The new Audi RS4 is yet another waypoint in the automotive arms race. Somewhere deep within a product planning centre in Germany there is a graph charting the relentless rise in power output over the decade or so. Back in the 1970s, 80s and early 90s, when the only supercars were built in Italy and tended to be red, priapic and aimed at Miami heart surgeons or the offspring of dubious potentates, an engine output of nearly 400 bhp was considered at the high end of extreme. To push a car well over 150 mph you needed a hefty V12 engines, fighter plane-style fuel consumption and screaming revs. And God help you if the roads were even slightly slippery.
Yet we're now living in an era where a family estate car is endowed with far more horsepower than the lairiest slab of Italian exotica from this not-so-distant past. The V8-powered Audi RS4 Avant will also out-accelerate and out-brake them, all while offering space for five adults and their luggage and the promise of more than 300 miles between fuel stops. On the one hand, this is fine progress and should be applauded. But on the other, it smacks of overkill.
The RS4, like every Audi, is a superlative piece of engineering, from the drivetrain and chassis that gets that copious power onto the road, right down to the feel and weight of the smallest switch. We've said it for a while now, and it still stands true, but Audi make the finest interiors around. However, as the company recently told us, there are moves afoot to build a greater link between inside and out, and bring in a more minimal design language across the range.
This is probably welcome, for the RS4 is anything but minimal. While there's still a physical simplicity to its forms, the chunky feel of the controls, the dark (verging slightly on claustrophic) interior and the bumps and bulges on the bodywork that have come to signify raw power give this car a rather baroque, almost gothic feel.
The RS4 has oodles of horsepower - 444 of them - but it's so well composed that even the most inexperienced driver will get something out of it without making a fool of themselves. But to really get this car to the limit, you'll not only need a racetrack but also driving skills that far exceed the general populations. Fun though it is to hurl this shiny piece of technology around, you're never too far from the nagging feeling that you're merely aiding an arms race without a visible finishing line.