Audi just can’t seem to make up its mind about the S4. First, it was powered by a puny 2.7-litre V6 juiced up to 265 horsepower with the addition of two very steroidal turbochargers. In 2003, in an effort to compete with the Joneses (in this case, BMW), it was determined that two extra pistons had a whole lot more cachet than two turbochargers. Hence, until very recently, the S4 was powered by a 4.2L V8.
But small-displacement V8s need to rev to make power and, as glorious as all that cacophony may be, high engine speed equals high friction — anathema to fuel efficiency — and in these environmentally conscious days, even a pocket rocket has to be as green as possible.
The answer was a return to a blown engine (forced-induction engines can be smaller and don’t need to rev as high to make power, both boons to fuel economy). But, this time, instead of twin turbochargers, Audi has plunked a single Eaton Roots-type supercharger inside the engine bay to force feed the now 3.0L V6. It’s made all the more confusing because the S4 wears the “T” badging (as in V6T) usually reserved for its turbocharged cars. Not only that, but the supercharged 3.0L takes a step backward in the horsepower department, boasting only 333 Shetlands, while the outgoing 4.2L had 340.
Of course, Audi is not in the business of making successively worse — or slower — cars, so there’s more to the new S4 than a slight loss in horsepower. In fact, thanks to the benefits of supercharging, there’s 23 more pound-feet of torque — 325 versus 302 — from the V6 than the V8. Perhaps more importantly, that torque peak occurs at a much lower 1,500 rpm with the blown V6.
If you’re thinking that makes the new S4 gutsier at low speeds, you’re right. Immediately noticeable is that the 2010 jumps off the line where the previous V8 version needed to gather revs before it gathered momentum. Audi says it scoots to 100 klicks an hour in just 5.1 seconds, a breath quicker than the outgoing V8. It’s definitely more responsive.
Having tested the base version of the supercharged engine in the new A6, I did, however, worry that the V6’s rather nasal exhaust tone would be a real step down from the exciting whirrings of Audi’s high-revving V8. But somewhere in the transition from dowdy luxury sedan to über sports sedan, the blown V6 gained some much-needed character.
Still not quite as sonorous as the V8, the blown V6 nonetheless has a distinct character of its own, including the little “chuff” between shifts I first noted in BMW’s turbocharged Z4, which sounds like a Formula One racer of yore. With the seven-speed double-clutch transmission, the S4 only has to cut ignition for a few milliseconds between shifts, which means a little fresh intake charge escapes into the exhaust manifold, and, when the lights come on again (after the shift is completed), that fresh mixture gets lit up, creating that mean-sounding huffing and puffing between gear changes.
The entire experience is made all the better by the superior performance of said double-clutch tranny. Still the leader in the technology, the S-Tronic is essentially a manual gearbox enhanced with two clutches and some Fancy Dan electric servos. The advantage is that each successive gear is already engaged, only waiting for its clutch to be engaged. It makes for far quicker and smoother shifts than any comparable manumatic, traits in keeping with the S4’s dual role as both luxurious and sporty.
Audi also seems to have beefed up the S4’s handling. Though the comparison is often made between the S4 and BMW’s M3, that challenge is actually taken up by the still-V8-powered RS4. The S4 actually resides in the netherland between BMW’s 335i and the M3; think of it as a 335 with a performance chip and sports suspension.
Exacting designations notwithstanding, there’s a little less body roll to this generation of the S4 than in previous versions. There’s also less understeer, a result — at least in part — of less weight over the front axle. Of course, if one needs the ultimate in Audi sports sedan handling, one should opt for the RS4, but at least the new S4 doesn’t feel as soft as the outgoing model.
The S4’s interior is much the same as all recent Audis — excellent materials and even better execution. Some will find an excess of buttons and fair dinkum to them; there really is a plethora of switches and knobs. Nonetheless, it all works for me and, since I am fairly gadget-phobic, perhaps it’s not so bad after all.
The interior was all dressed up with what Audi calls Carbon Atlas trim. It’s a big name for some minor upgrades, but at least it was cheap at $500. Ditto the Bang & Olufsen upgrade — very worthwhile at $1,100. But $3,200 for the navigation system? The days are long gone when a GPS system, no matter how much Audi has upgraded it this year, is worth that much. Perhaps now that Volkswagen (which owns Audi) has swallowed Porsche, it is adopting some of that company’s pricing strategies …
Nonetheless, the S4’s $58,800 base price is much more 335i than M3. It’s a more serious sports car than ever before that just so happens to also get better fuel economy.