AUDI’S S4 range will, no doubt, soon be getting a new look, in line with the styling of the new “droop snoot” A4, featured in a driving impression elsewhere in this issue. But for now, the hot versions of the A4, including the luscious S4 Cabriolet model, still have the “old” styling. And, if it’s real elegance you’re after, we’re not sure that’s a bad thing…
With its rakish top, the S4 Cabrio is even more striking than the classically-styled outgoing saloon. And there’s the added advantage of wind-in-the-hair motoring at the touch of a button. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, of course, so we’ll concentrate on the hardware, and what it will do for you. Because, just like its saloon sister, the ragtop version is a serious piece of kit.
For starters, there’s that powerful V8, shoehorned into the tight engine bay by dint of some really clever engineering. As we’ve explained before, Audi engineers redesigned the timing chain and cover at the back of the unit, lopping off a handy 52 mm from the overall length to achieve a perfect fit. The “trimming” process also extended to the use of lightweight materials for components such as pistons and connecting rods, so the V8 has an all-up weight of just 195 kg, ideal for optimum weight distribution in what is, after all, a compact convertible. The engine has twin overhead camshafts per bank actuating five valves per cylinder, and peak outputs are 253 kW at a heady 7 000 r/min and 410 N.m at 3 500, the latter figure ensuring good lugging ability in mid-range.
Though a Tiptronic model is available, we believe the six-speed manual gearbox fitted to the test vehicle is the best option for a car with the S4’s huge performance potential. This slick-shifting unit transfers drive to a traditional quattro 4wd set-up, featuring a self-locking Torsen central differential that apportions torque between the front and rear axles.
Suspension, by double wishbones and coils up front and a trapezoidal multi-link arrangement at the rear, is almost identical to that of the new A4, which has borrowed many of the S4’s anti-roll bar and shock absorber settings. Brakes are ventilated discs (340 mm diameter fronts, with 300 mm units at the rear wheels), and there’s the full range of driver aids – ABS, EBD, BAS and switchable ESP. Like the saloon, the Cabriolet runs on 18x8J alloy wheels shod with 40-series Continental Sport Contact 2 rubber.
The cockpit, finished in dark leather/Alcantara and dark plastics, has a generic, classy Audi look. Instrumentation is easy to read, with white-on-grey dials for the speedo and rev-counter, and all the major controls are well-positioned. There’s a great sound system but, on a car at this price level, we would have liked steering-mounted satellite controls.
A range of luxury features is part of the standard package, including climate control, electric windows, electrically adjustable front seats, electric exterior mirrors, trip computer, satellite navigation, central locking and a remote alarm/immobiliser. Passive safety includes front and side airbags as well as seatbelt pretensioners. A reinforced screen and pop-up roll-hoops are claimed to provide saloon-like protection in a rollover.
The S4 Cabrio is a full four-seater, with ample leg-, head- and shoulderroom for rear-seat passengers. Front and rear seats are well-shaped and supportive but, as in the saloon, we found the Alcantara inserts a bit too “grippy” for our liking.
Luggage capacity is good for a convertible, our standard ISO-block measurement providing results of 256 dm3 with the top up, and 176 dm3 in top-down mode.
The hood folds or erects at the touch of a button, but the process takes a full 30 seconds, which is leisurely by today’s standards. At the cost of the rear-seat space, you can minimise buffeting with the top down by installing the wind deflector (supplied with the car), which rests on a frame that fits into the rear compartment.
Registering 1 921 kg on our scales, the S4 Cabrio was a full 154 kg heavier than the saloon version tested back in 2003, so we weren’t surprised that acceleration was a little behind that of the tin-top. Like the saloon, it had a tendency to bog down on fast pullaways, but the problem can be overcome by keeping the revs up. As in the saloon, acceleration times are helped by the meaty but slick gearshift action, which minimises loss of momentum at each change point.
On the test strip the soft-top sprinted to 100 km/h in 6,49 seconds, a full 0,6 seconds off the time recorded by its saloon sibling, and was 0,87 seconds adrift by the kilometre mark. But, despite the softtop, the recorded maximum speed of 268 km/h was 3 km/h faster, the limiter being set fractionally higher. The hood was completely stable at high speeds, but there was fairly loud wind-roar from the air passing over the fabric. Though not quite as impressive as those recorded by the saloon, stopping times were very good, the Cabrio pulling up consistently in just on three seconds in our 10-stop 100-tozero km/h emergency braking test.
If the S4 Cabrio has an Achilles heel, it’s in fuel economy. The quattro drive system, together with the extra stiffening required for the open body, make the car a real heavyweight. That, together with the tempting performance, take their toll on fuel thirst. However, if you are able to restrain your right foot more than we were able to, you should easily better our 15,5 litres/100 km fuel index, a reflection of expected fuel thirst in enthusiastic driving. But, driven with verve, the car will do less than 450 km on a 66-litre tank of fuel.
Away from the straight and narrow, the S4 Cabrio impresses with its tautness. There’s some scuttle shake when the car is being thrashed across rough tar, but in most other situations it feels saloon- solid. Ride is firm – perhaps a tad firmer than those in the market for a boulevard-cruising convertible would like – but the tautness brings great composure in press-on driving. The steering lacks some feel around the centre point, but loads up in corners. Thanks to the quattro system, grip levels are really high: enter a bend too fast and the front will slide first, but only really rough treatment will activate the ESP on a dry road. Boot it injudiciously on a streaming wet surface, however, and you will appreciate the added safety net the electronics provide.
With its powerful burbling V8 and sure-footed quattro drivetrain, the S4 is one of those inspirational cars that is great fun to drive, whether you’re on the limit on your favourite twisty road, or simply heading for the shops to buy the groceries. The convertible top adds to the car’s fun character. As we said, the ride is taut for a boulevard cruiser, but those who simply fancy swanning around do have another option in the standard A4 Cabriolet. But if you want four comfy seats, blistering performance, and the option of travelling al fresco, then the S4 Cabriolet is right on the button.