Celebrating 20 Years of Audi RS6 Wagons by Driving Every Generation

Audi brought four generations of fire-breathing RS6 wagons (and one sedan) to the beautiful roads of Banff to celebrate two decades of spacious speed.

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Wagons are the ultimate expression of what a car should be. Fight me.

Cars can have many functions, but the original one was utility — to be able to get from point A to point B quicker than your horse (and with substantially less manure). If you could carry other people with you, so much the better. And if you could carry some stuff, well hell, what more could you want?

Wagons do all of the above more efficiently than any other form of automobile. But for decades, wagons were confined to grocery getter duty. In 2002, Audi changed all that with the introduction of the RS6 Avant. It had the efficient packaging and under-the-radar shape of a wagon, with the underpinnings of a supercar.

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the original, Audi invited me out to drive every generation of the RS6 back-to-back, in one of the most beautiful settings anywhere in the world: Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada.

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C5: Big Power, Big Package

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First up for me was the holy grail of the RS line, the C5 RS6, which was never sold in the U.S. Americans had to make do with the B5 RS6 sedan, which, perhaps due to the forbidden fruit effect, never captured the imagination like the Avant (Audi-speak for wagon) did.

Using the new-for-1997 A6 as the base, the mad geniuses at Audi — led by Stephan Reil, who oversaw every generation of RS6 and was, until recently, Head of Technical Development at Audi’s Neckarsulm facility — were tasked with adding more power during the A6's mid-cycle refresh in 2002. And add more power they did.

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Audi started with the 335-hp naturally aspirated 4.2 liter V8 available in the S6. Now, 335 hp was good, but nowhere good enough for Reil. Working with British engine manufacturer Cosworth (at the time a subsidiary of Audi AG), Reil’s team slapped twin turbos on the 4.2-liter. The result: An unheard-of 444 hp and 428 lb-ft of torque. At the time, no other road-going Audi had ever offered more power.

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On the drive up from the Calgary airport to Banff National Park, the 20-year-old RS6 proved to have aged very well. Granted, every RS6 on this trip was factory-owned and meticulously maintained, but the car pulled like a freight train. The ZF-sourced 5-speed automatic gave crisp shifts that made it very clear this car could still do 0-62 mph in 4.6 seconds, like it was fresh off the assembly line.

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Once the roads started to turn a bit twisty, Audi’s Dynamic Ride Control active suspension felt completely dialed-in. The DRC system consists of steel springs coupled with cross-linked hydraulically actuated shocks, which can actively adjust based on driving style. I assumed the active suspension would feel like 20-year-old technology — slow, laggy, and inaccurate — but I was 100-percent wrong. DRC is fully mechanical, with no electronic controls, and despite the car’s age I was able to lean on the big Audi harder than I ever would have guessed I could.

Sometimes, history is just old. Before I got behind the wheel, if you’d asked me to forecast what it would be like hustling a 20-year-old RS6, I would have predicted a fun trip down memory lane at best. I’d be happier in newer equipment.

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After I got out of the C5, I was ecstatic. If this was the oldest, simplest member of the RS6 family, I was pumped to discover how good the rest would be. I didn’t have to wait long.

C6: Some Power Is Good. More Power Is Better.

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I stepped out of the C5 at a beautiful rest stop overlooking a picturesque vista too beautiful for Hollywood to recreate. I gazed longingly at the next RS I was about to sample: The mighty C6, the one with the twin-turbo V10 engine.

This was the car that defined the RS badge for me. It was also the start of more than a decade and a half where the RS6 was not offered for sale in the U.S. So this would be my first time ever behind the wheel of the uber Avant.

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This spacious, practical wagon offered 572 hp and 480 lb-ft of torque starting at 1,500 rpm — more power and torque than the contemporary R8 GT. The twin-turbo V10 is a beast of a motor. The claimed 0-62-mph time on the C6 was the same as the previous-generation car, but the power delivery could not be more different. From the moment you tip into the throttle, a huge wave of torque shoves you along as if the hand of god came down and swatted you in the ass. Brutal acceleration is available in any gear, at any time.

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Audi’s DRC system returned in the C6, this time faced with a bit more work: The weight of that V10 engine (and the fact that so much of it hung ahead of the front axle) meant quick direction changes weren’t quite on the menu with this RS6. It’s not a lumbering vehicle like so many of today’s high-performance SUVs, but nimble it is not.

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Audi also brought a C6 RS6 sedan to the rodeo. I drove it, but I didn’t push the four-door as hard as I really wanted to. This beautiful Nimbus Gray sedan once belonged to the aforementioned Reil... who happened to be riding shotgun with me. No pressure there.

It was really tough for me to restrain my right foot though. Every time I would dip into the throttle, the V10 would make the most glorious sounds, delivered simultaneously with a huge whack of acceleration. This is definitely the rawest of all the RS6 generations, and most likely the hardest to live with on a day-to-day basis.

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Still. The sound, and the power delivery, were everything I thought they would be, and quite a bit more. I was seriously disappointed when I had to hand over the keys.

C7: Less Is More?

Stephan Reil, father of the Audi RS6, with a C7 (red) and C6 RS6 Avant.
Stephan Reil, father of the Audi RS6, with a C7 (red) and C6 RS6 Avant.
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Listen. The C6 RS6 got its fair share of criticism in its day. A lot of it had to do with the fact that it was less than stellar at handling anything curvier than the German autobahn. So in 2013, Audi switched out the twin-turbo V10 for a twin-turbo 4.0 liter V8 — the smallest engine ever to sit in an RS6. Reducing the size of the engine allowed Audi to save some weight, and seriously improve the RS6's driving dynamics.

Audi reconfigured the engine compartment, moving the new powerplant 6 inches rearward, which gave the C7 55/45 front/rear weight distribution (a huge improvement over the V10 model’s 60/40). Also helping the “dynamism” (as the Germans like to call it) was the fact that the new RS6 was almost two and a half inches wider than the A6 it was based on. It also sat almost an inch lower on an active air suspension system that now came standard in the RS6.

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The lack of displacement did not dull the performance of the RS6. The twin-turbo V8 put out nearly 560 hp and 553 lb-ft of torque. With a new 8-speed Tiptronic gearbox, the C7 only needed 3.9 seconds to reach 62 mph and could top 190 mph on the open road.

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For me, jumping into the C7 was like hanging out with an old friend. When I lived in Germany, I spent a bunch of time behind the wheel of a C7. (I’ve owned a B5 and two C8s as well — you could say I like Audis.) When it debuted, the C7 RS6 was the pinnacle of automotive engineering. It was brutally fast, aggressively handsome, and — it bears repeating — brutally fast.

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Reil and his engineers did an amazing job making the C7 more than just an autobahn cruiser. Of all of the RS6s, the C7 is the most fun to drive on a twisty road. It’s very approachable, and because of that, you end up going substantially faster than you realize.

Unfortunately, in 2013 Audi’s brass still didn’t think that Americans were worthy of such automotive excellence. The C7 RS6 was never imported to our shores. But that was all about to change.

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C8: Saving the Best for Last

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Launched in 2020, the current-generation C8 RS6 did not disappoint. Still rocking a 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8, but now boosted by a 48-volt mild-hybrid system that can kick in 16 additional horsepower, the C8 pumps out 592 hp and 590 lb-ft of torque. More importantly, with the C8, Audi finally decided to bring all that power and torque to the U.S. — the first time an RS6 was officially imported here.

Although it’s a good bit heavier than its predecessor (by nearly 440 pounds), the C8 manages to do the 0-62-mph sprint in only 3.6 seconds. But straight-line speed is not the only venue where the C8 excels. To counteract its newfound heft, Audi combined its active air suspension with all-wheel steering that aids high-speed stability and improves low-speed maneuverability, making the big RS far more nimble than a car this size has any right to be.

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While previous generations of RS6 have managed to convey subtle menace with their styling, all subtlety was abandoned with the C8. There is no mistaking the current RS6 for anything else on the road. The roof, front doors, and liftgate are the only body panels shared with the base-model A6 Avant. Everything else was designed specifically for the RS, which was widened by a massive 3.15 inches over the standard model. The RS6 also gets Audi’s Matrix LED headlights with laser light.

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It’s the way all of these upgrades come together that makes the current RS6 feel so special. The hybrid-assisted power and all-wheel steering help the RS slice through Canadian holiday traffic like a shark; the active suspension soaks up every bump and jolt on the rough roads around Banff. It’s the absolute best of all worlds: Power, looks, handling, and utility all wrapped up in one bad-ass package.

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Final Thoughts

Left to right: C8, C7, C6, C6 sedan, C5.
Left to right: C8, C7, C6, C6 sedan, C5.
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The C5 is brilliant, especially when you consider it’s a 20-year-old car. I love the C5 like I love an old movie. It’s wonderful, and it stirs up all the right emotions. It can’t hold a candle to the performance today’s RS6 offers, but that’s not a criticism — it’s an indication of everything Audi did to advance the model over two decades.

The C6 is an absolute beast, and that V10 sound is fully addicting. But it’s almost too hardcore for me to want to use as a daily. My everyday drive is more twisty bits than straight lines, and the V10 just doesn’t like changing direction. Also, it would piss off the neighbors every morning as I left for my caffeine fix, and while that would be fun as shit for me, it would get old for everyone else around me.

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The C8? It’s a masterpiece. It does all the right things, all the time. Its balance of performance and utility is second to none. And of course, it being the newest of the line, it has all the tech to make it the most effortless car to use on an everyday basis. What’s stopping it from being my pick? Styling. I like a bit of subtlety in my daily driver, and the C8 is anything but subtle. Maybe Audi should have stuck the V10 in the C8 — that ridiculous engine is a much better fit for the look of the current RS6.

One of these things is not like the other. But they’re all fast.
One of these things is not like the other. But they’re all fast.
Photo: Courtesy Audi
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The C7, then, is the perfect combo for me. The performance isn’t that far off the C8, but it goes about its business with far less flash than its newer sibling. It’s new enough that the tech doesn’t feel dated, and after beating around Banff for a full 8-hour day, I didn’t need to sprint from the car to get my back adjusted.

All of the above is just quibbling. I would gladly wake up to any one of these beauts in my garage, living with it on a daily basis without complaint. Audi has created a masterpiece with the entire RS line, and the RS6 is the piece de resistance. Twenty years on, it still stokes the automotive fires. I can’t wait to see what they have in store for the C9.