Audi S4 Review: 1600km lap of Germany

Rating: 9.0
$120,400 Mrlp
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We complete a lap of Germany in a fine local performance sedan...
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At 260km/h the Audi S4 gives a slight thump as it shifts from sixth gear to the tallest ratio inside its dual-clutch automatic gearbox for the final 7km/h to its tested top speed.

It is the sort of small thump that reminds me of the similar, larger thump made by its bigger brother the Audi RS6 during performance testing in the Northern Territory last month, and it perfectly encapsulates the difference between ‘S’ and ‘RS’ models.

The S4 is a less thumping performance sedan, but it is also one of the sweetest Audi models currently on sale. For a company sometimes criticised for producing high-quality but fairly dynamically inert cars, this second-tier performance sedan is an anathema.

The active centre differential and dynamic steering optioned on our test car means there’s rear-drive-like throttle steer available in bends, which helps make the S4 feel anything but inert. The creamy, raunchy 3.0-litre supercharged V6 engine also flies in the face of probably the least sexy engine configuration available – a V6 typically doesn’t sound like a V8 and isn’t as smooth as an in-line six.

Past performance-testing of the 245kW/440Nm S4, which comes standard with launch control, recorded a 4.9 second 0-100km/h.

Locally, the Audi S4 costs $120,400 – plus $4700 for the sports differential and dynamic steering, and another $1000 for active cruise and lane keeping assistance also fitted to our car – so it isn’t exactly cheap. That’s about the same money as a lairy Lexus IS F, a car that through its many updates has become an excellent performance sedan. If you’re quick, the BMW M3 Pure Edition also works in the same price bracket, and it’s a near-five-star performer. But only Audi offers an Avant for another $3000 – and it’s the one we’d choose, though we’re being choosy.

As the title suggests, this isn’t a conventional CarAdvice review, but rather a travel piece involving a great car. The 1600km lap of Germany is timed to finish with the start of the Frankfurt motor show. But our starting place is Frankfurt airport five nights prior, and will run circa-425km to Munich, then 600km to Berlin, and 600km back to the beginning.

Clearly there are character profiles within the filing-cabinet lair of Audi AG headquarters in Ingolstadt because my request for ‘a car’ for the trip – when fuel costs upwards of $2.50 per litre maybe an A3 diesel would suffice? – ended up with an answer confirming that one of my favourite Audis would be available.

We hadn’t reviewed the S4 in ages, we agreed, and none are available on the local press fleet.

Not only is the Audi S4 a personal favourite, blending luxury and speed while sidestepping the hardcore, but this particular S4 is specified (almost) exactly as I’d choose my S4. No adaptive suspension is required – which adds a further $2000 – because the standard fixed suspension is very good, but the optional sports diff and dynamic steering are needed.

It’s the first time I’ve sampled Audi’s lane keeping assistance, having only tried Merc’s version. As it turns out, the philosophies are completely different, with Benz giving the steering wheel a subtle buzz when straying from your lane and the S4 almost reefing the hands from the wheel at the first sign of a corner being cut.

“Aargh!” was my response. So I filed through the DriveSelect menu and set the vibration warning to ‘low’ and steering input to ‘late’. Although it aims to address driver incompetence, the system also gets confused when roadworks on the autobahn forces drivers to squeeze onto the shoulder. After a while it demonstrates its intelligence – when wandering wide in a bend it ramps up the steering assistance to ease turn in, or when cutting an inside line it backs off steering assistance – but it never feels natural. At the Frankfurt motor show later, a Benz engineer tells me they wanted to avoid this level of interference with its system.

More intelligent is the radar cruise control, but smarter again are German drivers. At the first sign of a clear stretch of autobahn, the fast lane has only two cars in it, but seeing a milano red S4 bearing down behind them they instantly part ways into the middle lane.

Later, the autobahn would come to a griding halt and drivers would hit their hazard lights to stream back communication to those speeding Audis, Benzes and Bimmers to slow down. They – and I – do obediently and safely. A flash of the headlights means ‘get out of my way’ in both Australian and German, but only one culture responds with a quick shift out of the fast lane.

By way of comparison, my first freeway drive back in Australia would see trucks tailgating in the fast lane of Sydney’s M4 motorway, at 20km/h below the speed limit, before a truck is forced to slam on its brakes, almost rear-ending a little Yaris. Road safety? Australia, we’re doing it wrong.

But I digress. The S4 has speed aplenty but it also has amazing stability. The standard 245/35 R18 Pirelli Cinturato tyres are grippy, but the suspension itself hunkers down making the mid-sized Audi feel planted even at 267km/h, speeds at which Australian authorities tell me I should be dead or in the slammer.

Sliding through cobblestone Munich streets in the late evening proves that the sports suspension also delivers a mostly comfortable and very disciplined urban ride. Beyond the eccentricities of the active lane keeping assist, the steering is sharp and well weighted when finding a park.

Munich is a traditional, wealthy German town, so the S4 blends in nicely. Okay, it’s also BMW-town – as confirmed by the 2 Series and next-generation X1 camouflaged mules that passed us – but Ingolstadt is only 80km north so the Audi isn’t torched. It is, however, parked for a day while the fruits of the 1600-person-strong Hofbrauhaus beer hall are tried and tasted. Only eight Euro for a litre of beer? Dankershern.

The next day the S4 weaves out of town past the ‘four cylinder’ BMW headquarters tower, which was built in 1972 to coincide with the Munich olympic games, but it was only finished on the outside; the inside was still unfinished. It was especially important as the Olympic stadium was built across the road, the elegant structure of which looks like a linen cloth draped over a kids’ cardboard fortress or a bat’s wings, depending on your perspective. Architecture buffs will find it still looks cool.

A planned inland route past Ingolstadt through the mountains north to Berlin was soon thwarted following a stop to the quiet town of Dachau, about 16km away from Munich, and the remains of the concentration camp that once wore its name.

Now a beautiful, haunting memorial site, more than 32,000 political prisoners died here between 1933 and 1945 as part of the horrific Nazi government regime. A quick stop turns into a long, late afternoon departure, and suddenly the thought of carving up mountains didn’t appeal; it’s back to the autobahn, the Audi a solemn express to Berlin. Back home the federal election results are in, but they don’t matter right now.

After its first fill the Audi S4 returns 11.9L/100km, slightly above its 8.1L/100km official combined consumption, but excellent considering the amount of wide-open-throttle it has been served. Even including urban driving in Munich, the average speed so far is pegged at 117km/h...

It’s 10pm as the S4 passes the Berlin Bear statue – referencing the coat of arms – placed on the northern tip of Bundesautobahn 9 and the former Checkpoint Bravo in the pre-1989 divided Berlin.

Berlin never sleeps, they say. In the daytime it is a hive of activity, with hop-on/hop-off buses ferrying camera phones and the tourists attached to them around the ‘museum quarter’, mostly. But at night the odd dark path will lead to the partying underground, and a disused, four-level post-war electricity substation is my illuminating entrée to German techno and relaxed dresscode and OH&S measures; I’m wearing one layer of clothing, and for some that’s a layer too many, while climbing up ladders to another floor while juggling a gin and tonic would irk many a fluro-vested clipboard-holder back home.

In Sydney’s Kings Cross these days clubs can’t sell shots of spirits after 11pm but they can pour a shot’s-worth into a glass with ice… The connections with road safety policy are obvious; for a nation known as ‘laid back’ our lawmakers are anything but.

Incidentally, a mate of mine now lives in Berlin, but the reason he lives there is ever more interesting in these times of declining Australian automotive manufacturing. He is currently on asssignment – with about 20 other Aussies – doing clay modelling for Volkswagen at its Potsdam design centre, just outside of Berlin. Not even rare shouts from a car journalist will unlock the secrets of next-generation Volkswagens, however.

Still, it proves that we may not be exporting cars to the world in great numbers, but the educational reforms made in Australia during the 1980s – meaning lower school-leaver rates and increased likelihood of university education – are paying dividends for us around the globe. We are now exporting talent.

In pouring rain a few mornings later I snap the Audi S4 next to the remains of the Berlin wall, which are painted with motifs on the western wall while artists have formed an ‘east side gallery’ the other side. The latter includes paintings by Kai Wiedenhofer who has taken snapshots of walls that still exist in the world, such as those between South and North Korea, Mexico and the USA, and the Gaza strip.

“There are wall over the world which prevent democracy and reconciliation,” the gallery introduces.

“… walls cannot solve political conflicts. Instead, they reflect the failure of politics. Walls are oppressive exclusions and again and again also dictatorial confinements. In other words, walls are inhuman no matter what kind of architectural design or ideological justification is used for them.”

Drenched, and with wipers flailing, the S4 and I head back south towards Leipzig – home of Porsche and BMW factories – before turning back west towards Frankfurt. The seats in the S4 are superb, as is the interior quality and ergonomics, expectedly for an Audi. While traffic streams into Berlin for a Monday morning, the S4 belts out of it.

A bathroom stop and another fill – of car with 98RON, and me with an assorted lollies bag – punctuates yet again more autobahn, but this time the S4 is averaging beyond 140km/h and there’s the least amount of traffic yet seen. Roadworks soon mean the S4 sat-nav helpfully assists to suggest a squiggly line of mountain road as an alternative route that would link back to the autobahn. Accept.

The S4 is dynamically playful, yet it rides well. It sounds brilliant and goes hard, yet at 200km/h it is ticking over at 3200rpm in seventh gear, so it is also quiet and relatively economical. There’s space for five, a big boot for two suitcases, and plenty of standard equipment.

After 1625km the chrome-tinged, bug-splattered nose of ‘my’ S4 arrives beside the towering financial buildings of Frankfurt, ‘windscreen wiper empty’ icon the only flashing light on the dashboard. It has been a terrific partner, averaging 11.5L/100km overall, which is much less than I’d anticipated, allowing the credit card to die another day.

What’s clear is that the three main cities in Germany each have their own distinct character and charm that are not unlike the differences between the three main German car companies – formal and traditional, focused and corporate, and slickly cool. To the eternal bewilderment of local road safety ‘authorities’ I saw no crashes on the autobahn, and not only survived at 200km/h-plus for multiple days, but experienced no road rage or frustrating moments, let alone ‘a moment’.

The Audi S4, meanwhile, again proves a near-perfect tier-two performance sedan that neatly fits between the A4, 3 Series and C-Class mainstream models and the hardcore RS4, C63 AMG and M3. It was difficult to say goodbye, and even harder to return to Australian roads…