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You can now order your favourite RS derivative with a choice of rear-ends. Which version offers the broadest appeal?

1994 was an auspicious year for the humble station wagon. While many car enthusiasts might attribute an overnight interest in these traditionally family-friendly forms of transportation to images of Swedish racing driver Rickard Rydell launching his branded Volvo 850 Estate over the curbs in the heat of a British Touring Cars battle, many more will recall a sudden urge to replace their bedroom-wall supercar posters with prints of a certain Audi RS2 Avant.

Co-developed with Porsche, the RS2 featured a 232 kW turbocharged inline five-cylinder engine and was distinguishable – not least for its aggressive stance – via its red Brembo brake callipers. Even before you read that it could sprint from 0-100 km/h in under five seconds, you believed just by looking at it that it was capable of embarrassing many supercars of its era.

Only a handful of the 180 right-hand-drive RS2 Avants produced made it to South African shores and it wasn’t until the 2006 arrival of the muscle-bound B7 RS4 range that the local market got its first full taste of the RS2’s legacy. Where the traditionally wagon-shy South African buyer was drawn towards the sedan version of the second-generation RS4, it was always the wagon (and less so the Cabriolet) for which most enthusiasts pined.

Fast-forward to 2013 and Audi’s decision to, once again, offer only the RS4 in wagon form may well have stifled local sales but it didn’t stop this magazine from blessing the naturally aspirated V8-powered B8 Avant with a test score of 85/100. The most notable highlight of that generation, straight-line performance aside, was the impressive way in which Audi’s Quattro GmbH department found deep reserves of poise and balance in a package that by its nature challenged the laws of physics when it came to fast cornering.

With the recent change from Quattro GmbH to Audi Sport came the news of yet another concession towards marketers with the newest B9 RS4 Avant joining its RS5 Coupé and freshly introduced RS5 Sportback derivative in the local listings. Sharing the same MLB Evo platform, it’s the established RS5 Coupé boasting the most compact dimensions of these three siblings; the RS4 and RS5 Sportback feature identical wheelbase lengths (2 826 mm) and the same 1 866 mm width. While it’s the mandate of Audi’s Sportback range to offer greater levels of versatility and, crucially, improved rear-passenger comfort compared with the two-door models on which they are based, it stands to reason the Avant shape will always offer a taller profile by comparison.

Adding an extra sense of purpose to the new RS4’s stance in comparison with the sleek lines of the Sportback are notably (30 mm) broader wheelarches and a suitably lower ride height than that offered on the standard A4 range (including Avant models sold in other markets). On standard 20-inch alloy wheels and finished in an opinion-splitting optional Gloss Black exterior package (we missed the standard signature aluminium side mirrors) – combined with their respective honeycomb grille designs and distinct oval tailpipes – it’s fair to say the newest RS siblings turned a few heads during our time spent with them. However, despite the RS5’s Misano Red paint, it was always the Sonoma Green Avant that drew the most attention.

Both cars share the same brilliantly constructed interior, including Nappa leather-clad sports seats, flat-bottom steering wheel (which harks back to the B7) and a rich bouquet of infotainment technologies including Audi’s Virtual Cockpit and top-of-the-range MMI Navigation Plus system. It is interesting to note the driver is able to adjust the seat in the RS4 a fraction lower than the RS5 Sportback and the Coupé package tested previously. It may only be by the smallest of margins, but it’s a notable difference to a taller person seeking out an ideal driving position.

Curiously, the tall-opening hatch of the Sportback reveals more packing space than the Avant’s compartment. That said, the RS4 offers a conveniently lower loading height and superior utility space once its 40:20:40-split rear backrests are folded forward. With its taller roofline, the Avant provides more headroom in its second row than the Sportback, and a modicum more legroom, too.

The biggest difference between the previous-generation RS4 and the newest version is Audi Sport’s switch from a naturally aspirated V8 in the old car to a more emissions friendly turbocharged V6 unit in the new application. Ultimately offering the same 331 kW as before, the most notable gain (a 31 kg weight saving aside) is 170 N.m of additional torque available from 1 900 to 5 000 r/min, where the naturally aspirated unit’s 430 N.m was delivered from 4 000 r/min.

Mated with an eight-speed torque-converter transmission as opposed to the seven-speed dual-clutch unit in the B8, the newest RS twins send torque to the road via the brand’s Torsen-based Quattro all-wheel-drive system. Tuned to a rear-biased 40:60-split under normal driving conditions, a mechanical centre differential is able to transfer up to 70% of torque to the front wheels and up to 85% to the rear should conditions dictate.

On average 80 kg lighter than the previous-generation RS4 Avant – but this time without the advantage of a launch-control function – the new RS4 leapt off the line on our test strip to record a quite spectacular 3,98-second 0-100 km/h sprint time. Still smarting that this is nearly a second faster than the V8-powered example tested in April 2013, the (14 kg lighter) RS5 Sportback proceeded to blast from standstill to triple figures even sooner, recording a best time of 3,96 seconds. By comparison, the fastest sprint we achieved in the RS5 Coupé in February 2018 was 4,13 seconds.

Next, it was the turn of the brakes to impress. Here, the Avant and Sportback recorded average 100-0 km/h stopping times of 2,74 and 2,75 seconds respectively. It’s only those with racetrack ambitions who would order optional ceramic discs with their purchase.

Glance at these performance figures without context and you’d be forgiven for assuming them to be associated with modern, low-slung sportscars. Yet, arguably the greatest achievement of both these new RennSport products is that they are each quite capable of transporting up to four passengers, with luggage, over long distances. Despite their respective lower-than-average stances, standard sports suspension and low-profile rubber, neither car feels particularly jarring on the open road and each makes the most of Audi’s comprehensive Drive Select programme to effortlessly switch between comfort, auto, dynamic and individual driving modes. If there is an area of criticism within these packages, it’s that the corresponding exhaust note associated with the raciest driving modes doesn’t quite live up to expectations, its augmented burble remaining subtle rather than evocative.

We recorded an identical 10,0 L/100 km average fuel consumption in both cars over the course of our standardised fuel route.

Two options fitted to both test units we would strongly consider are Audi’s dynamic (variable ratio) steering setup (R15 484) and the inclusion of a suitably responsive sports differential (R18 964). Together, these heighten the responsiveness of a surefooted turn-in and bottom-clenching mid-corner acceleration. While there are certainly more focused rivals which offer a potentially sharper turn-in and higher corner speeds, driven to their strengths – a slower entry followed by full-throttle apex crossing – there are few more entertaining four-door performance packages available than the new RS5 Sportback and the RS4 Avant; and even your dogs can enjoy the latter.

TEST SUMMARY

You would have gathered we are quite taken with the newest RS offerings from Audi, not least because of the startling performance potential they possess, along with more versatility and packing space than some small SUVs.

Yet, despite how evenly matched they are in terms of drivetrain technologies and, in this case, specification, it’s the RS4 Avant that ultimately scores the highest. While the reasoning behind this scoring is not easily quantifiable – the Sportback’s superior luggage capacity is nullified by its higher asking price – once the CAR team sat down to discuss the outcome of this test, each member took turns reminiscing about a particular fast station wagon in their motoring memories.

While the hugely capable RS5 Sportback exists as a compromise for a potential Coupé owner who needs to ferry more than one guest at a time to various occasions, driving an RS4 Avant is, in itself, an occasion.

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