A Standalone Sleeper Sport Sedan That Still Keeps Us Awake At Night

2013 Audi S4

The always-bustling Audi stand at next month's Detroit Auto Show figures to be cluttered with a full range of eighth-generation A4 models, all of which arrive in the States sometime between June and July. The line's real marquee model is, of course, the RS4, but that Rennsport ingredient will not be seen on the stand in Cobo just yet. (So let's change that to almost full range, and some sources are saying that there will not even be an RS4 this go-round.) The sauciest A4 present will be this model, the new S4, considered by many – this reviewer included – to be the real gem of the range, especially in comparison to the seriously costly RS4.

It's best to call this the "latest" S4, because it is definitely not all-new. However, it does partake of the mid-cycle changes to the "B8" eighth-generation, some of which we recently addressed in a first drive of the A4 and A4 Allroad Quattro. For now, though, we really don't need big changes – we'll be happy if the S4 remains our lower-volume secret.

Aesthetically speaking, the S4 plays off the changes we saw in the A4. The hood is curved more to add presence, the whole face looks stronger and wider due to accentuation of the horizontal lines and the addition of larger intakes at the bottom corners. The standard-fit bi-xenon lights are new, as are the fog lamps in those redesigned lower intakes. The S4's now signature single-frame grille receives the folded upper corners like the rest of the range, adding a bit of visual edge. Overall, the S4 doesn't shout about its performance credentials, it's much more muted than something one might expect from the performance arms of other German automakers.

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Still brandishing 329 horsepower between 5,500 and 6,500 rpm and 325 pound-feet of torque from 2,900 to 5,300 rpm, the S4's 3.0-liter supercharged and direct-injected V6 has been a big crowd pleaser ever since it started showing up in hotter Audis (and other VW Group products) a few years back. 0 to 60 estimates remain at 4.9 seconds, though we've seen 4.7 seconds out of the departing model. And, of course, rather than electronically limiting this hotter A4 to the usual 130 mph, the S4 receives a 155-mph v-max.

While the Audi Quattro GmbH folks have warned us to prepare ourselves for a vastly improved track experience with all upcoming RS models, they tend to believe that this S4 is one of the finest sport sedans for the street. Over the course of many miles we drove on coastal Portuguese roads in a mambo red six-speed manual example [The example seen in our gallery has the optional seven-speed S tronic - forgive the momentary lapse into inconsistency.], it was reaffirmed that Audi has it right. Attacking squirrelly country two-lanes, the S4 shines as a special everyday driver that could make a much costlier RS4 unnecessary for many – unless you have big, police-free straightaways and serpentine bits of tarmac in your backyard.

2013 Audi S4 engine

The closest C-Class that Mercedes-Benz has to match this tweener S4 is the European-market 302-hp C350 4Matic that will supposedly arrive in the States for the first quarter of 2012. (Why is there nothing between it and the 451-hp C63 AMG?) In the case of BMW, there's the 302-hp 335i xDrive sedan, but what looks like the best competitor on paper is the Infiniti G37x AWD with 328 hp and naturally aspirated 269 lb-ft of torque, since the Acura TL SH-AWD (like the other Germans) comes up just a tick short at 305 hp. Then again, it would be great just to get all of these volume sportsters together with the coming Cadillac ATS and its 323-hp V6 and unconfirmed (as yet) all-wheel drive.

While visions of all of what could be dance through our heads, our drive proves that the Audi S4 is a very well balanced affair, and occasional vicious moments have been made possible by the S-Line package that snugs the S4 1.2 inches closer to the ground than the A4. Along with a change in stance, the S4 has been given a sportier suspension with more rigid dampers and springs. As with the civilian A4s, the S4 also has a modified mounting point for the rear control arms that makes the tail end of the car seem to follow more willingly and not just hang off the back.

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If you're keen to get the best S4 drive experience possible, the $1,100 optional sport differential with Audi Drive Select is a must-have addition to the $48,000 Premium Plus trim car you see here. If you have no intention of going for this option, there's really no spectacularly convincing reason to buy the S4 unless you're addicted to having at least six cylinders under the hood. This setup gives you the full-featured version of ADS for calibrating the adaptive suspension, dynamic steering, engine and throttle responses (along with shift points if you opt for the seven-speed S-tronic dual-clutch). In addition, the ADS menu offers the Individual mode that includes the sport differential setup for making the rear-axle side-to-side torque play as invasive (or unobtrusive) as you like between Comfort, Auto and Dynamic settings.

Of course, the best setup on Portugal's great roads was Dynamic mode, and we made the most of the chassis and its tuning by taking several laps of a 20-mile loop that was more like an amusement park. Overtaking in Dynamic mode was a cinch – the additional supercharged power and torque place the S4 in a sweet spot all by itself. It's while out dicing around on these loveable routes that one wonders why more haven't discovered the S4. Paying upwards of $55k to get an example just as we'd like might seem a bit steep, but for those who need their all-wheel-drive sport sedan to be just so – i.e. a bit more premium and agile than the others – then it's tough not to choose the S4. At least, that is, until we get a go in an AWD ATS in the near future. This is what you're shootin' at, Cadillac.

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All A4/S4 models now come with electric power steering. While this move raised brows on the latest BMW 3 Series, it's not really a cause of great upset here. Audi Quattro models have always felt like heavier cars through the curves, so there's not really a significant change in this steering action. What the new system does provide is greater efficiency overall, since the assistance seamlessly deactivates whenever it is not needed. Together with faster fluid heating after cold starts and reduced mechanical friction between moving parts in the supercharged V6, Audi engineers tell us that such peripheral improvements help the car achieve around eight percent more miles per tank. Besides, on the car we tested, with its sport differential and full suite of ADS modes in action, much of the understeer present in lesser A4 models has been done away with anyhow. The steering feel in corners of all descriptions has been greatly improved thanks to these upgrades. To repeat: If you buy this car, get this setup.

Another excellent addition to the S4 for dry weather frolics is the 19-inch $800 optional wheel/tire set. The car driven here came with the stock Premium Plus 18-inch wheels and 245/40 Bridgestone Potenza all-season treads (understandable given the season), but in these bone-dry conditions with the sun-warmed tarmac, we figure the 19-inch 255/35 tires would have made a difference in the bends. While you're at it, the $1,000 Titanium exterior trim package looks great, too. But should you go for the seven-speed S-tronic? It's the favorite Audi transmission when looking to eliminate the clutch pedal from the foot well, but our six-speed manual was great. You'll be fine no matter which you choose.

2013 Audi S4 rear 3/4 view

Three changes in the interior worth noting are the simpler Multi Media Interface (MMI) analogue controller on the console with four buttons instead of eight, a volume knob that also now toggles left and right to skip tracks, and an available wifi hotspot and 3D Google sat-nav graphics via Bluetooth. It really starts to sound more and more like an A8, doesn't it?

We already loved the revamped Audi A4, and the combination of attributes that the higher-performance S4 assembles is very compelling stuff that no one else quite matches. Optioned right, it's a solid road warrior, particularly for those who need an all-weather sport sedan. Just don't tell anyone – it's our little secret.