DRIVING NORTHWEST: The Audi S4

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by TOM VOELK / KING5 Car expert

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KING5.com

Posted on August 12, 2010 at 1:08 PM

There are many things that make a car appealing.  Design, performance, technology, status, even the sound.  Put these together well and it gives a lifeless machine personality, soul if you will.  Not many cars possess this gift.  Heck, I know people who don’t have it.

Audi gets it right with the S4, the high performance version of their popular A4 sedan.  It starts at $46,700 dollars, budget for the occasional speeding ticket as well.  The S variant hangs out with a well liked and well heeled crowd- BMW 335i, Infiniti G37. Lexus IS350, Cadillac CTS and Mercedes Benz C350.  That’s a long list so if you’re in the market for any of these have fun test driving.  Your decision will not be easy.

The S with it’s unique trim looks fast just standing still.  The easiest way to tell an S4 from a standard A4 on the fly are aluminum colored side mirrors.  The aggressive front and rear diffusers are also a cue along with quad tailpipes.  There’s a bunch of badges too but where’s the sport in that?

Intangible feel

For years BMW had a lock on this market with the legendary 3 Series.  Lately Cadillac, Infiniti and Audi have gained serious ground.  S4 starts the good fight for your paycheck with a 3.0-liter supercharged V6 that pumps out 333 horsepower and 325 lb-ft of torque @ 2900-5300 RPMs.  Direct fuel injection and dual intercoolers are part of the deal.  From the driver’s seat there’s high pitched precision up front combined with the deep throaty growl from the quad tailpipes behind.  Perfect Dolby surround for the enthusiast.  If there were a soundtrack to my drivers license in peril this would be it.

Channel this power through a choice of gearboxes. The manual gearbox is a 6-speed with solid engaging throws and a clutch with moderate effort.  A 7-speed S tronic dual-clutch automatic with manual mode is also available.  My tester is the 6-speed, deciding on which box to choose would be tough if I were buying this car.

0-60 spools up in 4.8 seconds according to my equipment so there’s no lack of thrust.  More importantly S4 does it in a smooth refined manner that feels as expensive as it does quick.  The chassis feels steel girder solid and on-center feel is locked down when cruising at speed.  Performance cars are expected to lap up fuel like a java deprived Seattlite thought thought they could give up coffee for Lent but driven sanely this Audi returns a respectable 21 MPG average, a 25 percent improvement from the last model.

All hail all-wheel drive

During my week with S4 the weather was particularly wet and sloppy.  Perfect conditions to experience quattro all-wheel drive.   Normally biased so the rear wheels get 60 percent of the power, it adjusts to driving conditions.  It’s particularly valuable when trying to cross busy intersections on rainy days when secure traction is a must.  On the opposite end of the velocity spectrum, high performance brakes specific to S4 do a great job of rapidly scrubbing off speed.

S4 is not a squirrely high strung car, it’s suitable as a daily driver if equipped with Audi Drive Select.  ADS allows control over steering quickness, throttle response, suspension firmness and adjustment of the Sport Rear Differential an option that varies torque between the rear wheels.  Similar to Acura SH-AWD it overdrives the outside rear wheel to help eliminate understeer. SRD works without using the brakes whether the gas is applied or not.  Back to Audi Drive Select, it’s not just a gimmick, the indecisive will go mad with the possibilities.

An insider’s view

Audi has a reputation for high quality cabins, S4 is no different.  Choose between stainless steel, wood or carbon fiber trim.  The leather wrapped steering wheel feels like a professional tool in hand.  Thrones adjust to the long legged with an extendable thigh section and deep bolsters hug like your aunty used to (but sadly they don’t bake chocolate chip cookies).  These can be leather with Alcantara inserts (standard) or full leather (it’ll cost ya).

To control music players and an arsenal of electronics like Bluetooth phones and the integrated navigation unit, there’s Multi Media Interface that takes a bit of time to get used to (but most buyers will keep it longer than the week I’ve had it).  There’s also voice command for much of the tech.  While I’m not CNET I will mention the terrific Bang and Olufsen sound system.  It doesn’t look as cool as their home electronics but 14 speakers and 505 watts of power turn the Audi’s cockpit into a great place listen to your Culture Club collection.  

S4 gets a roomier back seat than the previous generation.  2 adults will be OK but won’t want to spend loads of time back here.  The drive shaft tunnel is intrusive forcing the center passenger to play footsie with others. Outboard positions are well bolstered and comfortable for those moments when the pilot finds a really fun road.  Side torso airbags are an option for the back. 

No Avant for us in the US

For a performance vehicle the S4 is actually somewhat practical.  Americans are denied  the Avant wagon version but really most US buyers could care less.  We just don’t gravitate to wagons here.  Gooseneck hinge arms raise the trunk lid smoothly when the fob button is pushed.  Those arms and the side wall trim that keeps them from smooshing luggage takes up some space.  Still the cargo hold scores an average 6 packs in the TP trunk test, the same as the standard A4. 

Normally performance sedans bolt the seat backs in place for extra body rigidity.  With a generous helping of high strength steel in the chassis, S4 is pretty solid so Audi kept the extra utility.

Some might think S4’s main competitor is the BMW M3.  Audi says it’s the 335i (don’t forget the Bimmer is also available in all-wheel drive).  Good news for speed junkies with money... and patience- The range topping RS is coming to America in 2012.  Audi says RS badges and the 4.2-liter 450 HP V8 that accompany them will come to our shores packaged in a A5 body.  That means two door coupe, not four door sedan.  Beautiful car.  Looking forward to driving it. 

This car can soar past 64K laden with options like dynamic cruise control and 19” wheels.  The Infiniti G is the bargain in this group, the others cluster in around the same pricing structure.  It’s sad that not every man, woman, and child can experience these machines on a regular basis.  For those with the financial means and a driving record that can withstand some hits, the S4 is a temptress that does it all well. 

Correction

I misspoke during the live interview.  The S4 can rise up past $64,000 when fully optioned, not 70. 

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