The latest Audi S4 may have downsized on bulk by dropping the 4,2-litre V8, but it has upped its heart rate with the addition of a supercharged V6 powerplant.
Despite its eye-wateringly expensive price tag (over R700 000 in the case of our test unit) you almost have to feel a bit sorry for Ingolstadt’s latest S-badged offering. Despite a brand-new powerplant and a wealth of other technological tweaks aimed at making it an even more focused performance saloon, the only thing onlookers seem to utter in its presence is “So…when is Audi bringing out the new RS4?”
It’s understandable to some degree; the S4’s styling, although very neat, is very conservative – almost bordering on inoffensive – and the old model’s 4,2-litre V8 powerplant is no more, but what lies beneath the mild-mannered exterior is something quite special.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that when the S4 arrived at our offices I was one of those guilty of blurting out the aforementioned question without much thought. Just a glimpse around the S4 suggested that there was little to get excited about here: sure, it sat a little lower on its springs, sported a tweak to a bumper here, an aluminium-effect accent to a tailpipe and diffuser there, and some very subtle “S” badging smattered about, but it’s not quite the visual punch in the gut that the likes of the old RS4, M3 and C63 AMG serves up. Those neat, twin-blade design alloy wheels are a nice touch, but then they’re an added-cost option.
When my turn came to take the Audi S4 home one evening, it was at the end of a long, arduous day that lent itself more to dissolving into the squashy seat of a grand saloon than tucking love-handles into a heavily-bolstered leather and Alcantara sports seat. Thankfully, the S4’s cabin is another fine example of Audi craftsmanship, being typically hewn from quality materials and screwed together by engineers with finely-sculpted facial hair. There were, however, a couple of small touches that stood out and suggested that my evening commute could be a touch more eventful than I’d first thought – sporty hints of chrome, grey dials with white needles.
Digging the key into its slot saw the engine spring to like with a bassy, metallic burble that brought me abruptly out of my slow potter home reverie. Audis with a sporting bent are renowned for their hefty steering and the tiller of the S4 (admittedly fitted with a variable-ratio steering setup) felt especially beefy at low speeds and was vividly contrasted by a very sensitive throttle that could easily catch a heavy-footed driver unawares. Even so, the Audi S4 felt quite at ease with round-town pottering with the odd spell of brisk driving thrown in here and there.
Our test car was fitted with an adaptive damper system that, when left in ‘auto’, managed a respectable balance between dynamic stiffness and just enough compliancy so as to not loosen a filling on broken surfaces or bring up any aural interruptions to that addictive exhaust note which accompanies your progress – and it’s that sound that cheekily goads you into burying the throttle.
Do so, and the car’s entire character changes in a heartbeat. The engine note transforms from a burble at a ripping snarl from the rear almost akin to tearing calico. The supercharged 3,0-litre V6 is mated with Audi’s latest generation of seven-speed S-tronic dual-clutch transmission, which gleefully drops a cog or three under hard acceleration, and serves up its 245 kW and whacking great lump of 440 N.m with the grin-inducing alacrity only a mechanically-blown powerplant can. At speed the steering still feels a little dead about centre, but does provide a fair bit of feedback on turn-in. Audi’s Quattro all-wheel drive system is augmented by an (optional) sports differential that apportions torque between the two rear wheels. The result is huge levels of grip and confidence-inspiring composure that allow you to carry serious pace into sweeping bends and sinuous stretches of tarmac.
It’s not just the satisfaction of speedy progress in the Audi S4 that draws admiration, but the engineering behind it. Audi has stiffened the axle bearings, fitted firmer dampers and positioned the differential ahead of the clutch to allow the engine to be moved 154 mm rearward and thus improve weight distribution – all of which makes the S4 feel as though it’s been purpose-built with spirited driving in mind.
The overall result was a car that turned my commute into a two-hour session of spearing around some of my favourite stretches of road with a grin on my face when I would otherwise have been sitting at home contemplating a quiet, uneventful evening. Even when I did get home, I found myself switching off the engine, pausing ever so briefly, then firing it up again and going for another drive. For a car to be both satisfying and addictive to an initially disinterested driver really goes some way to signifying just what Audi has produced in the new S4.