by Gabe Beita Kiser
Falling in love with the sports sedan is a rite of passage that gearheads must go through as their taste in cars evolves. Most of us start down this road young, biting bait that includes bedroom wall posters of 1960's Camaros and Mustangs or racing virtual controller-operated Koenigseggs and Ferraris. A decade or two after that, life hits us, deferring the realization of supercar dreams until a time when our budgets allow for it and when space to carry friends and family becomes less of a priority.
If high performance, luxury, versatility, and quality sound like an enticing way to endure that period of life before a well-managed 401k and stock options come home to roost, the Audi dealership might just be where your shopping trip starts and ends. Audi has yet to release an RS version of the B9 generation A4 in America, so that defaults the S4 to the throne as the hottest entry-level luxury sedan from the Four Rings excluding the coupe-inspired S5 Sportback. It's the mastery with which Ingolstadt compiled the S4's incredible batch of components that stuns the most, but the hardware is worth writing home about on its own. Nothing, not even the engine, was allowed to leave the factory without a touch of exotic flair.
Sharing much of its architecture with the Porsche Panamera 4S' motor, the S4's 3.0-liter V6 comes kicking with 354 horsepower and 369 lb-ft of torque, relying on a single turbocharger mounted in a lag-killing position between two cylinder banks to help deliver power without the gas guzzling penalty of the supercharger it replaces. Mash the throttle when the light goes green and the S4 responds by kicking a driver's head into the headrest with all the G-force you'd expect out of a car capable of a 4.3-second rush from 0-60 mph. Feel like taking a trip to prison? Keep the throttle pinned and the S4 won't relent its forward charge until the speedometer reaches 155 mph.
Okay we'll admit it, it's not just the turbocharger that's behind the S4's Mustang GT-like acceleration times. Audi's famous quattro all-wheel drive system also helps kick the flavor up a notch during acceleration and, when combined with the optional Sport rear differential like our tester had, helps this corner-carver cling to the road with more ferocity than life-loving tires are happy with. Drivers who like to drive rather than ride will be disappointed that this generation does away with the B8's optional six-speed manual, but the eight-speed tiptronic loaded onto our Ibis White tester was a fine replacement for the old seven-speed dual clutch transmission.
The automatic is a must these days given that it allows the S4's inflated suite of driver aids more control over the car than a manual transmission could give it. Fortunately, the gearbox is tuned so well that shifts are imperceptible in Comfort mode, with the optional acoustic glass helping keep RPM changes from reaching occupant ears. In Dynamic mode, shifts become welcome aural treats, augmented by the speakers and further enhanced with the windows down. At wide open throttle, each gear change is announced by snorts that make the engine seem like it's scorning whatever car had the misfortune of challenging it to a stoplight drag race.
For better or for worse, it's easy for false confidence to fool potential opponents into thinking they could win such a race. That's because though Audi has redesigned the B9's sheetmetal using subtle tweaks and sharper edges to dramatically modernize it's exterior, the car remains inconspicuous. The only hints that this sedan can deliver high amounts of thrill are the optional red brake calipers and S4 badges on the grille and trunk lid. The camouflage of handsome monotony is perfect for drivers who want to disguise their freakier sides to the outside world, but a Magma Red interior and the decadent diamond pattern stitched into the leather seats advertises to passengers that a proverbial Dexter Morgan sits behind the wheel.
The comfortable seats manage to considerably spruce up the interior and conceal a massage function while retaining sporting capability thanks to adjustable bolsters that keep a driver in place when the S-curves emerge. Color changing lights flicker on at night and, along with the optional Virtual Cockpit, make the S4's insides look like a spaceship. That's keeping with controls that are, in this humble writer's opinion, from a whole other world and the industry benchmark. Barring the electric steering, nothing about this car feels vague. Every button responds with an assertive click of confirmation and the ergonomic layout facilitates a relationship between the car and driver that fits like a tailored glove.
A driver is constantly spoiled for customization but never feels overburdened by complexity. MMI continues to make seemingly tedious adjustments a near thoughtless process and everything, from the Bang and Olufsen sound system to the front and rear heated seats, cocoon occupants in comfort. The feeling that the Audi wraps around the driver rather than the inverse also comes through in the way the S4 drives. The ride depends heavily on what mode the car is in. Comfort lightens steering and softens the adjustable suspension to the extent that the S4 can mimic a larger luxury sedan.
Dynamic mode, on the other hand, adds steering weight so that angle changes feel more deliberate and stiffens suspension to allow the tight chassis more control. This helps the suspension strike a balance between accurately transmitting the road surface to the driver without making it a jarring experience. Even though the steering wheel can't convey what the front wheels are doing, the lapse of communication is made up by a highly responsive chassis. If there's one indicator that this segment is making rapid progress, it's the fact that much of the performance of last generation's M3 and the European RS4 Avant is available in this S4 all while the turbo-6 can yield a 24 mpg average (21 city, 30 highway, 23.7 in our hands).
The driver aids, of course, are more refined than in previous generations. Instead of intrusive beeps from still-evolving forward collision warning systems and limited automatic cruise control capabilities, the S4 keeps a driver's pulse low in gridlock with a cruise control system that can handle stop and go traffic, eases highway anxiety with active lane assist, and ensures minor parking scrapes are a thing of the past with a clear 360-degree camera system. The one thing that hasn't changed with evolution? The price tag. Blame inflation or an inflated options list but our S4 came with a sticker price of $65,625. A starting price of $51,875 including destination means that this tester had $13,750 worth of options loaded onto it.
The bulk of that comes from the $4,900 Prestige Package with the $2,500 S Sport package contributing the second largest number to the total. Add a driver assistance package, 19-inch wheels, and a few trim options and you get an S4 with extended performance capabilities along with all the trappings of a top tier luxury vehicle minus the burdensome weight or a six-figure price tag. It's an expensive way to outfit a car, but Audi does a good job of ensuring the premium price drastically elevates the experience. Sure, the S4 may not be the supercar you've been dreaming about since childhood, but in life there are those who compromise between having their cake or eating it and those who find a way to do both. Thankfully, the S4 is a route to the latter option.