V-8 power makes a compelling car all but irresistible. But does it make it quicker?
The basic concept here is far from new: big V-8 stuffed into a smallish car to lend more urgency to forward progress. Detroit applied the formula a lot during the heyday of the big-inch in the '60s and early '70s. Never mind that the resulting hot rods weren't inclined to change directions or stop. They'd go from A to B in a serious hurry, merrily shredding tires, and in those days, nothing else really mattered.
For more pictures of the Audi S4, click here.
Consistent with today's more comprehensive expectations, the S4 does much more than merely sprint. It has the balance of an Olympic gymnast and the sure-footed all-weather agility of a snow leopard—wrapped in sheetmetal that differs very little from the everyday A4's. Whether this cosmetic reticence suits you is your call. But it doesn't take long to figure out this is not your everyday A4. Not with that refined V-8 exhaust music laying down an internal-combustion back beat worthy of Bach.
And, of course, there's the matter of fast forward. Ja. The S4 does that. As you'd expect. Then again, maybe not quite as you'd expect. We'll get back to that issue a little later. First, let's look at the rest of the package.
Given its überdog role in the A4 lineup, the S4 has stiffer sinews than its stablemates—slightly higher spring rates, revised shock-absorber damping, stiffer anti-roll bars fore and aft, reduced (by 20 millimeters) static ride height, quicker steering, and bigger brakes. Like the idea of bolting in more horsepower, this is fairly standard, with one important exception: Audi seems to have achieved its handling goals—increased roll stiffness, crisper responses—without excessive ride-quality compromise.
The "seems to" proviso is based on a half-day exposure to the S4's dynamics, part of it on the Misano racing circuit in northern Italy, part of it on a variety of Italian public roads, all of it in wet weather. We'll suspend a definitive judgment until we can subject an S4 to the weather-checked tarmac of southeastern Michigan. But the S4 does shape up as an exceptionally smooth operator for a car in this rarefied performance category, and it's distinctly smoother than a BMW M3.
The secret, if there is one, lies in the extensive use of aluminum in the S4's suspension—including aluminum hub carriers—adding up to reduced unsprung mass.
Besides its surprisingly compliant ride and decisive responses, the S4 also seems to be a reliable ally for quick driving in damp conditions. The standard Quattro all-wheel drive accounts for this in part, of course, and the Continental tires provide exceptional grip on wet pavement. But the element that separates this Audi from a lot of other cars in nasty traction conditions is the relatively high threshold the engineering team set for the intervention of the S4's traction-control and stability-enhancement programs. Instead of instant shutdown at the first hint of slippage, the S4's microchips allow a fair amount of wheelspin, as well as the occasional judicious broadslide.
As noted, the S4 doesn't advertise its high-testosterone character. The only exterior clues are the chrome side mirrors and the six-spoke, 18-inch Audi Avus-style wheels. Inside, the dash sports carbon-fiber trim and gray-faced S gauges, and there are deeply bolstered Recaro front bucket seats. Like all recent Audi interiors, it's a seductive blend of fashion and function that gladdens the eye and the backside in equal measure.
But does it satisfy the need for speed? Aye, there's the question.
Audi was able to wedge the V-8 under the hood by moving the cam drive to the rear of the engine and substituting a chain for the standard toothed belt. The net reduction in length was 52mm, just over two inches, and that was just enough.
Thus, those willing to pay the S4 premium (at this writing, Audi would acknowledge only a "mid-$40s" starting point) will have 339 horsepower and 302 pound-feet of torque underfoot, compared with 250 and 258 for the 2.7-liter twin-turbo V-6 used in the previous S4. Which ought to add up to some pretty serious go, right? Ought to. But Audi's forecasts don't reflect this. Mated to the standard six-speed manual transmission, the slickest Audi manual yet (if you prefer an automatic, a six-speed Tiptronic with paddle shifters is due later this year), the S4 is expected to dash to 62 mph in 5.6 seconds. Top speed is limited to 155 mph.
This isn't exactly slow, but if the forecast holds up, we'd call it disappointing. The last S4 we tested ("Two Against One," October 2001) sprinted to 60 in 5.5 seconds. The most recent M3 tested needed only 4.5 seconds to hit 60 mph, and a Mercedes C32 AMG did 0 to 60 in 5.0 flat (January 2002).
To be fair, Audi tends to be conservative with its forecasts. Official expectations for the previous S4, for example, were 0 to 60 in 5.9. The new S4 is likely to weigh in almost 150 pounds heavier, but its power-to-weight advantage should make it quicker than the old car. And even if the S4 isn't blindingly brisk out of the blocks, that V-8 provides wonderful midrange punch.
Beyond that, Audi product planners say the S4 isn't intended to be a head-to-head competitor for the M3, and they have a case. The M3 is available only as a coupe or convertible, the S4 as a sedan or wagon.
Viewed from that perspective, the S4 measures up as a very seductive offering. Still, M3 and C32 comparisons are inevitable for this package. We can hardly wait.
Vehicle type: front-engine, 4-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door sedan or 5-door wagon
Estimated base price: $45,000
Engine type: DOHC 40-valve V-8, aluminum block and heads, Bosch Motronic engine-control system with port fuel injection
Displacement: 254 cu in, 4163cc
Power (SAE net): 339 bhp @ 7000 rpm
Torque (SAE net): 302 lb-ft @ 3500 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Wheelbase: 104.4 in
Length: 180.1 in
Width: 70.1 in
Height: 55.7-56.7 in
Curb weight: 3650-3800 lb
Manufacturer's performance ratings:
Zero to 62 mph: 5.6-5.8 sec
Top speed (governor limited): 155 mph
Projected fuel economy:
EPA city driving: 17 mpg
EPA highway driving: 25 mpg
*ah, rumorsHG and 9000..