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Audi S4 Road Test

Not the ball-tearer you'd first think

by Julian Edgar

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At a glance...

  • Safe and secure on-road until pushed when...
  • Handling degenerates into understeer
  • Not really a sports sedan - more a grand tourer
  • Some equipment expected at this price is missing
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We’re sure that nearly all of the buyers who plonk down the $129,500 for the new V8-powered Audi S4 will be happy with their purchase. The speed of throttle response, the way the very sweet gearbox can be flicked from gear to gear, the all-paw traction and the supportive Recaros. The S4 feels quick, feels responsive and has one of the most superb V8 engine notes in the world.

But after a week and a 1000 kilometres, we handed the car back feeling a little disappointed. The A4 body shell packaging is poor – given the external size, this is a cramped car with a narrow driver’s footwell and quite limited rear room. The boot – while long and wide – has a very narrow access and rear headroom is restricted.

The performance also feels far stronger on part-throttle than when really nailed – Audi engineers have set up the electronic throttle control to give a swift response but the downside is that there’s not the expected major difference in performance between half and full throttle. And yes, even though there’s 253kW jammed under the bonnet, there’s also 1660kg to lug around. We couldn’t get close to Audi’s claimed 5.6 second 0-100 km/h time, and would suggest that high sixes/low sevens is a much closer real world figure achievable without a huge rpm launch. In fact, several people who drove the car complained of its lack of full-throttle performance...

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But it was the handling that disappointed us the most. Absolutely wonderful up to about eight-tenths – the car hanging on superbly on good or bad surfaces alike – the Audi feels ponderously nose-heavy when you go that extra step. Despite the standard stability control, the S4 doesn’t do anything but understeer once the grip limits have been breached. And understeer a surprising amount, too. There is little throttle control – the chassis is as wooden as the steering - and all that you can do is reduce the throttle opening to allow front-end grip to be re-established.

Now let us say it again – we’re sure that nearly all the buyers of the S4 will be happy. But they’ll be people more after a sporty grand tourer than an out and out sports sedan. And the trouble is, as a grand tourer we were taken aback by the small fuel tank – and the missing equipment. No satellite nav. No rear seat ventilation outlets. No DVD or TV. Oh yes, and front doors that rattle over bumpy roads and a gearbox that is noisy in 3rd and 4th ratios...

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The current model S4 uses a modified version of the 4.2-litre V8 in place of the previous twin-turbo V6. In order that the V8 – previously used in the A6 and A8 bodyshells - could be fitted in the smaller A4, it has been redesigned. Changes include moving the camshaft drive to the back of the engine, resulting in an overall length of 464mm, 52mm shorter than the previous version. The requirement for a shorter engine is critical in the Audi, which uses a north/south engine configuration with the gearbox/transaxle mounted directly behind the engine. To put it another way, the complete length of the engine hangs out ahead of the front axle line... Even with a reduced engine weight – achieved by such measures as reduced piston and con-rod masses – the V8 still weighs-in at 195kg.

Put that much weight out the front and combine it with what is now a very old-technology Torsen centre diff constant four-wheel drive system and you have a car that grips and grips – then when it lets go in cornering, slides into understeer and understeer. This is despite suspension design which is as advanced as you’d expect of a car of this genre - four-link front suspension and trapezoidal-link rear suspension are used and these components are in light-weight aluminium. The S4 rides 20mm lower than its lesser brethren and uses meaty wheels and tyres -  18 x 8 alloys and 235/40 tyres. The steering has also been quickened for this S version.

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But the steering is rather wooden and dead – a good match for the chassis dynamics. If you never want to go fast enough that the car slides around – even just a little with throttle steer – then the S4 will feel great. Fantastic, even. The ride is confident and even very poor surface bitumen roads don’t throw it off-line. But the handling – as opposed to the grip – disappointed all three people we had drive the car. The stability control does little to intervene as the understeer intrudes – really, all that you can do is lift off the power a little until the car regains front-end grip. Certainly, nothing like a little tail-out attitude is possible to balance the understeer.

It’s all very safe – but also stolid and quite unsporting.

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The little 4.2-litre V8 – Audi says it has ‘a large swept volume’ but in this market it’s quite small for eight cylinders – is a willing and flexible worker. Peak torque is developed at 3500 rpm and with the aggressive electronic throttle strategy, the mid-range feels quite strong, especially at small throttle openings. But nail it and wait for an awesome rush of power that the high-fives factory 0-100 figure suggests will occur and not a whole lot happens. The S4 is not a slow car but neither is it anything ballistic. Again, referring to the Australian market, a Falcon XR6 Turbo – at around one-third of the price - would be largely untroubled....

The S4 is available with either a 6-speed manual gearbox or 6-speed Tiptronic auto – we had the manual gearbox. The ratios are close together with 5th only barely an overdrive (0.919:1) and even 6th fairly short at 0.778:1. (Final drive is 3.889.) The result of these numbers is that the gearing is low - in 6th, about 40 km/h per 1000 rpm. However the engine is sweet and smooth to its 7200 rpm redline and the light gearbox and progressive clutch encourage plenty of use.

Ninety-eight octane premium (the very highest grade available locally) is the required fuel and the factory figures show the S4 drinking 19.5 litres/100 in urban conditions and 9.8 litres/100 in “extra urban” conditions. We averaged about midway between these figures. In the light of that consumption, at 66 litres the fuel capacity is small.

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Inside the cabin the standard Recaros (trimmed in a mixture of velour and leather) look and feel great, while in the main the instruments and controls are clear and effective. There are, however, two exceptions – the speedo uses the Audi-odd increments that alter from odd to even numbers at 100 km/h, and the dual climate control controls are rather awkward to use. The latter look old-fashioned, too – not surprising since much the same system has been used by Audi for over a decade. The functionality of the climate control on hot days is also marginal. Another ergonomic backfire is the placing of the stability control ‘off’ button right next to a push-to-open business card holder – it’s not hard to switch off the electronic handling assist as you’re trying to open the compartment... But the steering wheel controls – and the wheel itself for that matter – work well and the electronic panel mounted between the main instruments is clear and effective.

Standard on the equipment list are front, rear, side and curtain airbags, carbon fibre interior trim, electric front seats and a high quality ‘symphony’ sound system with 10 speakers and a CD stacker.

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Brakes are big – 340mm front and 300mm rear discs. The S4 uses a dual-rate servo assistance with assistance increased at decelerations of over 0.5g. Stamp on the brake pedal in an emergency and not only do you have ABS but also brake assist to help you slow down fast. We had no problems with the brakes – they always felt strong and had good pedal feel, even when pushed hard.

Despite the much increased external size of the A4-series Audis over previous A4 models, the interior packaging is only average. A very wide centre console subtracts from the space available for the driver’s legs and at times the left leg can become a little cramped. The boot access is poor – it is difficult to fit a box through the opening – and rear room is vastly less than in many other cars of this size.

Externally the S4 can be differentiated from other A4s by its wheels, badging, xenon headlights, aluminium-finish door mirrors, a small rear spoiler, unique radiator grille and specific front and rear bumpers. In the dark charcoal paint of the test car the visual effect was subtle but strong.

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The S4 is a car that initially impresses a great deal. It’s only after more extended driving do you realise that while it is a competent grand tourer, it’s certainly no sports sedan. But if you’re someone who likes to feel like they’re driving quickly – what with that glorious V8 sound and great throttle response – and the idea of driving a car hard enough to slide it is anathema, the S4 may be for you. It’s certainly very safe and secure, and moderately quick and moderately well equipped.

But there’s not a helluva lot of driving excitement about it...

The Audi S4 was provided for this test by Audi Australia.

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