The 2007 Audi S4 is the hot-rod version of Audi's A4 and the smallest of its sporty S-line cars (which also include the bigger S6 and S8). So what happens when you stuff a 340 horsepower V8 into a compact sedan? Read on to find out. Pricing: $48,220 base, $57,020 as tested (including $1,700 gas guzzler tax), EPA fuel economy estimates 15 city, 21-23 highway.
First Glance: Mr. Gold, there's a problem with your A4...
This was originally scheduled to be a test drive of the A4, the version of Audi's compact sedan that most of us can actually afford. Then I got a call from the folks in charge of delivering Audis. There had been a last-minute scheduling glitch, the A4 wasn't available, and would I like to drive an S4 instead?
Let's see. 340 horsepower V8 in place of the A4's 200 hp four or 255 hp V6? Lower and stiffer suspension? Fancy wheels with high-performance tires? This is a bit like the hotel clerk telling you that the double-queen room you requested was destroyed by an over-zealous rock band, and would the Presidential Suite be acceptable to sir and madam?
My reply was, of course, "Hell, yeah!" (or words to that effect).
Unfortunately, the Presidential Suite is a heck of a lot more expensive than the double queen, and the same goes for the S4. While an A4 sedan can be had for as little as $28,960, the S4 starts around $20,000 higher. On the bright side, the S4, like the A4, is available in sedan, wagon and convertible variants.
The S4 looks a lot like an ordinary A4, with only "V8" badges on both fenders, silver side mirrors (link goes to photo) and a slightly hunkered-down stance to differentiate it -- a good thing if you're trying to avoid the cops. My tester had a $1,500 Exterior Sport Package with carbon-fiber chin and trunk spoilers and a few non-functional scoops, with bright "Imola Yellow" paint totally eliminating the stealth factor. Incidentally, any color other than red, black or white costs between $475 and $750 extra.
In the Driver's Seat: Comfy but complex
The S4's interior has all the usual foibles of German cars: Stereo, climate and navigation controls that are too complicated, cupholders that are too small, and a general disregard for a quiet ride. The S4 exhibited some wind noise above 70 MPH, but it was the hollow drone from the tires over certain types of pavement that really set my ears a-ringin'. Seasoned Euro-car owners will think I'm picking at nits, but if you're used to American or Japanese luxury marques, the cacophony in the S4's cabin might seem a bit much.
That said, the S4's interior is incredibly comfortable. The S4 gets power-adjustable Recaro front seats upholstered in leather. Dash, carpets and door trim are done up in black, but the seats themselves can be had in black or light grey with matching window pillars and headliner. My test car had an all-black interior with a $400 package that replaced the brushed-metal trim on dash, doors and shifter surround with carbon fiber. Too dark, if you ask me -- were I buying my own S4, I'd stick with the metal trim.
The S4 includes lots of standard gadgets and goodies such as dual-zone climate control, 6-disc CD changer and a sliding glass sunroof. My test car had a $1,950 navigation system that uses a dial and buttons instead of a touch screen. It's difficult and slow to program, but the system makes up for its shortcomings by displaying turn-by-turn directions right on the instrument panel. Safety kit is top-notch, with front-seat-mounted torso airbags, side curtain airbags, antilock brakes and electronic stability control all standard.
On the Road: Fast, fast, FAST!
The difference between the two is more pronounced on the open road. Like the RS4, the S4 employs Audi's famous Quattro all-wheel-drive system. (Automatic cars are tuned for a 50/50 front-to-rear torque split, while manual cars like the one I tested are set for 40/60; both can shift power between front and rear axles as needed.) When it comes to turning corners, the S4 isn't nearly as enjoyable or involving to drive as the RS4. Don't get me wrong -- the S4 is an incredible handler. I took a Sunday drive on the Angeles Crest Highway and easily kept up with the sport bikes without so much as a squeal from the S4's tires. But the RS4's more permissive electronic stability control system allows the driver to slide the car through the corners with an impressive level of flair while still keeping things under control. The S4's system, like most Audis, is much quicker to step in and bring the car into line when the driver reaches the tires' limits of traction.
Journey's End: No real rival
For $20k less you can get the A4 2.0T, which comes with all the same safety gear as the S4, offers Quattro all-wheel-drive, and handles brilliantly, if not quite as well as the S4. The 2.0T is obviously nowhere near as fast as the S4's V8. But it is more efficient, plenty quick, and is, in my opinion, one of the best four-cylinder engines made. (The A4 also offers a V6, but it really does a number on the value-for-money equation.)
For $20k more you can have the RS4. If you merely like to go fast in a straight line, the RS4 isn't really worth the extra cash -- but if you live for the curves, the RS4 offers a magical driving experience unparalleled by the S4 (or by few other sedans, for that matter). Note, however, that if you want a wagon, a convertible, or an automatic transmission, the RS4 can't help you.
BMW's 335i, with a 300 horsepower twin-turbo six and optional all-wheel-drive, is a good competitor. The Infiniti G35 is another solid sports sedan; its performance is a half-order of magnitude below the S4's, but then again so is its price. Mercedes has a new C-Class on the way for 2008, and there's a good chance that an AMG version will follow.
But while the Audi S4 has competitors, it really has no equal. The combination of outstanding power and handling, subtle styling, and solid feel make the S4 a winner in my book. -- Aaron Gold