|January 28, 2003
Road Test: 2004 Audi S4
Last week Audi of America invited a select group of journalists to preview the 2004 Audi S4, both on the roads in and around Phoenix, Arizona and on an autocross style course and road course at Firebird International Raceway. This program immediately seemed appropriate since the vehicle presents such a natural dichotomy of luxury / performance everyday driver and eager part- or full-time track car. It is not lost on Audi that more than a handful of its enthusiasts will don a racing helmet at some point during their S4 ownership.
Thus the 2004 S4, which builds impressively on the B6 platform A4, is aptly called an "Everyday Sports Car" by the folks who designed it. It is equally at home commuting to work and picking up groceries, as it is handling the autocross course or track event. After a full day putting the car through its paces on everything from highways to sideroads to dirt roads to the track, I wholeheartedly agree.
One of the first things apparent when driving the 2004 S4 is the completely new 6-speed manual transmission. Effort required to shift is minimal and changing gears is smoother than ever. The shift throw is definitely shorter than the previous generation S4, although it may still be a tad long for some enthusiast's liking - there are undoubtedly a few aftermarket tuners working on this issue as you read this. In stark contrast to the previous 6-speed transmission, a shift to first gear is possible while the car is moving. Although this is not likely to be a noticeable change on the street, it was very welcome on the tight autocross course.
While not available during the press introduction, the 2004 S4 also has, as an option, a completely redesigned 6-speed Tiptronic transmission featuring a 25% wider gear ratio.
As most people already know, with the announcement of the new S4 came word that the powerplant would be the 4.2-liter engine similar to the A6, A8, S8 and more recently the allroad quattro. Given Audi's long history of developing sporty turbocharged engines, this was an initial cause of disappointment for some.
However, after driving the V8-powered S4, one cannot stay disappointed for long. Torque was instantaneous at all speeds and silky smooth. The sometimes challenging necessity of passing uphill at highway speed was effortless and quick. While lacking some of the exhilaration of the previous turbocharged V6, this engine generally felt stronger over the entire RPM range.
At low engine speeds, engine exhaust noise is throaty and audibly apparent, but not overbearing. That being said, some whine from the relocated timing chain is audible. This whine was noticeable even at highway speeds, but thankfully only at the lowest end of the RPM range. At higher speeds, engine exhaust noise is subdued and the cabin is surprisingly quiet.
Exterior exhaust noise sounds almost like a cross between a V6 and a V8. A slightly more aggressive exhaust note would have possibly been called for in a vehicle like the S4. Like the interior exhaust noise, it was far from being overbearing and still sounded good despite being a little quiet.
To achieve the sporty sound at low engine speeds while keeping the sound at higher speeds quiet, Audi has designed an innovative exhaust system that controls the path of exhaust gases through the muffler depending on the engine speed. Below 1700 rpm exhaust flows in an almost straight path through the muffler, while above 1700 rpm a flap in the muffler causes the exhaust to loop through the muffler, which in turn reduces the sound of the exhaust. The system as a whole works as advertised.
The S4 suspension is lowered 20 mm relative to its A4 brethren and modified to provide a firmer, sportier feeling. Both spring rates and dampening force were custom tuned by Audi's engineers for the characteristics of the S4 chassis. Together with the 60% stiffer chassis, handling is significantly improved while keeping the ride comfortable. Turn in was better and a significant amount of understeer was removed relative to the previous S4. The car handled both the autocross course and the road course at Firebird International Raceway superbly and actually felt eager to be thrown about more.
It almost goes without saying that the suspension felt superlative on the highway. The feel of the road is transmitted to the driver without becoming uncomfortable, meaning Audi has successfully located the sweet spot between driver feedback and occupant comfort. An uphill sweeper at 100 mph was nearly flat with little body roll - a confidence-instilling maneuver at that speed.
One common complaint about the previous generation S4 centered on the front brakes. While they did a spectacular job of stopping the car in a quickly, they did not fare as well under repeated use (such as at the track). Constant and heavy use of the brakes would inevitably lead to increasing brake fade, as well as uneven pad deposits (where pad material vaporizes and is unevenly re-deposited on the brake rotor). The result is a light to heavy shudder with any amount of braking force. While not usually a critical safety concern, this problem would nonetheless reduce steering feel and braking performance.
It is an understatement to say that Audi did not disappoint with the new braking system. 345 mm vented disc brakes with 4 piston calipers on the front, and 300 mm vented disc brakes on the rear do an excellent job of stopping the car. More importantly, almost four hours of constant use on the west course at Firebird International Raceway resulted in no noticeable brake fade, excellent brake feel and no shudder whatsoever. Granted, the brakes did come back smoking after one particularly spirited run on the track, but the S4 completely dismissed blatant attempts to cause brake failure.
The 2004 S4, unlike previous S4's, has Servotronic speed sensitive steering. At highway speeds the effect of this system was clear, as steering required some additional effort (a slight positive). The end result on the highway is increased steering and road feel. At street speeds, though, it felt slightly overboosted (a slight negative). Like most complaints so far, it did not significantly detract from the driving experience.
The new S4 also differentiates itself from the A4 by employing subtle exterior styling changes. While the test cars were European spec, and as a result, slightly different than what will come to the US, the styling changes seemed to continue the "stealth" S4 theme. North America will receive body colored door sills and some additional changes to the rear bumper.
The Recaro seats, including familiar silver Alcantara inserts, felt and rode extremely well. At no point was there movement in the seat, even with only a seat belt to hold the driver down at Firebird International Raceway. The rest of the interior - an Audi strongpoint throughout its entire model lineup - looked and felt top notch.
The 2004 S4 will not come to North America with a full screen GPS navigation system (commonly known as Nav+), instead bringing forward the trip computer-based navigation found in the current A4. Rumor has it that the next generation DVD-based GPS navigation system with a full color screen will be available in the 2005 model S4.
All in all, the 2004 S4 improves on its predecessor in almost every area. Transmission, suspension, brakes and handling all raise the bar significantly. Other areas, such as the powerplant and interior look / feel, are up to Audi standards. While there were some minor complaints about this vehicle, there was nothing glaring.
With performance rivaling or beating similar offerings from competitors and a targeted price at about $45,000 (US Dollars), Audi will not be challenged to sell the 5,000 S4's per year that it plans to bring to the United States and Canada. The question now is whether Audi dealers will command MSRP (or higher) for the 2004's much the way they did for the B5 platform S4 in 1999. Smart money says "yes".
Specs & Options
Enhanced Interior Package
Silk Nappa Leather
Pearl Nappa Leather with Alcantara inserts