Whether in sedan or Avant wagon guise, the Audi S4 is the mid-sized luxury car you buy when you want something fast and brimming with technology, but don’t want to shout about it.
That’s the corporate line, anyway. But as our time behind the wheel on the Australian launch earlier this week showed us, it fits the car like a sports jacket and designer frames.
Based on the well-regarded B9 Audi A4 sedan and wagon (Avant in Audi-speak), the S4 adds a powerful new turbocharged six-pot engine, quattro all-wheel drive, and most high-tech infotainment and active safety options under the sun as standard.
All of this is packaged in an understated design given the barest hint of menace by quad-pipes, 19-inch wheels and pared-back bumpers and rear diffuser. People will look, but they won’t stop and gawk, which is what the four-generation old S4 has always been about.
Rivals follow a similar path. These are principally the Mercedes-AMG C43 and the BMW 340i (the latter is sedan-only here). But unlike this pair, the S4 is currently the performance leader of the B9 A4 range, until a new RS4 lobs (overseas) this year, probably bringing fat haunches and a screaming exhaust into the picture.
What's perhaps most impressive about the S4, though, is the pricing. At $99,900 plus on-road costs, it's the first car to wear the badge publicly priced under $100k, and is more than $6000 cheaper than the car it replaces (which, we'd add, was discounted from a 2009 launch price of $118,900), despite adding $12,000 worth of equipment. The Avant is $3000 more at $102,900.
As such, the new S4's entry price is $2000 cheaper than the Mercedes-AMG C43, thus representing what appears to be excellent value for this part of the market.
There’s almost nothing carried over from the old S4, given this one sits on a new platform, but perhaps the most symbolic change is the heart. The old car rocked a mechanically-supercharged six, but the new one follows the current trend and uses a turbocharger instead. More efficient, yes. But less characterful? Certainly less distinctive.
The partially aluminium, compact 3.0-litre TFSI engine has a wide 90-degree layout so the turbocharger can be mounted between the cylinder banks. The exhaust side is on the inner side of the cylinder heads and the intake side on the outer, reducing flow losses and lag.
Audi's outputs are 260kW of power (between 5400 and 6400rpm) and 500Nm of torque (between 1370 and 4500rpm) – 15kW/60Nm up on the B8 iteration. This compares to 270kW/520Nm for the C43 AMG's twin-turbo V6 and 240kW/450Nm for the BMW 340i's turbo inline-six.
The claimed zero to 100km/h sprint times are down a few tenths to 4.7sec (sedan, matching the Mercedes-AMG) and 4.9sec (Avant), while combined-cycle 98 RON fuel consumption of 7.4 litres per 100km is also five per cent better than before, thanks in part to a fuel-saving coasting function.
The performance gains aren’t just down to the new engine, but also to the car’s 75kg lighter kerb weight, thanks to the 14kg lighter powertrain, aluminium suspension components and even magnesium seat and steering wheel frames. A gram is a gram.
Gone too is the old S tronic dual-clutch automatic transmission, replaced by an eight-speed Tiptronic automatic gearbox with torque converter, with paddle-shifters for the manual override. There's no manual. Tiptronics aren't capable of a DCT's rolling precision and rapid multiple downshifts, but they tend to be smoother in daily driving.
The familiar quattro mechanical AWD system generally sends 60 per cent of torque to the rear axle, but can apportion up to 85 per cent if the car’s sensors detect loss of traction. It can also direct 70 per cent to the front axle. The AWD layout matches the C43, and promises more traction than the rear-drive Bimmer.
So how does the S4 drive? Beautifully, to a fault. The engine hustles car along in an unfussed but deceptively quick manner, with an extremely wide peak torque brand giving you almost immediate and sustained throttle response, while the gearbox feels about as perceptive and quick-shifting (in manual mode) as BMW's benchmark ZF 8AT.
What's missing is character. Even in the car's sports mode, which also gives you stiffer damping, sharper steering, a remapped throttle and revised gearbox shift points, the engine lacks the AMG's visceral appeal. Its note is crisp and its response keen, but despite the barest hint of a supercharger-esque whine, it all feels a touch anodyne.
Of course, Audi argues this pared-back spirit is precisely in character, and it's right. The S4 isn't supposed to shout, so we're not going to punish the car without this caveat.
The flipside of the sport mode is Audi's comfort setting takes some resistance out of the damping to isolate the cabin better from sharp hits, and some weight out of the steering. It's an incredibly composed and relaxing daily driver that can be punted in anger after hours. There are also Auto and configurable Individual modes.
Dynamically the S4 has much more resolved steering than the bigger A6 with more road feel, as well as a really well balanced chassis that rewards hard driving, though it's never quite as nimble as the 340i. You can pay $2210 for a steering system with a variable ratio depending on speed and inputs, but we wouldn't bother.
The quattro system has ample grip, but those after a more rear-drive-like dynamic might well option the new-design quattro sport mechanical rear differential which controls rear axle torque inputs side-to-side, aiding turn-in and removing any tendency for scrub understeer if you push too hard. It's $2950, and we'd recommend it.
The other main improvement is the S4's refinement. As we reported, even the base sub-$60k A4 models insulate passengers from wind and road noise really well, and the S4 (despite sitting on thin Hankook rubber wrapping the 19-inch wheels) follows suit. At freeway speeds on B-roads you can chat to rear occupants in a whisper.
As a refined and relaxing daily driver with ample grip and acceleration when desired, the S4 is about as perfect as you can get. It lacks a certain subjective 'something' known as character, but this highly technical nature is kind of Audi's raison d'être. Vorsprung and all that...
Even more impressive than the way the S4 drives is the interior design, which is contemporary and supremely well constructed. At the same time, its looks are scarcely different to the base A4 that is about $40,000 cheaper, aside from the 12.3-inch configurable Virtual Cockpit digital driver instruments with three display modes, which remains spectacular.
In terms of standard equipment, the S4 follows the lead set by Mercedes-Benz, by adding substantially more equipment than was once traditional for luxury players. Beyond the aforementioned adjustable dampers and Virtual cockpit, you get:
Adaptive LED headlights, auto park assist, a 360-degree camera, privacy glass with sound-deadening in the front, keyless access and start, leather/Alcantara heated memory seats, a flat-bottom wheel with configurable shortcut button, three-zone climate control with rear digital display, selectable ambient cabin lighting (30 shades) and illuminated door sill trims.
Infotainment comprises a 8.3-screen controlled by the familiar rotary dial rather than touch, with integrated satellite-navigation, a Wi-Fi hotspot for up to eight devices, Google Services satellite image overlays (powered by a regular data SIM), DAB+, natural language voice control, a 180w/10-speaker sound system with subwoofer, and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto connections.
The Avant has an electric hands-free aluminium tailgate with kick-operation, and a retracting electric luggage cover.
Beyond this, Audi says “every single available safety assist system that is offered, is standard in Australia”.
There are in fact 29 safety assistance systems cited, a claimed best-in-class, including a really cool exit warning that stops you ‘door-ing’ passing bikes, radar cruise with traffic-jam assist that looks 60 metres ahead rather than just mirroring the vehicle you're behind, and a turn assist system that brakes if it senses you’re crossing the street in a gap that’s too tight.
This is added to other tech such as Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB) with pedestrian detection and radar-guided cruise control that stops to zero and starts again in gridlock when desired. The larger and pricier Mercedes-Benz E-Class range offers comparable, and in some instances superior, partial autonomy, but the Audi's tech is impressive.
Naturally, there are options. The $5600 Technik pack gives you Audi's Matrix LED headlights (from the R8 supercar), a head-up display with a dial next to the steering wheel to adjust brightness and height (no digging through sub-menus) and a 19-speaker/755w Bang & Olufsen 3D sound system with 16-channel amp that's nothing short of brilliant.
Meanwhile the $5900 Performance pack (as shown in the pictures, from our drive) adds one-piece seats trimmed in red or black Nappa leather and with a diamond stitch pattern, plus pneumatic bolsters and multi-mode massage functions for front occupants, sexy carbon-fibre cabin trimming and red brake calipers.
We'd eschew this pack, because the seats lack suitable headrest adjustment for tall drivers unlike the basic leather and suede units, and instead just fork over $1000 for those carbon Atlas inlays.
Metallic or pearlescent paint also costs $1846 before taxes, meaning anything other than basic black or white hues will cost quite a bit extra. Gotland green and Misano red are unusually edgy for Audi, in particular. The sedan can have a sunroof for $2470, though you can't get it on the Avant.
The cabin is impressively spacious, and rear occupants get digital climate control adjustment. Luggage capacity for the sedan is a class-par 480L (965L with the seats folded), while the Avant offers 505L/1510L, loaded to the roof. The vast majority of previous S4 buyers chose the sedan, but we reckon you'd be better off with the wagon.
In short, the new and better-value Audi S4 does everything it ought to do brilliantly. It's comfortable yet quick, understated yet handsome, and brimming with an impressive array of technology. There are few finer ways to drop a little over $100k (plus on-road costs and taxes).
Finding fault on a single-day launch program proved especially difficult, though we'll report back after living with one for a week. Perhaps we'll even test one against a Mercedes-AMG C43...