Some time ago, when on assignment for this publication covering the launch of the then-new Audi A3 sedan, I wandered away from the pack and happened upon a flock of unicorns. They were spectacular, each a wondrous sight to behold: a pugnacious little A1 hatchback, an even-more-pugnacious A1 Quattro (just 333 made and bearing the signature of Stig Blomqvist) and a Nogaro Blue RS4 Avant.
It's the last that really frosts my keister – why in the seven hells don't we get fast Audi wagons over here any more?
It's not like there isn't any demand; any time either the standard sedan or a crossover is mentioned, there'll be an Audi fan or two raising their hand in the comments section: “I'd buy one!” But no, instead it's either the SQ5 – not a bad ride, but not quite the same thing – or the Allroad. Which is definitely not the same thing. At all.
Audi pretty much invented the hot wagon segment with the original RS2, a machine I'm lucky enough to have driven in a previous Final Drive. Relatively rare, it's the sort of thing that's always popping up in internet lists like Jalopnik's “10 Cars We'd Go To Prison For,” or what-have-you. Gents, you don't need to go to prison, you just need to visit Canada; our grey market rules mean you can stop dreaming and start importing.
However, one-off importations aside, fans of the four-ring circus did actually have the option of buying a fast Audi wagon right off the shelf up until 2007. After that, the A6 could be optioned in an Avant with the supercharged V6 for at least a partially interesting drive, but what we've got here today is something a little more rare and exciting. It's a 2006 S4 Avant: all-wheel drive, hatchback practicality, V8 power, manual transmission.
Oh yes. That last part – you had my curiosity little Audi, but now you have my attention.
This one is a well-kept example that's just come through the doors at The Urban Garage, a small boutique-style dealership in the heart of West Vancouver. Pinched between Burrard inlet and the North Shore mountains, West Vancouver is a well-to-do community and their driveways often display this wealth. Toss a rock in any direction and you'll hit a Tesla Model S, but not before said rock has bounced off at least two Range Rovers.
You also see more Euro-wagons here than any other place, perhaps, in Canada. The proximity of the ski hills and the year-round availability of cycling routes means that many West Vancouverites are an active lot, and they love their Audi wagons. The Urban Garage has sourced and brokered dozens of the things, adding to a back catalogue that includes multiple RS4s, RS6s, and countless 911s and other more exotic machinery.
The S4 Avant builds on the essential right-sized nature of the B7 chassis, both improving power and significantly reducing fuel economy by shoe-horning in a whacking great 4.2L V8. Very mechanically similar to the eight-cylinder option in Audi's R8, this smooth-running powerplant is an absolute gem, making 340 hp and standing proudly among the best-sounding naturally aspirated motors of the past decade. It doesn't snarl like an AMG 6.2L eight, but woofs to life like a Labrador spotting a stranger. Here, a Milltek exhaust system unlocks a little extra growl on startup, then fades to a contented V8 burble.
Today is the sort of day where little old men start receiving instructions to begin gathering the animals two-by-two. Another in a series of long winter storms has spiralled off the Pacific and is piling up against the mountains and shedding its rain, filling the local reservoirs and stretching mud-coloured streams to their breaking point.
Through the hiss of rain on pavement comes a rumble. There's the odd hardcore downhill mountain-biker on Cypress today, but for the most part the ski hill is empty; with no snow pack to speak of, the tourists have ventured further afield.
That means that the curving parkway up the road is empty, crisscrossed by inch-deep rivulets and flecked with gravel. It's utterly miserable outside, but in here? The S4's 4.2 grumbles quietly to itself in sixth gear, pulling easily up the long straights, past the park lookout to the first sweeping corner.
Sixth to fourth, fourth to third with a little dab of heel-toe to smooth the shift and this gruff little Audi snaps to attention, hackles raised and ready to bound. Through the corner, feed in the power and the eight spins up with a pure, sweet growl firing out of those quad exhaust pipes.
Like all Audis, the steering is very light, and there's a tendency to push the nose a little if manhandled; however, like all the best Audis, this S4 has grip for days and a weighty, planted feeling. It's also just the perfect size of a car for a road like this, not too huge to place, heavy enough to stay glued to the road and not start surfing the pooled water. Up we climb, up and onwards to the point where the clouds snag on the treeline.
Each corner is the same. Slow for entry, grab a rev-matched downshift with ease as the friendly, flexible 4.2 quickly zings up a few thousand rpm, then feed out the power through the broadly flexible powerband. If you're interested, that exhaust probably unlocks a few extra ponies up at the top end of the rev-range, but its real magic is how much more of the tenor of the V8 you get in the cabin without it being obnoxious. As the car clips the apex and the Quattro digs in to dole out the torque, you can see the negative pressure area behind the back hatch sucking up the rain, leaving a streaming contrail of water and sonorous eight-cylinder music behind us.
What a great car. What a great shame that some bean-counter has decided not to cater to the few, but to focus on selling the masses a bunch of leather-lined amorphous blobs with too many cupholders instead.
If you're interested, the cost of owning a machine like this one is not as bad as you think. Fuel consumption is, as previously mentioned, a non-trivial expense, but the depreciation at this point is practically nil, given the lack of replacement options. If reliability is a concern, and it is here as with any older German car that isn't air-cooled, then there are warranty options available, and they'll generally pay for themselves.
Care of the Alcantara seat inserts requires a little specialized knowledge, but it's the sort of thing anyone who cared about this car would take a little pride in knowing. The rest of the interior is very simple: a chubby three-spoke steering wheel, a little aluminum trim, and that all-important manual gear shifter.
The right-sized car, the right engine, the right transmission, the right road – four interlocked rings bringing a little joy into a grey and cheerless day. I think I'll take just one more run back up that hill. The car wants me to.