Car fanatics have been squawking about wagons for years. Though they have ancient associations with agonizing family road trips (National Lampoon’s Vacation movies, anyone?), the genre has also been favored by motorists otherwise repelled by dreaded SUVs and minivans.
Fanning the enthusiast flames is Audi’s new RS 6 Avant, a hot-rodded hatch-tail that flips a 591-horsepower bird to the sport utility establishment. The RS 6 Avant has scored legions of followers in Europe, but can this Teutonic disruptor find a place in the hearts and garages of American drivers?
My first taste of the 2020 Audi RS 6 Avant comes at the Malibu Surfrider Hotel, an otherwise low-key lodge that happens to face some of the most strikingly sun-drenched stretches of the Pacific Ocean. A red RS6 is staged out front with a surfboard strapped to its roof, looking appealingly adventure-ready. But today’s drive won’t see the RS 6 parading along Pacific Coast Highway like a Baywatch wannabe: My mission is to tackle the tangled tarmac in the surrounding hills and see if this flashy family hauler is as muscular as it looks. Game on.
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Externally at least, the RS 6 Avant looks like nothing on the road. Sharp and clad with an aggressive symphony of big grilles and gaping exhaust pipes, the RS 6 combines familiar wagon tropes with cues likelier found on sportscars than everyday movers. Swing open the RS 6’s door, and the Audi seems a bit more accessible. Sure, there’s a cornucopia of digital screens, from a 12.3-inch instrument cluster (and available 8.7-inch heads up display projection on the windscreen) to a 10.1-inch infotainment screen to an 8.6-inch climate control display—all of which might be a bit daunting to technophobes more familiar with hard buttons than slippery touchscreens. But grounding the whole scene are familiar Audi touches like top-stitched honeycomb-patterned leather and Alcantara surfaces, with trim options including wood or matte aluminum.
Courtesy of Audi
More crucial to the driver experience, however, is the choice between the two available suspension setups: a standard adaptive air suspension, or what Audi calls Dynamic Ride Control. The standard arrangement alters the ride by fine-tuning the gas pressure in the struts, enabling the car to raise or lower to the ground and transform from floaty boulevard cruiser to buttoned-down cornering machine. On the other hand, the DRC option stiffens or softens the shocks with a sharper, more direct effect. These options present an interesting, and endlessly debatable contrast: Air suspension produces a graceful, mostly supple ride that can lift for offroad terrain, or hunker down for high-speed driving. Dynamic Ride Control, on the other hand, feels crisper and sharper in all settings, ranging from firm-yet-yielding, to downright, unapologetically stiff. Daily commuters might be happier with the air suspension, while canyon carvers will likely gravitate to the adjustable shocks. Press the RS button on the steering wheel, and a customized preset can instantly summon your preferences for ride, engine, and steering characteristics, saving the trouble of toggling through the menu system.
And then there’s the engine, an outrageous twin-turbocharged 4-liter V8 that, if we’re honest with ourselves, is the true centerpiece of the RS 6 Avant. Like the suspension, the powerplant can be adjusted to match your tolerance for twitchiness. In mild modes, the throttle responds to pedal pressure with mellow, manageable power, building up steam progressively. In its more aggressive setting, the response is sharper and a valve opens, producing a heartier rumble from the big oval exhaust pipes. But here’s the thing: when you gun it, the Avant doesn’t react like the hunchbacked cargo hauler it is. It just hauls…fast, able to accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 3.4 seconds. For reference, that’s quicker than a Porsche 911 Carrera S, which also happens to lack the spacious rear seats and nearly 60 cubic feet of available space when folded down.
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Despite the Avant’s bulk and heft (it tips the scales at over 4,600 pounds), the wagon feels nimble and lithe on treacherous Malibu roads like Stunt, Latigo Canyon, and Yerba Buena. Thanks to a four-wheel steering system that turns the rear wheels in the opposite direction of the fronts at lower speeds, helping rotate the car. The effect makes it feel like the RS 6 is several hundred pounds lighter, enabling maneuvers that are more Patrick Dempsey than Clark Griswold. In fact, the RS 6’s athleticism makes it easy to forget you’re driving something so purposeful: Behind the wheel, it feels like you’re in a toned-down supercar, not a pumped-up cargo hauler.
Maybe that’s why the RS 6 Avant has a fighting chance for making a dent in the U.S. market. It stirs the desires of hardcore drivers, while looking sleek enough to excuse its slung-back, five-door format. Though Audi downplays the sales potential of its fire-breathing wagon, one company official also revealed that he’s received more personal interest in the Avant than he has in any other car during his years in the business. So don’t write off the wagon quite so quick; sexy standouts like the RS 6 Avant might breathe some fresh life into the genre yet.
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