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Audi S4 review - updated with impressions on S4 Avant

Jethro Bovingdon
6 Oct 2016
Verdict:

S4 suggests a huge amount of potential within the new A4 chassis…but the overall experience is perhaps too retrained for its own good.

Evo Rating: 
Price: 
£44,000
For 
Incredible quality, fluid ride, nicely poised feeling, strong and responsive engine
Against 
New ‘box less exciting, driving experience feels softer-edged than previously
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Understated almost to the point of anonymity, the S4 is our first taste of a performance derivative of the new Audi A4.

There’ll be an RS4 to follow but often the S sub-brand does a fine job of delivering strong performance without the pulverising chassis settings that can inflict the RS models. It has a direct injection 3-litre V6 turbocharged engine good for 349bhp at 5400-6400rpm and 369lb ft from 1370-4500rpm. Prices haven’t yet been announced in the UK but expect to pay from around £43,500.

Sitting just below the potent ‘RS’ model line, Audi’s S models are often very sweet indeed. Can the new S4 improve upon the old car’s appealing mix of performance, usability and subtle good looks?

Machinerynical highlights

The big news here is the switch from supercharged to turbocharged technology, plus the adoption of an 8-speed automatic gearbox instead of the old car’s dual clutch S tronic transmission. Power outputs are up 20bhp and 44lb ft over the old car and the new A4 provides a much lighter, stiffer platform, too. The S4 and S4 Avant are around 75kg less than the previous S4s at 1630kg and 1675kg respectively. Both variants dip below 5-seconds for the 0-62mph sprint (4.7sec and 4.9sec) and the top speed is limited to 155mph, as you’d expect.

The S4 is, of course, underpinned by a four-wheel drive chassis. Under normal circumstances power is split 40/60 front to rear but up to 70 per cent of power can go to the front axle or 85 per cent to the rear should conditions demand it. The active torque vectoring ‘sport differential’ for the rear axle remains an option at around £1500 and the new S4 also lightly brakes the inside wheels during hard cornering to create a more agile feeling. Also on the options list is Continuous Damper Control, which features Comfort, Auto and Dynamic settings, and the variable ratio Dynamic Steering system.

What’s it like to drive?

The first thing that strikes you about the S4 – other than the superb interior and rather brilliant (and optional) virtual cockpit system – is how refined it is. Our car is fully loaded with 19-inch wheels (18s are standard in Europe but this may be how the S4 arrives in the UK), Continuous Damper Control and the clever sport differential. It rides beautifully in Comfort mode and on our admittedly smooth-surfaced test route, Dynamic mode does little to ruffle the fluid composure of the car. Allied to the almost invisible 8-speed automatic and instantly responsive engine, the S4 makes effortless progress.

The dynamic steering system is worlds better than before but still has an initial jumpiness that feels slightly odd and it’s so light that you don’t feel there’s a real connection to the front wheels. Having said that it takes only a few minutes to adapt to that and the rate of response feels much more natural and consistent than those hateful early systems. I’m still not sold on the whole concept but I’ll admit it’s not a huge issue in this car.

What of the switch from supercharged to turbocharged tech? Well, the new engine has excellent throttle response, a much stronger mid-range and the delivery only starts to feel soft-edged in the last 800rpm or so at the top end. I think the old motor was a bit more characterful and created a sharper edge to the driving experience, but the new engine is more refined and definitely gives a bigger kick. The move from the surgically precise S tronic ‘box is another factor that rounds off the dynamic feel of the S4 rather than sharpens it to a defined point. There’s a suggestion that the newfound torque meant the change was necessary but there’s no question that the S tronic ‘box is just a faster, more exciting experience. It’s a shame that the S4 has lost that sparkling ingredient.

As for the chassis it’s partly brilliant and partly disappointing. The ride really is fluid and allows you to build up a nice, easy rhythm and whilst there’s quite a bit of body roll the car has a sense of effortless control that seems to fit with its easy-going but impressive turn of speed. The balance is also pretty good. Of course it can be made to understeer if you don’t listen to the howling tyres (it comes as standard with Hankooks, which are brilliant in the wet but lack response and mid corner grip in the dry), but if you turn the car in slightly slower and then commit to the throttle you feel the sport diff sending power to the outside rear tyre. As the corner unfolds a small yaw angle builds and then stabilises, so you exit each corner with the car driving forwards but held in a shallow oversteering angle. It’s actually a really cool sensation.

The only problem is that the S4 feels slightly too soft-edged. The chassis is clearly very well sorted, the balance with the sport diff is adjustable and not relentlessly understeery, but the weight savings advertised don’t really make themselves felt. Instead of feeling lithe and agile the S4 too often feels like you’re coercing it into revealing its sportier side. I’m not suggesting it should be crashy and edgy but a small increase in body control and turn-in response, a bit more volume for the exhaust and sharper gearshifts would transform the car. At the moment is feels too often just like a ‘normal’ A4 that just happens to have a load more performance rather than a true performance derivative. It should be said that the S4 saloon is tangibly more agile than the Avant model and feels slightly keener to entertain.

Audi S4 Avant

It’s always tempting to suggest that the estate version of any fast Audi is the one to have. They have such a rich heritage in fast estates, from the Porsche-engineered RS2 to original RS4 and now with the massively potent RS6 Avant. However, in the case of the S4 the five-door version isn’t quite as much fun as the saloon. The weight difference isn’t huge at 45kg (1675kg versus 1630kg) but you can definitely feel it. It’s slightly slower to change direction and although we’re talking small degrees here, the saloon car just has cleaner reactions and a slight advantage in terms of agility.

Of course the Avant has its advantages. It’s just as understated as the saloon but has that estate car cool that fits nicely with the discreet nature of the S4 and it’s, um, got a bigger boot. I suspect the former might be what swings it for many buyers and I can hardly blame them. However, if you want the very best S4 in dynamic terms you should stick to the saloon car. It’s tangibly sharper and feels keener to be driven with enthusiasm.   

Price and rivals

The S4 Saloon stars at £44,000 with the Avant being £1,400 more. That makes the estate version £3765 more expensive than the BMW 340i Touring and just £150 more than the Mercedes-AMG C43 Estate. The Mercedes does have more power, 13bhp more, however the Audi has a nicer, more considered interior.

> Click here to read our review of the Mercedes-AMG C43

In a recent test we pitted the 340i against the C43. The BMW was engaging and adjustable thanks to its rear-drive chassis, but the Mercedes was so impressive, composed with incredible pace it edged ahead and won the test. The S4 and C43 both having a turbocharged 3-litre V6, four-wheel drive and automatic gearbox, plus a very similar attitude, the Audi is going to give the AMG a run for its money.

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