| First Drive | Mallorca, Spain | Audi S4 |
Apple's iPhone is a beautiful thing, but ask it to do things that a Nokia or a Sony Ericsson can and it often falls short. Fast Audis have always been a bit like that; beautiful and quick, they've just never been able to do some of the things that quick Beemers or Mercs can with ease. The new S4 is different. Very different.
In the Metal
Audi's A4 is a handsome car in regular guise
and the S4 builds impressively on the standard car's foundations. The transformation from A to S follows the sporting makeover rulebook to the letter; the S4 wears deeper front and rear bumpers, side skirts, 18-inch alloy wheels, a more menacing S4-badged grille, aluminium mirrors and four fat tailpipes. The result is a car that looks more aggressive, but in typical Audi fashion it's not too showy. Except, of course for Audi's overly glitzy, bright white, LED running lights. For proper stealth they're best switched off in the car settings via one of the MMI's multiple sub menus.
There are no surprises inside, either. Sports seats covered in leather, a chunky steering wheel and a smattering of S4 badges add some sporting appeal to the A4's beautifully finished interior. As driving environments go, the Audi S4's is among the very best.
What you get for your Money
Prices are yet to be confirmed but figure on around £36,000 for the S4 in saloon guise. Avants will cost around £1,500 more. Keep aside another £2k for the most important checkbox on the order form too - Audi's Drive Select. It's much the same suspension, steering and engine tailoring device as you can choose to pay for on any A4, but with one crucial difference: in the S4, choosing Drive Select also adds a clever new active sport differential, and it transforms the S4 into the best handling saloon car Audi produces.
Audi's chassis expert's smile is rather forced when I suggest disabling the ESP and ASR. The track is wet and I've only driven around one corner. To his credit he hits the ESP button and a light appears in the dash to tell me the electronic safety nets are disabled. What happens next is unlike anything I've ever experienced in an Audi - save the R8
. The S4 turns in sharply on the slippery surface and the rear slowly arcs out under power into a glorious power slide. It's all so balanced, so neutral and controllable that every corner on my four lap stint is taken with varying degrees of opposite lock. I'd expect such playfulness in a rear-wheel drive BMW 3 Series
or a Mercedes-Benz C-Class
but not a four-wheel drive Audi. Not even an S-badged one.
The steering offers different levels of weighting depending on the Drive Select choice, with the Dynamic mode giving the best heft at the rim. Sadly, none of the settings deliver a huge amount of feel. The ride and body control impress though. Again these can be tailored to your preference - even the Comfort mode feels firm thanks to the 20mm lower ride height and those large alloy wheels. It's never harsh though and the S4 barely rolls, even at speed.
The S4's engine is a gem too. Audi has 'downsized' the S4's powerplant from the previous S4's 4.2-litre V8 to a supercharged 3.0-litre V6. It's slightly less powerful than its predecessor with 328bhp, but it's quicker to 62mph by 0.5 seconds - the new S4 managing the benchmark sprint in just 5.1 seconds. It's a smooth free-revving unit, which feels naturally aspirated in its response and it sounds good too, the V6 certainly not lacking in voice compared to the old V8.
You can have your S4 with Audi's seven-speed S tronic (DSG) twin-clutch transmission instead of the six-speed manual. We'd have the sweet-shifting manual over the paddle-shifter. That's no reflection on the quality of the S tronic though, as it shifts seamlessly; it's so smooth only the changing engine note and glorious cackling of the exhaust signals a shift up or down the gearbox. Choose the seven-speeder and you'll save on fuel too, the S tronic actually more economical and producing less CO2
than the manual car - 30.1mpg and 219g/km compared to 29.1mpg and 225g/km. Whatever transmission you choose, those figures are pretty remarkable given the S4's performance, equating to an astonishing 30% improvement in fuel efficiency over the S4;s predecessor.
Audi has been threatening to build a proper, involving driver's car for a while now and - with a few notable exceptions such as the RS4
and R8 - it has failed. With the S4 it has finally succeeded: Audi's A4 performance flagship blends all the 'I want' style, build and classy appeal of the rest of the A4 range with a shot of driving adrenaline and sporting ability that makes the S4 a brilliant all-rounder. It's not just a good fast Audi, but a real contender in its class for top honours. With the S4 this good the next RS4 (which Audi is still officially denying) should be absolutely sensational.