It has always been my belief that products that turn full control over to the operator have the ability to transcend the norm, perhaps even stirring a sense of bliss inside us. This occurs when a product is so easy to use and so eerily connected to what we want to do that we feel like we become masterful. Think of the simple way an Apple iPod just "works," or how a guitar player or pro basketball player must feel when he's "in the zone."
I've always wondered why this feeling mattered. In many ways it stems from our desire to want to know we're in control. Maybe there is a desire inside all of us to be omniscient, perhaps God-like, but I'll stop there, lest this review of a car become a discussion on eternal salvation.
I think about things like this when I approach the class of "sports sedan," because so few achieve that sense of operational bliss. While the mission of a sports sedan is novel -- go fast without completely throwing out functionality -- it's quite hard to pull off this “two-fer.” Unfortunately, most candidates just substitute actual go-fast credentials with a bigger wheel and tire package, swoopier designs and if you’re lucky better steering feedback. Most are, in fact, sedans with an inferiority complex, each one worried that if they were too much like a Toyota Camry, someone would find them in the hallway after gym class and pull their underwear over their head.
But the Audi S4 is different. It's a true blue kind of sports sedan, one of the examples that can stand out amongst a crowd of fakers. Although the S4 name started showing up in the U.S. in the early 1990s, Audi really started to get serious with the 2004 model, which offered a V8 under the hood for the first time. But this new 2010 model, which is based on the all-new A4 sedan that debuted in 2009, actually sheds the V8. It's now offered with "just" a V6, albeit one with a supercharger that outputs 333 horsepower and 325 lb-ft of torque. Make no mistake: It still fits the bill.
In a week of driving an S4 equipped with a six-speed manual transmission (it also comes with a seven-speed dual clutch gearbox, which offers the ability for shift-it-yourself fun without a clutch pedal), we saw average MPGs in the low 20s. A four-hour highway run at average speeds delivered 26.8 MPG. That's respectable for a car with a 0-60 time under five seconds, but it pales in comparison to what we're starting to see in normal low-price sedans across the market for the 2010 model year.
If the point of a sports sedan is to offer the driver a more engaging ride without any real loss in functionality of a tradition family sedan, the S4 does the job. But in dissecting a car like this one, there's a sliding scale for how much "sports" should be on tap. How much should one of these cars offer in terms of performance?
A whole lot, frankly. The S4 is one of those rarified vehicles that has a significant multiplier effect -- few are sold each year but each one is tasked with igniting passersby and owners who can’t stop bragging about it. And the S4 does a credible job of reminding the driver that he's purchased something out of the ordinary. The 3.0-liter, direct injection supercharged V6 feels like a lot of engines with forced induction (extra air shoved into the engine to increase performance), in that speed comes almost exponentially. It's two (clenched) fisted driving. Is it enough? That's a complicated one to answer.
Yes, the S4 "goes fast," but the real measure of these vehicles isn't in numbers alone, but in the way the car communicates with the driver. The feeling of going fast even without traveling at high speeds is what makes a lot of cars fun. (Mini Cooper, anyone?). Part of this is suspension tuning and part of it is the way the cars are made.
Long wedded to all-wheel-drive, many Audis have seemed a bit detached from the driver in some ways (the new A4 and S4 have more of a rear-drive bias than in the past, however, while the previous cars had more of a nose-heavy front-drive feel). At speed, where other sports sedans can offer the feedback of rear-drive (and also the potential of danger in case of a spin out), Audis haven't.
Audi now chips away at this by offering its optional Audi Drive Select package, which offers control over the vehicle's suspension, steering, transmission and engine response. With the selector on Dynamic, for instance, the car will actually react more like a sports car, but when on Comfort it will reign in the controls a bit. We've been able to drive the S4 with and without this ADS package and recommend it for anyone considering the S4. Without it, the vehicle is actually more like a really fast Audi A4 -- not a bad place to be, mind you, but not a world-class sports sedan on par with the best of the best.
In terms of steering feedback and handling, the car does lack some of the verve of the old model. Servotronic steering in the car comes as standard and it offers different amounts of power steering at different speeds. Over my week in the vehicle, I always wanted less Servotronic than the system was giving me. In medium-speed maneuvering (coming to a corner and downshifting into second gear, for example), the car could really use a more direct steering feel. High-speed driving, however, was very solid, even above 100 MPH.
Another knock against the old model was noise. The previous generation car gave more of a vocal report at idle, while the new car is actually quite silent. The S4 buyer should be able to hear more, even if it ends up being the whine of the supercharger. This is actually a pleasant sound on its own, although manufacturers have been hiding this from drivers for years.
The new A4 platform is stretched some four inches, creating a much more comfortable interior for the driver and his passengers. Elbowroom is better, as is space for spread-out knees. Overall the car now feels like a proper, four-passenger road trip car. The old model wasn't.
Beyond the goodness of the new platform, the S4 idea has been redefined in a way that makes more sense than the old V8 model. The car lives at an interesting price point (high $40k range) where not too many other vehicles offer this type of performance and exclusivity -- the BMW 335i and 335xi come to mind.
Visually, the S4 stands out from the A4 only slightly. Most won't be able to notice the differences between the plain A4 sedan and the S4 (the A4 is offered in a wagon as well, while the S4 is only offered as a sedan in the U.S.). The cars look nearly identical, but shiny mirror caps, different wheels and quad exhaust tips serve as indicators.
On the inside, special bucket seats are a big difference from those in the regular car and they are fantastic. While Audi's high-quality interiors have become the stuff of industry legend, we actually found a few parts from the interior taking a step back. Some of the plastics on the center console and on the door seem to be designed for cost cutting. Overall, however, the interior is still one of the best around. Close-fitting trim pieces, an exotic red glow and soft-touch plastics and aluminum accents make the S4 interior feel like an event, not just a workbench on which to do your driving.
Some quality issues were not skin deep, however. In my week with the vehicle, I uncovered a frustrating issue with the radio. Simply put, whenever I turned the car on, the radio would as well. About six times out of ten when I turned the car off with the radio turned off, it would be on when I restarted the car. We reported the issue to Audi, but they were unable to identify what caused the problem.Overall
The S4 is one of those vehicles that looks great, appears fantastic on paper, but doesn't quite hit the mark. All the bits and pieces are there for a great sports sedan, but it isn't complete.
Full omniscience is possible given the product at hand, but it's not within reach. The S4 holds something back from the driver, something that could make the experience special and transcendent.