Audi Hogs the Sport-Sedan Limelight while BMW Takes a Breather
Brent Romans, Senior Automotive Editor
Muhammad Ali had Joe Louis. Martina Navratilova had Chris Evert. The Lakers had the Celtics. The Bass Master had the Roncho combination Juicer and Nose Picker. Every champion has a foil to prove his or her (or its) greatness. And herein lies the problem facing the new Audi S4.
The reigning champ of midlevel sport sedans the BMW M3 has disappeared for 2000. Well, not really disappeared. More of a temporary hiatus. Both a two-door and a four-door version of the M3 were available on the previous-generation 3 Series. But with the current model (it debuted in 1999), BMW has delayed introducing an M version until 2001. From what our vast network of industry spies tells us, the new 2001 M3 should be quite impressive. But that's next year. Right here, right now, the new Audi S4 is the No. 1 contender.
The S4 is based off Audi's A4 platform. This is a pretty good place to start, as we've liked the current A4 ever since its introduction in 1996. We're impressed by its excellent design, capable handling, good looks, and optional all-wheel drive. All 2000 A4s and S4s also receive subtle improvements to the interior and exterior.
To get an idea of what the S4 represents, picture an A4 with a giant orange "New and Improved!" sticker on it. Under the hood is a 2.7-liter turbocharged V6 engine. It is based on the 200-horsepower, 2.8-liter V6 found in a variety of Audi models. The 100cc reduction of engine displacement is due to slightly smaller cylinder bores. Rather than using one large turbo, Audi has gone with two small turbos to feed the V6. This allows the engine to generate boost pressure much more quickly, resulting in quicker responsiveness. There's a long list of techno-goodies like twin intercoolers, dual-overhead cams, five valves per cylinder, variable valve timing for the intake camshaft, and optimized combustion chambers. It all adds up to 250 horsepower at 5,800 rpm, and 258 foot-pounds of torque at a super-low 1,850 rpm. The torque peak is maintained all the way up to 3,600 rpm. Redline is 6,800 rpm.
Audi A4s can be ordered with either front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. In the S4's case, the quattro all-wheel-drive system is standard. Quattro comes with a Torsen center differential that distributes up to 66 percent of the power to whichever axle has the most traction. Both the front and rear differentials also have Electronic Differential Locking (EDL). This feature detects and limits wheel spin and redistributes power from side to side to take advantage of available traction. As any proper sport sedan should have, a six-speed manual transmission is standard equipment. A Tiptronic-controlled five-speed automanual transmission is available as a no-cost option.
Sitting still, the S4 doesn't look all that different from an A4. More moody, maybe. It hunkers down some, thanks to a lowered ride height and special 17-inch six-spoke "Avus" wheels. There are also larger front air-intake openings and various S4 badges scattered about. But given the multitudes of A4s plying American roads, it's going to be tough for an S4 owner to attract jealousy from other German sedan owners. They simply won't know any different. Perhaps that is why Audi is offering two seemingly Slurpee-inspired colors Imola Yellow and Nogaro Blue. Both of these blazing hues are available on the S4 only.
Once moving on the road, the S4 is much more capable of capturing attention of both the driver and other cars being passed. The engine rips off a pleasant V6 snarl and mixes it with some soft turbo whooshes and whistles. Though it lacks some precision in its shifter, we still highly recommend the six-speed manual transmission. It's so rare that a car company recognizes the wants of the enthusiast, so best to take advantage of it. The top cogs are for cruising, of course, but the broad torque band does allow for good acceleration nearly anywhere on the rev band. The S4 is quite quick. It will beat any similarly priced 2000-year sedan in acceleration, though it doesn't ultimately have enough steam to outpace big dogs like the Chevrolet Corvette or Porsche 911. Audi says a manual-equipped S4 will go from zero to 60 in 5.9 seconds.
Of course, if a Corvette tried to beat up on an S4 in the wet, it would be a totally different story. Quattro gives the S4 excellent stability on the road, especially in less-than-perfect conditions. Both braking and handling are improved over the standard A4's. The S4 gets larger rotors (12.6 inches in front and 10.1 inches in the rear), high-performance twin-piston front calipers, stiffer springs and shocks, bigger antiroll bars, and 225/45R17 tires. While certainly performance-oriented, we would say the ride is still softer than a previous-generation BMW M3's.
Inside, the S4 gets a livelier interior than those found in A4s. Onyx- or silver-colored leather upholstery is used on power seats that are noticeably more supportive than the A4's. Leather is also used on the rear seat area, the armrest, and the door panels. At no extra cost, buyers can opt for the sport interior package, which adds silver or blue suede inserts to the seats. The main problem here is the lack of legroom for backseat passengers. It's not horrible, mind you, but it's best to take that into consideration if you plan on consistently transporting adults in the backseat.
Pricing for 2000 S4s starts at $37,900. Broken down into individual elements, the car's attributes don't seem all that impressive. Plenty of other cars have all-wheel drive. Japanese manufacturers were bolting two small turbos to six-cylinder engines 10 years ago and getting 300-plus horsepower (Mitsubishi 3000GT VR-4, Nissan 300ZX and Toyota Supra). The idea of a good-handling sedan isn't exactly new, either. But very few carmakers have been able to combine all of this into one complete package, and that's what makes the S4 such an exciting and desirable car
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