Fans of understated Q-cars should be celebrating because Audi’s latest S4 rocketship is all new for 2010, and not to spoil the plot at all, but it’s very, very good. It takes a modern view to performance and does away with all that’s wasteful. A pure Audi? It does exist.
Audi gets all German when it comes to the art of going fast – meaning it throws lots of technology at the problem. The most notable change over the outgoing S4 is a new powerplant efficiently thumping underhood. Gone is the sonorous but fuel-sucking 4.2-litre V8, replaced by a new 333-hp 3.0-litre supercharged V6. While that’s down a few ponies compared to the old car, the new engine is lighter, and produces more torque – 325 lb-ft – at a lower rpm. It’s also a throwback to the old boosted S cars from the ‘80s and ‘90s, and more keeping in the S4’s character.
All that power is routed through a standard six-speed manual gearbox or Audi’s brand-new seven-speed S tronic dual-clutch automated gearbox to all four wheels. Appealing? Yes, but the best piece of kit is the optional Sport Differential ($1,500) and all the goodies that come with. It essentially works like similar systems in the BMW X6, Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution MR and others by actively distributing torque across the rear axle. Thanks to some excellent software, the diff reduces understeer, allows for higher cornering speeds and transverse acceleration. That can be further tweaked by the driver, who can select between comfort, auto and dynamic settings.
What that equates to is mind-bending handling. Besides the previous RS4, Audis have traditionally had pretty lousy steering, but the new S4 changes that. A mere hint at a direction change and this car is already through and setting up for the next. It’s very intuitive to drive quickly – just put your foot in and go. For 95 per cent of the time, you can leave it in drive/auto and it will fulfill everything you need from it. When you want to truly enjoy the car in a suitable location, choose manual/sport/dynamic and you’re rockin’. The S tronic’s shifts are sublime and never interrupt the fun, and while seven gears sounds excessive, it means more time spent in the sweet powerband. While the 0-100 km/h run is accomplished in the low five second range, the S4 carries its speed through the corners so well that you don’t notice its average acceleration.
One of the S4’s major letdowns is the lack of a tuneful exhaust. While it’s not sorely missed, the previous V8 had great lungs and this is one Audi that deserves a hot-rod soundtrack, especially with the S tronic tranny nailing those perfect downshifts.
The visual changes amount to subtle tweaks of the still-fresh A4 body, including 18-in wheels and sticky tires, a subtle body kit, and ‘S’ badges everywhere. The alcantara and leather-covered bucket seats are very supportive, while the S-exclusive steering wheel connects you to the road. Otherwise, the cabin remains identical to the regular A4, although that isn’t a bad thing considering its class-leading design and materials.
Now for the unsexy – although still important – stuff. The S4 comes loaded with a full suite of safety technology, including eight airbags, ABS with brake assist, traction and stability control, adaptive headlights and more.
Fuel mileage is surprisingly good, hitting 12.1/7.9/10.2 L/100 KM (city/hwy/combined), which helps keep the costs down. As does the reduced price – MSRP is $54,100 while our tester rang in at $55,600. This has to do with repositioning the S4 to compete against the BMW 335i rather than the M3 (which the next RS4 will do.) A version with a six-speed manual can be had for $1,500 less, but the S tronic truly makes this Audi desirable. Options include 19-in wheels and tires ($1,000), silk nappa leather interior ($1,000), rear side airbags ($500) and a voice-activated hard-drive based navigation system with backup camera ($3,200). Premium models start at just over $58,000 and can be optioned with the Audi Drive Select and a Bang & Olufsen sound system.
What’s notable about the S4 is that it’s so very good already that you don’t have to go neck deep into the options list to figure out how to make it handle. That’s certainly refreshing for Audi, and something that its customers will appreciate too.
Price as tested: $55,600
Summary: Audi keeps impressing with refinement and speed.
Exterior Design: 7/10. Subtle, but aggressive. Can’t wait for big-arched RS4.
Interior Design: 8/10. Typical Audi craftsmanship and materials.
Engine: 7/10. Less power, but better fuel efficiency. Needs to sound better.
Transmission: 9/10. S tronic and tricky differentials make this car.
Audio/Video: 7/10. No real improvements here, but B&O a pricey option for audiophiles.
Value: 8/10. Excellent – significantly less expensive than last generation.
Overall (not an average): 8/10