Ingolstadt adds handling vim to its outrageously brisk load-lugger
Price: £76, 985
Engine: 4.0 litres, eight cylinders, twin-turbocharged
Power: 552bhp @5700-6600rpm
Torque: 516lb ft @1750-5500rpm
Transmission: eight-speed automatic, four-wheel drive
Top Speed: 155mph (limited)
Before I drove Audi’s new 552bhp R56 Avant, I asked Stephan Reil, boss of the firm’s Quattro GmbH subsidiary that makes all its truly fast cars, what would be the biggest difference I’d notice between it and its predecessor. “Oh, the handling for sure,” he replied. “As you know the old car had some issues in this area. The new one does not.”
Oddly enough I don’t recall him mentioning that at the time. What I do remember very well is a vast barge of a car powered by a twin-turbo version of a 5.2-litre V10 engine usually used by Lamborghini It gained speed at an astonishing rate and then didn’t know what to do with it when you got to some corners. At the time I called it the ultimate blunt instrument and left lamenting yet another opportunity missed for Audi to put to bed its reputation for making family cars that were often fast but rarely fun.
The new car’s 4-litre twin-turbo V8 actually develops 20 fewer horsepower than its predecessor but, because it has more torque, two extra gears and carries 100kg less weight, it’s significantly faster, reaching the 62mph benchmark in 3.9sec. That makes it by far the quickest estate in the world. However Reil says the key to the car is that 75 of those kilos have come out of the car’s nose, thereby transforming its handling for the better.
That’s not what you notice when you first drive it, but only because it takes time to get your head around the idea of a full-size estate that’ll out-accelerate Aston Martin’s latest flagship Vanquish. At first it’s hard not to laugh at its ferocious appetite for speed, so the only reason your dignity can stay even partially intact is that everyone else will be laughing, too. If I hadn’t needed both hands on the wheel, I’d probably have broken out into spontaneous applause. It also makes all the right noises, including ground-shaking thunder at low revs, a thrilling roar near 7000rpm and wonderfully gratuitous pops and bangs on the overrun.
Reil’s right about the handling, at least if you choose the optional suspension. You’d expect the standard car to have steel springs and to pay extra for air, but with the R56 the reverse is true. You put your hand in your pocket for coils because they come with three-way shock absorbers interconnected by oil lines running diagonally across the car to provide what Audi calls Dynamic Ride Control, which to you and me is actually a roll mitigation function. Compared to the last R56, the car is now as a finely honed athlete to a tub of lard.
For me there has only been one super-estate worth considering until now: Mercedes’ mammoth and marvellous E63 AMG. But henceforth I’d rank the R56 alongside it, with the observation that were it not for the Merc’s substantially bigger boot, it might even have beaten it. Given where this car has come from, that is an outstanding achievement.