Audi’s analogy for the S4 sedan and Avant is “an athlete in a designer suit”, which as far as corporate lines go is relatively apt. So long as said designer suit is a toned-down Hugo Boss or Ermenegildo Zegna rather than anything overtly ostentatious.
Sharper than your average A4, the 2017 Audi S4 like those before it carves out a niche for itself as an understated bruiser, most notably in Avant wagon guise. And until the new-generation RS4 arrives with its flared arches and window-rattling note, it'll serve as the performance leader of Audi's most popular model range.
The last-generation S4 made up on average 2-3 per cent of total A4 sales, but this new one is expected to grow that proportion substantially. Rivals such as the forthcoming Mercedes-AMG C43 and the BMW 340i will give stiff competition, but Australia’s inexhaustible appetite for performance car derivatives sets the scene.
The brand new ‘B9’ Audi S4, which launched in Germany this week ahead of its Australian premiere in October this year, treads familiar conceptual ground but makes a handful of important changes to the successful formula.
Principally, the old supercharged six has been culled and replaced by a new 3.0-litre V6 with a single turbocharger inside the V. This new engine has a familiar bore/stroke, but a claimed 800 unique components over the old unit.
The headlining figures are impressive. The new S4 is about 75kg lighter than the old one thanks to the new MLB architecture, while the engine’s outputs of 260kW between 5400 and 6400rpm and 500Nm (from just 1370rpm, all the way through to 4500rpm) are 15kW/60Nm greater than before.
The claimed zero to 100km/h sprint times are therefore down a few tenths to 4.7sec (sedan) and 4.9sec (Avant), while combined-cycle 98 RON fuel consumption of 7.4 litres per 100km is also 5 per cent better than before, thanks in part to a fuel-saving coasting function.
The new V6 engine offers exceptional performance by spooling up almost instantaneously, while the mid-range is incredibly strong, all the way towards the 6500rpm redline. Speed is scrubbed off equally impressively by the bigger brakes (350mm units up front with six-piston callipers), that also offer decent feel when you stab the pedal.
Sitting behind the engine is an eight-speed Tiptronic automatic gearbox. Interestingly, it's a 'conventional' unit rather than a S tronic dual-clutch setup. Audi has high-torque-capable S tronics in its arsenal, but none that would suit the S4.
It's a good unit, with the car offering rolling response almost as decisive as a typical double-clutch in Sport or manual modes, the latter operated by paddle shifters mounted to the wheel. Still, that rifle-bolt sharpness of a typical S tronic, and the accompanying burbles on downshift they often elicit from the pipes, are tempered.
On the plus side, plonk the car into its Auto or comfort-biased modes and the gearbox slurs through its ratios agreeably, removing any of those characteristic S tronic low-speed jittery moments of indecision. Set like this, it's an exceptionally easy and forgiving car to doddle about in the day-to-day grind, as the S4 should be.
Putting torque on the road is the latest quattro all-wheel drive system with a default 60 per cent rear axle bias that can send 85 per cent of said torque to either end of the car when slip is detected, meaning off-the-line traction is strong and take-offs efficient, largely irrespective of road conditions anything this side of ice.
A key design element of the S4 is the quad-pipe arrangement, coupled to an active exhaust but no sound actuator, meaning the engine note is always 'organic'. The turbo engine's note under revs could frankly use a little bit more edge as well, with its muted and low growl never really satisfying in a visceral way quite like the characterful old supercharged model. No doubt the next RS4 will rectify this, as RS4s invariably do.
Compared to the regular A4 quattro, the S4 sits 25mm lower and sports revised five-link S sport suspension, plus it comes available with adaptive dampers and variable Dynamic Steering. There’s also a self-locking centre diff and software that brakes the inside-front wheel.
The S4 feels incredibly planted through corners, giving way to equally good high speed stability, as we found when winding out past 200km/h on the Autobahn network. The change of direction and sharpness on turn-in is evident, though the car also lacks that 10 per cent extra alacrity and nimbleness of an equivalent 340i or Jaguar XE derivative (neither of which come with the S4's optional Avant wagon body, though). Character is hard to quantify.
The propensity for corner-carving is enhanced, most obviously at a very rapid clip, by the updated sports differential that distributes, or mechanically vectors, drive torque across the rear axle. It's not yet clear if this feature will be standard or an extra-cost option in Australia, but either way you should have it with yours, because it quite understandably makes the car feel less neutral and more rear-led punching through and out of corners.
The electromechanical steering system with optional variable Dynamic Steering is direct and well-weighted, and the good body control and traction levels mean you are usually more than happy to carry plenty of corner speed. But there's not a huge amount of feel-and-feedback from the front wheels.
This (lack of) sensation, along with the relatively muted note and the exceptionally planted road feel from the quattro system means the Audi S4 is typically clinical. But such an approach sums up S4's brief.
All S4 variants sold in Australia will come with 19-inch alloy wheels on low-profile tyres. The suspension/damping is understandably firm, but never gave way to brittleness over sharp bumps and ruts. On our launch drive on unfamiliar roads, the adaptive dampers didn't really alter the road feel all that much, but it stands to reason that, back-to-back, the softest setting would make the car more compliant over bigger hits and even yield a hint of welcome, controlled body roll absent from the tauter Sports mode.
Dynamically, the S4 is outstandingly accomplished, but perhaps lacking that final bit of edge. Small criticisms. What's undoubtedly beyond even minor reproach is the S4's sublime cabin craftsmanship, layout and technological modernity. The new A4's interior design across all spec levels is approaching modern art, albeit offering execution with purpose to boot.
The suede door lining, leather contact points and aluminium highlights are all without flaw, as is the clean and ergonomically-sound layout (for instance, the steering wheel is connected to a mechanism with greater telescopic adjustment than any car I've yet driven, presumably to suit a T-Rex) and high-tech infotainment.
Standard fare includes an 8.3-inch screen, Audi Connect WiFi, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, DAB+, satellite-navigation with Google Maps setting, and a 10GB internal hard drive. You also get keyless entry and start, electrically adjustable leather/Alcantara sports seats, ambient cabin lighting with an array of colours, and three-zone air-conditioning with separate rear seat controls.
Also featured are blind-spot monitoring, lane assist, cross-traffic assist, an active bonnet, radar-guided adaptive cruise control with partial autonomy in traffic jams (the car stops and then re-applies throttle), AEB, eight airbags and an active bonnet.
Options will likely include Nappa leather sports seats with a massage function, a head-up display (perhaps the best we've ever seen) and a 19-speaker 755W Bang and Olufsen sound system. Whether the Audi TT's gorgeous Virtual Cockpit, essentially a giant configurable TFT screen in place of the conventional instruments, is standard or optional remains to be seen for the Australian market, though we understand Audi's local arm is pushing its German head office to allow for the former.
Rear seat space is good for the class, while boot space in the sedan (480L, expanding when you drop the split-folding rear seats) is equally sufficient. But it's the Avant that's the real star, thanks to its standard electric tailgate with hands-free opening and plethora of tie-down hooks/netting. There's a strong case for arguing that the Audi S4 Avant quattro is close to the ideal sporting luxury wagon. It's certainly a prototypical one.
One thing we can't tell you more definitively is price, though Audi Australia says that we should expect minimal change over the B8 model when the new B9 arrives in October. Expect, then, for the sedan to cost around $106,000 plus on-road costs, and the Avant to be somewhere around $109,000.
So that's our first look at the Audi S4, on German roads, ahead of the local premiere. As always, we're a trifle reserved in our ratings on brief international launches (hence the 8.5), given we don't have access to familiar roads and multi-day drive experiences. Still, said lack of dynamic 'edginess' aside, it's hard to see too many areas where the new S4 puts a wheel wrong. Clinical? Absolutely. But that's precisely the point.