We are big fans of the previous-generation Audi S4. Its supercharged V6 had real character, the optional torque-vectoring rear Sport differential created a neutral balance that could be adjusted under power, and the suspension had a fluency that made the pulverising chassis setup of the fester RS4 feel rather overwrought. Having driven and enjoyed the latest A4, there are high hopes that the S4 might once again deliver a sweet, responsive drive in a subtle, superbly built package. It will cost from around £43,500, and the appealing Avant version will start at around £45,000.
The big news here is the switch from supercharged to turbocharged technology, plus the adoption of an eight-speed automatic gearbox instead of the old car’s dual-clutch S-tronic ’box. The new single-turbo 3-litre V6 produces 349bhp at 5400-6400rpm and 3691b ft at 1370-4500rpm (up by 21bhp and 45lb ft). Better still, the new S4 is around 75kg lighter than the old one, at 1630kg and 1675kg respectively for saloon and Avant. Both variants dip below five seconds for the 0-62mph sprint (4.7sec and 4.9sec respectively) and top speed is limited to 155mph.
The S4 is, of course, underpinned by a four-wheel-drive chassis. Under normal circumstances power is split 40:60 front to rear, but up to 70 per cent of power can go to the front axle or 85 per cent to the rear. The rear active torque-vectoring Sport differential remains an option at around £1500 and the new S4 also lightly brakes the inside wheels during hard cornering to aid agility. Also on the options list is Continuous Damper Control, which features Comfort, Auto and Dynamic settings, and the controversial variable-ratio Dynamic Steering system.
For a car of such potency, the S4 is understated almost to the point of anonymity. I rather like that. Inside, the sense of quiet understatement and quality remains. The first thing that strikes you about the S4 is how refined it is. Our test car is fully loaded with 19-inch wheels (18s are standard in mainland Europe but the S4 may arrive in the UK on the bigger alloys), Continuous Damper Control and the Sport differential. It rides beautifully in Comfort mode, and on our admittedly smooth-surfaced test route Dynamic mode does little to ruffle the fluidity. Allied to the almost invisible eight-speed automatic and Instantly responsive engine, the S4 makes effortless progress.
The Dynamic Steering system is worlds better than before but still has an initial jumpiness that feels slightly odd, and it’s so light that you don’t feel there’s a real connection to the front wheels. Having said that, it takes only a few minutes to adapt and the rate of response feels much more natural and consistent than thehateful early systems.
“The new engine has excellent throttle response and a much stronger mid-range”
I’m still not sold on the concept but it doesn’t fundamentally undermine the S4.
What of the switch from supercharger to turbocharger? Well, the new engine has excellent throttle response, a much stronger mid-range and the delivery only starts to feel soft-edged in the last 800rpm or so.
The old motor was a bit more characterful and created a sharper edge to the driving experience, but the new V6 is more refined and definitely provides a bigger kick. The move from the surgically precise S-tronic’ box is another factor that rounds-off the dynamic feel of the S4, rather than sharpening it to a point. The S-tronic ’box was a faster, more exciting experience, and it’s a shame that the S4 has lost that sparkling ingredient.
As for the chassis, it’s partly brilliant and partly disappointing. The ride really is fluid and allows you to build up a nice rhythm, and while there’s quite a bit of body roll, the S4 has a sense of effortless control that seems to fit with its easy-going but impressive turn of speed. The balance is also pretty good. Of course, it can be made to understeer If you don’t listen to the howling tyres (it comes with Hankooks, which are brilliant in the wet but lack mid-corner grip in the dry), but if you turn the car in slightly slower and then commit to the throttle, you feel the Sport diff sending power to the outside rear tyre. As the corner unfolds, a small yaw angle builds and then stabilises, so you exit with the car driving forwards but held in a shallow oversteering angle. It’s actually a really cool sensation.
The only problem Is that the S4 feels slightly too soft-edged to me, The chassis is clearly very well sorted, the balance with the Sport diff is adjustable and not relentlessly understeery, but the weight savings advertised don’t really make themselves felt. Instead of feeling lithe, the S4 too often feels like you’re coercing it into revealing its sportier side. I’m not suggesting it should be crashy and edgy, but a small increase in body control and turn-in response, a bit more volume for the exhaust and sharper gearshifts would transform the car. At the moment it too often feels just like a ‘normal’ A4 with an injection of power rather than a true performance derivative.
Engine: V6,2995cc, turbo
Power: 349bhp @ 5400-6400rpm
Torque: 369lb ft @ 1370-4500 rpm
0-62 mph: 4.7sec (claimed)
Top speed: 155mph
Weight: 1630kg (218bhp/ton)
Basic price: £43,500