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Car reviews - Audi - A4 - S4

Our Opinion

We like
Supple ride in no way dulls handling poise, powerhouse engine, great transmission, beaut interior, dripping with tech throughout, fuel-efficiency
Room for improvement
Impractical location of Drive Select controller, hyperactive parking sensors, head-up display should be standard

Gallery

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Audi logo29 May 2017

By HAITHAM RAZAGUI

Price and equipment

THE latest Audi S4 costs $99,900 before on-road costs in sedan guise tested here, while the achingly cool Avant wagon version is another $3000. For comparison, the previous-gen S4 sedan was stickered at $105,000 following a substantial $14,900 price cut in 2004. The price difference to the wagon back then was $500 greater, too.

With that in mind and considering the new S4 is faster, more fuel-efficient, safer, and comes with more tech than its predecessor, this is something of a bargain even before taking inflation into account.

Slipping under the psychological $100K barrier also makes the S4 $2000 more affordable than the recently launched Mercedes-AMG C43, with Jaguar’s XE S commanding a substantial $5165 more than the Audi.

BMW does not yet offer an M Performance 3 Series variant and as such its $89,895 340i is the nearest Munich gets to an S4 rival for now. There is an enthusiast-friendly manual option on this car, though.

Of these, only the 270kW/520Nm C43 outguns the S4 on power and torque (by 10kW and 20Nm respectively). It’s also the closest rival conceptually, being the only other all-wheel-drive option and also packing a turbocharged V6.

All mentioned rivals have 3.0-litre six-cylinders, the nine-speed AMG claiming bragging rights over the others and their eight-speed transmissions (unless you go for the no-cost six-speed manual on the BMW).

The 240kW BMW has a turbocharged straight-six while the 250kW Jaguar uses a supercharger to force feed its V6. In addition to developing less power than the Audi, both solutions lag the S4 on torque by 50Nm.

Throwing a curveball into the mix is the Infiniti Q50 Red Sport. Another turbo V6, but with only seven speeds available from its automatic transmission.

However its headline-grabbing 298kW peak power figure comprehensively blasts all the above rivals out of the water. Its 475Nm torque output also outguns BMW and Jaguar.

What’s more, the rear-drive Red Sport is a whole $10,000 less expensive than the BMW and lists only premium paint on the options list because it comes with everything available on the Q50 platform as standard.

Regardless, these are all fast cars. Buyers are truly spoilt for choice.

Focussing on the S4, your $99,900 nets a pretty well specified car, with a lot more goodies included than the $69,900 2.0 TFSI Quattro Sport that sits a rung down in the A4 sedan range and could easily be optioned up to cost as much as a standard S4.

The S4’s central 8.3-inch multimedia display is accompanied by Audi’s 12.3-inch Virtual Cockpit digital instrument panel, both of which provide access to the satellite navigation with five free map updates, live traffic information and ‘predictive efficiency’ prompts to help the driver save fuel, audio controls and a thorough range of connectivity features including Bluetooth with audio streaming, USB input, DAB+ digital radio, CD/DVD player with 10GB music storage facility, smartphone integration, Google Earth, email and a Wi-Fi hotspot.

The central screen is operated via Audi’s MMI touch-pad rotary controller and voice commands, while the leather sports steering wheel provides buttons that, among other things, control the Virtual Cockpit display. It is also fitted with paddles for manual gearshifts.

Virtual Cockpit loses a little functionality if Apple CarPlay or Android Auto smartphone mirroring are used via the central display, but can otherwise be used for almost all navigation and entertainment functions while also providing various trip computer readouts and status of the standard adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assistance driver aids.

Other safety and driver assistance features comprise lane departure warning (if the semi-autonomous lane-keeping is turned off), blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert (which also jolts the brakes to bring a driver to attention if they ignore the system’s warnings), tyre pressure monitoring, 360-degree parking cameras, obstacle proximity display for the front and rear parking sensors, and automated parking.

The various sensors also activate warning lights on the door trims to alert occupants who are exiting the car into approaching traffic.

Forward collision with autonomous emergency braking and steering assistance is also included, with the ability to help avoid a head-on collision when the driver is turning right across oncoming. The list goes on with rear-end collision mitigation, driver attention monitoring, self-dimming interior and exterior mirrors (the latter featuring electric adjustment, heating, auto-folding and a passenger-side kerb view function when reversing).

The S4 also has automatic adaptive LED headlights, LED daytime running lights with ‘all-weather’ and ‘motorway’ functions, rain-sensing wipers, and keyless entry and start with hands-free boot opening,In terms of cabin trim, there are aluminium inserts, Alcantara upholstery, front sports seats with electrical adjustment and heating, ambient lighting, map pocket nets, a driver’s storage compartment and various load-securing items for the boot.

Interior trims and upholstery can be respectively upgraded to carbon-fibre and diamond-quilted Nappa leather functions as part of the $5900 S Performance pack that also includes hard-backed sports seats offering more adjustment and a massage function plus red-painted brake callipers.

The standard 180-watt 10-speaker audio system with six-channel amplifier and subwoofer can be boosted to a 19-speaker Bang & Olufsen surround sound setup as part of the $5600 Technik pack that also adds a head-up display and Audi Matrix LED headlights.

Externally the S4 has a unique bodykit, rear privacy glass and its five-spoke 19-inch alloy wheels with 245/35 section tyres are separated from the chassis by specially tweaked sports suspension that has been lowered 23mm over a standard A4. Matte titanium finish on a slightly different wheel design is a no-cost option.

The only option fitted to our test vehicle was $1846 worth of premium paint.

Amusingly the hue chosen was Navarra blue, which made the S4 look nothing like a Nissan ute but was a rich shade of deep blue.

Further options include dynamic steering with adaptive dampers ($2210), a Quattro spots rear differential ($2950), carbon trim without the Nappa leather ($1000), gloss black exterior trim replacing most of the chrome ($1365), rear-seat entertainment ($2600 with one 10.1-inch tablet or $4680 with two tablets), a glass sunroof ($2470) and Audi Phone Box wireless inductive device charging ($455).

Interior

Stepping into the S4 interior for the first time was like settling into a favourite pair of shoes. Expensive sports shoes in this case.

The mid-grey (Audi calls it Rotor Grey) Alcantara-upholstered seats feel snug without being oppressively bolstered, the same suede-like fabric used on the door trims continuing the cosy yet purposeful feel. Its lighter hue also breaks up the otherwise relenting blackness of the cabin, although Audi does seem to do these moody interior colour schemes in a less cave-like way than most thanks to its judicious use of convincing chrome and genuine metal finishes.

While some luxury cars offer more seat adjustment than the dentists who drive them, the standard S4 chairs fitted to our test car provided plenty of flexibility for tall and short occupants without a bewildering array of settings, which combined with generous steering column movement and well-spaced pedals in the roomy footwell to ensure a great driving position.

The square-bottomed steering wheel is emblazoned with the ‘S’ logo to remind the driver of what to expect when they extend their right foot and is the most overtly sporting feature of the cabin. It is well shaped, feels great, is not overly padded – we’re looking at you BMW – and of a neat and tidy diameter that encourages enthusiastic twirling.

Looking through the wheel reveals a slightly tweaked version of Audi’s game-changing Virtual Cockpit digital dashboard with a subtle turbo boost gauge and more ‘S’ logos among the vast array of available information that makes this instrument panel capable of all but eliminating the need for a central infotainment unit.

Shame then that the button to deactivate the central screen does not have it slide out of sight into a dashboard recess as seen in some other Audis.

Audi would probably argue the Virtual Cockpit also negates the need for a head-up display, but when driving the S4 as its engineers intended in Australia it would be handy to know without glancing away from the road that both money and license will remain in your custody, rather than that of the authorities.

For reasons we will discuss later.

With the A4 setting a high bar for standards of interior presentation, attention to detail, finish, craftsmanship and user-friendliness, there is a valid argument that Audi could have gone further with differentiation of the S4 interior, as much as we liked it. Of course, Audi will happily show its comprehensive customisation options to those willing to dig deep enough.

One such option is the diamond-quilted Nappa leather that is available in a shocking shade of scarlet.

Audi’s rotary-controlled MMI infotainment system is a polarising matter of preference but we found it easy to use, with the ability to input sat-nav addresses and other text info by tracing the letters on the controller’s touch-sensitive surface an effective solution. It also has integrated Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, which initially feel odd to use with a rotary control system when both were primarily designed for touchscreen operation.

It is also a shame the Virtual Cockpit shuts down its navigation and audio functions when Apple CarPlay or Android Auto are in use.

On the upside, the MMI, along with rotary controls for the three-zone climate control and audio volume, all have a satisfying and tactile action somewhere between that of quality hi-fi equipment and the winding mechanism of a watch.

Between the front two air-con controls is a row of unlabelled buttons that reveal their function by altering the display panel above when touched. It is one of those little surprise-and-delight features Audi does so well.

Another feature that made us laugh for its sheer Audi-ness was the way the exhaust note fades gently away when switching from dynamic to one of the other driving modes.

It was the Drive Select mode controller, or rather its position, that provided the only real fly in the S4’s interior ointment. Clearly located for left-hand drive markets, with the wheel on our side the buttons were a little out of reach for us to quickly switch to Dynamic mode when a tasty set of corners appeared over a crest. Such ergonomic oversights are decidedly un-Audi.

A gripe from the mainstream A4 turns up in the S4 in the shape of a too-loud beep when reverse is selected, followed by a shrill cacophony of beeps from the parking sensors that provides more of a distraction than assistance. Thankfully we found the lowest volume setting in a sub-menu of the MMI.

The standard 360-degree camera system is genuinely useful, though. Not only does it provide a much more useful guide for accurate parking, but helps protect those kerb-prone 19-inch alloy wheels and their low-profile rubber. An automated parking system is also standard, but it was not intuitive enough in operation for us to bother. We prefer the Mercedes system that seems to read the driver’s mind (or sense when they are searching for a space) and offers to park the car with a prompt on the dashboard.

We are getting used to Audis doing this, but the S4’s adaptive cruise control was clearly designed for German levels of motorway lane discipline as our serene progress was regularly disrupted by its inability to deal with other drivers weaving in and out of traffic, or not keeping left unless overtaking.

If it thinks you are about to undertake another vehicle, it says ‘nein’ and brakes to match their speed, even if the other car did that annoying thing of overtaking and then inexplicably slowing down.

Traffic jam assist works wonders to take the stress out of congestion, though, working with the lane-keeping assist that seems to read lane-markings pretty accurately and is a little less nagging of the driver than the equivalent Mercedes system at higher speeds if it senses they are not holding the steering wheel tightly. A Mercedes does feel like a more competent autonomous driver than the slightly inebriated Audi, though.

Blind-spot monitoring is via large, unmissable orange lights in the door mirrors rather than the little flecks in the mirror glass that can get lost in sun glare, and the system is great for detecting motorised and pedal-powered two-wheelers filtering through gaps in traffic.

Although the S4 is very much a driver’s car, there is much to like from a passenger perspective, too. With the front seats positioned for tall occupants, rear legroom is decent in the outboard positions – at least with the full-fabric seats of our test vehicle. The hard-backed upgrade items could be a different story, and we know the lack of sunroof in our test car liberated a sizeable amount of headroom for stoop-free tall person travel.

We would not call the S4 a real five-seater, unless those in the back are all narrow-shouldered and the one in the middle short of leg. For fast families, the S4’s Isofix child seat anchorages are among the easiest to use owing to plastic guides that all but eliminate misalignment dramas.

However, we found the protrusion of a rear-facing infant capsule can force taller occupants in front to shift their seat forward or put the backrest in a more upright position. It’s not game over, but can feel a bit cramped.

Rear occupants get a shallow tray rather than cup-holders in their central fold-down armrest plus a pair of small net-type map pockets big enough for a 21st century iPad rather than a 20th century road atlas, and while the door bins are small front and rear, they are shaped to accommodate 600ml drinks bottles at an angle. More useful are the neat coat hooks on the B-pillars, especially as there are no shopping bag hooks in the 480-litre boot.

A little net-style pocket behind the right-hand wheel arch is handy though, and there are plenty of well-located tie-down points in the well-shaped load space, with more nets and straps stashed beneath the boot floor along with the space-saver spare wheel.

Back up front, a pair of big-bore cup-holders in the centre console are not really suitable for a Slurpee or milkshake as they can foul the air-conditioning controls and obscure the Drive Select, parking sensor and automated parking buttons. Piccolo latte it is, then.

The glove box is of adequate capacity at best unless the handbook is ditched, but handily there is another compartment beside the driver’s right knee that provides almost as much space. Ahead of the central armrest that adjusts for height and length is a small rubberised cubby for storing keys or a small phone in convenient proximity to the USB and audio input sockets below.

On the move, once the V6 has settled from its deliberately theatrical cold-start routine, the S4 cabin is as well insulated as any A4, providing a serene environment unless the dynamic exhaust setting is activated to provide additional low-down warble and high-end howl. Otherwise, road and engine noise are kept at a distance, with a bit of tyre roar evident on coarse-chip bitumen but the most annoying frequencies suppressed to make even these surfaces tolerable.

We had no complaints about audio quality from the standard 10-speaker sound system, but that tempting options list rears its head again with the surprisingly good value Technik Pack that installs 19-speaker Bang & Olufsen premium hi-fi setup, the aforementioned head-up display and matrix LED headlights for $5600. Or the B&O system can be had by itself for $1950. They used to charge almost 10 times that.

Engine and transmission

Audi has switched from supercharging to turbocharging for the latest-generation S4. The 3.0-litre displacement and V6 cylinder arrangement are all this new engine has in common with its predecessor. There is more power and torque, less weight and, of course, improved fuel efficiency.

The instant, elastic response of the old supercharged engine is gone. But there’s relentlessness to the way this new unit delivers thrust that builds with each up-change. Quoting power and torque figures, even the 4.7-second 0-100km/h time, only tells a fraction of the story about how this thing gathers speed.

At the same time, it’s remarkably refined and civilised for everyday use, to the point we even found the S4 more pleasant to live with than a standard A4.

This is largely because Audi has fitted the S4 with an eight-speed torque-converter transmission in favour of the hesitant, lurching dual-clutch unit of lesser variants that drive us mad when trundling around hilly urban areas or negotiating steep driveways.

Clearly Ingolstadt no longer sees any performance benefit to the dual-clutch set-up. Why else would they fit a slushbox to an S4?So good is this driveline combination that when we tried thrashing the S4 along the challenging dynamic section of our road test route it was possible to set the transmission in sport mode and leave the paddle-shifters well alone. Even a set of hairpins was dispatched without us lifting a finger from the steering wheel. But we didn’t like how it would automatically kick down even when in manual mode.

A combination of chubby torque curve and perfectly judged gear ratios meant it could deliver crushing corner exits with around 2500rpm to spare before the 260kW power peak was reached at 6400rpm.

Peak torque of 500Nm arrives at 1370rpm and lasts until 4500rpm. In addition to helping maintain cornering momentum this makes for relaxed, muscular progress during everyday driving. But never overtly turbocharged or boosty.

But with the taps opened, it is as though a switch is flicked at 4000rpm and mild-mannered Bruce Banner morphs into The Incredible Hulk.

This is particularly evident from a standing start, where for the first few metres the S4 seems to be holding back in order to preserve traction, or perhaps its internal components. This is certainly not turbo lag, which is conspicuously absent, but feels like hesitation or as though the many computers are thinking, ‘is he sure about this?’ For that moment, 4.7 seconds to 100 feels unachievable.

But then all hell breaks loose and it is like being released from a trebuchet.

That’s courtesy of quattro all-wheel drive but even with that advantage we saw the stability control lights flickering during more than one full-bore start.

Yes, the S4 is more than capable of overcoming its own prodigious levels of traction. The inevitable RS4 is going to be an absolute animal.

So, some of that analogue, instant go is lost from the old supercharged engine.

But this new one has such vivid power delivery, and is as perfectly synchronised with its near seamless eight-speed auto as a pair of tandem surfers. Like the ocean swell propelling those surfers, the S4 delivers an unrelenting forward surge achieved by few cars this side of a Tesla.

We’re not saying an S4 can equal the electric car’s stomach-churning rate of acceleration, but the linearity of the sensation is similar. And the Audi keeps pulling, smoothly and freely, right up to redline.

Unlike the Tesla, the S4’s progress is accompanied by the sweet music of internal combustion.

It starts with a warbly and slightly artificial pulse, transitioning into a harmonic trumpeting that reminded us of Audi’s iconic five-cylinder rally cars of the 1980s. With increasing intensity comes a high-pitched whooshing from the turbocharger as it furiously pumps air into the cylinder banks between which it is nestled, ushering the rev-counter swiftly towards its redline with the backing vocal of quad tailpipes that are by now emitting a manic howl.

In less than the blink of an eye, the eight-speeder grabs the next ratio as the exhausts blurt and the kaleidoscopic playlist goes on repeat until you run out of road, or nerve. With deceleration comes a bit of exhaust crackle and fizz, but its more snags spitting fat on the barbie than Sydney harbour at New Year (we’re looking at you, Mercedes-AMG).

The greatest thing about the S4 is that its performance feels accessible on public roads. It doesn’t feel as though it is just getting into its stride as it passes the speed limit. Of course it is capable of well beyond that and it is all too easy to find yourself on the wrong side of the law when so absorbed in fanging it that a glance at the speedo has you slamming on the anchors quicker than a politician files their expense claim.

Of course, all this sounds like thirsty work. Wrong. The S4 averaged 9.9 litres per 100 kilometres during our week with it. Driving our challenging road test route and spending time sat idling for photography, it did 13.8L/100km.

And on the motorway we saw 6.7L/100km. That’s remarkable, particularly when considering a Mitsubishi Mirage with half the cylinders and weighing slightly more than half as much as the S4 used only slightly less fuel on the very same journey.

For further context, a 2.0-litre A4 Quattro Sport sedan returned 6.6L/100km on the motorway and 12.1L/100km on the road test route. The S4’s performance comes at negligible additional cost in fuel, bar the fact it prefers 98 RON ultra premium unleaded (although it will begrudgingly accept the same 95 RON premium as a 2.0). Add that to the fact its standard equipment list would require a big spend on options to achieve in the four-cylinder and the S4 starts to look like exceptional value for money.

Four modes on the Audi Drive Select controller affect drivetrain calibration.

Efficiency blunts throttle response compared with the default Comfort but not to an undriveable level. Auto figures out what the driver is doing and blends between the other modes to suit.

But switch to Dynamic from Efficiency or Comfort when stopped in traffic and the increased accelerator pedal sensitivity might have you shoving the S4’s nose under the back of that low-loader taking off slowly in front when the lights go green. So that’s why they invented AEB.

Interestingly, this mode does not elicit additional aggressiveness from the transmission, so providing a large par of this car’s appeal.

Dynamic mode is best reserved for dynamic roads, but the Individual setting enables you to mix and match various aspects of the driving experience from the four modes, including having the Dynamic (loud) exhaust setting on all the time should Chapel Street be your hunting ground.

We plumped for Auto most of the time, with Efficiency for brainless motorway cruising and, of course, Dynamic when things got twisty.

Ride and handling

The S4 badge used to be a byword for concrete suspension and understeer. Times have changed.

Finally, the S4 is at least as comfortable as a regular four-cylinder A4. And the current generation A4 rides beautifully.

The current-generation A4 also handles well and the S4 builds on this solid base by addressing the standard car’s slightly rubbery initial steering feel with a markedly sharper and more unambiguous setup – without losing the friction-free, well-judged weighting we love so much about the standard car.

It might just be Audi’s best steering set-up to date, R8 supercar notwithstanding. Put it this way, all it took was initial turn-in on the first fast corner of our dynamic test we knew everything we needed to in order to string together every twist in this stretch of bitumen with absolute confidence. We felt absolutely connected, even though the wheel was not exactly chattering in our hands as much as it would in the aforementioned R8.

Balanced and neutral through corners, the S4 only really descends into understeer push when provoked in a way that would have a BMW 3 Series doing the same. That said, a couple of times we did detect the gently guiding hand of torque vectoring holding us back ever so slightly when we applied a little too much gas a little too early. It was so subtle most drivers would barely notice.

There is a little playfulness at the rear axle available through the throttle pedal, but more via lift-off oversteer that S4 seems to do reluctantly. The $2950 Quattro sport differential option no doubt presents more scope for mid-corner rotation but as specified, our S4 preferred finding a line and then doggedly sticking to it, which it did with amazing consistency and surefootedness – regardless of surface condition.

It also has a remarkable ability to maintain momentum going into a corner, lacking any real sense of rolling or aerodynamic resistance under a trailing throttle. All-wheel drive and that responsive engine make blasting out the other side an addictive slingshot experience.

Grip from the 19-inch Hankook tyres was mighty, at least it was in the dry conditions of our test, and the lack of screeching as we explored the S4’s dynamics while trying to keep things legal on public roads demonstrated deep reserves of adhesion.

That compliant ride no doubt helped the S4 keep all wheels on the ground across rippled and patchy corners, but body control was also excellent, with minimal roll.

Audi has set up the S4 incredibly well, and the car’s talents stretch well beyond our sense of preservation – both for life and license. We never missed the optional adaptive dampers or variable dynamic steering, so spend that $2210 on something else.

But as with the drivetrain, the S4’s performance feels accessible at legal velocities even if keeping under the 100km/h maximum on a good stretch of road is a challenge in itself.

Over and above all this back road blasting, the S4 can soak up a long motorway cruise or provide a cosseting daily commute. Audi is getting really, really good at making its fast cars a joy to live with on a daily basis.

As a result, the S4 is a genuine no-compromise machine.

Safety and servicing

As a member of the A4 sedan range, the S4 qualifies for a maximum five-star safety rating, achieved under Euro NCAP crash testing with 90 per cent scored for adult occupant protection, 87 per cent for child occupant protection, and 75 per cent each for standard safety assist features and pedestrian protection.

Beneath the layers of active safety systems and driver aids fitted to the S4, the entire A4 range comes with dual frontal, side chest and side curtain airbags, anti-lock brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution, electronic stability control and seat belt reminders for all seats.

The S4 has a three-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty and Audi fixes service intervals at 15,000km or 12 months, with a pre-paid servicing plan covering the first three years (or up to 45,000km) at a cost of $1620.

Verdict

You have probably gathered by now that we were mighty impressed by the Audi S4.

It combines outstanding pace with accessible dynamics and still manages to be both incredibly fuel-efficient and comfortable.

Audi is downright notorious for optioning up press cars to the point of ridiculousness, but by leaving our S4 bog-standard apart from paint, demonstrated that this model really can be enjoyed without straying from the sticker price.

The faults we picked with it would usually end up on the cutting room floor as unworthy of note – that’s how little this car annoyed us.

Yet we found delight in everything else from its subtly beefed-up looks and welcoming interior to the masterpiece of drivetrain engineering and spot-on ride/handling balance.

Considering the lower price versus its most obvious rivals and the complete lack of compromise this high-performance variant of the A4 range presents in terms of daily usability, the S4 is a real winner.

A hundred grand is a lot of money but considering how much it does well, the Audi S4 is a lot of car.

Rivals

Mercedes-AMG C43 sedan ($101,900 plus on-road costs)
As good and ruthlessly efficient this all-wheel-drive, V6-powered pseudo-AMG is, there is a bit of personality missing from the mix that makes the AMG badge on its rump feel a bit cynical. Like the S4, though, it is pretty uncompromised and can be all things to all people.

Jaguar XE S ($105,350)
Amusing steering headlines the Jaguar’s fun dynamics, which help you take your mind off the disappointing interior plus the fact the characterful and muscular supercharged V6 doesn’t sound anywhere near as good as it does in an F-Type.

Too expensive, and so are the options. You can’t help but love it, though.

Infiniti Q50 Red Sport ($79,900 plus on-road costs)
Does not glide like the Audi but boy does it go and yes, it handles. The magnificent engine and price point are almost beyond belief, which goes some way to overcoming the interior quirks and driving something nobody has heard of.

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