Audi's fourth generation S4 sports saloon is a mature and sophisticated executive offering. And quick enough for most. Jonathan Crouch reports
Ten Second Review
It turns out that enough is enough after all. The proof lies under the bonnet of the latest S4 - the A4 with the most power and attitude, at least for the time being. It's fitted with the same 3.0-litre TFSI V6 engine as its predecessor, developing the same power and torque (but more frugally and with less CO2). Want to go quicker? A new RS4 is on its way. Meanwhile, the A4's recent makeover of course applies to the S4 and that's mostly all good news.
Audi's S4 has always been rather over-shadowed by two rivals, the most galling thing for fans of this variant being that one of them lay in-house. First, the obvious: BMW's M3. The second generation V8 version's 344bhp output was almost identical to the last generation M-Beemer's output, yet M3 sales out-stripped those of the S4 by a considerable margin. When the new M3 was launched in 2007 with much more power, Audi had already thought ahead and trumped it with the 414bhp RS4, the first and sometimes only car you tend to think of when fast Audi A4s are being discussed.
As a result of all that, the S4 has, over the years, continually been relegated to a supporting brief in the Ingolstadt company's line-up. Time for it to re-assert its independence. That opportunity has come with the absence for now of an RS4 (due to reappear in the summer of 2012 but only in Avant form) and the M3's move up-market. In the current climate, is it really necessary to spend £50,000 on a car of this kind, especially when in the M3's case, that cheque doesn't even buy you four-wheel drive? The S4 suggests not.
Before it reverted to a naturally aspirated V8 in MK2 guise, the S4 was originally offered with a 2.7-litre 265bhp twin-turbocharged V6 engine that was no slower and certainly much lighter. With a new 3.0 TFSI engine on their books developed for the larger S6, it made sense for Audi to revert to six cylinder power for the MK3 S4 model, though a fall in power from 344 in the old V8 to 333bhp will initially give Audi centres some explaining to do. That shouldn't be too difficult given that rest to sixty is still dispatched in a very handy 5.1 seconds, half a second faster than the old car and only half a second slower than the old RS4. For reference, a current M3 saloon is only 0.2s faster.
Optional is a seven-speed S tronic twin-clutch automatic transmission, which delivers a lightning fast manual shift with virtually no interruption of the engine's power delivery. On the road, this car feels more agile than before, thanks to the new generation A4's redesigned chassis and repositioned front axle. Also important here is the improved quattro all-wheel-drive system with 40% / 60% front-to-rear torque distribution and the option of a clever active sport differential. This enables the quattro system not only to transfer torque between the front and rear axles to counter traction losses, but also between the rear wheels.
The active sport system is one of three elements in the optional Audi drive select adaptive dynamics package that in its simplest form, enables the driver to fine-tune throttle response, steering assistance and transmission shift points (where S tronic is fitted) via dashboard-mounted buttons to suit personal preferences or prevailing road conditions. The other two packages enable you to fine-tune either the damping or the dynamic steering set-up. If you can afford it, you can even specify all three.
To ride in, the S4 is more akin to the softer-sprung (but vastly more expensive) Mercedes C63AMG; yes, you can attack the country lanes but, as with the Merc, there isn't the drawback of a fidgety ride on the motorway. The gearchange is one of Audi's best efforts; smooth with a decent weight to the change linked to a heavy duty clutch, yet at any speed between 20mph and 120mph, it's tempting to just leave the S4 in fourth gear and hitch your surfboard to that huge swell of torque. Lazy? Maybe. Fun? Oh yes.
Design and Build
The look of the A4 (and, indeed, the S4) has never been anything other than conservative. That's the way Audi's customers like it and this latest facelift doesn't disappoint. The mid-sized Audi has been subjected to more subtle nips and tucks over its production life than most of its rivals put together and the latest ones tackle the usual areas of bumpers, bonnet, lights and grille. The result is a slightly more curvacious bonnet and nose but with sharply defined details. The headlights and air inlets, in particular, are more angular than before and the lights boast better-looking LED internal structures; the clusters at the rear are prettier, too.
Inside, Audi hasn't exactly gone overboard, either. There's a tad more gloss and chrome trim, a chunky, flat-bottomed steering wheel and a revised multi-media setup, accessed via a simplified version of Audi's MMI interface. Oh, and a few new colour combinations and inlay trims as well.
The S4 most obviously states its dominance over lesser A4s with its chrome-edged grille slats (they're gloss black in other V6 models). What it signifies is the under-bonnet presence of a 3.0-litre V6 that uses a compact supercharger to deliver keener response than even two turbo chargers could achieve. With the compressor's help, this unit generates a healthy 440Nm torque peak available from 2,500rpm right through to 4,850rpm, enabling an appropriate 0-62mph sprint time of just 5.0 seconds for the manual saloon. Top speed as usual is limited electronically to 155mph.
Market and Model
Both saloon and Avant estate bodystyles are offered at prices expected to be on a par with the outgoing models - which means considerably undercutting BMW's M3. Yet that's still a great deal more than an already very desirable standard A4 with Audi's sought-after 2.0TFSI engine. So there's a unique look and feel to justify the premium.
The S4, for example, rides 20mm lower than standard versions on specially tailored 'S' sports suspension and 18-inch 'S' design alloy wheels. Other familiar hallmarks include the aluminium-look door mirrors, xenon plus headlights with LED daytime running lights, special 'S' front and rear styling treatments and black painted brake callipers bearing the S4 logo. The S4 is also enhanced visually by distinctive LED rear lights.
Inside, the 'S' theme is conveyed by sports seats upholstered in leather and Alcantara, and by 'S' embossing for the exclusive silver-faced dials and the multifunction sports steering wheel. Pricey options include a 505-watt Bang & Olufsen audio system, an Audi Music Interface with iPod connectivity, adaptive cruise control, a side assist lane change assistant, a park-assist system and adaptive light swivelling headlamps for improved corner illumination.
Cost of Ownership
Perhaps unexpectedly, the combination of supercharging and direct injection used in the S4's 3.0TFSI engine works very much in favour of fuel economy and emissions. The S4 Saloon has the potential to return up to 35.3mpg - not only a massive improvement over the old V8-powered S4 but a significant advance on the 28.2mpg returned by the previous generation S4 with this engine.
And you thought power was everything. Proof that it isn't comes with Audi's third generation S4. Though equipped with less power than its predecessor, it's significantly faster. Perhaps more importantly, it's also greener and considerably more fuel efficient so you can have your pleasure without so much of the guilt.
The S4 is a car that makes sense in such a wet country as ours. With all wheel-drive traction and a whole raft of electronic safety measures, it's effortlessly secure, offering less of the heart in mouth moments that often accompany a combination of big power, damp roads and an enthusiastic approach. That's not to say the S4 is a fuddy duddy that's forgotten how to entertain. Learn to drive the car properly and you'll be able to use more of that power more of the time than you ever thought possible. It's so addictive that only the realisation of quite how much Optimax unleaded you've burnt per session could possibly quell the temptation to repeat ad infinitum.
This latest version is, without doubt, a big improvement on its predecessor. The best advice we can give is if you're thinking of buying a BMW M3 - or conceivably, even splashing out on a Mercedes C63 AMG or a Lexus IS-F - then the S4 is a car you must try. If common sense prevails once you have, it'll be a hard car to ignore.