19 Sep 2014

Living With - 2003 Audi RS6 Avant

Andrew Dryburgh reviews his 2003 Audi RS6 Avant

2003 Audi RS6 Avant

I'm very fortunate to work in car sales for a great Audi dealership where I get to drive some truly astonishing cars every day. Despite being associated with the Audi brand for nearly 12 years I genuinely still surprise myself with the quality of our cars, often using a different model of the range for my commute to try them in a real world drive.

In addition I’m lucky enough to have a company car which I use for 95% of my motoring. However a great deal of my enthusiasm for cars is for slightly older vehicles hence I’ve usually owned my own car in addition.

When I saw that Matt from www.speedmonkey.co.uk encouraged readers to write about their own cars I felt very motivated to write, and that brings us to this article. This isn’t about new a Audi product recently launched, nor do I have a used example of this car for sale.

So tonight, Matthew, I’m going to write about my own car.

What is it?

A 2003 Audi RS6 Avant.

Most people are well versed in this car.  The simple version is an A6 Avant with wide body, wide track, and a 4.2 litre V8 petrol motor equipped with 2 turbochargers and quattro permanent all wheel drive. In 2003 when it was new the performance figures would have been the stuff to win bragging contests down the pub. 450ps (444bhp) power, 560Nm torque, 0 - 62mph in 4.9 secs and a top speed limited to 155mph (where legal).

When I started working at an Audi dealership in 2003 the company owner had an RS6 Avant. It didn’t take long to get under my skin. I remember saying at the time I would own one. I even kept a brochure from when they were new. I got mine in 2008. I don’t do finance or loans and although I’m in the motor trade it still represented a significant chunk of money to spend on my debit card when I bought it.

“They’re around £5,000 - £15,000 at the moment, right? Should I buy one?”

Good heavens, no! Well, not unless you take account of the following:

The RS6 was around £70,000 when new and is a very complex machine. Even if you can afford the present second hand price the regular maintenance and repair costs will always end up being those of a £70,000 car. Brakes are roughly £1,000 at the front and only slight less at the rear. The cam belt (ideally including water pump and thermostat) are changed every 4 years. It requires a service each 12 months or 10,000 miles. Driven (im)properly the tyres will last 5000 miles and will set you back £850 - £1,000 for 4. It will average 15 - 20mpg of super unleaded.

Some of the technology on board is now outdated but a major advantage is that in this day and age you can do a lot of research on a particular model using internet forums even before you view and test drive them. If you buy at the cheap end of the market you’re likely to buy a problem car. From research I knew to watch out for 2 main faults:

All C5 RS6s have a 5 speed ZF tiptronic gearbox with steering wheel mounted manual over-ride gearshift controls (the gearbox is shared with the earlier A8 6.0 W12) and Audi felt it was up to the job of dealing with the power and torque. It wasn’t, and for many owners the gearbox failed causing repair bills of £4,000 - £7,000. It turns out that ZF say the gearbox should be serviced with the fluid and filter replaced throughout the car’s life. Audi on the other hand marketed it as “sealed for life” and isn’t a repair option but a “replace” option. A handful of owners have developed their own manual gearbox conversion at great expense to then go for crazy power outputs from engine and turbo mods.

From the factory the RS6 was the first model in the Audi line up to receive “Dynamic Ride Control” (often referred to as DRC) suspension where the shock absorbers are linked diagonally across the car via an equalisation valve giving very effective (almost “active” in feel although it’s a passive system) anti-roll, anti-dive, and anti-squat behaviour. This made the 2 tonne RS6 (1880kg unladen weight, 2440kg fully laden!) strangely agile for its size. For many owners this first generation DRC system has failed numerous times, and when it’s not working the car feels “drunk” and wallowing at best, and dangerous at worst.
2003 Audi RS6 Avant

As these issues could prove potentially ruinous on costs I read all the forum advice and tried to buy the best car I could.

Even so my car has had both these faults. The gearbox was rebuilt by a ZF agent, and the suspension replaced by adjustable coil-overs and upgraded anti roll bars. The handling is amazing in comparison to standard and the Audi DRC will never fail me again. My ride height can be adjusted however the ride quality has been compromised somewhat.

Experience has shown me that Goodyear Eagle Assimetric tyres feel best on the car.

The repairs were expensive at the time but curiously I’m not put off by them. Averaged out over the months of ownership it’s actually cost me very little per year. The fact that the car is somehow more “mine” due to the minor modifications makes it feel more a part of me.

Also as you start to get into the ownership “circles” on various web forums (I would suggest www.rs246.com is the best place to start) you’ll learn of the excellent Audi RS performance specialist businesses around the UK who can help you fix and get the best out of your RS6. 

I’ve had the suspension, ECU remap, transmission ECU remap and gearbox service done at “Unit20” in the Wirral as it’s closest to Scotland. Drivers further south will likely use “MRC”.

Regarding all of the above, maybe I’m being harsh on the old girl.

The Good:

It’s a car with exterior styling that has aged incredibly well. It blends in with formal and informal occasions. It doesn’t shout too loudly to attract the undue attention of the “Boys in Blue”. In short - it fits in everywhere.

It feels absolutely planted on the road in all weathers. There is serious grip to be exploited if your family and dog aren’t in the car to feel sick.

The performance is epic. The torque (especially after the re-map was done) comes in with comically high levels of shove from about 1,500rpm transforming into serious power as the rev counter makes its crazy rush towards 6,000rpm, and the in-gear times from 30 to XXX leptons are astonishing. The quattro traction means you can exploit this performance where others struggle to put down their power.

The car is luxurious and spacious. With the rear seats folded the practicality means anything from fun driving to family holidays to trips with rubbish to the local recycling centre can be done in one car. Mine averages about 18mpg overall, BUT driven carefully on vacations abroad this has shown to rise to 27mpg (for the record - this is slightly better than the lower powered S4 V8 I had before). For the performance potential available the economy is amazing! I’ve often compared this to other large “sensible” family cars like Discoverys, and suspect they’ll average close on the same economy with no driving enjoyment.

Mine is a 2003 model in “Mugello Blue pearl effect” with “Silver” leather upholstery, alcantara headlining in silver, “Poplar Agate” wood inlays (I know - but I’ve grown to love them), electric tilt/slide solar panel sunroof (uses PV panel to power the cabin ventilation while parked) and GSM phone preparation (if you’re using a 1990s Nokia 6310i physically linked to the car via a cradle).

It has an excellent BOSE Hi-Fi, a great Sat Nav system which is getting out of date but is very effective and has taken us on many trips through the UK and France, it has MP3 playing capability from SD card readers x 2 in the Nav unit, a 6CD changer, electric Recaro seats and electric steering column and I can easily fit a bike rack on top in minutes.

It’s getting old and is painfully behind the times on technology compared to the modern Audis I sell. It feels a little but vintage to drive compared to brand new cars. It lacks Bluetooth, iPod integration or the ability to run on 95ron unleaded. The suspension is pretty hard on poor roads, and my right knee aches when I’ve been driving it for a long time. Mind you that might be more to do with my right knee than the car…

I hate starting sentences with “but”, but all of that is part of the car’s charm. In fact I’ve been out in it for most of today, and it’s still an event to drive it.

It’s been all over the UK. To LeMans (Pistonheads camp site), Goodwood, the D-day beaches in Normandy, Legoland, Brittany, Ski resorts in the Alps, driving tours with friends…

So perhaps if you ask that question again:

“They’re around £5000 - £15000 at the moment, right? Should I buy one?”

Yes - you probably can’t afford not to.

All of this writing has made me think… There is a current model in the Audi model range with approximately the same dimensions, the same engine size, same nominal power output, and similar weight. It shares the commonality of an Avant body shell, automated transmission with manual gearshift mode, high performance in a luxury car. I’ve been living with it for nearly 5 months as my day to day company car, and it might be quite interesting to do a comparison review… That can be my next episode.

By Andrew Dryburgh

Twitter: @drybeer
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2003 Audi RS6 Avant

2003 Audi RS6 Avant

2003 Audi RS6 Avant