For years, the automotive press has crowed on and on about the virtues of wagons: how they’re more pleasing to look at, better to drive, and inherently hold more charm than their high-riding SUV counterparts. Extra points if they’re brown and drink diesel, for some reason.
We tend to view our heroes through rose-colored lenses, focusing on the positives while minimizing the negatives, and in that way, eccentricity can be easily mistaken for innovation. When you’ve exhausted the norms, gravitating toward the weird – the avant-garde – is almost obligatory.
But the 2021 Audi RS 6 Avant seems like something worth getting excited about before I even get behind the wheel. For the first time in the model’s eighteen-year history, Audi has decided to throw caution to the wind and make this machine available in North America, despite the fact that U.S. consumers are in the midst of ditching just about every other body style of car for trucks, crossovers, and sport-utility vehicles.
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That, of course, is not enough to start singing the praises of this hopped up five-door. To find out if the RS 6 Avant really lives up to the hype, I headed to Malibu, California to put this muscle-bound family hauler through its paces.
The Practical Athlete
Part of the allure of fast wagons has been their unassuming aesthetic. The idea of smoking the Corvette in the next lane with something that looks at home in the parking lot of the local mall has a certain sleeper appeal to it, and it’s an approach that Audi took with past RS 6 Avant models to great effect. With the fourth-generation car, it’s more of the same. Mostly.
“The A6 Avant and RS 6 Avant share just three body components – the front doors, the roof, and the tailgate,” says Audi exterior designer Andreas Joachim Koglin. “Our aim was to shift the design closer to supercars like the R8, or even a Lamborghini.”
From nearly every angle, the RS 6 Avant makes a strong visual impression. It’s 3.1 inches wider than the standard car due to the flared wheel arches, and it sits 1.2 inches lower with the standard air suspension set to its sportiest mode. A set of 21-inch wheels are standard, while 22-inchers are optional. The latter tuck into the wheel wells like the car was built from the rollers on up.
“The A6 Avant and RS 6 Avant share just three body components.”
There’s an undeniable menace to this thing, and yet, despite the gaping air intakes, the aero elements, and the bulging proportions, everything just looks like it belongs there. It’s a strikingly handsome design.
The interior might not have the visual flare to match the bodywork, but it’s never lacking in style or performance-focused functionality, with leather, Alcantara and contrast stitching reminding you of the RS 6’s sporting intentions. The company’s latest MMI touchscreen infotainment system is equipped here, reducing the number of physical buttons on the center console to single digits. Most frequently-used functions have a home on the flat-bottomed steering wheel, anyway, and the rest can be accessed through the 10.1-inch infotainment touchscreen and the 8.6-inch display below it, which primarily controls the climate control system.
Of course, since it’s a wagon, the RS 6 Avant also has crossover-like cargo capacity. There’s 20.0 cubic feet of storage behind the rear seats, which expands to an Alfa Romeo Stelvio-besting 59.3 cu-ft. when the bench’s back is folded down.
Heart Of A Sports Car
Still, it’s the hardware beneath the skin that really impresses. Under the hood is a twin-turbocharged 4.0-liter V8 that produces 591 horsepower and 591 pound-feet of torque, which mates to an eight-speed automatic gearbox. The combination is good for a 3.6-second sprint to 60 miles per hour on the way to an electronically-limited top speed of 190 mph when optioned with the Dynamic Plus package.
On the chassis side of the equation, the RS 6 Avant is outfitted with a standard sport-tuned air suspension, while Dynamic Ride Control (DRC) is optional. The latter matches steel springs with three-way adjustable dampers that are linked in diagonally opposed pairs by a valve system that moves hydraulic fluid to where it’s needed in order to reduce pitch and roll. It’s a setup that’s fairly similar to what you’d find underneath a McLaren 720S. Rear-axle steering – another piece of performance engineering first seen on high-end supercars – is standard on all RS 6 Avants sold in North America.
A pair of 16.5-inch steel rotors and ten-piston calipers up front are standard and rein in the pace with some serious haste. Included in the optional Dynamic Plus package are massive 17.3-inch ceramic discs at the front and 14.6-inch ceramic units at the rear. The setup, featured in these Euro-spec testers, improves heat management in the brake system and reduces unsprung weight by a sizable 75 pounds. They offer predictably awesome stopping power, but are occasionally grabby at the top of the pedal when not on boil.
After settling in behind the wheel, a press of the ignition button brings the boosted V8 to life with a lovely growl that quickly retreats to a fairly muted burble. Audi tells us that our European-spec testers have more restrictive exhaust systems than the cars it will sell in North America. In theory that means buyers on this side of the pond are getting the louder – and thus better – version of the wagon. These are indeed crazy times, folks.
Weighing nearly 4,600 pounds, the RS 6 Avant should struggle in the Malibu Hills, home to some of southern California’s finest driving roads, like Mulholland, Kanan, and Decker. But first, I set the drive mode to Comfort and point the nose down the highway to get a sense of how the car handles everyday driving. Audi provided us seat time in both air suspension and DRC-equipped cars, both of which are surprisingly compliant on the PCH despite the 22-inch wheels and low-profile Pirelli P Zero summer tires that both testers roll on. High-speed grand touring? Bring the whole family on your next Cannonball Run.
In theory, buyers on this side of the pond are getting the louder – and thus better – wagon.
Noticing the sign for the notoriously windy Latigo Canyon Road, I instinctively paw for the drive mode selector to bump the setting over to Dynamic. Doing so requires looking away from the road for a brief moment because the selector is part of the touch-sensitive bezel underneath the climate control screen, rather than a physical toggle switch. It’s a mild annoyance, but Audi took that into consideration as well, adding an “RS Mode” button – much like BMW’s M buttons – to the steering wheel so you can call up your favorite preset parameters on the fly.
Turbo lag is ostensibly non-existent, with peak torque arriving at just over 2000 rpm, and the all-wheel-drive RS 6 Avant effortlessly rockets out of low-speed corners. But it’s not just a one-trick pony.
In the Dynamic setting, it’s the air suspension which proves better suited to Latigo’s tight switchbacks and less-than-perfect surface. The DRC is a bit more aggressively tuned and likely shines at a higher pace, but here it’s not quite as settled as the standard setup. The rear-axle steering makes the car feel legitimately eager to change direction, and the Quattro Sport torque-vectoring rear differential (also included in the Dynamic Plus package) maximizes deployment of the V8’s power when exiting corners – it’s a big reason for the RS 6’s rocket-like behavior despite its hefty weight. Like any all-wheel-drive car, push is the default behavior of the RS 6 once its tires decide to give. But this understeer is predictable and easy to manage, rarely detracting from the overall experience.
Every once in a while something comes along and not only reinforces the rule, it exemplifies it. The 2020 Audi RS 6 Avant requires no apologies, and for the first time in the model’s 18-year history, it’s available in the U.S. Fortunately for us, it’s good not just because it’s a fast wagon, but because it does just about everything you ask of it very, very well, and it also happens to look fantastic while doing it.