|June 16, 2004
First Drive: Audi S4 Cabriolet
A warm, spring day in the middle of the Nevada desert is probably the perfect way to experience the newest convertible to the Audi lineup: the S4 Cabriolet. Like most of the journalists at Audi's event I had already logged considerable seat time in the B6 S4, but getting the most from both the power and the refinement of the latest "S" is even more enjoyable with the added option for top-down driving. Together with the same 340hp V8 and six speed manual or Triptronic transmission variants as its sedan and Avant brethren, the S4 Cabriolet adds a whole new dimension to the Audi driving experience.
To be fair it has been a long and at times difficult wait for the S4 Cab. With the fun, yet still too practical A4 Cabriolet having been introduced way back in October 2002, and the rival M3 Cab out in the market far earlier, the S4 Cab now firmly occupies a niche that was conspicuously vacant in the Audi lineup.
What Audi delivers in the S4 Cabriolet is a bit of an enigma. Powerful yet graceful, aggressive yet subtle, convertible yet still pleasing to the eye (top up or down); this S4 seems to adapt to what the driver's requirements on an instantaneous basis.
Audi made a decision early on that in order to keep development times manageable it would not produce new body panels for the S4 Cabriolet. It does, however, adopt a different look than the stock A4 Cabriolet thanks to a more aggressive grille and S4 badges. Audi gets huge marks for producing a Cabriolet without any antennas visible - whether the top is up or down - on the exterior of the car. This bit of engineering magic comes thanks to a composite trunk lid which neatly hidess satellite receivers for GPS/XM/Sirrus along with AM/FM antennas.
Lowering the new soft top with heated glass rear window takes only 25 seconds, and as an added feature, can be done outside the car from the drivers side door lock. European owners, we understand, will get the added ability to operate the soft top directly from the key fob. A must for any convertible, the S4 Cab includes a master window switch allowing operation of all four windows at once.
A gray birch wood trim is standard for the S4 Cabriolet, but a new-to-North America option is a stunning Carbon-Fiber trim. S4 sedan and Avant owners now raving about their wonderful Recaro seats won't get the same treatment in the S4 Cabriolet. Unfortunately the Recaros were designed as a four-legged base and the Cabriolet utilizes a three-legged design. This was another area, like the option for unique body panels, where Audi decided to save time and get the product to market rather than delaying to work out a Recaro solution.
Nevertheless the seats are still first rate and extremely comfortable with ample bolstering. The Silk Napa Leather looks stunning with contrasting piping.
While not the place you'd want to spend an extended road trip, the rear seats are functional enough. This functionality is eliminated when the S4 Cab's wind blocker is extended to reduce wind buffeting from behind. There is still room to stow goodies - just no people - in the backseat with the wind blocker up.
While roofless at the driver's command, the S4 Cabriolet hardly gives up anything in terms of safety. Driver and passenger next generation front airbags, belt force limiters for front positions, safety pedals and steering column, automatic rollover protection, side head/thorax airbags, and upfront crash sensors are all standard.
With more power and a different attitude than the A4 Cabriolet, the S4 Cab is lowered 30mm on a completely reworked suspension. 18-inch wheels, practically requisite for today's high performance vehicles, complete the sporty handling package.
Behind the wheel the driver will experience typical Audi understeer at the limit, but the Conti Sport Contact 235/40 Z-rated tires help extend that limit to the extent possible. We noted only minor cowl shake which is saying something for a drop top. Even over washboard roads or railroad tracks the S4 Cabriolet maintains a solid feeling.
The high desert test route selected by Audi included a little bit of everything and plenty of exciting twisties and the ups-and-downs over flash flood crossings. The car was pushed hard towards the Valley of Fire State Park, giving the suspension a full workout, but never once was there any questionable feedback behind the wheel. The suspension is firm, but not harsh in any way; a well dampened ride combined with the Direct-ratio Servotronic steering keeps the car feeling firmly planted to the road.
The 340 horsepower and 302 lb ft torque move this car with authority and the response, whether already at speed or at a complete standstill, comes immediately. The V8 rumble from the 4.2 liters is a pleasure to the ears and does nothing but add to the experience.
While this car fits into the prototypical "fair weather" driver category, Audi did include the necessary appointments to make the S4 Cab a real all-weather car. Heated seats, a larger ski sack and an insulated soft top make it appropriate for all seasons. This would particularly be true, obviously, in areas that get both ample sunshine and ample snow (the Rockies immediately come to mind).
As previously noted, Audi relied heavily on the current generation A4 Cabriolet as a base in order to get this car to market in a timely fashion. While the Cab does not include all the styling cues of the sedan and Avant (such as the flared door moldings and fabulous Recaro seats), we think it is still well-entitled to carry the "S" badge based on its other strong points. While it is important to also acknowledge Audi's propensity to produce "sleeper" performance vehicles, the truth is that we would have been OK with Audi putting together an S4 Cab exterior that was a little more performance oriented.
With power, refinement and handling all included the only question to be answered is whether the S4 Cabriolet finds its mark with its understated styling. The downside would be that potential buyers decide they are looking for something a little racier in this category and price point.
6-speed Manual Transmission - $53,850
EPA Estimated Fuel Economy
Manual - 15mpg (city), 21mpg (highway), 17mpg (average) Tiptronic - 18mpg (city), 23mpg (highway), 20mpg (average)
Color choices for the new Cabriolet include:
Brilliant Black, Brilliant Red, Arctic White, Ebony Pearl Effect, Moro Blue Pearl Effect (replaces Nogaro Blue), Cambridge Green Pearl Effect, Dolphin Gray Metalic, Sprint Blue Pearl Effect, Light Silver Metallic
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