Start with an Audi A4 Cabriolet, one of the most stunning four-seat convertibles ever to stroll American roads, but somewhat of a slouch in the performance department. Oh, it's solid and secure in the corners, but with a modestly powered V6 and no option to shift your own gears, you won't be coming out of them very fast.
Then consider the high-performance S4 sedan, which answers the BMW M3's call for more horsepower with a 340-hp, 4.2-liter V8. Engineers also battened down the stock A4 running gear for quicker runs through the switchbacks and installed a pair of Recaro seats that effectively secure the driver during said runs.
Side by side, these cars may share their genealogy, but they cater to two very different drivers. One is a sun worshipper who wants to travel in high style and high comfort 365 days a year. The other may tell you how much he likes the understated elegance and all-weather capability of an Audi, but underneath the small talk and tailored suit beats the heart of a performance fiend who doesn't care a bit about practicality and eggs on M3 drivers at stoplights. Ah, but what if these two individuals were in fact the same person a sunburned enthusiast who has saved like mad for a four-season dream ride? Well then, that man or woman will probably be one of the first in line to buy the 2004 S4 Cabriolet.
This Cabriolet brings all of the S4 sedan's (and the S4 wagon's) performance enhancements to bear on the roads of your choosing. The aforementioned V8 is packed into its compact engine bay and all 340 original horses and 302 pound-feet of torque are at your disposal. And because Audi knows that serious drivers want to be given the option of shifting their own gears, a six-speed manual transmission is standard on this drop top. If you decide you'd rather not, a six-speed automatic with a Tiptronic automanual mode is optional.
Although an automatic is a nice option to have in congested areas, we wouldn't have minded seeing another iteration of Audi's Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG) instead. Essentially a manual transmission without a conventional clutch pedal, the DSG provides virtually all of the convenience and smoothness of an automatic. At the same time, it has a very responsive manual-shift mode that's more conducive to the higher-intensity driving S4 owners are likely to do in their free time. Given the choice between the DSG and Tiptronic, we'd take the DSG every time at least in an S4. We shared these thoughts with Audi product planners, who, although receptive, noted that this new gearbox is currently only compatible with transverse-mounted engines (the 4.2 is longitudinal) and is limited in the torque loads it can handle. They did tell us that the engineers in Ingolstadt are working on a version of the DSG for future use in the A4 and A6 lines (possibly including the high-performance S4 and S6 models).
You can opt out of the quattro all-wheel-drive system on the regular A4 Cabriolet, but it's standard on the S4 so that owners can take full advantage of the oversized engine. The all-weather aspect of quattro is important, too, as Audi has identified the prospect of year-round use as a top priority for target S4 Cabriolet buyers who presumably will test-drive it back-to-back with the rear-drive M3 convertible.
While quattro keeps the S4 Cab all lined up in the turns, a modified chassis sharpens its reflexes. Engineers lowered the stock A4 suspension by 30mm and fitted the car with stronger stabilizer bars and stiffer springs and shocks. A new steering rack provides a quicker 14.5-to-1 ratio (compared to 16.3 to 1 on the A4) and varies the amount of assist according to the actual vehicle speed. A larger, fully ventilated set of brakes helps drivers keep a rein on all the muscle under the hood, and Z-rated 235/40R18 Continental ContiSport tires form the bond with the pavement.
Audi turned us loose with all of the above running gear on a perfect spring day in the high desert. Only manual-shift S4 Cabriolets were available for journalists to drive, and frankly, we wouldn't have had it any other way. Sure, the throws between gates are long and the clutch take-up a bit spongy for a performance car but it doesn't matter: The six-speed manual gearbox is still an enjoyable means of extracting performance from the 340-hp V8.
With plenty of torque on its side, the engine pulls hard at any speed, and there's nothing explosive, finicky or even boisterous about its power delivery. With an estimated 0-to-60-mph time of 5.8 seconds, the S4 Cab is not as fast as the M3, which we've timed at 5.4 seconds in SMG form (curb weight is the culprit, as the Audi tips the scales at over two tons 300 pounds heavier than the BMW). Nor does its 4.2-liter V8 have the feverish personality of the BMW's worked-over inline six. What the S4 drop top does offer is versatility. There's enough juice to blast out of the turns on your favorite coastal highway, but when Monday comes around, the 4.2 doesn't mind retreating into the background so that you can hear the radio news.
The S4's ride and handling characteristics present the driver with a similar compromise. Although we had feared that the S4 Cab's serious poundage would be a liability on winding two-lanes, the lowered suspension does a fine job of managing that weight. Body roll is held in check, and grip is doled out in liberal amounts. Indeed, the majority of drivers will love the way the car threads their favorite roads. But solid as the S4 Cabriolet is at high speeds, it doesn't have quite the buttoned-down feel of its fixed-roof sedan sibling. And if you're looking for a car that fits like a glove and never met a corner it didn't like, an M3 or even a 330Ci would be a better choice. In trade, the S4 Cab offers an exceptionally smooth ride for a car with high-performance intentions it's comfortable enough to drive to work everyday. However, we did note a surprising amount of cowl shake over the rougher roads along our driving route, and wondered if this might be a consequence of the more tightly wound chassis. In any case, those living in pothole-stricken regions of the country should check this out during their test-drive.
Cosmetic upgrades are few and far between on the S4 Cabriolet, as there's not so much as a deck lid spoiler to break up its sleek profile. There was no functional reason for a spoiler, Audi executives told us, and it would have been difficult to mount one on the convertible's composite trunk lid. The only distinguishable changes from the A4 drop top are a new grille with "S" badging, larger front air intakes, larger exhaust outlets and simple six-spoke, 18-inch wheels at the corners. Also, xenon headlights are now standard. If you've always liked the A4 Cab's clean lines and prefer a sleeper-type look, you'll appreciate the design staff's light touch. If you envisioned a more aggressive look for the topless S4 (along the lines of, say, the M3), aftermarket retrofits may be necessary.
Inside the cockpit, the subtlety continues. Instead of the S4 sedan's race-ready Recaro seats, there's a more conventional set of leather sport seats with elegant piping along the edges. While this change in furnishings gives the impression that Audi softened up the Cabriolet, after a day of driving, we can't say we missed the Recaros. These seats are wider and less confining, and they're pleasantly, but not excessively firm just what you need on a long summer road trip. What's more, they do a fine job of holding you in place when the road turns twisty. Aside from the unusual piping on its seats, the S4 Cabriolet is distinguished from its less sporting siblings by gray-faced, white-needle gauges and a three-spoke steering wheel. Tasteful "S4" logos drive home the point without cluttering up the convertible's refined ensemble.
Audi is asking $54,570 for the S4 drop top, and you'll pay an additional $1,150 if you opt for an automatic transmission. (Fuel economy, by the way, is one of the few cards the automatic holds in its favor, as it earns a decent 18 mpg city/23 mpg highway estimate compared to the manual-shift Cab's subpar 15/21 rating.) If you want a wind deflector, heated seats, auto-dimming mirrors and a "premium" 215-watt Bose stereo (the stock system offers just 150 watts) to accompany you on your journey, you'll need to visit the options lists. Indeed, this is a far cry from the mid-$20Ks starting price of the A4 line. But it's still less than you'll pay to get an M3 convertible. And if you've previously shied away from the BMW because it didn't play well in snow, know that Audi has once again created the winterproof alternative.