Yesterday I had a chance to check out the latest generation of the Audi S4. It's the B8 chassis, (2009+) and its supposed to be the best S4 to date. My view of the entire 4 series, not just the S4, has always been that they're nose heavy, under-steering machines. The S4 line just happened to be slightly sportier with much more power. I've always seen the S4 as a car better suited to daily driving than spending time on any track surface.
The silver 2010 Audi S4 I looked at appeared to be very well appointed and spec'd out pretty much how I'd want it. Visible options included the sport differential, navigation, Bang&Olufsen stereo, charcoal/alcantara Recaro seats and 19″ wheels. This was also a 6-speed manual. This car has just under 42k miles and is stickered at $37k. The original window sticker price when new was probably just shy of $60k.
So what is it like compared to my E46 M3? I'll tell you. Now.
I slipped in to the seats and pulled the door shut. It closed with a reassuring thud. The type of thud you expect from a high end car. So far, so good. Inhale, the car still smells new. Or maybe it's just a new-to-me smell. Maybe the original owner was just a pleasant smelling fellow. There were no signs of wear on the high friction areas of the seats. The metal surfaces of the shift knob and dials were still bright without any sign of tarnish.
Grab the wheel. Slide my hands along the rim to reach nine and three. The soft leather feels good though if I am going to nit-pick I'd say the design of the center of the wheel — specifically the square'ish shaped airbag and the lower arm — doesn't look up to par with the rest of the interior. The clutch depresses soft enough for a daily driver. I then adjusted the alcantara Recaro seats to their lowest point. Nice and low. Much lower feeling in the S4 than the M3 in lowest position. The alcantara and leather mix looks so sporty and feels so nice. I already love these seats and I haven't even begun to toy with the side bolsters or lumbar. I'm OCD about my seating position but had no problem getting comfortable and keeping the seat back up enough so that my wrists rest over the steering wheel at high noon. I want these seats.
The key to this S4 wasn't really a key at all. You insert this small rectangular key fob in to a slot to the right of the steering wheel. From there you can either push the circular aluminum start button to the left of the shifter or push the key fob deeper into the slot to start the engine. I pushed the aluminum button.
I'd like to say the engine roared to life but it did not. No, the battery wasn't dead. It was just that the engine firing to life was, well, uneventful. Starting the 3.2L S54 in the E46 M3 is much more exciting. The M3 is loud and you can hear the valve train. The V6 engine in the S4 is that kid who somehow sneaks into class without the teacher noticing. Is this thing on? The only indicator is the needle on the 'ol tach.
My E46 M3 is SMG. So driving it daily, I figured I'd be happy with the S4 in 7-speed automatic flavor but I gotta tell ya, driving this S4 with the 6-speed manual was blissful. The shift knob appears to be rather large but it fits nicely in your hand. I had no qualms about the transmission but, lets be honest, I'm not picky. As long as it isn't notchy like Tremec T-5 found the old Mustang 5.0′s then I'm happy.
Before we set off on the test drive I adjusted my mirrors, set the car to full dynamic drive mode and then noticed my ass was on fire. This thing must have seat heaters and they must be on full tilt. It took me a moment to figure out how to turn them off. See the dial to set your side of the dual climate control? Yeah, that one. The knob is surrounded by several buttons. The top right is for the seat heater. You don't just push the button — you push the button and then turn the knob to set the power level. Six settings to choose from. Seems excessive to me. I'm more than fine with the three settings in my M3. Does my ass really need that many temperature variants?
All set and ready to roll. We snaked through the parking lot out of the dealership. I drove gingerly for the first mile so I could quickly adjusted to the clutch feel and steering wheel buttons — all two of them. Both sides of the steering wheel featured a scrolling wheel, just like the wheel on your mouse. Roll the left one up or down and the display between the speedometer and tachometer allowed you to quickly choose your radio station from a list. Press the scrolling wheel to play that station. Scroll the opposite wheel to increase or decrease volume. I didn't try to press it so I'm not sure what that would do. Change source input, perhaps?
I then noticed the a faint orange light on the inside of the side view mirror housings that illuminated on occasion. Apparently these are blind spot indicators. I've never driven a car with this option. I never felt like I needed this option if my mirrors were adjusted correctly. Cool feature? Shrug.
Now we reach a light just before the highway to see what the S4 is like at cruising speed. The road we're on is like six lanes and I'm in the second from the far right for the two lane on-ramp ahead. We're first in line. A new Porsche Boxster S rolls up beside us. I noticed him, he probably didn't notice me. That's the stealthy bit about Audi's line-up. Their sedans are good looking. Sleek with a hint of sportiness. Unless you're in an R8, the average schmuck is never going to take a second look.
The light turned green. I rolled off the clutch and onto the gas, taking the V6 near topside of the rev range in a hurry. Second gear was short shifted but the supercharger provided more than enough mid range umph to pull the S4 ferociously. I was listening for supercharger whine the entire time. I wanted it to sound like the 03-04 Cobra. It did not. Even at full bore the engine and exhaust note was subdued. What the engine did do well was continue to pull hard. Impressively strong for a 3800 lb car with three passengers. We're about to upshift to 3rd gear and the Porsche Boxster S was at the S4′s rear quarter panel. The driver must have been in disarray. My car salesman in the backseat? Speechless. He doesn't even sell Audi's!
We took the on ramp at speed and this is where I first felt… well, I think I felt, the sport differential doing work. The sensation was of the car rotating on its own through the corner while under power in an almost unnatural manner. If my M3 felt like that I would have a) prepared for opposite lock and b) thought my rear toe alignment was all sort of funky. What I believe was happening was the active sport differential was putting power to the rear and the rear differential was slowing the rotation of the inside tire. In practice it's really something else. I would have to get used to that sensation.
At highway cruising speed the S4 quieter than my M3. No surprise here. The M3 might just be louder at cruising speed than the S4 is under full throttle. Did I mention I love these Recaro seats in the S4? Front cabin space was ample. It was definitely more roomy than the M3 but not enough to lose the intimate feeling. The dash design and navigation layout grew on me as I drove. I couldn't tell for sure, but I felt the dash may have been slightly tilted toward the driver in similar fashion to the E46 M3.
Perhaps the most disappointing trait of this 2010 Audi S4 was the steering feel and the suspension. Again, keep in mind that I'm coming from an M3. I think if I spent the day in my fiance's Corolla before jumping in the S4 then my opinion may have been different. The steering, while direct, was very light at low speed. The car was in Dynamic mode. I think that also sets steering input. Maybe not. At speed, the S4′s steering was tighter and never felt bad, it simply lacked the communicative feedback I've become accustom to in BMWs.
The drive was over all too quick. Upon returning to the dealership I had to check out the rear seats. I have this thing about checking out the experience of a passenger. By that I mean just sitting in the back seats while the driver seat is how I would have it set. One of the reasons I'm looking at the S4 is to accommodate a growing family. With my driving position, the rear seats had plenty of leg room for me. It was easily more than the M3. The back seats were comfortable and looked to provide ample space for the inevitable family road trip.
I hyped myself up over this S4 well before getting to the dealer. As much as I wanted to love the Audi S4, I left the dealership feeling disappointed. I wanted — no — I expected the S4′s suspension to feel tight. I expected the supercharger to be more pronounced under full throttle. What I had to remember was that the S4 was not an M3 and certainly was not a direct M3 competitor. I can hear the screaming Audi fanboys from here.
Remember what I said about the S4 being the sporty sedan more worthy of street surfaces than the race track? That's exactly what this is. And it's not a bad thing at all. The S4 is a grown up and slightly more civilized version of the M3 without the size of an M5. Compared to the V8 powered BMW M3 sedan, the S4 is more comfortable and provides just the right level of sportiness.
I'm an ex-racer. A new father. Chances are I'll never drive competitively on a race track again but I still want to enjoy the back roads, row through some gears, and fling the car around every one in a while. I commute in traffic so the interior has to be an environment that's enjoyable to live with. I want more space in my car for family trips but I don't want it to be so big it's a nightmare to park. I don't want worry about the road conditions or tomorrow's weather and am not going to drive an SUV or a mini-van.
Could it be, then, that the Audi S4 is exactly what I need it to be?
There is no way I could ever pull the trigger on a $40k car like this without an extended test drive and not to mention an extended warranty. A 20 minute spin around the neighborhood is insufficient time for me. I need to know what it's like to live with. Chances are if I was to drive it for a weekend I wouldn't want to return it. If this car doesn't make me want to proudly wear an Audi hat then it isn't the car for me. Isn't that what a new addition to the driveway should feel like?