I needed a suitable car for a spirited 500-mile run to the “coolest small town in America,” and back. One leaped to mind: the Audi S4 with its optional active differential. In our first encounter, the current “B8” S4 underwhelmed me. Though quick and capable, it just didn’t feel special. “A4 3.0T” seemed more apt. But that car lacked the trick diff. And metro Detroit’s roads aren’t the most challenging. A re-test was warranted. The roads of Southeastern Ohio and West Virginia would provide it.
My first reaction upon seeing the imola yellow sedan: “So much for stealth.” I needn’t have worried. Though subtly attractive, the S4 is nevertheless a four-door sedan that’s decidedly less sexy than the related S5 coupe. Even in yellow it doesn’t attract unwanted attention from law enforcement the way a sports car would. Scratch the “even in yellow:” against a background of fall foliage the bright hue serves as camouflage. The wheels’ $150 “titanium” finish attractively contrasts with the yellow, but could be obtained for free by simply not washing the regular 19s (the brakes’ plentiful dust is nearly the same color). The tested S4’s black leather interior is similarly tasteful to a fault and all business, with only some dark gray alcantara and aluminum trim to liven the place up. (Silver/black and red/black are available interior color options, though the latter does nix the butt-restraining alcantara and require another $1,000 for this favor.) Audi’s “MMI” interface is much easier to operate here than in the Q5 crossover, as the shifter serves as an armrest while working the system’s knob and foursome of buttons.
The biggest problem with the drive from Detroit to West Virginia: with roads running straight to the horizon (and far beyond), the first 250 miles are mind-numbing. The S4’s performance tires clomp and roar on Michigan’s pockmarked concrete highways, less so on Ohio’s smoother asphalt. Luckily even the S4’s base sound system is quite capable of drowning them out without distortion. The car’s ride, though far from harsh, jiggles enough that putting off rest stops is not an option. Every ripple gets reported to the ears and bladder. Even the S4’s rearview mirror is stiff. The driver’s seat includes four-way power lumbar and provides very good lateral support, but I can’t get comfortable in it. Put less delicately, the seat often puts my ass to sleep. If there had been passengers in the back seat, they would have found it livable but tight. Though the S4’s body structure and interior possesses the solidity and refinement expected of a premium car, it’s not the ideal turnpike cruiser.
A bright spot: hitched to a six-speed manual and driving all four wheels in a 3,847-pound sedan, the 333-horsepower supercharged 3.0-liter V6 covers 25 highway miles on each gallon of gas (the trip computer reports 25.8 while driving nearly 80 MPH, but manual calculations suggest it’s about one MPG high). Drive it like you stole it down a mountain road, and you’ll still observe mid-to-high teens. The previous-generation S4’s 340-horsepower 4.2-liter V8 was far thirstier, with EPA ratings of 13/20 vs. 18/27. Unfortunately, what the engine giveth the fuel gauge taketh away: the latter reliably reported a 0-mile DTE with about three gallons left in the tank.
Once south and east of Columbus the roads become increasingly entertaining, and with Ohio 555, full of tight curves and blind knolls, the fun really begins. The V6, though it lacks the soul of the previous-generation S4’s 340-horsepower 4.2-liter V8, produces an encouraging mechanical whir when revved, some of it courtesy of the supercharger, along with a modest amount of exhaust roar. (With no lag, the blower’s muted whine is the only sign that boost is in play.) The “3.0T” engine is louder here than in the A6 and A7, but still far from too loud. There’s no drone when cruising at highway speeds. Oddly, the six is least refined at idle, where it suffers from a touch of the shakes.
The V6 is so strong through its wide midrange that deep downshifts are rarely called for—a sharp contrast to the Mazda RX-8 I’ll drive the rest of the long weekend. Push down on the accelerator, and the six rockets the car smoothly out of curve exits. This broad torque curve proves especially welcome on West Virginia 14, which is much more heavily traveled than I had hoped. Half the state drives pickups, the other half drives Chevy Cavaliers (which I hereby nominate as the Official State Car of the mountain state). The blown six is ever ready to jump past clots of them whenever the briefest passing zone pops up.
If you need to shift, or simply want to, the S4’s slick, solid, moderate-of-throw stick serves better than Audi shifters of years past. Second can be a bit hard to hit when rushing a downshift, but this is the full extent of its shortcomings. Unlike in late model Volkswagens where the tach was numbered in hundreds, the S4’s rev-meter is numbered in the thousands with a large font and is consequently far easier to read at a glance. A light and/or beep 500 rpm short of the redline would be even better, but wasn’t much missed. Don’t care for a clutch? A seven-speed dual-clutch automated manual is optional here—and the only transmission Europeans can get. On the other hand, they can still get an S4 wagon, while we’re limited to the sedan. An S4 wagon with a manual transmission? No longer offered anywhere.
I take a side trip to hilly Charleston to sample a couple of R-Design Volvos—you’ll read about them later. Afterwards, the S4 is a perfect match for the more convoluted sections of US60 east of Gauley Bridge. At Rainelle I take a shortcut, miss a turn (no nav in this lightly optioned $49,625 car), and end up on a delightfully undulating single-lane ribbon of asphalt. Later, on the way back to Detroit, with a nav system lifted off my old man to warn of impending hairpins, the S4 chews up WV16 (with an especially glorious stretch after it splits from 33) and OH26 once across the Ohio. If anything, the S4 makes driving all but the twistiest bits of these roads too easy.
The Audi’s steering deserves only second billing in the credits. It’s fairly quick, naturally weighted, firm at highway speeds (especially in “sport” mode), and finds its voice as the car’s high limits are approached. Placing the car precisely never poses a challenge. But luxury was clearly a top priority, and the system doesn’t feel as nuanced or as direct as the best. You do your part, and it will do its. Melding as one? It’d rather not.
The S4’s suspension takes up some of the steering’s slack. As mentioned above, though far from harsh it’s communicative even when you don’t care to chat. Firm springs and taut damping keep body motions under control, with just a hint of float in quick transitions to remind you that this isn’t an extreme sport machine. Partly because the V6 weighs less than the old V8, and partly because the differential is now ahead of the transmission (enabling a 55/45 weight distribution), the current S4 doesn’t plow through tight curves like the previous one did. Instead, it feels almost perfectly balanced. The 255/35ZR19 Dunlop SP Sport Maxx tires grip the tarmac tightly as long as no snow is falling. Add in all-wheel-drive and strong, firm, easily modulated brakes, and even the most challenging roads can be tackled with extreme confidence.
The resulting lack of drama can get a bit boring, as discovered in my first drive. But with the optional active differential, progressive, easily controllable oversteer is just a dip into the throttle away. Unlike with the Acura TL’s SH-AWD system, driving sideways isn’t happening without an unpaved road surface or extreme steering inputs. But a tighter line is there for the taking, just dial in the desired number of degrees with your right foot. This agility enhancement should be standard equipment in an “S” car. As is, it’s $1,100 very well spent. I would not buy an S4 without it.
Ultimately, the S4 proved a perfect choice for the trip to Lewisberg. Some other cars would have been more engaging and entertaining. Others would have been more isolating and comfortable. But for moving rapidly along an unfamiliar twisty byway with never a wheel out of place, rain or shine, the S4 could hardly have been beaten. It’ll get you there, quickly and securely and even somewhat efficiently, with plenty of smiles along the way.
Audi provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data.