The Reigning Sport Sedan Champion — For Now
"Verrrry impressive," uttered my somewhat overwhelmed passenger as we completed a run through a treacherous set of mountain switchbacks.
For a brief moment I relished the notion that he was referring to the precise car control and adept pedal manipulation I was trying so hard to exhibit. My delusions of grandeur were short-lived however, as a quick dose of reality led to a more logical conclusion. His admiration had little to do with my perceived driving skill and everything to do with the phenomenally grippy and sinfully smooth S4 that had just made minced meat out of my favorite canyon test loop.
With the tenacious bite of all-wheel drive, Audi's new S4 exudes a confidence through corners that no amount of sway bars or sticky tires can duplicate. Combined with a stout V6 engine, six-speed gearbox, and a lavishly appointed interior, it's easy to see why Audi's autobahn burner drew nearly unanimous praise from our notoriously hard-to-please staff.
Built upon the already capable A4 platform, the S4 marks Audi's return to the increasingly popular high-performance sedan category. Available for years in Europe, Audi's factory-tuned super sedans haven't graced our shores since the S6 turbo departed after 1995. The S4 arrives on the scene during a peculiar absence of its most notable and worthy competitor BMW's M3 Sedan. Not offered for 2000 in anticipation of the all-new 2001 coupe, the M3 was widely considered the car to beat when it came to all-out performance in a small European four-door. So were there ulterior motives to the S4's uniquely positioned launch date? Not likely, and not necessary.
Priced comparably to BMW's former track star, our nearly $41,000 test car came equipped with the standard allotment of luxury features highlighted by exquisite Nappa leather upholstery, xenon headlights, and a full array of protective airbags. Options included the premium package that added a sunroof, auto-dimming mirrors, and a Homelink transmitter and the cold weather package that added heated seats and an expandable ski/storage sack. A Bose premium sound system was also included, but we were a little disappointed that our car didn't have the available industrial-looking aluminum interior trim instead of the earthy bird's eye maple wood. The only other available options are a navigation system, hands-free cell phone, and a six-disc CD changer, none of which we missed.
Looking much like a standard A4, our test car's appearance differed from its less-endowed brethren only through its exclusive "Avus" oversized wheels, a few discreetly placed badges on the grille and trunk lid, and a frighteningly bright Imola yellow paint job. If it weren't for the "arrest me now" hue of the sheetmetal, this Audi would make a terrific stoplight sleeper. Some editors found its austere shape subtly appealing, while others thought it paled in comparison to the more chiseled lines of BMW's 3 Series.
Once inside, the Audi coddles its front seat passengers with comfortable, well-bolstered seats and an elegant design that belies its sporting nature. The genuine maple trim blends beautifully with the cool shades of the soft Nappa leather, but they clash with the glow of the gumball yellow exterior. Fit and finish is exceptional throughout, with our only real complaint stemming from the tight rear seat quarters. Compared to the benchmark 3 Series, the rear seats in the S4 are noticeably cramped. "The low backseat left me eating the hard-covered front backrest due to a lack of legroom and thigh support," said one of our editors after a not so pleasant stint in the cheap seats.
The gauges display typically German clarity; speedo and tach are placed front and center using large, easy to read dials flanked by secondary gauges on each side. Unfortunately, the radio and climate controls are also typically German designs, meaning a maze of buttons and lights devoid of any intuitive nature. To Audi's credit, a minute or two of careful study is all it takes to master the controls, but the climate control display is still too low to be easily accessible. The Bose audio system produced beautiful sounds from its multi-speaker setup and the ability to load a CD right into the dash is a strangely welcome sight in a German car.
But enough with the details already. You're probably only reading this to see if the S4 can wax an M3 through the twisties, so here it goes. Powered by a twin-turbo 2.7-liter V6 rated at 250 horsepower and 258 ft-lbs. of torque, the S4 eclipses the former BMW's horsepower and torque ratings by 10 and 22 points respectively. The impressive numbers can be attributed to Audi's use of ultra high-tech components like variable camshafts, five-valve-per-cylinder heads, and a dual-stage composite intake manifold. Audi's engineers are especially proud of the S4's flat powerband that boasts full torque at a low 1,850 rpm, an important attribute considering the typical lack of low end grunt associated with turbo engines.
On the open road, the S4's torquey V6 provides exhilarating acceleration with little apparent effort. A simple nudge of the gas, and the perfectly synchronized turbos generate a seamless rush of power that quickly launches the Teutonic screamer into license-threatening territory. From our logbook: "Love how you can be going 80 mph in top gear, slide the accelerator pedal down and quickly 'shoosh' up to 110 mph without dropping a gear."
Buyers can choose either a six-speed manual or a five-speed Tiptronic automatic. Granted, the Tiptronic five-speed is one of the most sophisticated automatic transmissions on earth, but on a car like this, its presence borders on sacrilegious. Thankfully, the PR gods concurred, and our tester sported the manual gearbox that allowed us full reign over the high-revving six under the hood. Shifter action was light around town, but we couldn't get over the notchy engagement and gummy shift gates. Quick rips of the stick were met with a momentary resistance that was distracting during fast maneuvering. This is one area where BMW's slick shifting gearbox clearly reigns.
Cheer up Audi fans, the S4 more than makes up for its laggardly gearbox with its standard all-wheel-drive system that's second to none. Now in its fourth incarnation since debuting 19 years ago, Audi's quattro all-wheel-drive system proves itself to be a welcome companion regardless of climate. Using a sophisticated system of electronically locking front and rear differentials and a torque sensing center differential, the S4's traction control system distributes power not only between both wheels on the same axle, but between the front and rear axles themselves. How all these parts work together may be difficult to understand, but one blast out of a tight turn under full thrust and the inner workings of the drivetrain will be the last thing on your mind.
To assure proper wheel positioning for maximum bite, the S4 employs a fully independent suspension system consisting of a four-link setup in front and a double-wishbone configuration in back. Extensive use of aluminum components including all the major control arms keeps the weight down, while front and rear sway bars help maintain good posture through fast corners. Seventeen-inch wheels wrapped in sticky 225/45 tires round out the sport suspension package that gives the S4 exceptional command of the road.
Even with all the high-performance gear, the S4's ride quality is as comfortable as any sport sedan we've ever driven. It has the firm, planted feel you would expect of a car with its capabilities, but harsh bumps rarely make their presence felt through anything more than your ears. The leather-wrapped three-spoke steering wheel feels good to the touch, with perfectly placed thumb indentations that reward proper hand placement. Some editors noted that the steering can feel heavy at times, with a slight numbness at dead center. Chalk most of that nit picking up to our editor-in-chief who just spent a month behind the wheel of our long-term 3 Series BMW. Its nearly perfect steering feel makes just about anything feel numb, so consider the Audi's steering a 9 out of 10.
At the track, the Audi's composure through the slalom was confidence inspiring to say the least. The well-balanced chassis was a snap to throw around, with very little body roll and predictable manners at the limit. A brief rain shower gave us the unique opportunity to test the Quattro system's responsiveness to slippery conditions. As expected, it performed flawlessly. Traction on the slick surface was remarkable, with little noticeable intrusion by the electronic wizardry making it all possible.
On the drag strip, the unfailing grip of the all-wheel-drive system made for awkward launches, but we managed a respectable 6.0-second zero-to-60 time and crossed the quarter-mile timers in 14.55 seconds. Not quite M3 numbers, but considering the added weight of the Quattro system, we didn't expect the S4 to outrun its lighter competitor.
All S4s benefit from the addition of beefy four-piston disc brakes up front and electronic brake pressure regulation for the rear. Combined with standard ABS, the S4 stopped consistently from 60 mph in a very respectable 122 feet. A quick glance at our Entry-Level Luxury Sedan Comparison Test lets you see that we recorded almost identical numbers in a stock A4. Although the standard A4 proved to be equally as competent during instrumented testing, we suspect that the S4's industrial-strength hardware is designed to endure the repeated hammering most S4s are likely to receive considering their amplified ability for speed.
So, is the S4 the ultimate sport sedan? Well, yes...for now.
An M3 Sedan based on the soon-to-be-released coupe hasn't even been officially announced yet, so it's not likely to hit the states for at least another year or two, if at all. Another potential party crasher is Mercedes' C32 AMG, based on the recently introduced C-Class sedans. That car is reported to have a supercharged V6 putting out over 350 horses and will likely have an interior to match the S4's elegant appointments, but there is a catch. Both of these super sedans will likely carry price tags somewhere near 50K pretty steep for a small sedan no matter how fast it is.
Where exactly does that leave the S4?
Well positioned, we would say. With its blend of effortless power, supreme grip, and decent ride quality, it makes a great choice for those looking for something a little more refined than your average boy-racer hot rod. The quality of the interior never leaves you with the feeling that you gave up something in return for the extra ponies under the hood, and the classic shape avoids the "midlife" crisis look of a sports car. Features editor Miles Cook summed up the S4 best in his post-drive notes: "Think about it...twin-turbos, AWD, a six-gear transmission, 250 hp, sumptuous cabin, 17-inch wheels, killer brakes...for 40 grand!? A bargain."
System Score: 7.0
Components. This Bose system consists of some odd component choices, but it performs pretty well overall, so go figure. The back deck holds a pair of 6-inch subwoofers. You heard us right — two 6-inch subwoofers. This is complemented elsewhere in the vehicle by a pair of 6-inch full-range speakers in the rear doors, as well as a two-way setup in the front doors that includes a pair of 5-inch mid-bass drivers mated to a pair of 1-inch tweeters above. The head unit includes 12 AM and 12 FM presets, along with cassette and a single-play CD. The layout on the faceplate has a very flat topography, with little space between the controls, which makes it hard to use while driving.
Performance. Despite the dual subs in the back, this system lacks bass. Five-inch cones don't move a lot of air, so that probably explains it. The rest of the system is respectable in its performance. The tweeters are a little brassy with the volume turned up, while the midrange is just slightly muddy. Overall, the system has a pleasing balance, as we've come to expect from most Audi/VW systems.
Best Feature: Excellent tweeter positioning.
Worst Feature: Flat topography on the faceplate.
Conclusion. This system mates well sound-wise with the European heritage of this car. A great system for classical and jazz. Scott Memmer