2011 Audi S4 Road Test Review

Simon Hill - CAP staff
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Since its introduction in 1991, the Audi S4 has had a remarkably non-linear evolution. It first appeared as a performance version of the mid-size C4-platform Audi 100, with a turbocharged 2.2-litre, 230-horsepower inline 5-cylinder engine and Audi's quattro all-wheel drive system. But the Audi 100 was updated to become the A6 in 1994, at which point the original S4 became the S6, and the S4 nameplate was temporarily discontinued.

In 1997, when Audi updated its A4 lineup, the S4 reappeared as the A4's sporty sibling. The new S4 was based on the B5 platform and used a twin-turbo 2.7-litre V6 engine developing 265 horsepower, but it didn't become available on North American shores until two years later, just in time for the 1999 model year. Emissions requirements meant that some North American S4s were slightly detuned, putting out 254-horsepower. In 2003, when the new B6-platform A4 debuted, the S4 variant got an entirely new powerplant: a 4.2-litre quad-cam aluminum V8 developing 344-horsepower, and this engine carried over into the B7-platform S4 when it arrived in 2005.

When the current B8-platform S4 was introduced for the 2010 model year, it took an evolutionary step back, once more adopting a forced-induction V6. This time it was an all-new 3.0-litre direct injection aluminum V6 with a supercharger instead of twin turbochargers. But don't let the evolutionary backtrack fool you - the B8-platform S4 is arguably the best one yet. I was given a Garnet Red S4 to try out for a week, decked out in Premium trim and equipped with Audi's 7-speed S-tronic automatic gearbox, and it proved that there's good reason the S4 has carried forward into 2011 virtually unchanged.

Externally, Audi has succeeded in creating a style language that is instantly recognizable and has a real sense of presence on the road, without resorting to excessive adornment or cluttered lines. The S4 is a perfect embodiment of this style - its overall profile is smooth and almost plain, but well proportioned and hunkered-down looking. S4 goodies include quad tailpipes and aluminum optic mirrors, while exclusive front and rear bumpers with more prominent character lines add a subtle hint of purpose, whereas Audi's now-signature string-of-pearls LED running lights add a touch of high-tech bling. My test car's Premium trim (an extra $4,700 over the $52,500 base price) added nice-looking 19-inch alloy wheels and adaptive headlights among its exterior features.

Inside, the 2011 S4 is classy and understated, indeed almost austere. Sport seats are part of the S4 package, and these are exceptionally comfortable and supportive wingback buckets with power adjustments on both sides and the S4 logo discreetly embossed into the seatback. My test car was fitted with carbon fibre trim (a $500 option), completing the interior's black-and-dark-grey theme, but chrome embellishments on the dashboard ensure that things aren't entirely stark, and all the materials and switchgear are top-notch which ensures that the cabin is a pleasant place to spend time. Bumping things up a notch, the Premium trim adds Silk Nappa leather, proximity sensing smart key with pushbutton start, parking sensors, and Audi Side Assist blind-spot sensors. My test car took things even further with Audi's navigation package ($3,200) and superb-sounding upgraded Bang & Olufsen sound system ($1,100).

My one complaint about the interior is that Audi chooses to dance to the beat of a different drummer when it comes to control placement, and some basic controls like changing fan settings require excursions into the "MMI" multimedia interface, so I often found myself scratching my head trying to figure out how to operate the car's various systems.

Under the hood, thanks to the Roots-style Eaton turbocharger and direct fuel injection, the V6 offers 27 percent better fuel economy than the old S4's V8, yet only marginally less power: 333 horsepower compared to the V8's 344. Even better, the supercharged V6 has instant response and a big, fat torque curve with 325 lb-ft of torque available anywhere from 2,900 to 5,300 rpm (the V8 only had 302 lb-ft at 3,500 rpm). The icing on the cake is that the smaller V6 weighs less than the V8, so 0-100 km/h sprints are actually quicker than in the older car (at about 5.2 seconds) and the front/rear weight distribution is greatly improved (from 62/38 to 55/45) so the current S4 handles markedly better with far less inherent understeer - it feels light-on-its-feet for a 1,700-kg (3,748-lb) car and handles with scalpel-like precision and excellent balance.

To cap it all off, the supercharged V6 sounds absolutely brilliant: it has a refined growl under hard acceleration and barks at each shift in a manner that should put a smile on the face of any automotive enthusiast - provided you've turned the stereo off and rolled the windows down, that is, because the S4 is exceedingly quiet inside and the exhaust rather muted.

Getting the power to the ground is a standard 6-speed manual transmission or - as in my test car - Audi's 7-speed S-tronic direct-shift automatic gearbox. This gearbox is actually a dual-clutch sequential manual transmission shifted automatically via electronic controllers, and it delivers extremely quick, crisp shifts with all the efficiency and connectedness of a true manual. But it's not without issues. In drive, if you punch it off the line and then back off slightly (like when turning left or right from a traffic light) before getting back into the throttle, it will attempt to upshift and then downshift again with a jerk. In sport mode it holds gears longer, but often unnecessarily so - sporty driving shouldn't have to mean boy-racer mode. And Audi chooses to put the shift paddles on the steering wheel, so if you are using manual-shift mode there's a tendency to scramble for upshifts as you exit tight corners and try to find the paddles on the unspooling steering wheel. I was very impressed with the automatic in general, but I'd say advantage: manual transmission.

Naturally, the S4 continues to use Audi's well-proven quattro all-wheel drive system, and this is now set up to allow substantial rear-wheel bias, with up to 80 percent of the engine's power capable of being directed to the rear wheels. This greatly helps in the handling department, but the S4's secret weapon is the optional $1,500 quattro sport differential. Using computers, gears and technical wizardry, the quattro sport differential shuffles more of the car's power to the outside rear wheel during cornering, literally pushing the car's nose into the corner and countering any tendency to plow, without resorting to using the brakes like traditional stability control systems do. If you pony up for the Premium trim, and then plunk down an additional $2,500 on top of the sport differential's cost, you can also get Audi's drive select system which allows you to select between "comfort" and "dynamic driving" modes (or you can "hybrid" individual modes) using adaptive suspension settings, dynamic steering control, variable throttle response and variable shift response.

Personally, I'd rather just order up the car with a manual transmission and the quattro sport differential, and leave the automatic gearbox and the adaptive this-that-and-the-other out of it. Because ultimately, while the judicious application of technology can indeed advance the driving experience (as Audi's slogan "Vorsprung durch Tecknic" - which translates as "advancement through technology" - claims), too much technology just gets in the way, insinuating itself between you and the road and adding cost, complexity and potential trouble.

My test car proved this, developing a glitch in its MMI software that would shut down the interface after 20 minutes of driving. Not a big deal to rectify in a new car, I'm sure, but it meant that everything - nav system, audio, dynamic driving controls - went offline at once. And while the base S4, at $52,500 is quite competitive with, say, an Infinity G37xS (which starts at $48,540 and comes in at about $54,210 nicely loaded with the destination fees paid), by the time you add on all the technological bits and pieces the S4 enters a whole different price bracket: As equipped, my test car came to $67,600 plus $1,995 in delivery for a total of $69,595.

Yup, the S4 is a truly brilliant car, and at $55,995 delivered with a 6-speed manual and sport differential, I'd bite ... but I'm not so sure about all the extra-cost "Tecknic."

©(Copyright Canadian Auto Press)

Topics: Sport Sedan, Audi, 2011, S4, $50,000 - $74,999,

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