Review: 2008 Audi RS4

A very nice woman from Audi's PR department once told me I should try going to Hell. She said that Car & Driver went there all the time. Well, if Hell is good enough for them, Hell is good enough for me, right?

As it turns out, Hell, Michigan, is about half an hour northwest of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Who knew? Hell itself doesn't have much to recommend it. There's the Hell Country Store, a bar called the Dam Site Inn, and a little sweet tooth stop called Screams Ice Cream. That's about it.

The one thing Hell does have going for it, other than an endless number of Go to Hell T-shirts and stickers, is its roads. Twisty roads. Roads that go up and down, weaving around a number of small lakes. In fact, the concrete ribbon that wraps around Hell is a wheelman's paradise.

Hell was the perfect place to shake down Audi's insane 2008 RS4 sedan - admittedly a model up for replacement.

What is it?
The RS4 is Audi's entry-level A4 sedan with a few extra ingredients. Five cups of insanity, two gallons of furor and a big dose of "holy #!$@!" To call this Audi's "hot" version of the A4 doesn't even begin to do it justice. Leave that title for the S4. Thermonuclear would be a fitting name tag for the RS4.

A naturally aspirated 4.2L V8 with 420 horses bolted to a finely tuned chassis and suspension system are at your command in the RS4. Put simply, it's one of the fastest, most precise sedans you can buy.

What's it up against?
This question is a little tricky since the RS4 is currently a bit of a lame duck. While the Audi has been around since 2006, its main competitors, the BMW M3 and the Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG, have recently been redesigned. The Benz has more horsepower than the Audi and the Bimmer has equal power, but a few hundred pounds less sheet metal on the bone. Cadillac's brand-new CTS-V is a real stormer and finally has the power and finesse to compete with the big boys from Germany, even if it's more BMW M5 in size.

The new M3, CTS-V and C63 will best the RS4 in a drag race. When it comes to punching out of corners though, the RS4 can still keep up against its rear-drive competitors with Audi's Quattro all-wheel-drive.

Some sources say the next generation RS4, due in about a year, will have a reworked, direct-injection V8 that flirts with a 470 hp rating. Others suggest a supercharged V6.

Any breakthroughs?
Audi's Dynamic Ride control is definitely a system designed to tame the beast. It consists of a special set of shock absorbers that are linked hydraulically via a central valve and adjusts the damping to each shock as you drive. While a deep, technical explanation of the system might be interesting, all you really need to know about DRC is that it keeps the car incredibly flat through high speed cornering and keeps the body from pitching under hard accelerating or braking.

The other cool techno-gadget in the car would be a little button on the upper part of the center stack marked "S." That "S" would be for Sport. Press it and a valve opens in the exhaust system and makes the rumble from the RS4 even louder. In addition, engaging sport mode will also make for a more aggressive throttle response.

If you can think of a reason NOT to press the "S" button each time you start the car, chances are you should be driving something with a little less fire in its belly.

How does it look?
The RS4 is all about understated sportiness. It might be one of the best "sleeper" cars out there. There's no massive spoiler sitting on the trunk lid and no insane bodywork that looks like it came from a transformer. In passing, a non-enthusiast eye could easily miss this special car. The trained eye, however, will notice the larger wheel bulges, the sportier front end, the vents in the front quarter panel and the big oval pipes out back. Exhaust tips that another motorist would likely see a lot of since you just blew past them at 92 mph.

And inside?
The interior is actually a little lackluster for a car that costs $70,000. While the fit and finish is certainly top notch, there just isn't a lot going on inside from a design standpoint. The piano black trim along the dash and doors are nice touches, but past that you're looking at a lot of gray plastic. The non-auto-dimming review mirror that looks like it was taken from a Volkswagen Polo screams low rent.

More importantly, the sport seats are very comfortable and have plenty of bolstering to keep you from falling into your passenger's lap. With the RS4's ability for high speed cornering, you'll need ever stitch of that bolstering.

As for the yawn-inducing interior, expect that to be improved significantly with the next-generation RS4. We've spent some time in the standard 2009 A4 and we've briefly glimpsed the 2009 S4 - both possess a fantastic interior that will no doubt be upgraded for the next-generation RS4.

But does it go?
Can Sarah Palin field dress a moose?

Quattro GmbH, Audi's in-house tuning division responsible for the RS4, might consider a name change to something like "Mephistopheles MotorWerks." The RS4 is the first car I've driven that scared me a little. If I made a big mistake in this car, it was going to bite back.

The amount of power this car has, and the way it delivers that power is just plain fierce. It's immediate and seemingly unending. 0-60 runs pin you back so hard it actually feels a little violent. Violent, yet, good. While Audi says the sprint to 60 takes 4.6 seconds, several drivers report a time a few tenths lower. Audi also says the RS4 is limited to 155mph. My run on deserted highway says otherwise"¦

You have to love a company that under promises and over delivers.

While the motor may instill a bit of fear, keep in mind that all that power is coursing through Audi's Quattro all-wheel-drive system. Quattro's road-gripping ability brings a feeling of confidence that will even out your emotions. Precise, well-weighted steering helps ensure your front tire will find the apex at each corner. Quattro will help ensure you leave that corner like a cannon shot.

Now all that power and fun certainly come at a cost. The RS4 averaged 11mpg during the week I drove it. Of course, I didn't drive the car conservatively at all, nor did I ever touch the cruise control. I spent quite a bit on 91-octane that week and it was worth every Andrew Jackson I gave to the cause.

Why you would buy it:
You want one of the most powerful, finest handling sport sedans ever built. The RS4 is the best rollercoaster you've ever been on and you won't want to get off.

Why you wouldn't:
The interior isn't quite up to par and the pull of the M3 may be too much for you to ignore. You may also just be biding your time until the all-new RS4 gets here. The fuel economy may also be a turn-off, but if it is, then you aren't really serious about getting a car like the RS4.

2008 Audi RS4 Sedan, $66,910. As tested, $70,785.
Titanium package, $750; iPod interface, $250; Gas guzzler tax, $2,100; Destination, $775.

Words and photos by Chris Doane.