Few cars offer as much space and pace as Audi's omnipotent RS4. But with prices of the first three generations within touching distance, which is the one to buy?

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

Rain. 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 snapper Ben is as persistent as the precipitation, but even he’s 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 the convoy 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 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 chic, 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.

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 that 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 in excess of 160mph and it's 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. Audi decided to go it alone this time, tasking in-house go faster arm Quattro GmbH to deliver an Avant with performance to humble its former partner in crime’s star asset – the 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 K04’s, 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.

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 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 calipers are the immovable object to the engines 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.

Contemporary road tests weren’t as kind to the B5 as they were the E46 M3 or 996 911 despite a famously lenient ‘155mph’ limiter, but the urRS4 is one of those cars that has aged well. Sure, the handling doesn’t offer much by the way of adjustability but the steering isn’t as mute as the armchair critic would have you believe - it’ll never chatterbox in your hands in the manner of a Lotus and neither is it geared for instantaneous turn-in, however there is genuine feedback on offer. Even its 1620kg kerb weight doesn’t seem the issue it was back in 1999 - especially when you consider two decades on a Mercedes A class hatchback can only trim fifty bags of sugar from that figure.

There is also a surprising amount of chatter coming from the chassis, the B5 really squats under hard acceleration before pitching back forwards as the brakes are applied, whilst the car likes to roll and lean on its sidewalls when cornering. There is turbo lag, no doubt made more acute by the rampant boost, but that just adds to the drama, and its performance you can exploit safe in the knowledge that Quattro has your back. Away from the chequered flag the B5 is comfortably quicker in the real world than its contemporary rivals – the combination of strong turbocharged torque and traction will flatter 90% of drivers more than the naturally aspirated Porsche or BMW.

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 wheel base 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 remanufacture - 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 age is the visibility – slim A pillars and a large glasshouse adds to the warp factor of the passing scenery as I make another assault on the 7,000rpm redline & my adrenaline stock hold.

This fettled B5 has been a real surprise. It’s not a changing of the guard – an E46 M3 CS will still find chinks in the RS4’s armour – but compared to modern performance cars that cocoon the driver until speeds have become silly, the B5 has suddenly become a very desirable prospect.

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. Each and 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 a 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 puts me in the mood to drive, and one that makes the B5 feel the two generations older it is, despite the Adonis like build quality.

It takes all of fifty yards to know the B7 is a completely different prospect to 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 - it's a key difference. You notice it first in the powertrain, which has none of the slack that can sometimes permeate the B5. Throttle response is instantaneous and the clutch is lighter whilst the wonderful gear change slots home ratios with an oily precision. Then there is the damping, where owner Mark has fitted some KW coilovers in place of the notoriously leaky and expensive DRC suspension. There is a polished tautness to the ride quality - 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. The steering has less initial weight than the B5 but loads more naturally, 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 owner Mark.

It’s no surprise then given the on paper spec and the B7’s reputation that I’m quickly flying along at speeds that defy the conditions. Confidence floods back into my forearms from the perfectly geared steering, 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.

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.

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

Mark is clearly 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 drivers 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.

Which 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 mouth-watering 444bhp. The problem was the adoption of electro mechanical steering with 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 really 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 rubber bands, their 20 profile skinny enough to put a supermodel to shame during Milan fashion week.

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 is 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 few yards on the B5 if you catch its driver napping.

As well 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 percent of drive can go to the front or 85 percent 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.

Even setup 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 too civilised producing it and the steering too inert. The wide track, lack of roll and artificially quick steering does mean you can chuck the B8 into low speed corners and direction changes with the same abandon as the much smaller S3, but pace is the only reward. There are videos on the internet of the B8 going sideways, but 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 calipers & 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 £20,000 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.

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

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 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 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 which isn’t solely down to the omnipotent 500bhp performance of this example. Or perhaps in this case absolute power really does corrupt absolutely.