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The recipe sounds simple enough: Take a family wagon, and make it go fast; like, sub-5.0 seconds to 100km/h fast. It's a niche segment, no doubt, one that offers the perfect blend of practicality with sporting prowess; a family hauler capable of haulin' ass, when required.
Many performance wagons have come and gone, but one staple in the niche segment since the late 1990s has been the Audi S4 Avant. Today, the all-new 2017 Audi S4 Avant marks the model's sixth iteration.
And who doesn’t love a fast wagon? Honestly.
From more affordable offerings such as the SS V Redline Holden Sportwagon, 206 TSI Skoda Superb Wagon, Volkswagen Golf R and Passat 206 TSI R-Line Wagons, to dearer options like Mercedes-AMG’s CLA45 Shooting Brake and C43 and C63 Estates, and even Volvo’s ageing but still brisk V60 Polestar, options are rife. And let’s not forget the Audi S4 Avant’s bigger and tougher brother, the Audi RS6 Avant.
But as cool as many of these current offerings are, the first ‘Weapon Wagon’ to steal my heart personally, was the achingly awesome 1999 B5 Audi RS4 Avant.
A bi-turbo 2.7-litre V6 engine, 0-100km/h in 4.9 seconds, manual only. There’s a word for the original RS4 Avant: boss.
So yeah, I’m a fan of a brisk estate.
Anyway, since the first-generation C4 Audi S4 debuted back in 1991, the four-ringed brand has been busy. And at the start of this year, the all-new sixth-generation B9 S4 Sedan and S4 Avant launched locally.
Priced from $99,900 and $102,900 respectively (before on-road costs), both share identical underpinnings and drivetrains.
That means, regardless if you prefer your boot to be able to ingest 480 litres or 505L (expandable to 1510L with the Avant’s rear seats folded flat), all four quattro-led wheels are powered by an all-new turbocharged 3.0-litre V6 engine, producing 260kW of power at 6400rpm and 500Nm of torque between 1370-4500rpm.
Putting it somewhere between the $92,702 270kW/470Nm Volvo V60 Polestar and $105,112 270kW/520Nm Mercedes-AMG C43 Estate, the 2017 Audi S4 Avant boasts 15kW more power and 60Nm more torque than its $109,610 3.0-litre supercharged V6-equipped predecessor.
Tipping the scales at 1675kg – a claimed 75kg less than before – the new S4 Avant is attached to an original RS4 Avant-equalling 0-100km/h time of 4.9 seconds.
Only 0.2 seconds off its four-door equivalent, the time might be a slight improvement for the wagon, however, the figure is still just shy (0.1s) of that touted by its most direct Swedish and German rivals.
Straight-line performance isn’t everything though, and really, while pace is of course important, a car like the S4 Avant has two roles to fulfil: It must be able to lug a family – and their stuff – around in relative comfort, and it must have enough mumbo to impress and please not only its driver, but its driver’s mates as well.
Let’s start with the latter then...
Does the S4 Avant deliver enough hustle to warrant its circa-$100k price tag? Unequivocally, yes.
It might lack a bit of soul and character – it is a fairly cold, sterile, and textbook Teutonic driving experience – but there’s no doubting the S4 Avant’s outright competency and ability.
With help from a reworked chassis, newly-developed five-link front and rear suspension, adaptive dampers, torque vectoring, and the latest version of Audi’s quattro all-wheel-drive system, the S4 Avant is bloody good at hoofing from point A to point B – particularly when some corners are thrown into the mix.
Sitting 23mm lower than a standard A4 Avant – and riding on 10-spoke 19-inch alloy wheels wrapped in Hankook Ventus rubber – the S4 Avant features a trick mechanical centre differential as standard, which, “under normal driving conditions”, sends 40 per cent of available engine torque to the front axle and 60 per cent to the rear.
If slip occurs, however, it can throw as much as 85 per cent of available torque to whichever axle the car deems can make the most of it.
Further, our Floret Silver test car was fitted with Audi’s optional quattro sport differential (a $2950 option), which employs two superposition gears to vary torque distribution between the two rear wheels.
What this means in the real world, is the S4 Avant is one impressively agile and responsive wagon.
Scroll through the Audi Drive Select system’s five modes – ‘Comfort’, ‘Auto’, ‘Dynamic’, ‘Efficiency’, and ‘Individual’ – engage Dynamic mode, and the resistance tied to the firm, flat-bottom multi-function S leather steering wheel immediately weights up.
Although there’s never much feedback on offer, the electromechanical power steering isn’t ridiculously numb, and it remains accurate and very pointy.
A change from Comfort to Dynamic is also teamed with a clear and obvious difference in suspension calibration.
Rather than feeling a touch rolly, soft, and well, wagon-like through corners, the setup becomes notably more taut and strapped down, helping the mid-size wagon stay remarkably flat through corners.
Hugely capable and vastly competent, the S4 Avant is dynamically impressive, but it’s not an especially ‘fun’ car to drive.
Throttle response in Dynamic mode is sharp, with inputs from the right pedal working well with the Audi’s eight-speed torque-converter automatic transmission, and the S4 Avant’s brakes – highlighted by 350mm/six-piston fronts – pair good pedal feel with strong and consistent stopping power.
Thing is, there isn’t much in the way of theatre from the engine, and the car itself never really feels all that fast, even coming out of corners.
The reality is, while it’s actually amply quick point-to-point, the new 3.0-litre turbo-six is so linear in its power delivery, it never feels as though there’s any risk of the engine overpowering the rest of the car.
Even driven aggressively, there’s no hint of wheelspin. So much so that, at times, the S4 Avant almost feels a little underpowered, because of just how early and hard you can stand on the loud pedal without a single tyre scrabbling for grip.
The engine is a flexible unit though, with easy torque available between 1300-2000rpm, and good mid-range pickup – albeit still very linear – on tap all the way out to just past 6500rpm.
Interestingly, for the car nerds out there anyway, from about 3000rpm, the Audi’s somewhat muted engine note does sound quite reminiscent of the old naturally-aspirated 3.2-litre 24-valve VR6 engine from the original Mk4-based Volkswagen Golf R32 – no bad thing, although things were significantly louder in the epic-sounding Golf.
Driven with enthusiasm, we hit a fuel consumption peak of 16.2 litres per 100km – the S4 Avant’s combined cycle claim is 7.8L/100km.
That said, life can’t be all fire and brimstone all the time, and pulling our heads in saw average consumption drop to as low as 7.2L/100km.
So what’s the S4 Avant like when the pace slows and entertaining mountain roads are replaced with suburban streets and the inner-city daily grind? Well, a little mixed.
Like most Audi product, the cabin still feels high-end and very much premium.
Inside, you’ll find illuminated aluminium ‘S’ kick plates up front, ambient lighting, Alcantara inserts on the doors, and an array of soft-touch, chrome, and brushed aluminium accents scattered throughout the generally black and grey cabin.
Part of an optional $5900 S performance package, our test car also scored carbon-fibre inlays along the dash, down the transmission tunnel, and on the doors, as well as a set of diamond-stitched S leather sport seats.
Heated, power-adjustable, and featuring a massage function, as well as electric side bolster support and pneumatic lumbar support, the seats might look appealing, but we found them to be not all that comfortable, and particularly not great for longer stints behind the white-stitched steering wheel with plastic paddle-shifters.
A requisite number of cupholders, USB and auxiliary inputs, and 12-volt outlets are all accounted for, and storage is addressed with a semi-enclosed centre console bin, a small-ish glovebox, and slender door pockets.
Unfortunately, given what we’ve come to expect of Audi, some buttons and controls are clickier and cheaper feeling than they should be in a $100k luxury car, and the S4 Avant’s MMI infotainment system and Audi Drive Select tech can be somewhat ergonomically clunky to use.
Comprising a fixed, 8.3-inch central dash top-mounted display screen, buttons on the transmission tunnel, and a main rotary controller, the system – which includes satellite navigation, a 360-degree camera, a 10-speaker sound system, DAB+ digital radio, Bluetooth phone connectivity and audio streaming, and support for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto – isn’t always the most intuitive to navigate or operate.
Annoyingly too, when you’re sitting in the driver’s seat, the MMI’s rotary controller blocks the line of sight to the system’s ‘Menu’ button, so you can’t see the very button you need to locate, in order to gain access to the system’s main menu. Not helpful.
Pleasingly, the Volkswagen Group’s increasingly popular 12.3-inch virtual cockpit is also on board, with the customisable driver display offering an expansive array of information for you to choose from, making individualisation easy.
Slide into the S4 Avant’s lightly scalloped rear seats and, while legroom is quite good, headroom isn’t all that vast and toe-room is unreasonably tight – both working in conjunction with a high centre rear floor hump to make second-row space in the 4745mm-long station wagon feel more limiting than it should.
There is, however, a fold-down centre armrest with two fold-out cupholders back there, along with rear air vents, two netted map pockets, grab handles, coat hooks, individual reading lights, and manual pull-up sunblinds – the latter a $390 option also fitted to our car.
Boot-mounted rear-seat releases join conventional seat-shoulder releases, although, regardless of which you choose to use, dropping the rear seats flat is still a two-step process, as you need to first release the rear seats and then physically push them forward yourself.
In the boot you’ll find two helpful LED light strips, two small fold-out luggage hooks, a 12-volt outlet, and a space-saver spare wheel hidden under the floor. There’s an adjustable cargo blind too, and the S4 Avant’s standard power tailgate – with motion sensor opening technology – is pretty quick to open and close.
But while a decent boot might offset a slightly cramped second row, there are two other notable downsides of the S4 Avant that are harder to overlook.
One, is the surprisingly unrestricted way road noise seems to be able to penetrate through into the S4 Avant’s cabin, the other could be a genuine deal breaker for some buyers: the ride.
Less of an issue on smooth bitumen, on coarser surfaces, tyre roar and road noise is loud enough that even talking to passengers – particularly those in the back seat – requires voices be raised just to maintain conversation.
Far from ideal in a $100,000 luxury vehicle, it’s especially odd given the car actually does a commendable job of blocking out outside traffic noise.
More disappointing, however, is the S4 Avant’s busy and overly-sharp ride.
Even in Comfort mode, things are unnecessarily firm for everyday activities, and switching to Dynamic mode only makes things worse.
Never outright crashy or overtly unresolved, it’s important to note that if you’re likely to be doing more relaxed family-oriented miles than full-throttle mountain blasts, be aware you might very well find Comfort mode in the S4 Avant plainly not ‘comfort’ enough.
More comforting perhaps – pardon the pun – is the model’s top-shelf standard inclusion of adaptive cruise control, active lane assist, high-beam assist, blind-spot monitoring, and autonomous emergency braking (AEB) with pedestrian recognition.
It’s also covered by a three-year/unlimited kilometre warranty and three years' road-side assist. Twelve-month/15,000km scheduled services for the life of the warranty range from $575 to $879 – totalling $2029 – however, the S4 Avant is eligible for coverage under Audi’s Genuine Care service plan program, meaning a total cost of $1620 for the first three years or 45,000km worth of annual scheduled services.
Despite an imperfect ride and some questions over backseat space, the 2017 Audi S4 Avant is a solid, secure, and largely well-executed performance wagon.
Good but not quite great, the S4 Avant just misses the mark when it comes to nailing two of its key objectives.
It’s neither as comfortable nor as spacious as it needs to be to play the part of daily family hauler, and it lacks in terms of engagement and personality when you get the car, and a road, to yourself.
Our advice? If you already know you want an S4 Avant, buy it. There’s no doubt you’ll love a lot about it.
If, though, you’re simply eyeing off entering the performance wagon market, we’d suggest spending some seat time in something like the Skoda Superb 206 TSI Wagon or Volkswagen Passat 206 TSI R-Line Wagon, or even taking a spin around the block in either a Mercedes-AMG C43 Estate or Volvo V60 Polestar.
I guess what I’m saying is, for me at least, as good as the 2017 Audi S4 Avant is, my heart continues to lust after an old B5 RS4.
Click on the Gallery tab for more 2017 Audi S4 Avant images by Tom Fraser.