When the first Audi RS6 launched in 2002, the RS badge was in its infancy. Just two cars had worn it previously – the RS2 and RS4, both sold only as estates.
The ‘C5’ RS6 was sold as both a saloon and Avant, though fast Audis have always been intrinsically linked with the latter body style. In this model’s case, you can possibly thank pre-Bond Daniel Craig in Layer Cake for that.
It was a perfect bit of car casting for a cool gangster type, a hugely characterful and quite naughty car clothed in a crisp, subtle body. A whole 14 years after its introduction, we’d argue this RS6 is more appealing than ever.
And with prices of good C5s starting at £10,000 – about the same as speccing ceramic brakes on a new Audi RS6 – it looks temptingly attainable, too. Read on to see if you should resist or not…
The RS6 launched with a twin-turbo 4.2-litre V8, co-developed with Cosworth in the UK, producing 444bhp. That was enough for a 4.9-second 0-62mph time and the de rigueur 155mph limited top speed so associated with German performance cars.
It was also enough to seriously outmuscle the contemporary BMW M5 and Mercedes E55 AMG. The power wars between RS, M and AMG had truly started. And back then, Audi was your only option if you wanted your German sports saloon or estate with four-wheel drive.
It launched as an Avant, with the four-door saloon following later. Prices kicked off below £60,000 – nowadays you can spec an RS3 up to that level.
Towards the end of the RS6’s life, Audi saw fit to boost its power output, launching the 473bhp ‘Plus’ version, which you see here. Its 0-62 is the same, but its top speed a more Autobahn-friendly 174mph. There was also lowered suspension, sharper steering and some nice anthracite 19in alloys.
The RS6 wasn’t just a hot rod with some boot space, though. There’s plenty of interesting tech beneath its irresistible wheel arches.
Quattro AWD with a proper Torsen differential. A five-speed (wow, a whole five!) tiptronic automatic gearbox. An intricately set-up Dynamic Ride Control hydraulic suspension system.
And, if you want some interior ‘connectivity’, the availability of a television with Teletext. You may laugh now (or even ask what Teletext is), but in 2002 this would have struck me as witchcraft. All in, the whole thing topped 1.8 tonnes, which would seem heavy now, never mind then.
How it feels to drive today
I woudn’t say it feels heavy, though. In fact, this thing flings itself down a road with a pace as indecent-feeling as the current, 600bhp RS6. Seriously.
Glance down at the speedometer and the numbers aren’t quite as high as they’d be in the newer car, but the sensation of relentless acceleration is the same. For a car that’s so mature in premise, its kicks are brilliantly childish.
There’s the slightest bit of turbo lag when you first prod the accelerator, then a huge surge of power. And it’ll happily rev right up to 7,000rpm, a classy eight-cylinder burble providing a backdrop to it all. No matter your previous performance car experience, it’ll make you smile.
Don’t go thinking you need to heave on the brakes and shed all that speed to have a vague hope of making it around a corner, though. RS Audis may not have the most prolific hit-rate of dynamic success, but this isn’t a car that immediately flops into understeer.
In fact, get the nose tucked into a corner and, as you get back on the throttle, it feels almost like a bigger, fatter Impreza. You can sense power going to the rear axle to propel you out the other side.
Really ambitious cornering speeds will see a flicker of the traction control light, and on the tight, leafy lanes of Britain, I imagine the moments I’d feel man enough to find the ‘off’ switch in a car this large would be few.
But for all its size from the outside, you don’t feel it on the inside. A current RS6 would have you thumping over the cats’ eyes to keep a nice distance from the kerb, but in comparison, this feels impossibly narrow. As a result, I’d argue you’ll use more of its performance, more of the time.
A special mention for the steering. It’s super: quick, intuitive and reasonably well weighted. Whether it felt this good when new I don’t know – car journalists tend to enjoy moaning about steering more than anything else (myself included) – but given how light on feel modern electric systems have become (told you!), this now feels fantastic.
It rides well, too, that Dynamic Ride Control system doing wonders to shake off some of the worse road surfacing Britain has to offer. There’s a bit more squidge in its tyres than a modern fast German stuff, too, owing to its 19in wheels. Though they fill the RS6’s (sublime) arches wonderfully.
Complaints? The automatic transmission does not react quickly enough when you manually pull the paddles, but nor is it quite clever enough when left to its own devices. It may feel as exciting as a current-gen RS6, but by God, have gearboxes come along since the early 2000s. Though the simplicity of five speeds rather than the modern trend for eight or nine is a surprise pleasure.
If you plan on frequently driving this thing briskly, you might also want to upgrade the brakes. It only took a few passes for the cornering shots in this gallery for them to start to whiff a little bit, and this was at appropriate road speeds. All the weight it shrugs off in a straight line still needs to be slowed down…
Overall, though, it’s an utterly beguiling car. And it feels so relevant today. Its performance hasn’t been hugely outstripped, it’s still good to drive, and the interior is laid out in a way that – obsolescence of Teletext excluded – doesn’t feel its age.
Given this generation of Audi A6 debuted in the mid-1990s, that’s seriously impressive. The materials are top notch, too. This Plus boasts some beautifully-weaved carbonfibre and ace suede and leather seats.
Can you tell I really liked it? In fact, it was the most talked about car in the TG car park all week…
What to watch out for
Without stating the obvious, it’s important that a car like this has been looked after properly. That means a service every 12 months, with the cambelt changed every five years, or 40,000 miles. The water pump ought to be changed at the same time.
The gearbox needs its oil and filter changing every 40,000 miles, too. And given the work they’re tasked with, expect brake pads to last 10,000-15,000 miles on the front. There’s some considerable mass to slow down, after all. A set of discs and pads comes in at around £1,000.
Audi’s ‘Dynamic Ride Control’ system is a mechanical take on adjustable dampers, used to counteract pitching and rolling during cornering. Great when it works, but the system can leak.
Opposite corners of the car (so front left and rear right, and vice versa) work off each other, so you need to replace both, though Sam Townsend of VAGTech says you should also update the other side of each axle. In short, one fails, you replace all four. Which is £2,000 before fitting, at a dealer with specialist equipment.
“I put Bilsteins on mine,” he says, citing them as an alternative, aftermarket fix. “You get better handling and it’s all adjustable, and you get a lifetime warranty.”
“Run it on Shell V-Power, fill it with Castrol Edge, only use genuine parts and make sure you let someone who knows what they are doing work on it,” says Sam. “They also eat tyres!”
Sam says the tyres you fit really ought to be a premium brand, too. Cheaper alternatives can rub against the suspension.
Any other advice? “Make sure you live near a petrol station!” We can concur. Our few days in the RS6 saw the trip computer read 12mpg, and that included a few stints on the motorway. An 82-litre fuel tank makes it more manageable, but also ensures fills will not be cheap…
How much to pay
The cheapest C5 RS6s sit below £10,000, but will likely have north of 100,000 miles on them. No real issue if they’ve been looked after and appropriately serviced, of course; the build quality here is strong. Pay £11k upwards and you should get a car with a full history and sub-100,000 miles.
Just be aware that the VW Up price does not mean similar running costs. “Maintenance costs have been astronomical on mine, expect thousand-pound bills each year,” says Sam.
If you want an RS6 Plus, these start at around £15,000, with the best touching £20,000. As we went to press, there were a few C5 RS6s priced higher than this, but these really need to be fine examples, as £25,000 and up takes you into second-gen, V10-powered RS6 territory.
And prepare yourself to be patient: Audi sold 870 C5-generation RS6 Avants, 271 saloons, and 77 Avant Pluses. So numbers on the second-hand market are pretty small.
“Why I love mine”
Sam Townsend bought his RS6 Avant in 2011.
“I wanted something fast, practical and fun, and boy did this tick every box. I picked the Avant because I love estates, and happily, insurance was half the price of the saloon version! The first time I turned the key I fell in love, there is nothing better than the sound of a V8. After a short test drive I was sold, some money exchanged hands and I had purchased my first RS Audi.
“It was completely stock when I bought it. For peace of mind I had a major service and gearbox flush at my now employers VAGTech (it’s cost me that much money I had to get a job here!) and after being told it was one of the best examples they had seen, I was given a clean bill of health and was on my way.
“I think I had it for about a week before I was back for a Revo Stage 1 power map. A Milltek exhaust came next, which made it sound incredible, followed by downpipes and Stage 2 power. My Dynamic Ride Control failed, which was the perfect excuse to put the car on coilovers and give it the stance it deserved out of the factory.
“There have been further mods since. I’ve driven it everywhere and used it for everything, including camping, carrying a dozen lengths of 6”x4” and sheets of ply for a workbench, and transporting a big block to the engine reconditioners. However, my favourite memory is a trip to the Nürburgring, where we lapped five-up with luggage and still put ‘fast’ cars to shame.
“I did 46 miles that day and used 43 litres of fuel. Yes, this car has a drinking problem! Make sure you live near a petrol station and have shares in it. But when it’s running sweet, burbling away and eating up the miles like it’s designed to, there isn’t a place I’d rather be. It’s so comfortable and refined, yet savage and crazy when you want it to be. I love it and will never sell it; I plan to use it as my hearse when my time is up.”