Performance sedans come in various degrees of hardcore, and the Audi S4 and Volvo S60 Polestar aim to play in a middle ground sweet spot.
They are more premium than our home-grown FPV and HSV sports sedans, yet aren’t quite as focused as the German trio of BMW M3, Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG and Audi’s own RS5 Sportback. Both of these all-wheel-drive turbocharged six-cylinder contenders are even priced between those two segments – at just over $100,000 – and aim to be luxury-sports and sports-luxury personalities depending on how you’re driving them.
The current-generation Audi S4 has nailed that brief since its introduction in 2010. It is one of the best cars Audi builds, and the S4 has worked hard to earn its stripes following two generations of flawed forebears. This firmly established contender has little to lose here.
Volvo, however, has everything to gain from a fight it initiated. Maybe the Swedes have picked up some bar-brawling Aussie swagger since they joined the V8 Supercars, because local executives reckoned last year’s S60 Polestar could get all up in the S4’s grillz, though we couldn’t organise a comparison at the time.
Fast forward less than 12 months and we have the facelifted Volvo S60 Polestar (and with an S4 at the ready). The original 50-unit limited edition, engineered by the tuning outfit of the same name, was created only for Australia as a test bed for subsequent introduction in other markets.
Indeed it was a success, because Europe is now getting this facelifted version. Huge credit to Volvo and Polestar is required, too, because where the S4 has rested on its laurels largely unchanged for four years, this S60 Polestar has been worked on to provide three big fixes over the original – there’s now paddleshifters for a quicker-shifting automatic transmission, beefier sports seats to stop you sliding around, and big new Brembo brakes.
Our only other issue with the Volvo S60 Polestar when it launched last year was its $109,950 pricetag, which remains $35K more than the S60 T6 R-Design on which it’s heavily based.
So perhaps it’s no coincidence that weeks after the facelifted S60 Polestar appeared, and days before this test was scheduled, the price of the Audi S4 fell to $105,000; a whopping $14,900 reduction that instantly moves it from being $10K more expensive than the S60 Polestar to $5K less expensive.
It may take a boxing referee with strong arms to keep racing-jacketed Volvo executives from touching the business suits of their Audi equivalents following that sneaky attempt at a checkmate move.
However, where the Volvo gets 19-inch alloys standard, Audi charges $2400 to upgrade from 18s to generic-looking 19s. To further match the S60’s standard equipment list, S4 buyers will need to option Bang and Olufsen 11-speaker audio ($1550 – to match S60’s superb 10-speaker Sensus Connect system), a driver’s seat memory function and auto-fold mirrors ($1350), and adaptive cornering lights ($800), all of which erases the pricing gap.
On the safety front, the Volvo includes adaptive cruise control, forward collision alert then full auto-braking response, and blind-spot alert, three functions that are bundled as an option pack in the Audi for $1000. For that price, however, the S4 also adds lane keeping assistance, which moves the steering wheel subtly if lane wander is detected, where the S60 only alerts drivers if they move from between white lines. Conversely, unique features in the Volvo include road-sign detection and display, and a pop-up bonnet-mounted pedestrian airbag.
This battle clearly won’t be won or lost on value for money, because it's now even-stevens.
Of the two rivals the S60 Polestar, Smurf blue with aggressive multi-spoke alloy wheels and greyed-out exterior bits, stands out and looks more special.
It takes a committed car-spotter to notice our corporatised white S4 is more than just an A4 2.0 TDI sedan with an S-Line kit, the little badge on the heavily chromed grille, silver-capped mirrors and quad sports exhausts the only clues otherwise.
Inside the Audi benefits from the same brilliant plastics quality and tactile switchgear that has kept the entire A4 range ahead of the competition since its 2008 introduction. Its age is showing a bit in the 7.0-inch colour screen (small by $100K-plus standards) and the lack of full Audi Connect functionality available in the newer A6 (it lacks internet and apps connectivity, for example).
The Volvo is almost as formal as the Audi inside, and, except for the lovely leather and alcantara sports seats with blue stitching, it too appears little different to a regular S60. That’s no bad thing, though, because although the Volvo has a similarly small 7.0-inch screen, its interface and controls are even easier to use than the Audi’s, its graphics are funkier and the TFT dials that have multiple ‘themes’ are way cooler.
For those choosing a sedan because of the practicality they afford over a coupe, the 4.63-metre-long S60 affords 5cm more legroom than the 4.72m-long S4, and there’s a less intrusive centre tunnel for the middle rear rider.
Both get rear air vents, though only the Audi scores cupholders for its centre armrest. Further back, its 480-litre boot is 100L up on the Volvo that is further hobbled by needing to keep its space saver spare tyre in the boot due to the bracing required under it.
Both contenders utilise 3.0-litre six-cylinder engines. The Audi’s cylinders are arranged in a ‘V’ shape where the Volvo’s go across the engine bay in a straight line, however, and the S4’s is boosted by a mechanical supercharger where the S60 recirculates exhaust gases inside a turbocharger.
Power figures are close – 245kW arrives between 5500-6500rpm in the German, and 257kW comes online at 5700rpm in the Swede. For torque the supercharged V6’s 440Nm over 2900-5300rpm is outgunned by the turbo straight six’s 500Nm ‘plus’, though it is delivered in a narrower, 3000-4750rpm range.
With a 1705kg kerb weight, the Audi is also 65kg lighter than the Volvo, resulting in a power and torque to weight difference of just 1kW and 24Nm respectively.
It couldn’t be closer for claimed performance times, either. Both include launch control and rear-biased all-wheel-drive systems, but the S4 utilises a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox where the S60 relies on a six-speed torque converter. The Volvo claims a 4.9-second 0-100km/h, a mere tenth faster than the Audi.
It’s the white sedan that feels faster off the line, and sings with a deliciously smooth and raunchy soundtrack before a staccato blurt from the exhaust fires as quickly as the gearbox has grabbed the next gear. Being supercharged, there’s no delay off the mark - only instant throttle response and immediate delivery. By contrast the Volvo initially feels doughy. You can feel obvious turbo lag off the bottom end, and the engine doesn’t rev as quickly. Its soundtrack is louder and meatier than its more strident rival; different and similarly sweet. But where the supercharged V6 is linear in its delivery, in the mid-range the turbocharged six feels more exciting, obviously boosting harder to the benefit of snappy slingshot cornering exits.
Perhaps it's that trait, and the heavier kerb weight, that makes the Polestar thirstier than the S4 - Volvo claims 10.2L/100km on the combined cycle, versus 8.1L/100km for the Audi, although that gap narrowed to a 1L/100km difference on-test, 12.0L/100km versus 11.0L/100km.
Taps of each car’s paddleshifters reveal the S60’s as markedly slower to respond, and it isn’t as intuitive in the sport mode of its auto, either. The S4’s transmission feels as primed for sports driving as it is smooth and relaxed around town, working with its engine and driver masterfully well.
Our S4 comes with an optional ($4700) package that includes dynamic steering (which includes a variable ratio that lessens the turns lock-to-lock) and an active centre differential that can send 80 per cent of drive to the rear wheels, teamed with a locking rear diff that then shuffles the portion of torque side to side.
For keen drivers this is perhaps the most important option package of them all, as it represents all the good bits under Clark Kent’s clothes. More than that, it makes the S4 feel less Audi-like and more … BMW M-car special.
Moving the thin-rimmed, flat-bottomed steering wheel, there’s immediacy on centre, smooth slickness as lock is wound on (auto is the best setting, where comfort is too light, dynamic too weighty) and a quickness that highlights the chassis agility; at just 2.0 turns lock-to-lock your arms rarely are crossed-up either in corners or shopping centre carparks.
The S4 turns into corners well, but it reveals its party trick coming out of them.
Once the outside front wheel bites – well before the apex – stand on the throttle. After the briefest of moments there’s a malleable snap in balance, the front end going light as the rear squats and in the slightest of four-wheel drifts the Audi fires from the bend.
A sport setting for the stability control is standard, and it is nicely tuned, while adaptive suspension with comfort, auto and dynamic settings is optional (stand alone for $2200 but packaged with the tricky diff and sport steering for $6700) but not fitted to our test car. No matter, though, because the S4’s fixed dampers do a brilliant job of cosseting occupants and controlling body movements on all roads.
This is a supremely comfortable, frisky and fast sports sedan.
With such a high level of dynamic achievement, you might be bracing for a comedown in the Volvo S60 Polestar, but it’s not that simple.
Volvo states its Haldex clutch for its all-wheel-drive system is rear biased, but doesn’t nominate how much drive it sends back there. Compared with the S60 T6 R-Design, the Polestar also gets a strut brace with carbonfibre reinforcement, bigger front and rear stabliser bars, a stiffer front top mount and new bushings.
Where the Audi has three modes for its optional suspension, the Volvo’s standard Ohlins dampers have 20 settings for each individual wheel. Changing between them isn’t as easy as finding a setting on the central screen as it is in the S4, however, because S60 Polestar owners have to manually turn a thimble-sized knob on each shock absorber to change the settings.
It sounds hard and complicated, though changing the suspension doesn’t require tools, only fingers; for the rears, fold down the back seat and pull back the boot lining, and the shiny brass dial is there to turn, but for the fronts you’ll need to put the steering on full lock and reach under the car to grab the dial.
Once there, turn clockwise until the dial stops turning, then go anti-clockwise by up to 20 clicks on each – the most being the softest setting.
Yes, it sounds very un-premium and aftermarket for a $100K-plus car, which it is, but the possibilities are also intriguing, and in a mechanical way in a digital world, enjoyable to do by the side of the road.
Even with all four corners in the softest setting, the S60 Polestar can’t match the ride absorbency of the S4.
At urban speeds it is sharply reactive to big dips, and quite lumpy. On 10 clicks – the middle setting – the ride turns harsh and the Volvo constantly jiggles on the freeway. On a country road, however, it remains secure enough to wonder why you’d need a firmer setting than the softest one.
There is a good reason, though, and it’s to do with the handling. With all four corners on damper setting 10, the Volvo S60 Polestar corners brilliantly. Its turn in and grip at the front-end is exemplary, though its handling feels more of the flat, point-and-shoot variety than the S4's. Switching to the softest mode, the front-end feels the weight of the six-cylinder engine and becomes disinterested.
Volvo says the ideal set-up is to have the front-end hard and the rear soft, so the front grips as the rear rolls around to help it point. With that in mind, we swap to the seventh click up front and leave the rear on 20.
It works a treat. You can’t throttle oversteer in the S60 like you can in the innately more balanced S4, but you can lean hard on the front outside tyre, lift the throttle as you would in a hot-hatch, then let the soft rear shift onto its outside tyre ready to welcome a torrent of turbocharged torque. The Volvo fires harder out of corners than the Audi does, leaping high on all four corners when the throttle is pinned.
Its steering is good, decently meaty and feelsome, though not as quick and incisive as the Audi’s, and the new Brembo brakes held up well, though the pedal still turned soft after a while.
You'll want to reset the dampers to their softest setting for the drive home, otherwise it means enduring rather than enjoying the ride. Either way, there's excessive road noise for a premium car, particularly on coarse chip surfaces; the Audi, by contrast, is a fair margin quieter.
Volvo should be applauded for creating the S60 Polestar, and the Audi S4 never delivers a full knockout blow. It does, however, rarely allow a jab in sideways.
Arguably the S60 has a sexier body than the S4, and a more characterful interior, while its boostier engine is more exciting and its chassis dynamics are similarly top notch. It still needs more finesse in its ride and refinement, however, and a more cohesive execution to justify its pricetag, something which Polestar is no doubt continuing to pursue. For now, though, the S4 remains the demonstrably superior sports sedan - so fast and involving yet highly polished and luxurious that you can’t help but fall for its split personality.
Photography by Thomas Wielecki.