Carl Modesette – Staff Writer, Dubspeed Media
Photos by Dubspeed Media Photographers, Matt Chow and Zerin Dube
Despite close ties to the B6 platform, the B7 S4 is a completely different car in almost every way. Visually and viscerally, Audi has certainly reached the pinnacle of refinement with their most recent offering. I went into this review with high expectations, and with few reservations, those expectations were met.
Any contemporary stylistic review of an Audi would be incomplete without mention of the new corporate trapezoidal grille, so I’ll dispense with that first: it works. Some might complain that it’s too big or too bold, but using the Bangle yardstick for boldness, Audi’s new corporate face is downright subtle. Subtle enough that it doesn’t overpower the S4-specific lower fascia that lends an air of aggressiveness to the profile other drivers will see approaching in their rearview mirror.
The new rear-swept design of the headlamp housings serve as the inception point of the key design feature of the B7’s side profile: a new, more defined shoulder crease that runs the length of the body. This minor change does a fantastic job of visually slimming an otherwise tall side view. Audi was able to utilize grey lower valences on the B6 A4 to yield this slimming effect; however on the monochromatic B7 S4, the old design gained a few pounds.
Staying consistent, Audi designers allow the shoulder crease to fade gracefully into the redesigned tail lamps, which themselves guide the eyes into my favorite feature of the B7 S4: the exquisite rear spoiler. Rather than submitting to the cost-wise approach of using the same trunk lid as the A4 and gluing on a lip spoiler, the designers chose to use an S4-specific trunk lid with a wonderfully subtle upturn at its edge. This spoiler, coupled with the quad exhaust tips and discreet S4 emblem are all that’s needed to differentiate this car from its lesser-engined brethren.
Audi File Photo Pictured
In the cabin, following the theme of subtlety, there is little to differentiate the B7 S4 from the B7 A4, much less the B6 platform it replaces. The key focal points are the new steering wheel that continues the trapezoidal theme into the interior, and the S4-only Recaro seats. The Recaro seats are simply brilliant, offering the lateral support required for spirited driving without being cumbersome for ingress and egress. Our test car was fitted with the optional carbon-fiber trim, which received mixed reviews from our test staff. In my opinion, the carbon fiber was an appropriate sporty compliment to the black interior of our test car, but might look a bit too boy-racer when paired with other interior colors.
Audi File Photo Pictured
Our test car was also equipped with Audi’s Navigation Plus system, which incorporates a large LCD screen in the spot normally occupied by a standard stereo, relegating the otherwise standard 6-disc CD changer to the glovebox. Our test car did not come with the navigation DVD’s, so we weren’t able to explore the functionality of the system. On a 6-hour round trip to San Antonio, we were able to get acquainted with the Bose stereo system and factory-installed XM radio. Sound quality and range were excellent, and the redundant steering-wheel controls made navigation simple.
The driving dynamics of the B7 S4 are where Audi showcases the refinement of the B6/B7 platform. Suspension, braking, and steering systems have all seen major changes since the inception of the B6 platform. In the S4, Audi accomplishes the task of marrying sport and luxury in a worthy and capable all-around package. It seems as though Audi’s chassis engineers have taken lessons from BMW, as the harshness associated with previous A4 suspensions has been all but dialed out. Watch out BMW, you’ve got real competition here. Ride quality is firm and taut, offering superb damping control over all types of pavement surfaces. Even at speed, the S4 offers confidence-inspiring stability. Braking is also vastly improved, accomplished with giant single piston calipers rather than more complicated (and expensive) multi-pot units. Feel is excellent, with moderate stopping power available with only minimal pedal effort. Several radar-detector-induced reality checks did not induce any fade or vibration. The servotronic steering was a nice feature, although I personally could do without. The system provides arcade-game-like lightness at parking lot speeds, and tightens up significantly at speed. It takes a bit of getting used to, but would be a welcome addition to those who are constantly fumbling with cell phones or lattÃ©s.
Despite all the aforementioned welcome changes to the chassis, the S4 still exhibits moderate understeer, most likely due to the nose-heavy weight distribution that arises from mounting a V-8 totally forward of the front axle centerline. While entirely controllable, I’d prefer to see a more neutral balance in such a sporting car. The stock Continental ContiSport Contact 2 tires could have also played a role, as they complained audibly when pushed and weren’t quite as sticky as one might hope.
And then there was the engine. For the S4, Audi managed to shoehorn the corporate 4.2-liter V-8 into the smallish engine bay normally reserved for 4- and 6-cylinder engines. With 340 horsepower in this configuration and a redline of 7,000 RPM, expectations are lofty, yet this is not your grandfather’s V-8. The sounds emitted by this engine are nothing short of sensational – all the aural excitement of eight cylinders firing at the command of your right foot, but with a polished refinement that trumps anything coming out of Detroit. In the S4, you get to have your cake and eat it too since the exhaust note fades into obscurity under steady-state cruising, enabling you to enjoy the Bose stereo or simply the sounds of silence. Power builds linearly to a fantastic climax at redline, yet torque at lower RPM leaves a bit to be desired. Perhaps this is a stereotype authored by old Detroit muscle; nevertheless, keep the S4’s engine above the 3500 RPM torque peak for best results. Fuel mileage is likely the worst caveat of the S4. The gas-guzzler tax of $1300 begins to make sense when considering the less than stellar combined figure of only 16 mpg. For what it’s worth, we averaged 21 mpg at cruising speeds of 75 mph.
While Quattro all-wheel-drive is standard on the S4, you’re given the choice of a 6-speed manual and a 6-speed (5 forward gears) automatic with Tiptronic. Our test car was equipped with the manual transmission. The gear ratios in the manual transmission are very closely spaced, which is great for wide-open-throttle acceleration runs, but in the real world where traffic and speed limits reign, the extra gears become largely superfluous – and even cumbersome to use smoothly. The hydraulic clutch is incredibly vague, leaving the driver very disconnected from what’s happening underfoot. The light flywheel helps the engine accelerate quickly, but revs fall just as sharply as soon as the clutch is applied. This combination of short gear ratios, vague clutch, and light flywheel make driving this 6-speed smoothly rather difficult. Only by skipping gears was I able to achieve gearchanges without jerking my passengers about. Those facts, combined with better fuel mileage figures for the automatic, lead me to believe that the Tiptronic transmission is probably a better fit for the S4 – no matter how much it pains my purist’s heart to say it.
Overall, the S4 is a near-perfect embodiment of everything I wish my own 2002 A4 could be. Nearly every aspect of the original B6 design has been improved upon, in most cases to perfection. However, with a $54,220 as-tested price tag, the S4 is no longer the value it once was. The price premium over the base-engine A4 has now grown to $20,000 from the $10,000 it used to be in the B5 iteration. Unless four doors and all-wheel-drive are an absolute necessity, there are too many other cars that offer better performance at that price point. That said, I’ll be keeping an eye on the pre-owned lot at my local Audi dealer.