Audi S4 Avant Review

Robert Farago
by Robert Farago

An Italian tailor once told me that the best men's clothing is invisible. A well-made suit flatters its owner, not the tailor. And so it is with the Audi S4 Avant. Despite the company's decision to slather the press car in Crayola yellow, and their unconscionable policy of inflicting their gauche grill across the entire model range, the S4 Avant is an entirely restrained machine. It's completely devoid of the aesthetic fripperies that announce a heavily modified car's sporting aspirations. The S4 Avant is all about the driver, not the manufacturer.

The bias is obvious the second you enter the belly of the beast. As the S4 Avant's door thunks shut with startling finality, you're captivated by an interior that is as dour as it is functional; a dark plastic and leather cabin that feels more like an operating room than an automotive cockpit. Every human interface– from the clicking HVAC controls to the steering wheel's tiny thumbwheel controllers– reacts with perfectly measured tactility. Even the in-dash MMI (Multi-Media Interface) works with chilling precision. The car's single-minded minimalism raises your driving game on the subconscious level.

The S4 Avant's 4.2-liter V8 whines like a turbine. Blip the throttle and there's a hint of bass, but nothing to disturb the atmosphere of Zen-like calm. Lower the six-speed autobox' polished lever into Drive, gather up some revs, and it's clear that Ingolstadt's pocket-rocket is designed for double-duty. The shifts are silken; the slush box quickly and constantly seeks out the highest possible gear. The steering is lithium light. Your mother could drive this car without once sensing the animal lurking within.

Press the go-pedal that little bit deeper, the rumble intensifies and the scenery begins fast forwarding towards you. The S4 Avant under full load produces the kind of endless, effortless, seamless shove and big-bore bellowing you'd expect from a large capacity V8. But the gearbox' eternal hunt for cruising revs punishes the slightest reduction in throttle travel with an immediate upshift. There's only one thing for it: click into Sport. Now squeeze the gas. Audi's uber-wagon holds the gears to redline, leaping towards the horizon like a Labrador spying a downed duck.

Soon after accelerative acclimatization, the S4 Avant's Styrofoam steering starts to rankle. Surely the whole point of the car's compact proportions, stunning power-to-weight ratio and highly evolved four-wheel-drive system is to corner at terrific speeds with sure-footed ease. That it does, but there's a critical ingredient missing: precision. The S4 Avant's rack-and-pinion helm is absurdly over-assisted, to the point where judging the car's attitude through the twisties becomes an entirely intellectual exercise. The same visceral deficit applies to unwinding the steering lock. For amateur drivers seeking 9/10ths excitement, it's a dangerous deficiency.

On long sweepers, the S4 Avant's numb steering is less of an issue; just set your course and hold. Seek out a 180-degree highway onramp and give it some. The S4 Avant's 18" Conti Sport Contacts maintains a death grip on the tarmac in the face of ferocious lateral G's. The chassis stays flat, level and communicative. The tiniest tug on the wheel rotates the S4 Avant's mass in an entirely entertaining fashion. A gradual squeal of the left front tire (in a right-hander) indicates the limits of adhesion, and the gradual onset of understeer.

Mucking about in a parking lot with the S4 Avant's handling Nanny switched off reveals that the mini-wagon's back end is less willing to come out and play than a computer gamer with the latest edition of Doom. Even with the most dramatic mid-corner lift off, the S4 Avant's rear is resolutely determined to stay in line, or, failing that, get back in line with a vicious SNAP. The S4 Avant's ventilated discs brakes are similarly brutal. Stomp on the stoppers and it feels as if you've landed a fighter jet on an aircraft carrier. At the same time, the binders are wonderfully progressive (if only the gas pedal in Sport mode was as controllable). Safety, rather than outright fun, is the dominant motif.

Taken as a whole, the S4 Avant is a superb cross-country cohort, rather than a finely-honed sports sedan. If you're looking for a practical car that can burn-up the highways and byways without attracting undue attention from law enforcement, the S4 Avant (in a subtle shade) is an ideal steer that would never fail to keep you coddled, amused and secure; no matter what the weather. If, however, you're looking for a fast Audi with the handling fluency of a BMW, the S4 Avant isn't it. The S4 Avant flatters owners who drive with their head, not their heart.

Robert Farago
Robert Farago

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