As a 16th-century Catholic, the 2010 Audi S4 Sport Sedan would have ended up like Pomponio Algerio -- executed for heresy. But that was then, and this is the era of due process. Accused of the unthinkable crime of gratuitous cylinder downsizing, the all-new S4 nonetheless has the right to a fair hearing. Yet what compelling defense could Audi summon for putting a supercharged 333-horsepower 3.0-liter V6 where a sonorous 340-horsepower 4.2-liter V8 once lay?
Well, turns out a simple test-drive will suffice. The new "3.0T" engine's awesomeness is apparent from the first burst of acceleration. Yes, the "T" label on this supercharged mill is wrong, and no, Audi can't convince us otherwise. But everything else about this motor is really right, from its remarkable responsiveness and prodigious low-end torque to its surprisingly free-revving nature and invigorating soundtrack. The numbers don't lie: Relative to the old V8-powered S4, the new one is actually a few tenths quicker to 60 mph. It handles better, too, thanks in part to a less nose-heavy weight distribution.
Still, we initially found the A4-based S4's value proposition questionable relative to the BMW 335i. After all, the Audi costs about $5 grand more, and on paper its extra 250 pounds appear to offset its 33-hp advantage. But after back-to-back evaluation drives, we noted that the S4 is torquier at low rpm and exhibits none of the turbocharged Bimmer's throttle lag (the delay between throttle application and full power delivery). The result is a car that's both faster at the track and discernibly sharper in real-world driving -- and it's got a nicer interior, a roomier backseat and better fuel economy to boot.
In addition to contemplating the cheaper 335i, S4 shoppers should note that our test car's eye-popping $59,150 price tag eclipses the base prices of the BMW M3 sedan and Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG, both of which are superior performance machines. But at its $46,000 base price, the 2010 Audi S4 is perfectly positioned between these autobahn bruisers and the 335i. The only heretics here are those who still don't believe that there's a replacement for displacement.
The all-wheel-drive 2010 Audi S4 is powered by a supercharged 3.0-liter V6 rated at 333 hp and 325 pound-feet of torque. Our test car had the standard six-speed manual transmission; a seven-speed dual-clutch automated manual is optional. At the test track, our S4 leaped to 60 mph in a sizzling 4.9 seconds en route to a 13.2-second quarter-mile at 106.1 mph. For reference, a manual-transmission 335i sedan tested the same day cleared 60 mph in 5.3 seconds and the quarter-mile in 13.5 seconds at 103.8 mph. The S4 also slithered through our slalom course at 68.8 mph and stopped from 60 mph in just 109 feet.
In the real world, the supercharged V6's instantaneous throttle response is a revelation. It's every bit as sharp as a naturally aspirated motor's, and power remains ample at higher rpm. The only telltale signs of forced induction are the subdued supercharger whine during acceleration and the prodigious supply of low-end torque. Even fuel economy is laudable at an EPA-estimated 18 mpg city/27 mpg highway and 21 combined. The S4's slick manual shifter and intuitive clutch take-up are a welcome complement to what is surely one of the most impressive engines under $60,000.
On winding roads, the 2010 Audi S4 is possibly the best-handling Audi short of the R8 supercar. The steering feels artificial and has an odd tendency to weight up during low-speed maneuvers, but its responsiveness during hard driving is exemplary. Grip is tenacious (0.92g on our skid pad), body roll is minimal and the S4's trick "sports rear differential" keeps the car on course by transferring power between the rear wheels as traction dictates. The rear-biased all-wheel-drive system further masks the front-wheel-drive origins of the S4's platform.
We have mixed feelings, however, about the pricey Drive Select system, which provides four modes for suspension firmness, steering effort and throttle response. It may hold appeal for gadget fans, but for those who just want an honest performance sedan, the S4's standard sport-tuned calibrations should be just fine.
The 2010 Audi S4 remains impressively quiet at speed for a performance car -- it's just as content devouring highway miles as it is tearing up back roads. Ride compliance is adequate in Comfort mode, but lacking in Dynamic. The steering wheel is rather thin-rimmed by contemporary standards, but the S4's shifter is nicely shaped and falls readily to hand. The S4-specific front sport seats offer an excellent mix of cushioning and support despite foregoing the adjustable side bolsters available in some rivals.
Interestingly, the rear seats are S4-specific as well, featuring prominent bolstering for the outboard passengers. Rear legroom and headroom are considerably better here than in the 335i, a significant consideration for those planning to carry multiple passengers on a regular basis. Overall, the S4 provides exemplary comfort for this segment, evincing plenty of daily-driver virtues without sacrificing its high-performance edge.
The S4's gauges are clear and attractive, but its controls aren't so straightforward. There's Audi's unfortunate two-step procedure for adjusting fan speed, for example: Press a button to activate, then twist a separate knob to modulate. Most other functions are routed through Audi's third-generation MMI (Multi Media Interface), which comes bundled with the optional navigation system. It's fairly user-friendly as such systems go, but it still adds unwelcome complexity to such routine procedures as tuning the radio.
The navigation system is excellent, though, aside from its comically stilted guidance voice, and this version of MMI includes a joysticklike button atop the standard control knob for enhanced map functionality. The Prestige package's Bang & Olufsen stereo produces unusually crisp and full sound, and it's also available as a stand-alone option for a very reasonable $850.
In our real-world usability tests, the 2010 Audi S4's 12-cubic-foot trunk easily accommodated our standard suitcase and golf bag. Installing a rear-facing child safety seat in back is easy enough, but the usual compact-sedan caveat applies -- the front passenger seat will likely have to be slid far forward to make it work.
Design/Fit and Finish
Aside from special wheels and a smattering of "S4" badges, the S4's exterior is virtually indistinguishable from that of a regular A4. We like the look, but some may wish for a more distinctive exterior treatment, à la the BMW M3 sedan. If you want to fly under the radar, the S4 is your kind of performance sedan -- but if you want your neighbors to know that you went all out, you'll probably have to tell them yourself.
Inside, the S4 boasts excellent materials quality and a stylish look that easily surpasses the 3 Series' dated interior design. The switchgear feels precise and substantial, and the whole affair seems to have been overseen by someone with an artist's eye for detail. Like other A4 interiors, however, the S4's is mildly besmirched by the cheap silver plastic trim piece atop the dash, which clashes with the upscale brushed aluminum bits employed elsewhere. Fit and finish on our test car was beyond reproach.
Who should consider this vehicle
The 2010 Audi S4 merits consideration from any driving enthusiast who requires four doors and manners. The S4 can run with dedicated sports cars on back roads and track days, yet there are gobs of refinement here, not to mention ample room for four adults. Our only reservation is the hefty price, which can get hefty in a hurry if you're not judicious with the options.
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