But What About...
The strange thing about North American enthusiasts is that they automatically assume that the RS4 on this side of the pond would somehow be dumbed down. Granted we cannot claim to have the roads or the driving capabilities of the Europeans, but does that mean that we also get an inferior RS4? A supercar-lite to go along with our unnecessarily sluggish speed limits and decidedly un-smooth highways?
In terms of all things that really matter the answer to the question is “no”. And those things that really matter, at least in our opinion, are the engine, the brakes and the suspension. The North American buyer gets the very same performance and handling as RS4 customers elsewhere in the world and the rest is just packaging. Read that again: the North American RS4 kicks as much ass where it really counts as any other RS4 anywhere else on earth.
However the “packaging” has been called into question consistently since the very first North American-spec RS4’s were spotted. Why was the mega cool flat-bottomed steering wheel pulled? Why can’t race-intentioned RS4 owners choose the straight-off-the-track Recaros just like in Europe? What happened to the wow-factor starter button and the ability to option out the car one way or another? Audi of America WHAT HAVE YOU DONE FOR ME LATELY?
Looking at the steering wheel first and foremost, the issue came down to technical issues. The US and Canada are the only modern countries in the world that require crash testing on dummies without seatbelts. Imagining for a second what would happen in a crash involving a non-belted driver, that person could potentially be driven forward and upward into the flat-bottom, aluminum spoke of the steering wheel. Regulators would have been looking for Audi to guaranty that the bottom of the wheel would have enough flex to protect drivers of all weights and proportions. Audi, of course, could not provide this guaranty without going through extensive crash testing.
Unfortunately, crash testing is a complicated, time consuming and expensive proposition. Readers must understand that estimates on testing the flat-bottomed wheel ran into the millions of dollars and that if Audi had decided to go ahead with the testing then as a matter of simple economics each and every RS4 buyer would have had to foot their share of that expense. Audi management determined – rightly in our opinion – that utilizing the already approved “regular” steering wheel made more sense. Interestingly, Audi offers customers the choice of a standard wheel even where the aluminum wheel is legally available so that customers can have the full multifunction capability if that is important to them.
The decisionmaking around the North American RS4’s seating followed the same trajectory as the steering wheel. The RS4 was originally designed for either super sport seats – the Recaro racing seats – or sport seats which are standard S4 seats with RS4 trim. The technical challenge was that the super sport seats were never designed to work with the required passenger-sensing airbags. Testing and approval would have once again cost millions and so Audi was easily able to rationalize going with what is, in the end, a much more comfortable seat anyway (since it already included the approved sensors). We think it is notable that according to Audi a full 85% of worldwide RS4 customers will not choose the super sport seat, once again making it a bit of a fringe option.
The starter button turned out to be a “we don’t want it here” option versus a “we can’t have it here” technical challenge. What most enthusiasts don’t realize is that the starter button is not like the Advanced Key system found in the A8/A6/Q7 whereby the driver can start the car with key in pocket. Rather the RS4 starter button must be pushed after the keys are turned in the ignition. This makes it redundant and essentially non-functional. North American drivers would certainly never have traded their valuable cup holders for a sterile starter button and a center console with cup holders was therefore developed specifically for the North American market.
Regarding equipment and options Audi stuck to the mantra of simplicity. All RS4’s are either fully loaded or not – no in-between and no complex option packages. Generally speaking the typical RS4 owner is going to choose the fully loaded model anyway. The one bit of customization for sold orders only is the sunroof delete option which will save weight for owners who intend serious racing competition.
Again we will re-state that we believe that Audi made common sense choices in approaching the packaging of the RS4 in North America. And lest anybody think that these decisions were made in a vacuum, we have it on very good authority that Audi Chairman Dr. Winterkorn was personally and regularly involved in the process given the size and importance of the US import market. He, like everybody else, loved and fought for the aluminum steering wheel, but in the end regulatory issues and simple economics forced Audi’s hand. It is nice to know, at least, that the second choice steering wheel and seating can still come together to create a first class automobile that cannot accurately be described as deficient in any way. Kudos to Audi also for offering the rapturous 19” wheel standard in North America whereas the 18” offering is standard elsewhere.
Track and Open Road Video
Regrettably most Audi enthusiasts will never get to feel the RS4 on the road. Limited to about 1,000 units per year in North America (the majority of which are expected to be sold on the coasts), the vehicle will be a rare sight and an even more rare driving experience. Trust us when we say that the breathtaking confluence of power, feeling and sound is like any Audi being produced today.
Use the link below to view our exclusive video on the Willow Springs race track and on Angeles Crest Highway northeast of Los Angeles. Each video will give you an idea of the RS4’s capabilities and sound during spirited driving.
In the end we are just as charmed by the RS4’s massive performance and style as the rest of the journalists; after spending time behind the wheel it is impossible not to be. While Audi’s offering in North America differs from Europe we hope we have demonstrated that the differences are meaningless where it really counts: in performance. The RS4 is exactly as it should be. It is a rising superstar.
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