There’s a moment to savour on the road to Mount Buller. Ditch the Hume at the Flowerdale exit and head east 11km along this road to the Murchison Gap lookout. You’ll crest a rise, the vista opening to a stunning panorama of rolling green hills as the road tumbles down a scarp slope in a series of lazy hairpins. Known informally as the Broadford Bends, it’s a well-trodden road-testing spot, the scarred guard rail bearing testament to those with a surfeit of ambition and a shortfall of skills.
An Audi RS6 would be mighty here. I can’t say for sure because I’m stuck behind a B-double that insists on driving at 120km/h along any vaguely straight piece of road and then slowing to a virtual crawl for corners. Unbroken white lines stymie any attempt to power the 441kW Audi past the truck on corner exit. I could sit, take a ten-minute break and continue on my way. Problem is, the RS6 isn’t that sort of car. Like Truman with the bomb, if you’ve got it, you’re going to want to use it.
This C8 version is the fourth-generation RS6, and you can get up to speed with a brief history in the genealogy extract below. Like all of the others, it’s built around a twin-turbocharged engine that drives all four wheels via a tiptronic automatic gearbox, in this instance using a 4.0-litre V8 developing 441kW and 800Nm. This version is the first to feature a (very) mild hybrid drive system, but the RS6 hasn’t gone all Prius on you. Anything that can propel 2075kg of wagon to 100km/h in 3.6 seconds is anything but meek.
Firing past the truck is the first time I’ve matted the throttle pedal and it’s an unnerving experience. At first I can’t put my finger on quite what it reminded me of but the thought gently coalesces. My father was a giant of a man, with huge hands that could bend six-inch nails as a party trick like most would mangle a paper clip. I remember as a kid challenging him to an arm wrestle and he’d grin and let me win.
I knew he was just sandbagging, so I cajoled him to try harder and the RS6 rekindled that first feeling of unanswerable and hitherto unimagined force. Suddenly I was eight years old again and realising that there are some things that you needed to be wary of.
There’s little in the way of turbo lag, although such are the many permutations of drive modes and gearbox settings that if you’re set into one of the more benign modes, the system can take a moment to figure out the details of your request. From there, it’s just a case of clinging on, the scariest part being the kilometres per hour racking up on the head-up display. There in microcosm, is the Audi RS6’s greatest strength and greatest weakness.
Here at Wheels, we’ve long argued that involvement is just as important as sheer speed, and on balance, we prefer to nail our colours to the mast of fun at sensible velocities. Given this RS6 initially seems to be all about speed without subtlety, we might need some convincing as to its merits.
That’s why we’re heading to the snow of Mount Buller today, to try and get to know this enigmatic car that’s usually on the lists of lottery winners looking for a vehicle that does almost everything. If we can’t figure it out on these great roads, with hours of seat time and, if we’re lucky, a bit of snow and ice to allow us to see all of Audi’s torque-deployment techniques at work, we never will.
Of course, there are times when you don’t crave involvement. On the motorway schlep, it’s clear that the RS6 is a fantastic cruiser. A car on 22-inch wheels and liquorice-strap 30-series tyres has zero right to ride as well as it does, but the air suspension does a brilliant job of ironing out freeway chatter. At speed, the engine is so quiet that I have no idea when it’s telling cylinders two, three, five and eight to stand easy by switching off their injectors and closing the intake and exhaust valves.
The only grumble is the noisiness of the air conditioning fans, which make quite a racket even when set to their lowest speed. These get the manual deactivation treatment. There’s also a curiously un-Audi-like creak from the right-hand side of the dash that grows tiresome. In order to stop fixating on it, I crank up the B&O stereo. The COVID restrictions mean that I’ve got no photographer in the vehicle to torture with my appalling music collection/singing. Alastair Brook is hauling his Canon collection in another all-wheel-drive wagon.
The stringybarks on the road approaching Mansfield knit their fingers overhead, framing a snowy Mount Buller as its summit peeks through the clouds. Were I the sort of person who could drop $216,000 on a tango red Audi RS6, maybe I’d have a chalet on the mountain and use the car for weekend blasts to the snow. It certainly feels right to have a pair of skis and boots in the car with me, despite Australian ski resorts having a very odd relationship with drivers.
Unless you’re a resident, Buller won’t let cars up to the village itself in winter. We can get most of the way there, but the Horse Hill car park is our final destination today, a few bends down the hill from the lodges. We pass signs in the valley informing us that 2WD vehicles need chains. That sounds promising.
The road itself is a sharp and gnarly climb from Mirimbah, with little in the way of respite. The Audi feels agile in the tighter hairpins thanks to four-wheel steering, while clicking the RS button on the steering wheel tightens the suspension, steering, throttle map, gearshift strategy and – if you then click an option on one of the two haptic-glass screens – you can bring up RS1 and RS2 menus that customise things still further, allowing you to tailor the quattro sport diff, the exhaust sound and the ESC settings. It’s not as slick as the M1/M2 tabs on the wheel of a BMW M car, but it’s not bad.
The exhaust sounds more purposeful, but the rest of the dynamic changes are comparatively subtle. There’s no great duality of character here, which would be an issue were the basics not fundamentally good. Fortunately they are. The RS6 disguises its weight adroitly, helped by massive carbon ceramic brakes and an air spring module with a 50 percent higher spring rate.
Nominally a 40:60 front to rear torque split, the mechanical centre differential can send up to 85 percent of torque rearwards. The quattro sport differential on the back axle then metes out that measure between the rear wheels with backup from wheel-selective torque control, effectively a torque-vectoring by braking system. That dull plough-on understeer that used to be the bane of RS6s? Pretty much gone.
The steering is accurate but devoid of any great feedback. It encourages you to cleave clean lines through corners, and is geared nicely to cleanly catch up the few degrees of yaw the RS6 will exhibit when powering out of hairpins. At just 2.1 turns lock-to-lock, it’s quick but never feels darty or neurotic. You’re always mindful of the fact that this is a sizeable car, only a handful of millimetres less than five metres stem to stern.
The engine isn’t one that really encourages chasing the limiter, on public roads at least. Peak torque arrives at 2000rpm, and while maximum power comes at a relatively heady 6000rpm, the gearbox’s software will slur up a gear long before that in most drive modes. Switch it into RS mode and the dial pack and head up display change to a bar graph tachometer which strobes an angry red as you approach the redline.
Dew point reached, cloud now blankets the mountain, the tops of the alpine ash trees stretching into the mist. We roll through Unnamed Corner where Conrad Whitlock’s car was found parked in July 2019. The businessman was never seen again, one of four people who have disappeared without trace within 12 months and a 60km radius of the Wonnangatta Valley.
Locals speak of a high country bushman called the Button Man, who carves buttons from the antlers of deer he spears and does a sideline in terrifying campers by appearing out of nowhere or pitching his camp silently next to theirs in the middle of the night. Police claim he’s odd but innocent, but it’s a very real reminder that there are some parts of the Victorian Alps that remain resolutely wild.
Scruffy snow remnants start to dot the roadside, but the Audi’s thermometer is telling us it’s still seven degrees Celsius outside. A bit of rough calculating on one degree dropped per hundred metres ascended suggests it’ll be four or five degrees at the top. As we approach the cloud tops, the light becomes blindingly diffuse, like driving into a giant photographic soft box. The seat heater and then the heated rear screen go on because I still refuse to entertain the noise of that air-conditioning fan.
Busting through the cotton-candy cumulus is a magical moment, almost as if you’re flying your own fighter jet, the road ahead jinking through the cloud tops. We swing into the massive Horse Hill car park to find but a few cars and, to our surprise, a covering of snow and ice in its shaded lower section.
On a summer tyre like the 285/30 ZR22 Pirelli P Zero the RS6 is shod with, this would normally be virtually undriveable, but it’s instructive to see how the rear diff in particular manages to eke traction from almost glare ice. Set into Sport mode and with the ESC in Sport, it allows a safe degree of oversteer before intervening, but will allow a slightly disconcerting degree of power understeer on icy surfaces, which is something to consider on mountain hairpins if you’ve never heard of ‘slow-in, fast-out’.
I’m tempted to dismiss the mild-hybrid tech as a bit of an unnecessary addition. Yes, the integrated starter-generator finesses the idle-stop system very agreeably and up to 12kW of power can be recovered and stored in a separate 48v battery, but it seems a huge amount of cost, weight and complexity to save ‘up to’ 0.8 litres per 100km.
Audi would have been better served shaving 200kg from the car’s weight to achieve much the same end. Besides, if you’re really that concerned about fuel saving, you’re probably not about to buy a wagon that, on our test route, averaged 16.3L/100km.
Your mileage may well vary on the styling of the latest Audi RS6, but it certainly no longer falls into the ‘sleeper’ category, with its 40mm blown-out guards, power dome in the bonnet and monster alloys that hunker right up into the arches. As darkness falls over the mountain, we head for home. The astonishing headlights deserve a special mention. The Matrix LED laser headlights can be set into an automatic mode where the individual LEDs mask out oncoming road users, dimming the lights in one of 64 stages.
Despite casting a beam of light that looks for all the world as if it’ll be cremating the retinas of oncoming drivers, not once did anyone take umbrage. In fact, on sweeping left handers, it’s possible to see the cone of light chasing the rear of oncoming cars, a wall of photons panning in perfect synchronicity a couple of metres behind them. The haptic throttle pedal is also an interesting piece of tech, mildly vibrating the pedal if the car thinks you’re about to miss a sat-nav instruction or you’re piling in too fast to a speed limit change.
Collecting thoughts on the Audi RS6 isn’t easy. For all its styling excess, it has a quietly opaque persona and, after some consideration, one that is surprisingly endearing. It delivers a cerebral blend of ride comfort, grip, performance and handling whereby one part of its dynamic makeup never serves to overwhelm the others.
While its engine isn’t as charismatic as an AMG V8 or its dynamic reserves as explicit as a BMW M5, it’s perhaps the RS6’s wholly unexpected gentleness that is its greatest asset. Its mannered reluctance to impose its personality on you is very Audi. Here’s a tool that works beautifully, forward through technology. Would make a good marketing slogan, that.
THE WAGON GENEALOGY
The RS6 debuted in 2002 with the C5, powered by a 331kW 4.2-litre twin-turbo V8. It lasted a mere two years, with the next version being the crazy V10-powered C6 of 2008. Sharing tech with Lamborghini’s V10, this 426kW monster also spent just a couple of years in market.
Things became a bit more sensible in 2013 with the softer-edged 4.0-litre C7. This made 412kW, but Audi couldn’t help but introduce a punchier Performance model with 445kW. The C7 was sold until 2018 and the current 441kW C8 is expected to be the biggest seller. The reason? It’s the first RS6 model to be exported to the US.
AUDI RS6 QUATTRO AVANT SPECS
Engine: 3996cc V8 (90°), dohc, 32v, twin-turbo
Max power: 441kW @ 6000-6250rpm
Max torque: 800Nm @ 2050-4050rpm
Transmission: eight-speed automatic
Dimensions (L/W/H/W-B): 4995/1951/1487/2930mm
Kerb weight: 2075kg
0-100km/h: 3.6sec (claimed)
Economy: 16.3L/100km (tested)
On sale: Now