.

Porsche’s plastic surgeons then gave the bodywork a nip/tuck, adding a Carrera inspired front bumper, wing mirrors and extended rear light strip. With a 0-60 time that started with a four, a top speed of over 160mph and its Stuttgart stardust the RS2 proved to be a big hit. Audi initially only planned for 2,200 units but such was demand another 700 rolled down the finishing line at Porsche’s specialist Rossle-Bau factory - pedigree's don't get much finer, both the 959 supercar and Mercedes 500E are previous residents. Sadly, only 180 were right-hand-drive, and due to such rarity and upwardly mobile values sourcing a car was beyond the tentacles of the RUSH little black book.

The RennSport badge lay dormant for four years until the RS4 came along in 1999. Despite the success of the Porsche partnership, Audi decided to go it alone this time, tasking in-house to go faster arm Quattro GmbH (today known as Audi Sport) to deliver an Avant with performance to humble its former partner in crime’s star asset – the 996 911. This time the starting point was the already capable S4 with its 2.7 litre, five-valve per cylinder, twin-turbocharged V6. The engine started with 265bhp, however, Audi picked up the phone to a certain British concern named Cosworth, who switched the turbos to parallel Borg-Warner K04s, increased the dual intercoolers capacities, fitted a fatter exhaust, replaced the cylinder head with their own aluminium design featuring enlarged intake and exhaust ports and recalibrated the ECU. Internally, there were stronger connecting rods and dished piston crowns.

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Audi rated the B5 at 375bhp & 325lb-ft, however, the B5 could be considered the German equivalent to the Nissan Skyline GTR, so over-engineered and receptive to tuning is the Cosworth engine. The German aftermarket had a field day, and many-a junior supercar were humbled by the turbocharged tourer on the Autobahn. A standard car is now as rare as an RS2, and this concours condition B5 in front of me now is no stranger to the rolling road, where it last laid down a 500bhp marker. Attempting to harness all that power is the Torsen central differential, which diplomatically splits torque 50:50 between the axles under normal conditions. Massive 14 ” discs with double piston floating callipers are the immovable object to the engine's unstoppable force –the B5 can perform an emergency stop from 60mph in an impressive 2.5 seconds. Refereeing the battle are fat, 255 section tyres all round over beautiful but bend prone 18” multi-spoke alloys.

The B5 is a compact car by today’s standards yet it simmers with discreet menace - there’s an air of confidence present that echoes the short-wheelbase Sport Quattro, from the greedy front air valances with shark gill exits to the pumped-up rear arches rolling into the rear doors, which cannot have been a cheap process to manufacture - a dramatic increase in track width making it a necessity. At the rear, the chunky bumper aesthetic continued, visually lowering the weight of the car, plus how fantastic is it to see genuine exhaust pipes? The twin ovals are perfectly proportioned and jut out just so, and whilst the roof rack up top looks great, you can’t help but feel Audi misplaced it – it would make the ideal grab handle for shaken & stirred passengers if mounted internally.

Speaking of the interior, the design is typically Germanic and sober, however the big, comfy chairs - courtesy of Recaro - add some much-needed personality with the RS4 emblem neatly embossed on the backrest. A quick glance over the shoulder confirms the load capacity is certainly generous enough for plenty of sports car drivers ego’s, and one great thing about the B5’s age is the visibility – slim A-pillars and a large glasshouse give a clear view of the road ahead or through a turn.

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You’ll make use of that clarity as you begin exploring what the B5 can do, for two specific reasons. The first is some good, old fashioned turbo lag - which is no doubt made more acute by the rampant boost of this modified example. The second is the lack of ultimate body control - this is a car that likes to lean hard onto its sidewalls as it changes direction. It also dives under heavy braking and squats comically hard acceleration too. Such swaying around might be disconcerting in anything else, but in the B5 you can press on safe in the knowledge the Quattro system has your back. Cornering the B5 is all about entry speed management, balancing the grip and slip of the front axle - the chassis is just too surefooted to offer any form of playfulness. But the real fun is timing the spool of the turbines post apex - the rear of the car digs for traction, the front rears up and you slingshot down the road as if you're riding a Pedalo caught up in a Tsunami. Assuming you’re north of 3,000rpm, it doesn't matter what gear you’re in, the V6 answers and the pull doesn’t stop until the 7,000rpm limiter. Each gear change also seems to enhance the drama (short, stubby lever, long-throw, slightly loose) as you see-saw on and off the power.

The steering also isn’t as mute as the armchair critic would have you believe - it might not be geared for instantaneous turn-in, but there is genuine feedback to interpret. The brake pedal, however, has a short fuse. It's a bit all or nothing as if 80% of the retardation occurs within the first inch of travel. Given how enthusiastically you can stamp on the throttle, a middle pedal that lacks modulation is a real shame. Perhaps with greater exposure, the finesse will come. It’s also a similar story with the damping, which is quite brittle over rough surfaces and isn’t quite in sync with the softness of the body control. 

This lack of harmony across all the controls led to contemporary road tests not being as kind to the B5 as they were to the E46 M3 or Porsche 996, despite its famously lenient “155mph” limiter on the press launch. These smaller rivals were more responsive and fleeter of foot, but today it matters little what the competition was up to. The B5 RS4 is one of those cars which has aged very well and is dripping with character, even a kerb weight of 1,620kg isn’t the issue it was back in 1999 when you consider a modern Mercedes A-Class hatchback can only trim fifty bags of sugar from that figure. It’s not going to challenge the M3 benchmark, but compared to modern performance cars that cocoon the driver until speeds have become silly, the B5 RS4 makes a compelling case for itself.

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The B7 RS4 that followed in 2005 represented a step-change in Audi’s philosophy - out went the twin-turbocharged V6, replaced by an 8,250rpm naturally aspirated, quad-cam, 4.2 litre V8. The 414bhp engine was so good it went on to power Audi’s first-ever mid-engine sports car - the R8. The Quattro system was tweaked to favour the rear axle, sending 60% of its thrust aft and the front wings were replaced with aluminium items to reduce weight over the nose. With a slick manual gearbox, discreetly flared arches and surprisingly talkative steering, the B7 RS4 burned off wooden handling Audi stereotypes faster than it did rubber.

Even on a day as grim as this nothing can dull this particular B7’s paintwork, but maybe one thing can outshine it – that V8, especially since this particular one exhales through a full Milltek exhaust. Every photography flyby puts Maverick and Goose to shame, invoking grins of approval from all in attendance. Time to pull rank and flag the car down. I’ve had extensive previous exposure to the B7, but as I drop into the driver’s seat I don’t recall it being mounted so low. Nor do I recall the embrace from the wingback Recaro clamping my 36” waist tight enough to have me thinking cancelling that gym membership was a bad idea. The flat bottom wheel looted from the Lamborghini Gallardo looks fantastic with its perforated leather and the same material is carried over to the stubby gear lever, whilst the aluminium effect pedals are perfectly spaced. With its minimalist design, flashes of carbon and dials backlit in red it’s an interior that instantly makes the B5 feel the two generations older it is.

But the real step up in the B7 is in the driving - it takes all of fifty yards to know the B7 is a significantly different prospect from what came before. Where you feel your way into the B5, building up the pace, in the B7 you’re already eager to press on and it's a key difference. You notice it first in the powertrain, which has none of the slack present in the B5. Throttle response is instantaneous and the clutch is lighter whilst the wonderful gear change slots home ratios with slick, oily precision. Then there is the damping - it's firm at low speed but never jarring, taking on a wonderful fluidity with speed as it smooths off the harshest imperfections in the road, yet always maintains rock-solid body control. It should be stated that owner Mark has fitted some KW coilovers in place of the notoriously leaky and expensive DRC suspension, but it's a sweetly judged package, feeling OEM plus ten per cent.

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The steering has less initial weight than the B5 but loads more naturally. Confidence floods back into your forearms from the perfectly judged gearing, and you soon completely trust the car to go exactly where you tell it to when you tell it to. There is certainly more finesse and precision to the way the B7 handles, and come to think of it – stops, courtesy of this cars’ ultra-rare optional carbon-ceramic brakes. And that’s before I press the Sport button, which brings the additional benefits of an even sharper throttle and even more wind knocked out of me as the side bolsters inflate. It also opens the exhaust valves courtesy of some cheeky coding by Mark. 

Acceleration is an altogether different topic. Jump straight from the five into the seven and you’ll immediately ask where all the power has gone. It's still there, this particular B5 has just warped your perception of speed. But it’s also twisted your perception of shift points. At 5,000rpm in the B5, you’ll be considering another gear, content to bask in the absolute mountain of torque, whereas the B7 will just be getting into its stride. The V8 thrives on revs and Mark tells me the more time spent above that marker is a good thing, his official line being it helps to prevent the known carbon build-up issue - as if I needed more encouragement to venture north of 8,000rpm. Wind the B7 up to its redline and you’ll have no doubt it’s a genuine 170mph car sans limiter.

Mark is as smitten as I am with his car. “Next year I plan on taking it to the Nürburgring to experience its full potential, where those carbon ceramics should come in handy. You’ll never find me complaining about this car no matter how much of my money it demands. The spec for me made this car irresistible, the unique paintwork combined with optional equipment that would shame most modern cars – doubling glazing, solar roof, Audi exclusive interior and those wingback Recaro. In my opinion, the car still looks as good as most cars coming out of the factory today, but if you are interested in owning a B7 make sure you have deep pockets because the parts prices come at a premium.” It’d be worth it though. The B7 remains a coveted car today and is arguably Audi’s greatest driver's car behind the R8 – UrQuattro included. It was even available as a saloon or chunky cabriolet this time around – the only RS4 to experiment with other body styles, but neither has the cachet of the Avant.

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This means its eventual replacement – the B8 – had huge shoes to fill, ones it didn’t quite have the socks for down a twisting B-road. That wasn’t because it lacked pace, the 4.2L V8 remained and the output had been raised to a mouthwatering 444bhp. The problem was the adoption of electromechanical steering with an optional variable-ratio rack, one that undid all the B7’s wonderful work. Factor in the loss of another star asset in the manual gearbox - the B8 only came with a 7-speed dual-clutch transmission - and the RS4 had morphed into a baby RS6, more interested in crushing continents than sports cars across the Yorkshire Dales.

Yet there is no denying the sheer feel-good factor of the B8 as you slip into its sculpted bucket seats, take in the immense quality of its cabin and fire up that V8. Brace yourself as it’ll be mentioned an awful lot from here on because it is the focal point of the whole B8 driving and ownership experience. Initial acquaintance is muted, however, especially after the rowdy B7 and during acclimatisation the Jekyll side of the RS4’s character dominates - the V8 acts the good doctor as the DSG gearbox shuffles between ratios without an attention-seeking peacock fart with every upshift. This is comfortably the best car here to burble around in, despite the 20” alloys wrapped in 20 profile rubber bands.

Patience quickly wears thin, however, as the rev counter taunts you with its high altitude redline and 200mph speedometer catcalls, daring you to take a sip of the potion. Once imbibed, you’ll dial up launch control, drop the hammer and rocket to 60mph in less than 4.5 seconds and pass 100mph in 9.4 - rain or shine. This remains a seriously quick car even by 2021 standards, and a wonderfully vocal one when the mood takes you north of 8,000rpm. The latter acceleration benchmark is nearly two seconds faster than its predecessor, yet with only a ‘mere’ 24bhp increase, the figures don’t stack up on paper.

 

Put it down to two factors, the first despite Audi’s claim the B7 in practice could never quite produce 400bhp, whereas the B8 is right on the money. Therefore the power jump is actually more like 50bhp. The second is Audi’s tweaking of the torque curve. Maximum twist remains an identical 317lb-ft, but crucially it's available 1,500rpm sooner at 4,000rpm and is sustained to 6,00rpm. The 85kg weight penalty of the DSG gearbox is also easily offset by the faster shift speeds on offer - even think about dipping the clutch in the B7 and you won’t see a B8 for dust. It’ll even steal a good few yards on the B5 if you catch its driver napping.

As well as producing the goods, the V8 was mounted further back in the RS4’s chassis, although the bulk of its mass still resides ahead of the front axle. Nevertheless, the move was enough to have a useful effect on the weight distribution, which had shifted from 60:40 in the B7 to 56:44, whilst the wheelbase grew by 162mm and the tyres swelled to 265 section all round. Speaking of distribution, the Quattro system retained the B7’s 40:60 split in normal driving, but under duress, up to 70 per cent of drive can go to the front or 85 per cent to the rear. The system also gained a crown gear centre differential with selectable drive modes and torque vectoring. Calibration also extended itself to the gearbox, steering, dampers, exhaust and throttle mapping. Thankfully owner Rich is on hand to navigate that particular labyrinth. He immediately rules out going full dynamic courtesy of the dampers, meaning the B8 driver needs to delve into the individual menus in order to get the best from the chassis. Comfort steering, auto damping, dynamic throttle, differential and exhaust with the gearbox in full manual.

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Even set up as such, the B8 can’t fully let go of its inhibitions. The speed is massive - too quick for the B7 along the straights, too grippy for the B5 in the corners - but it remains far too civilised producing it and the steering too inert. The wide track, lack of roll and artificially quick steering do mean you can chuck the B8 into low-speed corners and direction changes with the same abandon as an S3, but outright pace is the only reward. There are videos on the internet of the B8 going sideways, but in the real world, this isn’t the car for such antics. If you want those kinds of kicks, you need a C63 AMG. The tune coming out of those fat, signature oval pipes also remains slightly too subdued for our liking, but the response to even minor throttle applications is deeply impressive - it’s a shame it never found its way into the R8 alongside the V10.

The brakes – eight-piston callipers & 365mm discs up front –are another talking point, but thankfully not down to their performance, which is impeccable. The curiosity comes from the unique flower petal design of the discs in order to better dissipate heat. Beware, however, their wavy circumference means a £2,000 bill come renewal time. Suddenly the £6,000 factory carbon ceramics don’t look so pricey.

Given its sheer quality, timeless class and never to be seen again magnificence of its engine, the B8 is an awful lot of car for the £25,000 the market starts at. Whilst the steering and blurred lines to the RS6 hold the B8 back from outright greatness, we can forgive this RS4 its flaws because it represents the last of the line. Instead, imagine those subtly flared arches parked next to a weekend toy on your driveway and it can’t fail to raise a smile. Buy wisely and you could have one of the most complete two-car garages available to the motoring enthusiast this side of a winning lottery ticket.

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Finally, the B9. The current generation model has seen the RS4 come full circle returning to a 90 degree, twin-turbocharged V6 – a unit borrowed from none other than Porsche. This time the capacity is 2.9 litres and whilst the headline bhp is only up a fraction to 450, the torque has multiplied to 442lb-ft. Not only that, the B9 makes its numbers over a much greater duration of the rev range, meaning acceleration has taken another quantum leap forwards. With its fast-acting ZF 8 speed automatic, the RS4 is comfortably sub-four seconds to 60mph, yet is capable of over 30mpg, two statistics the V8 cars can only dream of.

Disappointingly, we had a very special B9 RSR lined up to take part today, but Mr Corona Virus and his quarantine restrictions stuck their oar in. Rest assured we’ll bring the car to these pages in the near future. Until then, which is our favourite RS4? In terms of desirability the B8 is off the charts, striking the perfect balance of discretion and aggression – if you know, you know…if you don’t you won’t bat an eyelid. It’s a feature that’s sadly faded from the current RS line-up, as has the high revving, naturally aspirated V8. In fact, it’s a combination that hasn’t just disappeared from Audi’s brochures, but from nearly all car manufacturers.

But as a driver’s car, we demand more, meaning by any tactile measure the B7 is the undisputed winner. It’s an Audi that legitimately went toe to toe against the M Division with the added benefits of 24/7 any-weather security, Avant practicality and an engine that wouldn’t disgrace a baby Ferrari. However, once the rain clouds have cleared and the feeling has returned to snapper Ben's fingers, it’s the B5 that lingers longest in the memory. If the B8 is the all-rounder and the B7 the communicator, the B5 is the beast. It’s something I can’t quite pinpoint with words, but the original RS4 just has a greater sense of mischief about it that keeps you coming back for more, a turbocharged charisma that isn’t solely down to the omnipotent 500bhp performance of this example. Or perhaps, in this case, absolute power does corrupt absolutely.

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|   FORD RACING PUMA   |

Engine

1,679cc naturally aspirated inline four, DOHC 16v, 7,200rpm 153bhp @ 7,000rpm, 119lb.ft @ 4,500rpm

Weight

1,174kg, bhp/tonne 135, lb.ft/tonne 108

Transmission

5sp manual, fwd, optional LSD

Performance

0.60 – 7.7s, 1/4m – 16.2 @ 84, max – 126mph

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