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Avant-god. Image by Mark Nichol.

Audi's S4 Avant deigns to satisfy both the daily grind and the thrills of the weekend, but has it mastered all its trades?


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| Week at the Wheel | Audi S4 Avant |

Inside & Out: star star star star star

The idea of hiding a proper performance car inside that poster boy of automotive monotony, the estate, isn't really a new one anymore. However, to put the S4 into perspective, Audi has cleverly positioned it as a sort of sub-super estate that sits somewhere between the BMW 335i Touring and the madcap Mercedes-Benz C 63 AMG Estate. However, the S4 is a little cheaper than the former and much, much cheaper than the latter. Clever, eh?

We think it's a genius ploy, actually, because the S4 is faster than the 335i and, thanks to its 'S' nomenclature and stuff like quad tailpipes, it also has the fleeting whiff of an AMG product about it. Discretion is still in its box of tricks though, because elsewhere it looks much like other S-Line Avants on the road. Whether that's good or bad is your call, but those in the know only need take one look at the 'V6T' badges on the flanks - which rather confusingly designate its supercharged status - to recognise they're dealing with something rather more special than a 2.0-litre TDI A4.

Discretion is the theme inside too, because while our car was decorated with almost 13,000's worth of option list pornography, the only things that really make it stand out are S4-embossed seats and a little quattro badge on the dash. As you'd expect, the clinical Audi build quality remains, with only a slightly loose plastic satnav screen surround spoiling the ambience. The bottom line is, it just feels so solid; every surface, every switch, every time you clunk the doors shut. Our only real complaint is a distinct lack of legroom for rear seat passengers.

Engine & Transmission: star star star star star

The V6 supercharged lump powering the S4 is just sublime. Excuse the superlative, but the way it delivers its power, in any gear, whatever the revs, marks it out as one of the best powerplants we've tried in a good while. And, remarkably, it's both faster and more economical than the V8 it replaces, with 328bhp and 325lb.ft of torque propelling it to that old 62mph benchmark in 5.2 seconds. Its talent lies in the ability to be both strong really low in the rev range and also very eager to rev. Additionally it has the unique sonic characteristic of sounding epic in a blanketed sort of way; Audi has muted much of the supercharger whine (which some will lament), instead endowing the occupants' ears with the progressive barking thrum typical of a V6. It's quite lovely, if a little too discreet for our tastes.

The one thing our test car didn't come equipped with was a dual-clutch S-Tronic gearbox, which suited us just fine because the Audi manual 'box is snappy, short of shift and pleasant to click through, thankfully not proving the weak link it could have been in a rather spectacular drivetrain.

Ride & Handling: star star star star star

This is, as you'll know, the breaking of many an Audi. Mercifully, on this occasion the ride and handling work in symbiosis with a Herculean drivetrain to make the S4 Avant a quite brilliant car to drive. That sounds strong, and there are certainly many cars far more memorable than this, but the S4 Avant provides so many 'is this actually an estate?' moments that it's hard not to be overly amused by it.

Our car was equipped with the full Audi Drive Select package, a 1,290 option that allows you to choose between comfort and dynamic modes, and another 'auto' setting that chooses for you. It remaps the throttle response and tightens up the steering and dampers; or you can programme your own settings if you wish. It works a treat too, tangibly loosening the shock absorbers in comfort mode (though the ride's still on the harsh side) and equally imbuing the car with a stiff, weighty 'connected' sort of feel in dynamic guise.

Our only gripe, and you could probably guess this, is with the steering. In sport mode, at something close to full tilt, it has all the weight and feel you could want, pointing the car with precision and transmitting more than enough feedback. However, in dynamic mode, for the majority of mundane, low speed driving, it's got a strange 'grabby' tendency, which is to say that it feels slack at the centre, then weights up as you turn, as if some artificial resistance is taking hold of it.

But it's a minor gripe in a car that handles with the type of idiot-proof tenacity that could make almost anyone an instant hero. In the dry, that is. One of the joys of finding a good back road in the S4 is trying to assimilate its grip - it just never seems to let go, making quick cornering as easy as, well, slow cornering. That's partly down to the active sport differential, which can distribute power separately left and right across the rear axle.

That means some very effective understeer quashing, and you can feel it working too; twist the wheel with the power on in a sharp corner and you can feel the diff getting the car pointing in the right direction as it tucks the nose in. However, in the wet it also opens the door to a very non-quattro handling characteristic: easy power oversteer. Brilliant. At times, however, the concoction of all the electric and mechanical handling nannies can apparently confuse the S4, causing it to meltdown in a discord of frustrating understeer on slow, wet corners - roundabouts, for instance.

Equipment, Economy & Value for Money: star star star star star

We've already mentioned the feast of options our car came equipped with, which, frankly, make the S4 look too expensive. Certain things, like satnav and the very handy power tailgate, will be very difficult to resist from both a comfort and resale value point of view, so in reality the S4 will be a 40k car to most buyers. Is that good value? That's debatable, but from a performance and ownership point of view (as in, residual value and the general glow of satisfaction you get from owning such a car) we think it's money well spent.

However, with cars like this there's always that argument about buying a more humble and useful estate - something like a Mondeo or even a much lowlier premium one - then buying a proper sports car as well. That may well be something to consider, but at this price, getting two cars that satisfy as much on both fronts as this one does will be difficult, and you're also then looking at two sets of running costs.

The S4 isn't all that bad on the running costs front either, all things considered. It returns a reasonable 29.1mpg (as opposed to 21.2mpg for the outgoing car), although it does spit out 229g/km, which will see you fork out 405 per year on tax.

Overall: star star star star star

We'd like to give the Audi S4 Avant five stars overall because it brings practicality, speed and handling panache together so convincingly, but we can't really because it's expensive and, ultimately, not as memorable as a true five-star car should be. However, it's knocking on the door of greatness, genuinely, by way of being so very complete; it's a car we'd very seriously consider buying if we had 40k to spend and could only have one motor. The engine and drivetrain are exceptional, but it's not quite as visceral as it should be, and it could do with a bit more cabin space too. Still, clinically excellent.

Mark Nichol - 22 May 2009    - Audi road tests
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2009 Audi A4 specifications:
Technical specifications for 2009 Audi S4 Avant

2009 Audi S4 Avant. Image by Mark Nichol.2009 Audi S4 Avant. Image by Mark Nichol.2009 Audi S4 Avant. Image by Mark Nichol.2009 Audi S4 Avant. Image by Mark Nichol.2009 Audi S4 Avant. Image by Mark Nichol.

2009 Audi S4 Avant. Image by Mark Nichol.2009 Audi S4 Avant. Image by Mark Nichol.2009 Audi S4 Avant. Image by Mark Nichol.2009 Audi S4 Avant. Image by Mark Nichol.2009 Audi S4 Avant. Image by Mark Nichol.

2009 Audi S4 Avant. Image by Mark Nichol.

2009 Audi S4 Avant. Image by Mark Nichol.

2009 Audi S4 Avant. Image by Mark Nichol.

2009 Audi S4 Avant. Image by Mark Nichol.

2009 Audi S4 Avant. Image by Mark Nichol.

2009 Audi S4 Avant. Image by Mark Nichol.

2009 Audi S4 Avant. Image by Mark Nichol.

2009 Audi S4 Avant. Image by Mark Nichol.


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