The 2001 Audi B5 RS4 Avant Is Sensible Yet Cartoonish Lunacy

To most people, the immaculate yellow Audi I was in looked like an old car fastidiously maintained by a deeply strange man. After all, who on earth would keep a quarter century-old A4 in perfect condition bar someone who smells faintly of old cake and gives handshakes that last a tiny bit too long? To other people—to those in the know—the silly yellow Audi is one of the best things ever to fly out of Ingolstadt: the 2001 B5 Audi RS4. 

As it’ll shortly turn 25, and therefore be ripe for import to the U.S., I figured it would be a good idea to take a spin in Audi UK’s immaculate heritage unit. The Imola Yellow car, nicknamed Homer, is rare in more ways than one—it’s yellow, its motor is unmodified, and when I got in it, there were fewer than 6,500 miles on the clock (a bit more when I gave it back, but many more would feel like vandalism). A look at U.K. classifieds shows that most on the market cruised by 100,000 miles a long, long time ago. It’s been kept in perfect condition and barely touched, which means there’re hardly any scuffs, marks, or anything. As one friend commented: “It’s not even been farted in!”

Alex Goy

The first RS Audi, the RS2, came out in the mid-’90s and was quite the thing—Porsche power, turbo lag you could measure by hourglass, subtle looks, and a zero-to-62 time marginally quicker than a McLaren F1 (according to the U.K.’s Autocar magazine), all wrapped up in a sensible, family-friendly long roof body. A few years later, in late 1999, the A4-based RS4 appeared. It followed the same formula as its predecessor: big power, ludicrous performance, sensible looks, and an oh-so-stealthy Avant body style. 

Today’s RS cars are all angles and grilles and tailpipes so large you could conceivably mistake them for an Ooni pizza oven. Strangely, when you consider how neon the rest of the ‘90s were, the early days of RS were about keeping lines clean, and potential hidden. Sure, the arches are flared, the grilles up front are chunkier, and it has a set of gills sliced into the bodywork ahead of the front wheels, but it’s hardly in your face. Similarly, the B5 was the first RS4 to come with oval tailpipes, but they’re small, inoffensive, and set to the side. The whole look of the thing is a nod to what it is, not a peacocking monster. 

Audi UK

The interior is much the same. There are, of course, plenty of RS4 logos (the ones embossed into the rear seats are a highlight), a bit of shiny trim here ‘n there, Recaro buckets (though you could have optioned less aggressive seats), and that’s kinda it. The dials aren’t any more pointy than they need to be, it’s just… not shouty. I was pleased to see the ‘90s full-color sat nav show the wider world in full Pac-Man spec, it threw a wave of nostalgia over me. There’s even a TV fitted to Homer, which would be great had the U.K. not turned off its analog broadcast channels. 

Being light on the miles means it’s mechanically as tight as the day it rolled off the assembly line. Under the hood is a glorious 2.7-liter twin-turbo V6 with the wick turned up by Cosworth to 375 horsepower and 325 lb-ft. Not small power even for today but for 1999? Come on, now. Its power output was only just shy of the Ferrari 360 while making more torque and having rear seats. That’s just silly. Zero to 62 mph was quoted at 4.9 seconds, and its official top speed was a very German 155 mph although legend has it that it could get up to 162 mph. 

Alex Goy

There’s a six-speed row your own ‘box in there—it’s a slightly longer throw than you’d likely get today (if you still can), but it’s pleasingly notchy. Because it’s all based on ‘90s tech, there are no giant blinking screens to distract you, no needless bongs, and none of the stuff that’s been legislated in years gone by to protect the terminally dim from their own shortcomings, which makes the whole experience rather relaxing. 

On a cruise, it happily burbles. The engine note isn’t an overengineered boom, more a pleasant V6 woofle. A light-ish clutch and notchy shift mean simply getting around is easy. Its compact size suits tight European city roads, too, so I never worried I was going to peel the side of the thing off on a bus, cyclist, or somebody on a scooter. The RS4 has a party piece though… no, that’s not quite fair. It comes with a built-in surprise. It’s a turbocharged car from the late-’90s, which means it takes a while to build boost. If you’re happily cruising around, keeping the revs below 3,000-ish rpm, it feels perky enough. Get over-excited at some traffic lights, and you’ll find yourself ripping through first gear gently at first, but once you tip over 3,500 rpm, things become manic incredibly quickly. You’re treated to a big dollop of boost that swings the needle to the redline urgently. Restraint is required here, lest you upset PC Plod. 

Audi UK

Find some country lanes and you’ll be rewarded with a delightfully old-school experience. Wait for the boost… and go. The rate at which it gathers pace is, really, something else. Compared to today’s linear, user-friendly turbocharged rocket sleds, the B5 feels raw. Its V6 growls as it lunges ever forward. When you need to scrub off speed, its truly massive brakes are progressive and damn strong if you need them to be, which, if you’re a touch over-indulgent, is a good thing. 

The game you play with the RS4 is to keep it on boost—keep the turbos happy and you’ll end up grinning like a fool as you boost your way around the countryside. To do this, you’ve got to play with the gears. Make sure you only change up to where you know you’ll be above the boost point, any lower and you’ll have to wait. Waiting simply won’t do. The boost is too much fun. Luckily, the pedals are neatly spaced for pub bore-special heel ‘n toe, and the motor’s so torquey, downshifts are hard to fluff. You’ll smoothly jump down a ratio, catch your boost again, and repeat.

Plenty of criticism has been leveled at Audi’s steering over the years, especially in older RS cars. Not in the B5 RS4. Its all-wheel-drive-y-ness means you’re not going to get razor-sharp feedback, but you can confidently and quickly change direction knowing what the front wheels are up to. Grip is never an issue here either, you can push it as hard as you dare (where legal), and it’ll just… go. As you push on in a corner, you feel its Torsen differential work out what you need to be doing, the front’ll grab on, and away you go. 

For covering ground at speed, it’s an incredibly impressive car, even compared to some of today’s offerings. OK, I’d be lying if I said it was a dynamic tour de force. It isn’t a balls-to-the-wall sports car, but it’s bloody fun to play with knowing that, short of being an utter moron, you can use it to its fullest and it won’t break a sweat. And you can do it with the whole family on board if you’re so inclined. 

The gloriousness of it isn’t just the pace, but that you can also use it as a sensible car to do sensible things in. Its trunk’s big, there’s decent legroom in the back, and there’s loads of glass to let light in and see through when you look over your shoulder. ‘Digital’ isn’t really a thing here either which means ‘sport mode’ is your right foot. You’re far more in control of what it’s up to than you will be in almost anything built today. 

At the time, the B5 RS4 was seen as a sort of soggy answer to the BMW M3. Not as engaging, not as slidey, not as hairy-chested. With years of hindsight, it strikes me that it was never supposed to be that kind of car. It’s a ludicrously powerful cruiser for people who want A-to-B imperiousness without worry. As such, it’s a joy to hurl yourself around in. Times move on, the RS4 has since evolved, but the car it came from will always be a moment in time for Audi—it wanted to build something quicker than the RS2 that would still be practical and raise a smile. By ‘eck it managed. Especially in yellow.

2001 Audi RS4 Avant Specs
Powertrain2.7-liter twin-turbo V6 | six-speed manual | all-wheel drive
Horsepower375 @ 6,100-7,000 rpm
Torque325 lb-ft @ 2,500-6,000 rpm
Seating Capacity5
Curb Weight3,571 pounds
0-62 mph4.9 seconds
Top Speed155 mph (official) 162 mph (alleged)
Quick TakeAnalog, boosty, and practical, the B5 RS4 is a glorious joy for the entire family.
Julia Riddle

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