Hot on the heels of last year's all-new A4 comes the hot-rod version, the S4. But the new S4 is quite unlike the previous S4; Audi's aim is to broaden the S4's appeal. Gone is the big fuel-guzzling V8 and the lofty price tag; in its place is a high-tech supercharged V6 and a lower price. Has Audi found a better formula for the S4 -- or have they disemboweled a once-great car? Read on. $46,725 base, $50,050 as tested, EPA fuel economy estimates 18 MPG city, 27-28 MPG highway.
First Glance: A new mission for an old favorite
Creating an Audi S4 used to be so easy. Start with an A4 sedan, throw in a big eight-cylinder engine, clip on an outrageous price tag, and then toss the resulting wundermobile to the speeding masses. Those who were less inclined to tempt the radar guns had a perfectly nice A4 lineup to choose from.
Today, things are a good deal more complex. Extra cylinders are out, forced induction is in, and the populace isn't spending money like they used to. So Audi has taken a new tack: They've killed the six-cylinder A4 while giving the S4 its own hot-rodded V6 and moving it downmarket. The old S4 was aimed at enthusiasts; the 2010 S4 is being aimed at the big-motor versions of the A4's rivals -- cars like the Mercedes-Benz C350, Lexus IS350, and BMW 335i.
So let's meet the new S4. In place of the old S4's 4.2 liter V8, the new car gets a supercharged direct-injected 3-liter V6. Compared to the old V8, it produces slightly less horsepower (333, vs the V8's 340) and significantly more torque (325 vs. 302). The new engine lacks the low rumble of the V8, replacing it instead with an exotic-sounding soprano growl. Transmission choices are a six-speed manual or a new 7-speed version of Audi's S-Tronic twin-clutch automatic, an automatic/manual hybrid that provides better-than-stick-shift performance with two-pedal convenience. Audi claims the new S4 runs from 0-60 in 4.9 seconds with either transmission, about a half-second quicker than the V8 S4. All this, plus much better fuel economy: high teens in the city and high 20s on the road, versus low teens and 20 even for the old S4.
In the Driver's Seat: Familiarity eases contempt
If you like dark, Germanic interiors, the S4 will be right up your alley, but if you're looking for the tan-leather-and-wood ambiance offered by Lexus and Mercedes, I'm afraid you're out of luck. I used to rail against Audi interiors, with their somber black facades, look-alike buttons, and concentration-sapping MMI (MultiMedia Interface) dial controller. But for some reason, I'm starting to like them more and more. Maybe it's the bright silver trim on the dash and the light-grey fabric inserts on the seats that brighten things up. Maybe it's the simplified controls, or the fact that I'm now more proficient with the complicated menu system Audi's Multimedia Interface (MMI) dial controller. Or maybe it's just the fact that the human mind can find a way to adapt to anything, no matter how unpleasant.
Whatever the reason, I came to find myself quite at home in the S4's cabin. Solemn as it is, the dashboard is purposeful, and the S4 offers excellent sightlines and nice big side-view mirrors. The front seats are comfortable, the back seats are more than roomy enough for family duty, and the trunk is smartly shaped, if a bit small at 12 cubic feet. All in all, the S4 offers a level of practicality not generally found in proper sports cars -- and make no mistake, that's exactly what the S4 is.
On the Road: A cut above
After driving the S4 on the About.com Top Secret Curvy Test Road, I can't honestly believe that Audi is really planning to pitch it against cars like the Mercedes C350 and Lexus IS350. The S4 is too good -- it feels like it was bred for corners, rather than merely adapted to deal with them.
"Slow in, fast out" is the racer's mantra, and few cars do fast out like the S4. The supercharged engine delivers peak torque from 2,900 to 5,300 RPM, so it's almost impossible to be in the wrong gear. Clip the apex of the corner, stand on the accelerator, and the S4's engine belts out the power, with the Quattro all-wheel-drive system ensuring that 100% of it gets to the pavement. Blammo, out of the corner you go, like a booger flung from a fourth-grader's finger. Opt for the $1,100 Rear Sport Differential, and the S4 will oversteer (fishtail) like a proper rear-driver, enough to out-BMW the BMW 335i. My test car lacked RSD, so it cornered like a traditional Audi, which is to say it feels as disciplined as a career Marine.
Back on the public roads, I got a better understanding of how the S4 fits in among its competitive set. Audi's suspension engineers have an almost magical ability to combine sharp handling with a good ride, and nowhere is this better exploited than in the S4. There's still a bit of float on big bumps and a bit of pummeling on the smaller, sharper ones. But for the most part, it's as comfortable as the cars it competes against -- an amazing accomplishment considering how much better it is in the corners.
Journey's End: One last bit of good news
I've saved the best bit for last: The price. I didn't look at my test car's sticker until mid-way through my test week, and when I did, my eyes almost popped out of my head. I expected my navigation and Nappa-leather-equipped S4 would be priced in the low 60s, but my test car was just a shade over 50 grand! I could hardly believe it. The S4 starts at $46,725 -- compare that to over $51k for the old S4 sedan (including gas guzzler tax, which the new S4 dodges), and a fully-equipped example tops out at $64,330.
At those prices, the S4 is just a bit too expensive to compete against the Lexus IS350 and Mercedes C350, which run about five grand less -- for people who don't care about burning up twisty roads, the S4 really isn't worth the premium. But for performance enthusiasts, the S4 is the deal of the century. Order yourself a base-model S4 with the Drive Select package (which includes user-configurable suspension settings and the trick rear axle; the latter is also available as a stand-alone option for $1,100), and you've got a $51k car that'll give the 400+ horsepower, $60k+ BMW M3 and Mercedes C63 AMG a run for their money -- and put just as big a smile on your face. -- Aaron Gold