Labour of Love : Audi B7 RS 4, R8 V8, B8 RS 4 Avant Driven [review]

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For the price of a new B8 RS 4 Avant, you can enjoy a R8 and B7 RS 4. Both stick-shift. Manual labour was never more fun...

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SINGAPORE – Sticking to the ‘stick’ requires more than just blind devotion, although it has to be said that true believers derive no little amount of satisfaction from stirring the honey-pot that is manual transmission. Despite the cheerleaders in support of the Group’s (is there any other?) dual-clutch transmissions, there remains a bastion of defiance that seeks to preserve the manual gearbox, in what many would arguably refer to, as a true labour of love.

Let’s set the stage: with new car prices shooting up, there’s a small window of opportunity for enthusiasts to enjoy the joys of used performance cars that fall outside the new tax and loan regimes. To put it plainly, it is still possible to pick up modern-enough ‘fun’ cars whose COEs lapse around the 2016-2018 region for relatively little money compared to new cars these days, especially since the ownership tenure for such cars don’t tend to be that long.

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In particular, stick-shift cars are something of a rarity these days as more and more manufacturers move towards automated transmissions. We think this is fair enough for A-to-B daily ‘drivels’ (sic), or even the ultra-high performance cars where a human would find it tough to keep up with the ferocious power delivery, but far less acceptable for the performance cars that fall between these two extremes. For this latter class of cars, a stick shift shows us how it still is possible to get in touch with the action.

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We’ve assembled a trio of quattro GmbH’s finest machines, all animated by the venerable naturally-aspirated 4163cc V8: in the stick-shift corner, the R8 and B7 RS 4 are itching to take on the B8 RS 4 Avant. We thought it’d be fun to keep it in the family, since there’s some poetic justice involved when the combined price of the pre-owned R8 and B7 RS 4 tally-up to less than the $475k cost of a brand-new RS 4 Avant. The pre-owned duo even gives the owner two different types of cars to suit his mood: low slung coupe for club posing or stealth-bomber family sedan for everything else… heck there’s even a nice wedge of spare change leftover that can comfortably accommodate the family’s European holiday!

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COOKIE MONSTER
Audi RS 4 (B7): Sept’06 / 70,000km / Acquired Aug’12 <$140k

We know the Avant best embodies Audi’s sporting estate heritage, but the B7 series saw a sedan and cabriolet in addition to the ubiquitous wagon. Like the wagon, the sedan boasts voluptuous flared fenders that give it a phat, angry stance that will brook no nonsense, while the prominent single-frame front grille protrudes belligerently in unspoken challenge.

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At its launch, this was the car that was intended to take the fight to the BMW M3 and to some extent the C AMG. Just think about it, a glorious, charismatic naturally-aspirated V8, six-speed stick-shift and reasonably agile dynamics tick all the right petrolhead boxes.

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The car has been tweaked to shed some weight from its original 1650+kg, even though the B7 already features lightweight aluminium panels in its construction. There’s a lively agility to the car when you’re turning-in or changing directions and it’s almost never caught flat-footed, since driving something so ‘manual’ means the key to swift progress is always looking ahead and anticipating what’s coming.

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Some of the measures include forged HRE alloy rims, a front pair of carbonfibre Recaro SP-Xs and lightened brake rotors. Also, to let the vocal V8 sing a little better, a LTA-friendly Supersprint exhaust helps to keep things a little freer-flowing.

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Unlike the B8, which is virtually operated keylessly, the B7 still relies on a physical key, much like the R8, to reinforce the unspoken covenant between man and machine. In this case, a quick turn gets it into pre-ignition, while a starter button ignites the beast to a thunderous awakening. The B7’s centre console is almost spartan compared to the high-tech array of buttons and knobs in the B8. There are no pre-programmed driving modes with the B7 – the driver is the only arbiter.

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Those gravitating to the B7 RS 4 from smaller, high-revving engines will quickly notice that they can stick to a higher gear yet have a good amount of shove in the RS 4, as a healthy spread ensures you don’t have to constantly downshift to get into the ‘sweet spot’.

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Although the 4.2l V8 boasts seriously high-revving capabilities, it also allows for a lazier style of driving, since almost 90 per cent of its 430Nm is available between 2250 to 7600rpm. However, what’s the joy in having a stick-shift if you aren’t constantly stirring the pot, right?

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On a serious note though, in Singapore’s peak hour traffic snarls, there’s sufficient vigour even in third gear to maintain brisk progress, but put your foot down once it clears and you’ll leave most cars languishing in the wake of the V8’s operatic soundtrack.

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RED ALERT
Audi R8: Jul’08 / 66,000km / Acquired Mar’14 <$250k

At its launch, the all-aluminium handbuilt R8 was Audi’s controversial debutante into the world of sportscars. Despite its quasi-exotic ‘supercar’ styling and mid-mounted engine, it was never regarded as a true member of the exotic pantheon, but instead, counted models like the 911 and more recently, the F-Type Coupe, as its rivals.

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From new, the first-gen R8 could be enjoyed in two engine flavours: V8 and V10, both of which were mated to a semi-automated manual transmission – R tronic (towards the end of its life-cycyle, the V10 plus model was available with a S tronic dual-clutch gearbox, just like the current R8).

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The semi-automated transmission, which was capable of such devastating shift performance in the Lamborghini Gallardo as the E-Gear, was rather finnicky and more lacklustre in the Audi, although constant firmware upgrades have made it more palatable in more recent V10 models like the harder-edged R8 GT Coupe and Spyder.

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Thankfully, a conventional six-speed manual transmission was also available with the two engine variants, even though the latest generation of the R8 has made the inevitable shift to a S tronic dual-clutch transmission. In keeping with our ‘saving the manuals’ theme, we’ve tracked down one of the few stick-shift R8s in Singapore. The open-gate shifter makes smooth and fast shifting a satisfying thing to master, especially with the ‘clack-clack’ to accompany each shift.

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The R8’s shifts require a firmer hand than on the B7, but this only adds to the driving experience. There’s always a lovely balance to a mid-engine car and the R8 is no exception, especially since the V8’s dry-sump lubrication allows for a lower engine mounting point for a lower centre of gravity.

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The ease with which the R8 can be guided as you thread together a series of corners lets the committed driver enjoy a fluid flow that doesn’t necessarily require reckless speeds to enjoy.

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There isn’t that same explosion of propulsion that characterises the searing point-to-point performance of turbocharged cars, because the beauty of a naturally-aspirated engine lies in the way the driver judges a corner and plays with the throttle and gear-shifts to coax the most out of the engine. The engine is a happy revving work of art that raises a real ruckus behind your head when you’re going at it.

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If you have any bad habits, the R8 will show you up quickly, since it rewards smooth inputs, be it brakes, clutch, shifts and throttle. Ultimately, the R8 is a benign handler that won’t chew you up and spit you out into the hedges if you read a corner wrongly, yet it retains a visceral enough analogue charm that surpasses many of today’s synthesised offerings.


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GREY MATTER
Audi RS 4 Avant (B8) 2014

The last time we tried the B8 RS 4, it was Audi Singapore’s red-liveried demo-car, which amongst other things, featured the red-shelled sports bucket seats and carbon-ceramic brakes, which was really dressing up for the part of performance car.

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This time around, we’ve gotten hold of Premium Automobiles’ Suzuka Grey RS 4 Avant, which demonstrates how it is possible to have two varied personalities in one model.

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Compared to the B7, with its prominent muscle-car stance, the characteristic flared fenders on the B8 have been more elegantly integrated into its subtle musculature.

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As a nod to daily sensibilities, the B8 feels eminently comfortable, especially with the posh-looking and likely-to-be high-maintenance supple, cream leather seats. If you were to base its performance on your first genteel impressions of the car, you’re in for a rude awakening when she first fires up! More amazing are the changes in cabin architecture in these latest cars compared to the other two, although they are separated by less than ten years.

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The digital array before the B8 pilot is almost mesmerising in the night, as there are knobs, rocker switches and buttons galore to control the various functions of the car. Remember how in the earlier B7, the driver is solely responsible for how the car drives? Well, in the B8, there are Drive Select presets, which will toggle engine, steering, transmission and chassis settings to give you the desired driving mode, be it Comfort, Dynamic or a mash-up of them in Individual.

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Nudging the transmission into ‘S’ gives more voice to the exhaust, as the sonorous thrum of the V8 immediately permeates the hush of the cabin. We didn’t like how the transmission would occasionally ‘hunt’, so the driver tends to second-guess its behaviour in different driving conditions.

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The B8 is a blast to drive and has the angry, shouty soundtrack to match, but despite its increased engine output, you do feel its 1.8-tonnes kerb-weight whenever you prod the gas pedal on the get-go.

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Sure it will dispatch the 100km/h sprint 0.1 seconds faster than the B7, but it can’t quite shake off that initial sense of lethargy. Once on the move though, it will effortlessly shrug off all manner of roads with a controlled poise, both winding and straight, since this is one of those cars that personifies the term ‘point-and-squirt’.

CONCLUSION

New cars expensive in Singapore? H*ll yes, but this doesn’t necessarily have to sound the death knell for driving enthusiasts, especially those in search of a more involving experience with a third pedal and stick-shifter. At any one point, there are cult cars a-plenty on the used market for a fraction of their then-new and current prices, especially with decent performance cars pushing the quarter- to half-million dollar mark...

Of course, the must-be-new brigade will only consider the latest, since to them, the newest must be the greatest, but for the real enthusiasts who continue to revere the old-school appeal of a scintillating drive, there is always an alternative... PHOTOS ZOTIQ VISUALS

Audi RS 4 Avant (B8)
Engine: 4163cc, 32v, V8
Power/rpm: 450bhp/8250rpm
Torque/rpm: 430Nm/4000-6000rpm
Transmission: 7spd S tronic dual-clutch
0-100km/h: 4.7secs
Top speed: 250km/h (electronically limited)
Kerbweight: 1795kg
Fuel consumption: 10.7l/100km
CO2: 249g/km
Price: $475,300 w/COE ($10k CEVS penalty)

Audi RS 4 (B7)
Engine: 4163cc, 32v, V8
Power/rpm: 420bhp/7800rpm
Torque/rpm: 430Nm/5500rpm
Transmission: 6spd manual
0-100km/h: 4.8secs
Top speed: 250km/h (electronically limited)
Kerbweight: 1650kg
Fuel consumption: 13.5l/100km
CO2: 324g/km
Price: <$140k in Aug’12

Audi R8
Engine: 4163cc, 32v, V8
Power/rpm: 420bhp/7800rpm
Torque/rpm: 430Nm/4500-6000rpm
Transmission: 6spd manual
0-100km/h: 4.6secs
Top speed: 300km/h
Kerbweight: 1560kg
Fuel consumption: 14.6l/100km
CO2: 349g/km
Price: <$250k in Mar’14

This feature first appeared in TopGear Singapore #26 [May 2014]

David Khoo
Author: David Khoo
David is a big petrolhead who has been dabbling in the car trade since 2001 and currently oversees Top Gear Singapore. His stories often take an eclectic slant from the predictable, and he's able to craft a compelling read that lets you see the cars (often old!) in a new light.

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