If you’re a carmaker, it’s a heck of a lot easier to get publicity out of a new model than one already in your stable. Incremental excellence isn’t nearly as sexy as the thrill of the new.
When a great car gets noticeably better, though, somebody really should take notice, because it means money is going to the engineering department and not just TV ads.
I was reminded of this recently after stepping out of two updated cars from Audi. The latest iterations of the R8 supercar and S4 sport sedan had better handling and were faster and more enjoyable than last time I spun around in them. And I’d liked them plenty before.
Among European carmakers, Audi was always more of a character actor than action hero or brassy starlet. It showed up on time and remembered its lines, but seemed content to let Brad-Pitt BMW and Meryl-Streep Mercedes-Benz take center stage.
Only this decade have the company’s cars become brasher and brighter, most notably with the 2007 release of the $115,000 R8. This was Audi’s Clive Owen: A mid-engine two-seater with sex appeal, style, plus genuine comfort and sporting chops.
While it nailed the first three qualities, the 4.2-liter V- 8 engine lacked the abdomen-punching power of a true-blue exotic. Unlike its VW Group cousin, the Lamborghini Gallardo LP 560-4, it couldn’t blow your Gucci loafers off.
For an encore, Audi is giving buyers the option of a bigger 5.2-liter V-10, like the Gallardo’s. Mounted under glass behind the driver, the engine has an extra 105 horses, bringing it to a robust 525.
I whiled away two days with the car between northern California’s superb back roads and the Infineon Raceway in Sonoma. I’d wrung out the smaller-engine model on the same track and always wished for an extra shot of oomph on the front straightaway. That issue has been rectified — drivers will be doubly thankful for good brakes.
On public roads, the R8 has been transformed into a scene- stealing lead man, and needs a firm hand to keep it from chewing through the scenery. While you can pass on demand, the instantaneous, jackhammer power needs to be promptly coaxed back down, lest red-and-blue cherry lights appear in your rearview mirror.
Despite that, the R8 is the world’s most accessible supercar. Passengers won’t complain about the seats, you can see out the back and the navigation system and air conditioner actually work. There’s even a fair amount of storage.
Those extra cylinders come at a premium of more than $30,000. Equipped with an automatic transmission, the V-10 starts at $156,300 versus the V-8’s $124,500. At that price, you would be well on your way to affording a new S4 sedan for $46,725.
The S4 is Audi’s other just-improved model. It’s the sportier version of the A4 sedan ($32,000-$45,000), which competes with Mercedes C-Class and BMW 3 Series. Audi released the latest A4 iteration last year, after spending at least $1 billion to create a sturdier and lighter platform.
The 2010 S4 is much hotter looking, with edgy struts that jut out from the bottom of the front fascia like goblin teeth, and is finished off with four tailpipes at the rear. Aggressive but dressy — a Daniel Craig.
Whereas the R8 does more with a bigger engine, the new S4 gets more with a smaller one. It loses two cylinders, going down to a direct-injected and supercharged V-6. The result is 333 hp and 325 pound-feet of torque.
Compared to last year’s model, it manages to be nearly a half-second quicker to 60 mph (4.9 seconds with the manual transmission), while getting better gas mileage (18 city and 27 highway versus 13 and 20).
Buyers who opt for the S4 over the A4 expect a more driver- oriented experience and lessons from the R8 program have obviously filtered down. The S4’s suspension has been reworked, and what was once a fun ride has become even tauter and livelier.
I pushed the S4 relentlessly on both the track and open roads. While it won’t fly seamlessly around the tricky corners with the R8’s surgeon-like steadiness, in a sense it’s more fun. I found myself testing the limits of adhesion, looking for just the right slip angle to carry me through quickly. Though tires squealed, I never felt less than in control.
As in most all-wheel-drives, you will find that it exhibits understeer, yet the S4 is mostly manageable, except in the tightest corners.
Audi’s latest automatic transmission, a double-clutch seven-speed setup, is magical, making the manual six-speed feel antiquated. You can leave it in auto or work the paddles.
The S4’s interior is roomier, most noticeably in the back seats where passengers are less likely to knock their knees. It has the latest version of Audi’s MMI navigation system, which has also improved with better graphics and ease of use.
And the winner for best automobile in a leading role goes to…
The 2010 Audi R8 5.2 FSI Quattro and S4 Sedan at a Glance
Engines: 5.2-liter V-10 with 525 horsepower and 391 pound- feet of torque; 3.0-liter V-6 with 333 hp and 325 lb-ft of torque.
Transmissions: Six-speed manual or R tronic automatic; six- speed manual or seven-speed dual-clutch S tronic automatic.
Speed: 0 to 60 in 3.8 seconds; 4.9 seconds.
Gas mileage per gallon: 13 city, 20 highway; 18, 28.
Price as tested: $165,000; $57,000.
Best features: An admirable mixture of fun and comfort.
Worst features: Price — neither are a drop in the bucket in today’s economy.
Target buyers: Sport-loving drivers who have been holding off on buying automotive fun.