(08:30 Feb. 03, 2003)
2004 Audi S4
Happy Frustration: Performance stifles the Audi critics
By MATT DAVIS
WE JUST GOT DONE TEARING around Italy’s northern Adriatic coast and the Autodromo Santa Monica near Misano in Audi’s latest bits of happy frustration, the new S4 sedan and wagon. Besides a few aesthetic bits and one or two technical questions—i.e., not out-and-out slams—the S4 is close to our best BMW M3 experience, only different. We can’t put our drawers in a twist over anything Audi is doing. That can be so frustrating.
2004 AUDI S4
ON SALE: October
BASE PRICE: $45,000 (est.)
POWERTRAIN: 4.2-liter, 344-hp, 303-lb-ft V8; awd, six-speed manual
CURB WEIGHT: 3660 pounds
0-60 MPH: 5.5 seconds (mfr.)
For instance, some say the new A8 design is just a bit off, vs. the chiseled handsomeness of the old one, but even there we don’t find ourselves tempted to prefer the old one as we might, say, the 7 Series hailing from down the road in Munich. At this latest S4’s first showoff in Paris in September, a few were overheard muttering Audi had missed an opportunity, that little had actually changed outside or in from the A4. And conversely, that losing the twin KKK turbos of the former version’s 2.7-liter V6 was just plain wrong.
Buncha whiners. Has the A4 line ever been in need of sweeping cosmetic changes? The old 2.7-liter with its two little breathing devices was sure nice, but have you gunned up this new 4.2-liter V8 self-breather and tossed it around? All right then. Do so and then opine.
Just two visual ticks on these European-spec cars made us cock our heads like a dog: the protruding black rub strips running the length of the lower sill and the silvery sideview mirror housings that look a touch like those metallic shoes that only professional shoppers wear. We fussed enough about these things that you may not see them in the States when the car gets here this fall. Go, subtlety!
After these picky nits, the permanent grin wrapped around our heads. Especially when we started the engine. The biturbo S4 still sounds nice indeed, but its 250 horsepower, 258 lb-ft of torque and exhaust tune somewhat cower in comparison with the new car’s 344 horses at 7000 rpm and 303 lb-ft of torque, all available between 3400 and 3800 revs. And whereas the M3 makes its loving noise through four exhaust tips, this S4 rumbles out its all-new lovelier noise through just two orifices. According to technicians, much time was spent on the all-important middle muffler element in the new exhaust path in order to hit this rollicking note. Even the sound it makes when we lift off the accelerator while barreling into a tight one at the end of a straight is great music.
Audi says 0 to 60 mph happens in just 5.5 seconds in the sedan, 5.7 in the Avant. The 2.7T S4 sedan did this in 5.9 seconds while today’s M3 still flat-out crushes all comers in this respect with times ranging between 4.9 and 5.1 seconds. With the old motor, the S4 rated 17/24 mpg or 17/23 mpg over at the EPA depending on your gears, whereas the V8 drinks heavily in the city at about 12.1 mpg, yet maintains the 24 mpg on the highway. So, yes, if frat-party torque punch is your Holy Grail, then finding an M3 (16/23 EPA, by the way) may still be your quest. But if fast, super-smooth clutch takeup with plenty of hairy torque and four-wheel traction sound more right, then go S4. Whereas “boy racer” comes up in every M3 conversation, this S4 solicits every description just shy of that old saw.
Ride, handling and braking have all improved. Our general feeling about the previous S4 is that it rides a little soft on its standard 17-inch galoshes and suspension settings. Now we get enlightened with 18-inch alloys each wearing a 235/40R Continental SportContact 2, one of Earth’s finest tires. Sportier spring and damper rates plus a chassis lowered by eight-tenths of an inch make for a sturdier ride without going all-out bang and clash. Weight distribution fore/aft is still about 60/40 (this 4.2-liter V8 engine weighs the same as the 2.7T V6), so the tendency of the old car to push through the occasional hot curve can still manifest itself in this version, but it takes a lot more heat to do so. We were driving in sopping-wet conditions here, so switching off the Electronic Stability Program as we would on a bone-dry track was less of a solution. One nice thing about this latest ESP is that it chimes in more quietly and usefully than the Dynamic Stability Control on the M3. A small wonder we had while dicing around was whether or not the Servotronic steering lightens up a bit too quickly than might be optimal. We’d have to say the new S4 is less of a bucking horse than the BMW, and that we’d prefer the Audi on many a drive if our loved ones’ butts were in the passenger seats. (And, besides, the S4 gets Recaros front and rear.)
Given the wetness of the day, we had ample opportunity to put the quattro all-wheel drive to the test, and it had us taking the S4 to limits that perhaps only a Subaru Impreza WRX (or WRX STi) might allow. It kept the proceedings fun as all get-out but without the nervousness of most other fire-breathing cars in the rain. Add to this Audi’s new Dual-Rate servo braking and the control gets even finer. At deceleration forces at or below 0.5 g, the ratio at the pedal is 1:5.5, just as on the A4. If you’re pushing hard and having a blast, you can use the same easy tap of the brake pedal, but the system bumps the ratio up to 1:12, which slows things smoothly and quickly as required. It’s a very nice touch in a segment where brake modulation can often become rocket science.
The four-door will pop up in U.S. showrooms around October as a 2004 model, costing something around $45K before options. After that comes the Avant at $47,500. Soon after introduction, the latest six-speed Tiptronic transmission with steering wheel-mounted controls and Dynamic Shift Program first seen on the TT last September will be available on the S4. However, never let it be said we didn’t suggest you take the new six-speed manual as used during our drive time here. Wow, what an improvement over the old rubbery ZF six-speed. This new tranny with super-crisp shifts and a perfect throw comes from the VW group bin, and we love and cherish it. Audi expects 50 percent of buyers to want this manual, and we do not think that’s too high a number.
A couple of more numbers: Sedan-to-Avant percentages worldwide are 40/60, whereas in the States alone they read 85/15. Why, oh why do we not like wagons more than we do? It’s so frustrating.
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