D. John Booth, Contributor
I remember well the first Audi I ever tested.
It was an A6 Avant, circa early '90s. Back then, the biggest V6 the company offered was a lowly 2.8-liter V6, sporting but two measly valves in each cylinder. It boasted an equally waiflike 174 horsepower. Worse yet, most of what little power it had was biased towards the top-end of its power band. Mated to Audi's traction-enhancing, but power-sapping, quattro all-wheel-drive system, and an automatic transmission with European gear ratios designed for fuel economy at the expense of acceleration, that wagon ranks as one of the slowest cars I've ever driven.
In fact, I can remember sitting in its driver seat trying to come up with a metaphor for its lethargy. Was it slower than a diesel Chevette? Could a muscular retiree on a racy Italian 10-speed out-drag it? Finally, I decided its performance was akin to my significant other's Suzuki Swift with one spark plug disconnected.
Whatever the analogy, early A6s were dog-slow. And in a country where initial lunge across an intersection is considered the ultimate measure of performance, Audi's contention that the A6 could cruise at high speeds while sipping fuel carried little weight. For years afterward, I would recall the A6's pathetic performance and assume that Audi wasn't serious about the North American market.
Obviously, Audi got the message. Its V6 has sprouted three more valves per cylinder and surged to 220 hp. Its latest V8 boasts five valves per cylinder and over 300 ponies. Even the company's lowly 1.8-liter four boasts a turbocharger and six-cylinderlike performance.
Over the last few years, Audi has trumpeted its newfound performance with its "S" series of cars. The current A6, for instance, boasts 250 torque-laden horsepower from its 2.7-liter, twice-turboed V6. A well-balanced car, it's a far cry from the original that never met a pedestrian it could out-jog.
That car's go-power is chump change, however, compared to what Audi has in store for us with its '04 S4. Somehow, the Ingolstadt-based company has managed to shoehorn its 4.2-liter V8 from the A6 and A8 into an engine bay best served by a four and cramped with a six.
"Shoehorned" is not the least bit exaggerated. Audi literally had to redesign the engine to shorten it some two inches; chains mounted in the rear now drive camshafts that were once run by a forward-facing rubber belt. Both the oil and water pumps have been relocated lower and to the side.
Incredibly, all eight cylinders fit, but with nary a millimeter to spare. Open the hood and it looks like a mouse would be hard-pressed to squeeze between the firewall and engine. Thankfully, the spark plugs are easily accessible and the S4 requires no regular valve adjustment; if that weren't the case, scheduled maintenance would be a nightmare (wait, make that an expensive nightmare).
On the other hand, the S4 has certainly moved up the performance ranks with the addition of the V8. Even twice turboed, the previous V6 is no match for eight high-revving pistons. Rumor has it that Audi was determined to best the M3 in the spec sheet race and continued to massage the 4.2 engine until it surpassed the Bimmer's 333 hp. With 340 hp screaming out at a heady 7,000 rpm (remember, this is a V8), the S4 loves the upper end of its rev band.
Loll about below 3,000 rpm in fifth or sixth gear and the S4 feels powerful but not exceptionally fast. Kick it down a few gears and suddenly those two extra cylinders make the difference between nice and neck strain. Besides, the cacophony from under the hood makes exploring the V8's upper reaches a musical treat. It all adds up to a 5.6-second 0-to-60 mph time, not bad at all for an all-wheel-drive sedan.
The S4's handling also demands a little adjustment, especially if you're used to sporty rear drivers. On the tightest corners, as in the autocross circuit Audi set up for us, the S4, like every AWD car, understeers. It doesn't feel quite as nimble as an M3, which will hang its tail out at the merest suggestion of throttle. Even with the ESP vehicle stability control switched off, the S4 refuses to oversteer, preferring the benign safety of pushing the front end.
At higher speeds, like on Firebird Raceway's west track in Arizona, where we also tested, the S4 comes into its own. The 235/40R18 performance radials stick like glue, and having all four wheels driven means that when exiting corners the V8 can put all its 302 pound-feet of torque to the tarmac without losing grip. It's worth mentioning that Audi's quattro all-wheel-drive system, with a Torsen torque-sensing center differential, is one of the best drivetrains for fast driving in inclement conditions.
The S4 is also surprisingly agile, coming into its own the faster it goes. As well as being smaller, the S4's V8 is also lighter than the A8's. In fact, Audi claims that, at 430 pounds, it weighs exactly the same as its predecessor's V6, and so has no negative effect on weight distribution. Body roll is well contained thanks to a suspension lowered by 30mm and supported by firmer damping. Even hammering around the extremely twisty confines of Firebird Raceway failed to upset the S4's balance.
And that last is the word that best describes the S4. Slightly slower and perhaps a shade less precise through hairpins than BMW's all-conquering M3, the S4 doesn't punish its occupants as much as the Munich product. Nor is its powertrain as frenetic, always egging the driver on, as if daring him (or her) to flout the speed limit. The S4 is more relaxed, falling back into its luxo-sedan mode as soon as the driver snicks the shifter into sixth (a new six-speed automatic is also now available, but was unavailable for testing).
Part of this coddling nature comes from the standard 12-way adjustable Recaro seats standard on the 2004 S4. Covered in what Audi calls Silk Nappa leather, they are well bolstered as well as attractive. You can even get them with Alcantara seat inserts, my favorite being the Electric Blue that really brightens the cabin.
However, the S4's major faux pas is endemic to the entire A4 lineup, namely the paucity of rear seat room. Now that virtually all Japanese sedans have spacious rear accommodations, and most European competitors have at least paid passing attention to the needs of those relegated to the back, the S4's lack of rear legroom is glaring. Hell, even the recently released four-door RX-8 is generous in comparison. Note to Audi: Shoehorning a V8 under the hood is fine; shoehorning passengers into the backseat is not.
Of course, as this is Audi's top-of-the-line iteration of the A4, there's also automatic climate control, heated outside mirrors, front and side airbags for the front seat passengers and a 10-speaker audio system with an in-dash CD player. All items one should expect from a small luxury sedan anticipated to cost $45,000. Perhaps less expected is that you have to spend more money to get an upgraded stereo (with only 215 watts, yet) and rear side airbags. There's also a nav system available as well as an OnStar telematics system.
Nonetheless, pricing the S4 within shouting distance of Bimmer's M3 and Mercedes' C32 takes some serious chutzpah, and is likely to cost Audi some sales. After all, it is still the new kid on the luxury performance block at least as far as Americans are concerned.
It is, however, a far cry from the weak-kneed, lily-livered Audis of ole.
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