There’s nothing like proving your contemporaries right the first time around. That’s exactly what the first Audi RS6 did in 2002. Think about the cream of the current fast estate crop, those mighty wagons that represent (or recently represented) the genre at its very best: the Mercedes-AMG E63 used a twin-turbo 4.0-litre V8 engine, an automatic gearbox and four-wheel drive to devastating effect. The Alpina B5 used a twin-turbo 4.4-litre V8 engine, an automatic gearbox and four-wheel drive to d… you get the idea. The Germans have dallied over the years with rear-drive estates, screaming atmospheric engines, dual-clutch gearboxes, automated manuals - everything. But we can probably all agree that the most recent iterations have nailed the brief most emphatically, having followed and enhanced the template actually set out by an Audi launched in 2002: the first RS6 was powered by a twin-turbo 4.2-litre V8 engine, and power went to all four wheels via an automatic gearbox.
That’s a fairly simplistic assessment, of course - engines, transmissions and 4WD systems have improved significantly since then - though it’s notable that even Audi itself felt they could only improve on that basic formula rather than reinvent it. The RS6 after this one went to a V10, with a mixed reception, before reverting back to a V8 (now 4.0-litres) in the C7 of 2013. Three-quarters of RS6s - the best ones - have used a V8 of around 4.0 litres with two turbos, an automatic gearbox (with anything from five to eight ratios) and, of course, Quattro all-wheel drive. There really is very little beating it for uberwagon supremacy.
But the end is nigh. With the Performance model of the current RS6 now on sale (boasting exactly 30hp more than standard, just like this C5 Plus), there’s not long left for a C8 generation first launched in 2019. And there is unlikely to be another RS6 finessing a familiar layout next time around, with Audi’s electric Avant concept already shown and the teasing well underway of a potential RS EV. As seems to be written all too frequently at the moment, the tale of an iconic dynasty is reaching its denouement. Time to revisit the OG then.
It's amazing to think given the plethora of models that followed that the C5 RS6 was only the third Audi RS model ever. For the record, it was RS2 in 1994, B5 RS4 quite a few years later, then this in 2002, back when there was only one RS in the lineup at a time. As was the one-upmanship fashion for the German carmakers back in the early 2000s, the RS6 blew everything else out of the water, with almost 100hp more than an E55 AMG and even a healthy advantage over the E39 M5 thanks to that wodge of twin-turbo torque. The car you see here is the ultimate C5, the RS6 Plus that was made for the final six months of production in 2004; only 1,000 were built, with 77 RHD cars coming to the UK. Power was up to 480hp, the limiter raised to 174mph, and the price increased to £66,575 (or almost £115k in today’s money)… the only thing lowered was the ride height, by another 10mm.
Perhaps it’s a shallow observation - and it’ll certainly be helped by Audi’s example being a 22k minter - but this old A6 still looks absolutely tremendous. For an estate car with its roots in the mid-1990s, it still perfectly blends intimidation with subtlety like the best of them. Perhaps better - the current RS6 is probably a bit OTT, however modestly specced. The flare of the arches here is flawless, the stance on those chunky alloys perfect, and the tiny RS giveaways a masterclass in discreet intent. Those that know will nod in appreciation, still. And maybe it’s not a shallow thing, at all: pretty soon every single C5 RS6 will be at least 20 years old, bordering on classic status if they aren’t already. With the various travails classic ownership entails (especially ownership of an old, heavy, complex Audi), you’ll want to admire the machine so much time and money will inevitably go on. Don’t see many ugly old cars around, right? The RS6, all these years on, has definitely still got it. Look!
To drive, this RS6 achieves a very neat trick. Here, in one handsome blue estate car, is everything that’s good and bad about the old Audi way of making performance flagships. The bad is as you might expect, if nowhere near as egregious as you might have been told: the steering is aloof, the suspension underdamped, the balance very nose heavy and so on. The five-speed auto is a bit dim even by the standards of the era, too. Handily, however, the good is compelling, which is why these cars always proved so frustrating for so long - if only everything could have been as sorted as the great bits, then there would have been some sensational fast Audis made. As it was both cars and strategy were inconsistent; for every B7 RS4 there were plenty far less brilliant.
Predictably enough, the engine is an absolute triumph of a V8. Cosworth was famously involved with both the RS4 V6 and this 4.2 and, well, they did something right. Even two decades on, its ability to pick up from very few revs and romp so fiercely to 7,000rpm really is remarkable. There’s so little lag and so much responsiveness where you wouldn’t expect to find it, urgently responding to every throttle input and willing to hurl you down the road at an indecent pace. The sound - assisted in the Plus by a standard sports exhaust - is great, a muted V8 woofle that never threatens to overwhelm proceedings but isn’t too subdued either.
For getting from a start point to a destination with the least hassle and the most speed, this old Audi still takes some beating. Buyers of expensive, luxurious fast estates don’t need them to be the very best, most engaging cars to drive - look how many V10 M5 Tourings sold for proof of that. They need to get far away, typically, with vats of performance in reserve and complete confidence in the car underneath them. That’s what the C5 still offers in 2023; in the early noughties it must have felt like Concorde.
In appropriately grotty conditions, the RS6 tracks like a bullet train, brakes with total composure, and always finds purchase as long as the entry speed isn’t too optimistic. It cruises authoritatively, the ride levels out with speed, and you’re soon finding an excuse to add more miles to a journey just to further appreciate the mighty experience. Excitement isn’t top of the bill because it doesn’t need to be. The RS6 excels at effortless, unflappable ground covering. With a monster V8.
Those comparisons with the E39 M5 back in the day - remember there was a four-door RS6 available as well - must have been fascinating. It’s easy to imagine the BMW being the supersaloon of choice for a day of hooning around with its single-driven axle and manual gearbox, but nobody being unhappy in the slightest about being given the Audi for the journey home from some far-flung location. Probably with all the photographer’s gear in the back, still able to go faster than the BMW in any situation. While probably attracting less attention, too. Having had the privilege of getting behind the wheel of an M5 again recently for the PH25 finale, it’s undoubtedly the more rewarding car to drive (even with its own less-than-perfect steering), though there remains something irresistible about how the RS6 disdainfully bats away any challenge.
That being said, the mind still wanders as to what it might have been like a couple of years down the line, perhaps with a sharper auto, clever differentials or more favourable weight distribution. So much is already so sorted that you can’t help but crave a car with everything at that level. Which brings us back to the fast Audi paradox. Arguably that car is the C7 of 2013, the return of the V8 and peak RS6 for many. As it is, the C5 is very fast, very easy to rub along with and very cool, and that’s hardly a bad place to build a legacy. The interior is stoic yet superbly built (natch), the traction immense, and the feeling of total control and confidence pretty addictive.
All of which might not actually be a bad starting place for an electric RS. If neither the super EV nor the mega Audi has ever been the most tactile of driving devices, then a merger of the two sounds ideal. Moreover, snowballing advancements in electric motors and the software that marshals them are being portrayed as the next step forward in four-wheel-drive performance cars. And we already know that Audi can make a great-looking electric RS car - just look at the GT. The demise of the V8 is sad because it brought us cars as charismatic as this RS6, but the C5 is a decent reminder that the recent past wasn't exemplary in every regard. Let's hope its spiritual successor can go one better...
SPECIFICATION | AUDI RS6 QUATTRO AVANT (C5)
Engine: 4,172cc V8
Transmission: 5-speed Tiptronic, four-wheel drive
Power (hp): 450@5,700-6,400rpm (Plus 480@ 6,000-6,400rpm)
Torque (lb ft): 413@1,950-5,600rpm (Plus 1,950-6,000rpm)
0-62mph: 4.7sec (Plus 4.6sec)
Top speed: 155mph (Plus 174mph, both limited)
Weight: 1,880kg (Plus 1,865kg)
On sale: 2002-2004
Price new: £58,800 (2002), £66,675 (2004 Plus )
Price now: £11,000+, good luck finding a Plus…
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