The S4 sport version of Audi’s midsize sedan may challenge your notion of driving fun because it has the thrills of a sports car wrapped in the conservative clothes of a sedan. Call it a Q ship.
By TOM STRONGMAN
In World War I, heavily armed merchant ships with concealed weaponry were called Q ships, and they were used with great success by the British Royal Navy. The term came to represent a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and that idea certainly applies to the S4 quattro.
Inside the stylish but sedate sheet metal beats the heart of a performance car. Audi’s well-known quattro all-wheel-drive system puts power to the ground through all four wheels, not just for bad weather but for more balanced performance in any condition. The system is slightly biased toward the rear wheels.
The test car’s optional rear sports differential helps the car through turns by dividing torque between the rear wheels in a way that helps drive the car around the corner. The difference is subtle but noticeable.
Audi’s recipe for creating high-performance versions of its sedans continues to evolve toward smaller engines than before. A supercharged V-6 is now used instead of the V-8 in the previous iteration. The V-6 cranks out 333 horsepower, but does so more efficiently than a V-8. Fuel mileage is rated at 17 miles per gallon in the city and 26 on the highway.
The well-tailored look of the S4 is one of the first things that catches your eye. It has the same kind of simple elegance that one finds in finely tailored clothing (the kind I don’t own). The curved light strip that encircles the headlight gives the car a distinct face. Audi was one of the first companies to use unusual lighting shapes, and it has created dozens of imitations, not all of which are as tasteful.
S4 prices begin at $47,600 for the manual transmission and $49,000 for the dual-clutch S tronic. The standard A4, with a 2.0-liter engine and 211 horsepower, starts at $32,500 for front-wheel drive and $33,400 for a manual-transmission quattro model.
The S4 with a manual transmission is aimed at drivers who want the maximum involvement with their car. The gear ratios are nicely spaced, the clutch action is light and the shift linkage is direct and tight. Flicking through the gears is a hoot.
Working the gearbox in heavy traffic is less fun, so my choice for daily driving would be the S tronic semi-automatic simply because it can be shifted manually when desired, but it can also function as an automatic.
The S4’s cabin is bright. The test car had red inserts on the seats and door inserts, red stitching on the flat-bottomed steering wheel and edges of the seats. The sport seats were extremely comfortable and easy to adjust.
Rear-seat legroom is still a bit tight, but tolerable for adults.
Audi’s MMI multimedia interface, a console-mounted dial that operates the navigation, audio and climate control is one of the easier systems to use but it still has a learning curve.
Safety equipment includes front, side and side-curtain airbags, anti-lock brakes, vehicle stability control and traction control.
The base price of the test car was $47,600. Options included black pearl paint, navigation system with HD radio and CD/DVD player, rearview camera, leather upholstery and sport differential for the quattro system. The sticker price was $54,520.
Four years or 50,000 miles.
Tom Strongman’s e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.