Are you looking to get into the classic car game, but want something that still offers modern appeal? Enter the B7-generation Audi RS4 – and, for an extra touch of exclusivity, the Avant derivative. Contributor John Whittle gets behind the 'wheel of the high-revving, 4.2-litre V8-engined machine (replete with its blistered wheel arches) and highlights everything you need to look out for when searching for one.
Words By John Whittle
Photographs by Roarke Bouffe
It’s an age-old question – which of the “Big Three" German brands makes the best cars? There's no clear-cut answer. If you've been exposed to a particular brand's models (appreciably more so than others) in your formative years, you're probably likely to favour that marque's products over those of its direct rivals – at least, that's been my experience. But honestly, if you've been fortunate enough to experience a variety of their cars, Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz are pretty evenly matched in most departments.
Still, brand bias most certainly exists; it always will. Pundits are often firmly steadfast in their beliefs and partial to voicing their oft-obstinate points of view when the Teutonic trio's performance derivatives are compared with one another. BMW M models have traditionally been heralded great driver’s cars, Mercedes-Benz’s AMG (now simply Mercedes-AMG) models are widely considered flashier and more brutish by comparison and Audi’s RS derivatives are very surefooted, more docile, but exceedingly brisk.
A fast 'wagon is a thing of beauty. The B7 RS4 still looks the part – even by today's standards.
Introduced in 1999, the first (B5-based) RS4 was the successor to the iconic RS2 Avant – the product of an Audi-Porsche joint venture. Although the first-gen RS4 was not sold in South Africa, it cemented Audi’s reputation for building rapid 'wagons with understated style... and staggering pace off the line thanks to quattro all-wheel drive (AWD).
Skip one generation of the A4 to the B7, and no one was quite ready for the surprise Audi had in store. The Ingolstadt-based brand's fans weren't afforded a B6-generation RS4 (alas, they had to make do with the underwhelming S4), but, when the first new RS4 in 7 years debuted at the 2006 Detroit Motor Show, the fanboys were in a veritable froth.
The newcomer's 4.2-litre naturally-aspirated (non-turbocharged) petrol V8 produced peak outputs of 309 kW and 430 Nm of torque and was mated exclusively with a 6-speed manual 'box. The all-aluminium motor was exceptionally light and offered a specific output of 74.2 kW per litre, which was very close to that of the E46 M3 with 78.3 kW per litre. What's more, it had a rather high compression ratio of 12.5:1 and emitted a glorious baritone soundtrack as it revved all the way to its 8 500-rpm rev limit.
It was offered in sedan, Avant (estate) and cabriolet guises and the 3 respective variants offered similar levels of performance. The RS4's quattro AWD system had a default 40/60 front-rear split, but the Audi’s electronic control unit dynamically apportioned torque as it saw fit. Other highlights included flared wheel arches, aluminium front wings and bonnet, a sport button on the steering wheel that opened up bypass valves in the exhaust and sharpened up the throttle response, as well as Dynamic Ride Control.
Was it any good to drive?
The B7 RS4 had a trick suspension setup (DRC) that reduced body roll in the corners.
At the time of the B7-generation RS4’s launch, fast Audis had a bit of a reputation for offering lacklustre dynamics and too little driver engagement. It came as quite a surprise then when the RS4 was not only rapid in a straight line, but poised and engaging in the twisties too. The whole package offered a kind of excitement that its predecessors somehow lacked... and this was evident from the moment you prodded the start button on the transmission tunnel and the V8 erupted to life with its assertive burble.
Even 15 years after its introduction, the direct injection V8’s alacrity for high revs makes for an intoxicating experience when pressing on, and even though the shift quality of the 6-speed 'box is a little hollow, the short-throw matches up perfectly with the fast steering rack, allowing for a lithe precision that one might not expect from an all-wheel-drive V8 'wagon. The chassis and powertrain complement each other well; the car exudes wonderful tension and tautness at all times, but it never feels overwhelming or unwelcome.
A lot of that has to do with the RS4’s Dynamic Ride Control (DRC). Essentially a trick suspension setup, DRC is a mechanical system featuring hydraulically linked diagonally opposed dampers. In fact, it's similar to the setup you’ll find in a McLaren MP4-12C! The system allows for an incredibly supple ride, while simultaneously reducing pitch and roll in the corners. The damping is lovely and controlled; all of the above results in the RS4 being quite forgiving – but delightfully communicative – as it approaches its limits.
If the Audi spears into a corner a little more enthusiastically than one may have intended, the weight of that V8 motor up front will cause the Audi's front end to wash a little wide, but this minor misbehaviour is easily corrected by coming off the throttle, after which the nose will neatly tuck in, and the rear should rotate just the right amount.
One may even induce a little oversteer if you’re brave, but that’ll require more speed than most drivers are likely to be comfortable with. Suffice to say the RS4 responds beautifully to driver inputs and offers a completely different experience to its contemporary M3 or C63 AMG rivals, but its performance is equally compelling and no less exciting.
Did you say a V8, manual Estate?
Stubby shifter provides a muscular yet fast-shifting experience.
Audi South Africa imported only 32 RS4 Avants. You’ll have an easier time tracking down a hen's dentist than finding one of these; it was pure luck that we managed to source this Avus Silver example for the shoot. The owner searched for it for months and mere minutes before signing for a Sprint Blue sedan, he received a call from an Audi dealer that tracked down this particular example. It presents in good condition and has the Sport pack, which was standard from 2007 – lowered suspension, flat-bottomed steering wheel and side bolsters that give you a squeeze when you poke the sport button. This vehicle also has the Carbon Pack, which adds a smattering of carbon fibre to the interior.
So, you’d like to buy one?
Well, the asking prices for B7-generation RS4s are rather reasonable at the moment; there’s bound to be one to suit your pocket, whether you’re looking for a poked one that’ll bankrupt you in repair bills or an absolute minter that you’ll want to park forever. Somewhere in between those extremes is the sweet spot, where you’ll pay around R250k – R270k for a well looked-after example with moderate mileage (around 110 000 km). Immaculate cars will obviously demand a premium and can fetch upwards of R350k, but these are hard to come by. There are quite a few dogs out there, too (in the R150k – R200k region). These are very likely to be a good lesson in getting what you pay for.
Things that may break:
Avants were particularly rare in SA, just 32 units were imported to our market.
Rust and corrosion – A great deal of alloy was used in the running gear and mechanicals of the RS4. At the areas where these components come into contact with steel, there’s a good chance that you’ll find corrosion. If possible, get the car up on a ramp and whip out your torch to have a close look. This isn’t always a train smash, but in worse cases, components will need to be replaced at great cost.
Dynamic Ride Control leaks – It's a remarkable system, which will only function with the correct pressure. A common problem is that the seals tend to leak and the shocks depressurise, which renders them useless. Be on the lookout for sweating shocks. Some of the suspension pipes tend to corrode, so check them for rust too.
Coil packs – Depending on the mileage of the vehicle you’re looking at, it may be necessary to fit a new set of coil packs. Replacing one or two isn’t too costly, but these do tend to fail around the same time, in which case a set will set you back many thousands of Rands.
Cost of OEM parts – The abovementioned issues aren’t too serious, but as mentioned, OEM parts can be hugely expensive and, as is often the case with these sorts of things, the numbers start adding up rather quickly. There are some great aftermarket alternatives, though, which offer a great quality product at a fraction of the price. OEM brake discs, for example, will set you back R70k whereas an aftermarket option will cost you less than half that.
Slightly less serious things/ Things to take note of
OEM parts can be particularly expensive but high-quality aftermarket parts are also readily available.
Clutches – Early cars had a clutch-hose problem, but this was rectified by virtue of a manufacturer recall. If you’re having a look at an earlier vehicle, check the history to see that the recall was done. If the car has no history and you’re still brave enough to stick around, take down the VIN and phone an Audi dealership – its personnel should be able to give you an answer. The clutch tends to last around 75 000 km – this should have been replaced unless the vehicle you’re looking at has very low mileage.
Oil cooler pipes – Check these for leaks, they tend to corrode and can leak oil in varying degrees of “oh... no!”.
Power-steering hose – There’s a pipe that leads from the power steering pump to the rack and this tends to corrode and ultimately leak. It's difficult to spot, but feel for any stiffness in the steering, low fluid levels or whether any whiny noises become apparent when you turn the 'wheel lock to lock.
Upper- and lower suspension-arm bushings – These are prone to splitting and will need to be replaced. Listen for any knocking coming from the front suspension as this is a clear indication of this.
Upper-arm pinch bolt – Listen for knocking control arms at full lock, this would indicate that the upper arm pinch bolt has seized. This is a pretty simple fix if it can be removed but if not, a new housing will be required as well.
Oil consumption and average service cost – One may be alarmed at just how much oil the B7 RS4 consumes. Both the engine and gearbox are rather thirsty, but keeping them topped up is essential to ensure the longevity of both of these components. It’s not uncommon to use up to 3 litres of engine oil every 1 600 km.
Engine: 5W-40 (5W-30 can be used, but chain tensioners will start to rattle when cold); Gearbox and Rear Differential: 75W-90
A minor service at a reputable Audi specialist should cost you around R3 000.
Corroded battery compartment – This seems to be a common issue with B7-generation Audis and so shouldn’t be a deterrent. However, one should check for rust, as well as scrapes and scratches in the wheel arches, as these could all be signs of repair work.
Damaged sump and alternator belt housings – These sit very low underneath the car and can be damaged on nasty speed bumps and the like – check that the alternator and its housing are not in tatters and that the sump isn't leaking.
How to spot a lemon
As with purchasing any car, it’s important to take note of the overall condition of the vehicle. Worn seat bolsters are a nuisance and peeling rubbery trim on the steering wheel and radio aren’t ideal, but where one really needs to pay close attention is when inspecting the mechanical components of the car. If you start the car and the dashboard resembles a trippy trance party, it’s probably wise to stay away. If the V8 sounds like a V4 or the smoke that billows from the exhaust teleports you back to that trippy trance party, stay well away. That is, of course, unless you’re looking to find a genuine bargain and you’re certain of the work that needs to be done and the costs of carrying it out.
A good detailer will always be able to restore an interior to near-showroom spec.
Decat – When you push the sport button on the RS4's steering wheel, the Audi's exhaust valves open and beef up the V8 exhaust note measurably. This, however, isn’t loud enough for some people who feel the need to “enhance” their vehicles further by splashing out on bespoke exhaust modifications. Their flagrant disregard for the wellbeing of the planet aside, this can sound quite nice, but it all depends on the quality of the work done. Straight-piping your Audi is not a good idea.
Aftermarket brakes – Due to the fact that OEM brakes are so astonishingly expensive, aftermarket brakes are not only cheaper, but one could install some "beefier" brakes to the RS4 for less than what OEM replacement items would cost.
Suspension – One of the most common modifications on the B7 RS4 is the removal of the Dynamic Ride Control system, due to the fact that it's prone to leaking and can be expensive to repair. Some of the more common options are Bilstein B14 Coilovers or kW Street Comfort shocks.
Air filter and remap – If an aftermarket exhaust is installed, an ECU remap is often done to improve mid-range torque and remove the torque limiters in 1st and 2nd gear.
Carbon clean – Not so much a modification, but rather a bit of routine maintenance, which should be done every 100 000 km (or so) due to the FSI direct injection system.
Eminently sought-after and revered by motoring enthusiasts and performance-car aficionados alike – irrespective of where their brand loyalties lie (I might add) – the B7-generation RS4 is a phenomenal performance machine that offers exceptionally good bang for your buck, as long as you're vigilant about the issues you need to look out for.