Audi was looking to add a new member to its “RS” lineup near the turn of the millennium. It chose to build something based on the A6 from its upper mid-range. That’s how the now iconic RS 6 moniker was born which debuted in the summer of 2002 and is now celebrating its 20th birthday.
While the RS 6 was previously offered in both sedan and Avant (wagon) body types, today it is exclusively available as a wagon. To celebrate two decades of the RS6, Audi collected every generation for a photographic road trip up in Canada. That gives us a good excuse to talk about the model’s history with some pretty scenic pictures, and here’s a quick guide through the history of the Audi RS 6:
Audi C5 RS 6 — The First Generation (2002-2004)
It started with the C5 A6, and no expense was spared. Audi’s motorsport division and private subsidiary formerly known as ‘quattro GmbH’ had to make numerous changes to the body and build a brand new engine with a clear vision to take the RS 6 sedan racing. However, the final look of the road car is still subdued and fits the ideal description of a “sleeper”. To date, it’s the only RS 6 built to enter motorsport.
The C5 RS 6 packs a 4.2-litre twin-turbo V8 co-developed with Cosworth. It was tuned to produce 444hp and 580Nm of torque while mated to a 5-speed tiptronic automatic and the quattro AWD system. At the time, the first-ever RS6 was the most powerful car in Audi’s lineup. The claimed 0-100kmph acceleration time was a respectably brisk 4.7 seconds.
Compared to the A6, the RS 6 sat 20mm lower with a 30% stiffer spring rate and 40% increased compression damping. The first-gen RS 6 also debuted Audi’s ‘Dynamic Ride Control’ (DRC) system that actively adjusts stiffness for each damper for the ideal ride and handling in various driving environments.
The C5 RS 6 sedan-based racecar was used in the North American Speed World Challenge GT series for three years (2002-2004) and won the manufacturer’s championship every season. It used a race derivative of the twin-turbo V8 for increased durability and responsiveness but had a similar power output as the road car. The Champion Audi Racing Team pulled out from the series after that due to new rules and regulations that were not in favour of the dominant RS 6.
Audi C6 RS 6 — The Unicorn (2008-2011)
There was a gap of around four years after the first-gen RS 6 and the second-gen was totally worth the wait. Audi decided to up the game once again with the C6 RS 6 and gave it the biggest engine it had built to that date. It fitted the sporty version of its executive moniker with a twin-turbo 5.0-litre V10 which produced 571hp and 650Nm. That was more powerful than the R8 GT which featured the naturally-aspirated 5.2-litre V10 and offered 553hp and 540Nm. The beastly V10 needed two side-mounted intercoolers, two ECUs, four electric cooling fans and seven radiators.
The twin-turbo V10 was mated to a heavily reworked 6-speed automatic transmission that could handle the engine’s monstrous output and do it well. It came with quattro AWD, of course, which helped do the 0-100kph sprint in under 5 seconds. While the acceleration wasn’t much quicker than the first-gen RS 6 due to the extra weight of the second-gen model, it was certainly faster and could breach the 300kph mark.
Audi offered the C6 RS 6 in both sedan and Avant shapes. Its design continued to be understated, with the increased proportions and other changes being well camouflaged from the average person. Designed as a practical and comfortable daily driver, the C6 RS 6 featured the updated version of Audi’s DRC with optional three-stage adjustment for the shock absorbers.
It wasn’t the only Audi Sport model, nor the only German mid-size executive model, to offer a V10 during that era. But it was definitely one of the coolest, especially as the Avant.
Audi C7 RS 6 – A Turn To The Dark Side (2013-2018)
The era of downsizing and turbocharging forced (almost) every performance brand in the world to comply with the new emission norms. The third-generation RS 6 debuted just two years after the brilliantly mad C5 RS 6, but a lot had changed.
Audi had dropped the 5.0-litre biturbo V10 in favour of a 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8. It was the smallest displacement engine ever in a RS 6. The power output dropped by 18hp to 553hp, but the torque output increased to 700Nm. It still had quattro AWD and the power was distributed using an 8-speed tiptronic automatic. Despite the slight drop in power, the C7 RS 6 was able to silence critics with its performance in the real world. It claimed a 0-100kph time of 3.9 seconds and a claimed top speed of 305kph with the derestricted Dynamic Plus package.
Additionally, there was no longer a sedan option. The RS 6 became an estate-only model but still carried the Avant suffix. Instead, Audi birthed the RS 7 Sportback which had a sloped roofline and the same performance as the RS 6 wagon.
Like every other modern car, the RS 6 was bigger than ever and loaded with all sorts of tech. That included new efficiency systems too such as engine-idle start-stop and cylinder deactivation. On a performance-oriented Audi RS 6? Huff. To be fair, it was just as potent if not as noisy or theatrical as the C6 RS 6 while also being far more economical in daily usage. It was comfier too thanks to the introduction of adaptive air suspension.
There was even a RS 6 Performance variant that gave the fast wagon a retuned ECU for an output of 597hp and temporarily boosted torque to 750Nm. That’s a fair jump over what the twin-turbo V10 engine had to offer and a lot quicker, with the 0-100kph time reduced to just 3.7 seconds.
Audi C8 RS 6 – The Darth Vader Of Fast Estates (2019-Now)
The fourth-gen RS 6 arrived hot on the heels of the last one, just a year apart. At this point, the fast wagon had started to become somewhat of a commercially successful performance model for Audi. But the tides were against it as the world pushes forward with tighter emission norms. Maybe that’s why Audi chose to bring forth the most extreme RS 6 ever, both in terms of performance and looks.
It still features a 4.0-litre twin-turbocharged V8 engine but it is now aided by a 48V mild-hybrid system. The result is a standard output of 591hp and a face-bending 800Nm of torque. While heavier than before, it still managed to shave its 0-100kph time down to 3.6 seconds and could easily reach 300kph (unrestricted).
Then there’s the increased usability with features like rear-wheel steering, the latest version of Audi’s DRC, active air suspension, large displays in the cabin and various autonomous driver assists.
Lastly, we have the design and there’s only one word for the C8 RS 6 Avant – menacing. The notably wider stance, the lower ride height, the large intakes and vents on the front fascia, the LED Matrix headlights, the aggressive aero elements at the rear and the massive 22-inch wheels. They all shout that this is no ordinary Audi Avant, it is the mean one with a muscley V8 grumble. Add the carbon fibre exterior package and it looks even meaner.
Given that Audi will be making all new cars as EVs by 2026, this might be the last noisy generation of the RS 6. There could even be some limited edition variants with extra firepower for one final hurrah.
So there we have it, the 20 years of the Audi RS 6. Even though it was limited to the wagon body type in the third generation, it has been and will be one of the world’s most iconic fast estates.
On a personal note, the current-gen RS 6 is the second pick for my modern car dream garage, beaten only by the BMW M5. It’s also the model that got me interested in estate cars in the first place. Here’s wishing a happy 20th to an icon and an inspiration.