Two turbos, a V8 and whole heap of attitude: the Audi RS6 (C5) is a bargain. With two turbos, a V8 and a starring role in a classic gangster flick, the Audi RS6 is currently undervalued – for now. Words Nathan Chadwick. Photography Jordan Butters.
ORIGINAL C5 AUDI RS6 Want to have your cake and eat it? Here's the answer
VALUE NOW £16,000
VALUE IN 2025 £20,000
Two turbos, a hoofing great V8 and four-wheel drive make the Audi RS6 (C5) a go-anywhere supercar for the real world that's getting covetable...
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ACCELERATES THE POSITIVES
W ind back to the start of 2004's Layer Cake. A pre-Bond Daniel Craig powering through the parkland surrounding Stoke Park Club in Buckinghamshire, with The Cult's She Sells Sanctuary blasting.
It just seemed so right. And it still seems right as I thumb the key to Audi's immaculate heritage fleet RS6 Plus. As the low sun drifts across the Sprint Blue paint, I'd be hard-pressed to think of a more agreeable way to travel if I lived in this bit of Derbyshire.
Yes, agreeable. Okay, so this particular shade is very eye-catching but aside from mildly wider-than-normal arches and a squat physique, you'd likely struggle to distinguish this from any other A6 Avant – unless you know what the RS6 badges mean, of course. In this case, it was the first time that the RS badge was used on an A6, and that means that it's packing a 4.2-litre twin-turbocharged V8. Normal RS6s pumped out 444bhp, but this run-out special Plus coaxes 33 extra nags out of one of the most tightly packed engine bays I've ever seen. Oh dear. All that engine over the front wheels; we can see where this is going without even nestling into the body-hugging Recaros. Straight on, generally.
That's the theory, anyway, and the RS6 was, in time-honoured Audi tradition, criticised for its slavering, rubber-smoking appetite for understeer when its smooth snout first appeared in 2002.
This is a familiar playbook; should I throw in 'numb steering', 'hard ride' and 'utterly-boring-unless-you're-hammering-down- an-arrow-straight-autobahn', too?
'THE RS6'S SHEER UNCANNY ABILITY FOR INSTANTLY MAKING SOMEWHERE ELSE SOMEWHERE CLOSE SOMEWHAT QUICKLY BEGGARS BELIEF'
An early day of typing in the Chadwick home office then? Well the dogs jostling position for sofa rights would love that, but no. This is why we've come to the distinctly un-autobahn-like Cat and Fiddle pass, which snakes its way from Macclesfield to Buxton and is largely speed-restricted to 50mph. Can this over-endowed Audi really entertain and prove its worth as a covetable modern classic?
It has to, because there is an elephant in the rear load space, and a very expensive one at that – the RS6 is famed for bills that drain the moisture from your throat almost as quickly as it stomps to 100mph. That's 10.7 seconds, if you're wondering about the latter…
You can forgive painful trips to the specialist if the juice is worth the squeeze – just ask owners of the similarly dual-boosted V8 Maserati 3200. Can the Audi reach the part of the petrolhead brain that dulls the 'Oh god, no' impulse response?
If all you need is pure, unmitigated thrust, then the RS6 makes the convincing easy. The engine speaks quietly, even when you're encroaching on the 6250rpm rev limiter, but it is its sheer uncanny ability for instantly making somewhere else somewhere close somewhat quickly that beggars belief. There's a smidgen of lag before the turbos kick in at 1900rpm.
'MAKE NO MISTAKE – THE RS6 IS AS ADRENALINE-PUMPING AS THE FILM THAT MADE IT FAMOUS'
That's basement-level low, but the natural torque of the V8, variable valve timing and blowers mean that peak torque – all 428lb-ft of it – is delivered all the way to 5600rpm. Accelerating from rest is, as a consequence, a bit like being a speck of Columbia's finest being hoovered up by Layer Cake's Duke.
The gearbox isn't quite as smooth as you'd like, with an irksome jolt if you're not ready for it, and an entertaining slice of theatre if you are. So far, so fast Audi. And, in keeping with the Audi theme, I'm afraid the steering is dead. The chassis responds accurately, yet there's no nuance, no engagement; it turns, therefore it is. But then, it really doesn't need to engage because it's simply not that kind of car; having a steering wheel constantly chattering away at you serves only as a distraction from what this car is great at. And you don't need that chatterbox at 130mph on the autobahn.
'Ah, but we don't have those in the UK,' I hear you cry. Instead, we have the roads we're on today. The Cat and Fiddle is the UK's most dangerous road, yet it feels utterly benign from my Recaro pew. The RS6 may not provide the contemporary M5's (E39) tail-happy excesses, but who, other than a handful of motoring journalists and a small group of particularly enthusiastic owners on YouTube, buys a big saloon to go drifting?
If you consider that an irrelevance, and sheer, unstoppable cross country pace as what these cars are really for, then the RS6 is easily the match of the M5. In some ways it proves better – the BMW's notchy gearbox might make it more fun if you're playing at said Jethrovian drift lord antics, but the Audi's autobox seems to suit the purpose better at all other times.
'THERE'S SO MUCH GRIP THAT LUDICROUS SPEEDS SEEM UTTERLY NATURAL'
There isn't – shock, horror –much in the way of understeer, either; take liberties with entry speed and you'll tickle the cat's eyes, but you'll do that in an BMW M5 E39, too. The RS6 surprises with its eagerness; you might not know much about what the front wheels are doing through the steering wheel but you can be assured that whatever it is doing is devastatingly effective. As such, you find yourself igniting the twin turbo touch paper earlier and earlier on corner exit. This is where the warm-grin comes in – trust in the RS6 to stick and twisty A and B-roads become flowing ribbons of Tarmac, speed and far-off V8 woofles.
But does the RS6 make sense on roads where you really can't extend that glorious engine to its fullest? Why, yes it does.
Because we're largely limited to 50mph, the joy comes from maintaining that speed as tightly as possible – and the RS6 is great for that. Soon, I'm grinning, my sternum compressing this way and that as physics seemingly gives way to irrepressible onward progress, nevermind cornering angles. Lifting off a little tucks the nose tighter in to the apex if there's any hint of understeer; the stability control is relatively lax and only steps in when needed – which isn't often. That means that you can lean fully on the quattro system, disappearing out of corners with the rampant speed of a panic buyer charging from Tesco with all the bog rolls.
Such subtle, nuanced pleasures will never satisfy the sideways brigade, but it suits the car's nature, particularly in Avant form. After all, those long, lurid slides may well elicit a grin from yourself, but also last night's meal from any hounds or little people you might have sitting in the back. The Avant, therefore, makes a claim for more agreeable real-world amusement.
It rides well, too. The RS6 was the first to get Dynamic Ride Control (DRC), a system that was originally invented as an anti-dive device for motorbikes. It has stiffer dampers, but each diagonal pair are cross-linked by pipes and a valve that contains an additional gas reservoir. A piston moves whenever the front and rear compress or dip at once – such as when going over troughs or crests – allowing the gas to expand and contract. However, the central valve's piston won't move if there's pitch and roll and there isn't much interconnection, so the dampers remain stiff. There are no electronics involved in any of this, either – it's all hydraulic.
'IT SURPRISES WITH ITS EAGERNESS. YOU CAN BE SURE THAT IT'S ALWAYS DEVASTATINGLY EFFECTIVE'
This doesn't mean that you get a pillowy soft ride – you'll still get a solid thunk more often than not – but it's not overly harsh. Think BMW on runflats rather than coilovered hot hatch.
The hard seats exacerbate this to some extent. The Recaros look and feel great, mind, as does most of the interior. The cabin's distinctly of its time, which means there are enough buttons to tire even a home-schooled child. But it all feels pleasingly solid, in a way that Audis always seem to do so well. The old-school sat-nav is pleasingly quaint and the orange glow in the evening lends a classy air.
Pretty soon we've left the average speed cameras behind and found a stretch just off the main Cat and Fiddle that's free and open. Unleashed this is so much more than a autobahn blaster.
There's so much grip that ludicrous speeds seem utterly natural, like the transition between weights on a bench press for a chap with biceps the size of TVs. The RS6's engine is that muscle – there's always that little extra in reserve.
You might want some reserve yourself when it comes to the brakes. They were fairly innovative for the time, using aluminium castings attached to the wheel hubs with the aim of getting the weight down. Pins on the circumference hold the cast iron discs that encircle them, allowing the disc to expand and contract harmlessly from the hub. The front calipers have eight pistons, too.
Only, you don't feel quite as comfortable on the anchors. The RS6 weighs nigh-on 1900kg without the driver (and the IKEA shopping), and though it does stop reasonably well, it seems to work remotely, at least initially, rather like the steering. It's not immediately confidence-inspiring, then, but you can work up a rapport if you accept that the RS6 will do it.
You rapport with your passengers, too. There's some far-off tyre roar and a muted V8 growl – depending on how oik-ish you're being with your ratio selection – but the RS6 is otherwise serene, quiet and refined. That might come as a disappointment to some, but again, this isn't a car for extroverts.
That's not to say that the car isn't respected. While Jordan reels off the interior shots, several chaps come along to ask questions. Maybe it's the paintwork, but those who know, know. There's a certain satisfaction in that.
And that's what this car is all about – satisfaction. The sweeps and turns feel like a toboggan run as I set off for another run, but this Audi makes you feel like you're in the business class lounge at Heathrow rather than sharing a frantically energetic coffin with other men in lycra.
But is that enough for your mid-teens entry price and similar sums needed to keep it going over the years? We've drawn comparisons with the M5 a lot, and for many that's still the go-to car. The E55 AMG is faster, but lacks the Audi's country-shortening pace. The Jaguar S-Type R, too, though adorable in many ways, can't quite live with the RS6's pace and hand-made finish. Merc aside, none of those were available in estate form, either.
The RS6 faces a sterner test as a saloon because all of its rivals have a little more character about them. But as an estate, it has the E55 W210/S210 licked as a fast load-carrier.
Make no mistake, the RS6 is as adrenaline-pumping as the film that made it famous. The only real downside, in fact, is that there isn't a lifetime membership to Stoke Park Club in the glove box.