Tuesday
Oct112011

Test Drive: 2011 Audi S4

Audi have been making great cars for years, but in the past they’ve often fallen short in the driving dynamics and performance department when compared to their chief rivals from Bavaria. That gap has been narrowed considerably in the last few years, as Audi has stepped up their game in building cars that appeal to true driving enthusiasts. The high-end R8 sports car has contributed significantly to Audi’s sporting image along with all those wins with the prototypes in ALMS and at Le Mans, but Audi is also making great driver’s cars in the $50,000 range – cars like the S4 sedan you see here.

One of the best four-door sport sedans I’ve driven in the last five years was the 2007 Audi RS4, which had a fantastic 4.2-liter V8 under the hood that put out a robust 420hp. While Audi hasn’t said anything about an “RS” version of today’s A4 sedan, today’s S4 has plenty of performance and dynamic abilities to thrills it drivers. To make the S4 both fast and frugal, Audi installed a supercharged 3-liter V6 that features twin intercoolers and puts out 333hp and 325 lb-ft of torque. These numbers may not sound that impressive in today’s world where 300+ hp sedans are fairly common, but the S4 starts making peak torque at a low 2,900rpm and can get to 60mph in a very respectable 4.9 seconds while delivering 27mpg on the highway. 

Audi has done a fantastic job with the tuning of the S4’s suspension, as it retains a firm but well-controlled ride while delivery plenty of stick in aggressive driving. On our favorite twisty roads of northwest New Jersey (I’ll give you a list of roads if you find that surprising), the S4 was agile and responsive, which is impressive given the cars 3,637-lb weight. The S4 has a three-stage electronic damping system similar to what BMW offers in the M3, with settings for “Comfort,” “Auto” and “Dynamic.” We did most of our daily driving in the “Auto” setting while we had the car, which worked very well, but the “Dynamic” setting certainly made the car more responsive in quick transitions and sharpened it up on the back roads. Audi has become famous for its Quattro all-wheel drive and you can’t buy an S4 without it, which is a good thing. Fitted with Quattro and the very worthwhile optional Sports Rear Differential Package ($1,100), which varies the torque between the rear wheels, the S4 feels more rear-wheel drive in character when you are wringing it out on a favorite stretch of twisty road, but you still have the added security of Quattro if the conditions call for it.

Audi is known for their great interior design and the S4 is a nice place to be when you’re on the road. I really liked the Alcantara seats that are exclusive to the S4, and everything about the interior has a quality feel that gives the impression that the car is made to last. Some have complained about the roominess of the rear seat, but I thought it was more than adequate. If you want a bigger back seat, get an A6. The S4 is also a great looking car from the outside, though I could do without the silver accents on the mirrors and rocker panels. I did like the wheels that came with the optional Titanium Package on our test car ($1,050), which also includes high-performance tires (Dunlop SP Sport Maxx GT) and black exterior design elements. 

My complaints with the S4 are few. The feel through the steering wheel can be a bit on the vague side, especially when driving aggressively on a road that has a lot of transitions, but that’s more the norm than the exception with modern cars. The S4’s window controls are way too touchy, as it was difficult to just put them down part-way without having them go all the way down or up, and I wish the car had a more vocal exhaust note. The manual gearbox on the S4 can also be a bit notchy at times but works well enough. We believe most of these cars are being sold with Audi’s excellent dual-clutch transmission, so it’s nice that Audi still gives buyers a choice of a manual transmission. 

Overall, the S4 is a truly impressive package and brings a lot to the table. It has great power that comes on in a smooth and linear rush, with confident and nimble handling that makes it fun to drive on a deserted back road. It’s also comfortable enough to drive for hours on the interstate without sucking your wallet dry in fuel costs, and has the security of Quattro that makes this car a viable year-round driver in the Snow Belt, though you would of course have to change the tires. At just under $50,000, the S4 can even be considered a great value for its blend of luxury and performance, and slots in nicely in the market between the $42,000 BMW 335i sedan and the $56,000 BMW M3 sedan. 

One place you will have a hard time finding an Audi S4 is at the race track. Audi’s DTM race car is based visually on the A4 and the R8 sports car is racing all over Europe, but the only series we’ve seen an S4 in is the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge, where APR Motorsport has been campaigning one in the GS class in select races as they develop the car. We have seen a few S4’s showing up to track days already here in the Northeast, which is not surprising given the cars performance attributes. We’d love to see Audi bring another “RS” version of the S4 to the U.S. market, but as an all-around performance sedan, the S4 is hard to beat.

For more information: www.audiusa.com

MSRP

$47,975 (including destination charge)

Price as tested

$49,625 (options included Titanium Package at $1,050 and Sports Rear Differential Package at $1,100)

Engine

3.0-liter supercharged V6 with dual intercoolers, direct injection and variable valve timing

Power

333hp @ 5,500-7,000rpm

Torque

325 lb-ft @ 2,900-5,300rpm

0-60mph

4.9 seconds

Drivetrain

6-speed manual transmission with Quattro AWD (7-speed dual-clutch tranny optional), electronically locking front differential, self-locking center differential, electronically locking rear differential

Suspension

Front: Five-link with upper/lower wishbones, tubular ant-roll bar

Rear: Independent trapezoidal link with resiliently mounted subframe, anti-roll bar

Brakes

12.6-inch vented discs front/11.3-inch vented discs rear

Fuel economy

18 city / 27 highway

Curb weight

3,637 lbs.

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