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Car reviews - Audi - A4 - S4 sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Strong engine, improved handling, quick-shifting transmission

Room for improvement
Underwhelming engine note, transmission glitches in city driving, metallic paint should not cost extra at this hefty price

22 May 2009

FORGET the BMW M3 and Mercedes-Benz C63. They are no longer rivals for the Audi S4, because they are too fast, too powerful and too full on.

The S4 is muscular, but it is not an overt performance car. It might have a large reserve of power and be fairly quick through twisty sections, but it is more of a daily driver.

The styling gives a hint that it means business but is more subtle than the previously mentioned models.

View the S4 as a performance luxury sedan and you are unlikely to be disappointed – that is unless you like V8s.

If you are a V8 nut, walk away now, or at least walk over to an S5 coupe and try that.

The 4.2-litre V8 in the previous S4 and the current S5 is not the meanest eight on the planet, but it’s a sweet engine and most importantly delivers a nuggety V8 soundtrack that some people feel is an essential part of performance motoring.

The new boosted engine does have a nice enough exhaust note when moving around at low speed, but there isn’t much magic when you open the throttle. Nor is there is noticeable supercharger whine.

There is a bit of a pop when you change gears, and it still sounds sporty, but just doesn’t deliver the ear-pleasing music of the V8 it replaces. That said, it is a great engine.

It certainly seems to sling off the line faster than the previous car, and the official 0-100km/h figures back that too.

There is no lag that you might experience with a turbo, either, and the surge of torque keeps on coming.

It can belt out more power than you could ever require when called on, but is civilised when the right foot is not pressing down hard.

You could drive to work and back without giving passengers a clue there is a supercgharger sitting snuggly atop the engine. That, along with the subtle but muscular styling makes this an acceptable car to take to the office if you don’t want people to think you are a boy racer.

The six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission is an excellent addition to the S4.

I remember being frustrated by the last model’s automatic which often seemed a bit lethargic when shifting.

This one is super quick. It is great fun to switch into manual mode and use the paddles to flick through the gears. It is considerably better than the previous box, but it isn’t perfect.

No matter what you do, the Audi gearbox will always change up to the next gear when it gets close to the redline, even in manual mode.

It’s not that I want to drive along bouncing off the rev limiter, but this can be disconcerting. Say you are running through a series of bends and want to keep it in third.

You round a bend, accelerate, then as you prepare to slow for the next corner, the Audi decides to change up.

Now you have to wait, then change back down, hopefully before you arrive at the corner.

This doesn’t happen in race cars or in many other sportscars.

The other minor gripe with the dual-clutch gearbox is that it can get confused in city driving in automatic mode.

Sometimes, when it doesn’t know which gear to go for it can pause as it makes its mind up. Also, because it doesn’t have a traditional torque converter it can feel a bit strange when you move away from a stop on a hill.

You need to apply an awful lot of throttle before it decides to release the clutch and get going, by which time you need to back off the accelerator pedal to avoid slinging forward at a mighty rate.

These issues are common to all dual-clutch gearboxes we have tested, but these niggles are worth putting up with for the other benefits this transmission brings.

We tested the new S4 inland from Noosa in Queensland, which has been largely underwater for much of the week.

The soggy conditions enabled the quatrro all-wheel-drive system to shine.

As you might imagine, it allows the S4 to sling around slippery bends at an eyebrow-raising rate while providing a lot of assurance.

The new S4, just like the new A4, handles significantly better than the previous car.

A significant chunk of the gain can be attributed to the revision of the steering rack.

These changes (it has been moved forward of the front axle, lower and attached it to the subframe rather than the body) mean the S4 is a sharper tool than the previous car.

You now feel more connected with the road, whereas before you felt a bit detached from the action.

There was a particularly bumpy section of twisty roads on the test route that probably would have sent heavy vibrations through the steering wheel (rack rattle) of the previous model. The new car ignored the bumps and no rattle was evident through the wheel.

There are still sharper machines out there than the S4, but it is engaging and lot of fun through the bends.

Our car made do without adaptive dampers, and it seemed to do just fine.

It had limited body roll and seemed composed, even on the bumpier sections.

You can say the ride is firm, but not so hard that it spoils the ride. I would happily drive it daily, which can’t be said for some similar models.

We didn’t get to try the adaptive damping or the optional active rear Sports Differential.

Similar systems have made a difference to other sporty models we have tested, so it would be worth checking out.

Whether it, and the other gear it is bundled with, is worth the $6700 is another question.

What I can say is that there was nothing wrong with the standard quattro AWD system.

The S4’s brakes are potent and showed no signs of stress on our test which included several heavy stops.

The interior is of the high standard you would expect from Audi. It doesn’t look particularly sporty except for the seats.

Our test car was lined with two tone leather, light grey and black, which won’t appeal to everyone (including me, but I’m no style guru), but it is different and there are other options.

The seats have tall bolsters, but are also quite wide so they don’t offer a heap of support for those of us who are not overly rotund.

One suspects they were designed for customers in the US, the biggest market for S4s.

There is no shortage of features in the cabin. The MMI command control is easy to use, and the display screen resolution is excellent.

Our car had optional stainless steel metal trim strips (four of them on the doors and one of the dashboard) which cost an extra $1100. It might be worth it to some people, but seems extravagant.

Audi charges $1695 extra for metallic paint which seems absurd for a car that costs $118,900.

The cabin is refined on smooth tarmac, but the tyres give off quite a howl on the coarse-chip bitumen of Australian country roads.

All up, the new S4 is a competent performance sedan with an emphasis on comfort and refinement over raw power.

It has a smart, more efficient V6 that delivers more punch that required but disappoints the ear of V8 lovers.

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