August 3, 2004

Short Take: 2004 Audi S4
Text and Pictures by: Don Pavlik

He stood there with his mouth literally agape as the Audi press team dropped off a new 2004 S4 in front of my house. My neighbor, that is. 

He stood and watched as I signed off on paperwork while the other member of the delivery team wiped down the car with a polishing cloth and cleaned the windows. They handed me the keys, shook my hand and motored off. All the while my neighbor remained nearly motionless across the street watching. Finally he couldn't wait anymore and walked across the street, totally taken by the gleaming Imola S4 before him. 

The questioning began and I had the answers. Audi S4. 340 HP. 40 valves. 6 speed manual. All wheel drive. Yes, Recaro seats. 18" wheels. This all came as quite a surprise to me since my neighbor drives an ill-maintained Ford Taurus that has been missing a side mirror for a year and probably has not been washed in as much time. Still, he was drawn to the S4. 

I have to admit I can see the reason for his attraction. The S4 is one handsome automobile. Although sharper, more angular and with a higher beltline than the previous S4, it's heritage can clearly be seen. It's more aggressive looking without screaming, "Look at me!" 

The 2004 S4, now available with a 4.2 liter, 340 HP V8 tucked under the hood, produces 94 horsepower more than the 2.7 liter bi-turbo V6 it replaces. Turn the ignition key and the engine comes to life and idles with a sound unusual for an S4: a V8 burble. Audi engineers rolled up their sleeves and shortened the already compact aluminum 4.2L V8 by 52mm to fit the S4 along with keeping the weight the same as that of the V6 engine. 

Mated to the new V8 is a 6-speed manual or 6-speed tiptronic transmission (yes, six speed!) and, of course, quattro all wheel drive to put all that new found power to use. This version of the 6-speed manual is large improvement over 6-speed manual in the previous generation S4. The shifter offers the right amount of feedback and clicks into gears with accuracy. The earlier generation S4 transmission, by comparison, feels vague and disconnected. The tiptronic now offers a sport mode in addition to the tiptronic manual mode. 

The handling, suspension and brakes of this S4 are certainly a step up over the previous S4. Although a heavier car, the new S4 feels tight and much more responsive to small inputs. Understeer is reduced slightly. Gone is the lag in the suspension when entering long sweeping corners. Previously, the car would tuck into the turn and then a second later the rear of the car would "catch up" and settle in. Not so with the latest S4. Turn in and it just sets--right now. Very nice. Very precise. 

Suspension movements are firmer, better controlled and, although it's riding on 18" performance tires, ride quality has improved. My only complaint about the suspension is that on some roads I experienced a front to rear bobble (oscillation); it seemed to me the rear end needed just a smidge more rebound damping. Front suspension components are made out of aluminum to reduce unsprung weight (saving over 4.4 lbs per wheel).

On the road, the new S4 offers effortless speed. Short shift the willing V8 and you'll still be ahead of traffic. Dip further into the throttle and delay your upshifts and the car moves with "right now" authority. Audi claims the newly motivated S4 will click off 0-60 in a scant 5.3 seconds (5.6 with tiptronic). Impressive, no-fuss performance. The car is a joy to drive quickly.

Video: S4 Sprint (23 sec.)
 2.03MB, Windows Media

Inside, the S4 is now equipped with outstanding Recaro seats. The power adjustable seats are firm, very supportive and do an excellent job of keeping you in place with things turn fast and twisty (which you will seek out on a regular basis). The seats also include adjustable thigh support and a storage bin under the seat between your legs. Also included for the power seats are memory for four seat positions meaning no more fiddling with the seat to find your seating position after the valet has driven the car. It is just a matter of recalling the desired seat memory position and waiting for it to motor back to your sweet spot. Rear seat leg room remains tight. 

The rest of the interior continues in true Audi tradition in that it is tasteful, elegant and extremely functional. Everything feels good to the touch. Rich wood accents the dash and door panels. A welcome change to the S4 interior is the relocation of the power window controls. I'm tall. Previously, the window switches were such that I could not easily reach them with my left hand without contorting my wrist backwards. Here, the controls fall right under my hand. Perfect, and as most drivers know it's the little things that count. 

The instrument cluster is clean, uncluttered and accented with aluminum rings around the gauges. Sadly, Audi decided to drop the oil temperature gauge which, considering the sporting nature of the car, is something that will probably be missed by enthusiasts. Also gone is the red lighted instrumentation, now replaced by crisp white backlight. I'm a fan of red lighting and found I had to turn the dash lights way down to prevent distraction. Everyone else who rode with me liked the dash lighting so it's a matter of personal preference. 

Speaking of lights, the car is now equipped with automatic headlights if you find turning on the xenon headlights at dusk too much of a chore. The turn signals also include a very handy "tap to lane change" feature. If you briefly touch the signal lever the turn signal will flash three times while you complete your lane change. Sounds silly but it's very handy in daily traffic.

One curious feature of the interior is the placement of the interior alarm disable and  trunk release buttons. For some reason, the engineers decided to put the buttons way in the back of the door map pocket bin. In this location they are almost completely obscured. Unless you were looking for the buttons and knew where to look chances are you'd never find them. Unless pointed out by the salesman at delivery, I suspect many new owners will have no idea the buttons exist. 

Audi has cooked up a winner with the new S4. It's handsome, handling has improved, performance has improved and the interior is nothing short of first class. It's a great tool for dealing with daily traffic in comfort and style. And, when you finally reach the front of the freeway traffic jam a call to the V8 under the hood will put distance between you and the rest of traffic in a hurry.

During my time with the S4 I often found myself hanging back from traffic when approaching a turn so I could accelerate up to the turn, set up my line, brake hard, turn, squeeze the throttle and rocket out of the corner. I'm sure my rate of closure caused more than a few concerned glances in rear view mirrors. Oops. Not to worry though, the 13.6" brakes quickly burn off the speed.

When the traffic thins and the road turns twisty those "suggested speed" signs seem to need some serious recalibration. Approach a corner at the suggested speed in the S4 and you have to wonder what road designers were thinking. Surely, they didn't expect me to go this slow.

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[1] [Gallery] [Specs (.pdf)]