For Audi enthusiasts, there’s no car more iconic than the S4. First seen in 1992 as the UR-S4 and later as the iconic B-segment car in 1999, the B5 Audi S4 launched with a twin-turbo V6 as a response to the M3. To make it Audi engineers stuffed a 2.7-liter V6, 6-speed manual transmission, sport suspension, bigger brakes, and sport seats in and onto the standard A4. The result was one of the great German tuner cars of all time. The S4 was a great foundation for enthusiast and the market was quick to show its love for the original S4. To this day there are still a few businesses dedicated to getting the most out of your B5 S4.
It has been 17 years since that B5 S4 debuted and 11 years since Audi packed a V8 into the B6 and B7 S4s. Now the B9 S4 is finally hitting North American dealers. It may not be obvious at first glance, but Audi has redesigned the exterior. Gone are the round organic shapes and in their place are sharper lines and hard edges. Every detail has been rethought right down to the pneumatic bolstered and massaging seats. The new 2018 Audi S4, while slightly larger than even the previous version, is now within a few pounds the very first B5 S4 thanks to a 100-pound diet.
A New Powertrain
After years of V8 power and a brief stint with supercharging, Audi has gone back to its V6 turbocharged roots. The turbocharger is a twin-scroll design with separate exhaust branches for each cylinder bank feeding the turbo. The turbocharger placement inside the 90-degree V of the cylinder banks allows a shorter travel distance for the exhaust gas to flow with minimal loss. Because of the short path for gasses and efficiency of the design, the turbo spools up almost instantly, making all its torque available at low RPM and responding very quickly and directly to throttle inputs. The engine delivers peak torque from 1,370 to 4,500 rpm while reaching peak power from 5,400 to 6,400 rpm. Audi valve lift system resolves the conflict between efficiency and power goals.
One thing is for sure, with the Drive Select in Dynamic, you can expect the hair on your arms to stand up a bit whenever you press the pedal to the floor to accelerate, gear down to pass or attack your favorite back road.
Gone are the seven-speed dual clutch and six-speed manual transmissions and in their place is an eight-speed Tiptronic, an automatic with manual modes. The endgame is a transmission that is efficient, responsive and smooth with the first few gears optimized for acceleration and the rest for efficiency. The torque converter transmission is better at dealing with the high levels of instant torque from the new engine. In manual mode and shifting with the paddles, gear changes felt as fast as the S-Tronic, but it was not as harsh. The Audi product planners explained that while the US was one of the only markets to keep the manual option through the previous generation, the take rate was too low. When given the option most buyers chose the faster of the two.
The automatic transmission also helps pave the way for autonomous driving, which we’ll get back to later.
On the Road
Driving from Palm Springs, California and making the 5,500-foot climb to Idyllwild in the all-new Audi S4 was one of the best ways to spend a Thursday (beats a day at the office, that’s for sure). On the highway with the suspension set to Dynamic, the bumps in the road were a bit harsh. Switching the Drive Select to Individual and setting everything in Dynamic except the suspension – which we configured to comfort – smoothed out the ride.
Grip was endless as the car accelerated out of the turns without any sense of lag. On the twisty mountain roads, the 55 MPH speed limit wasn’t hard to maintain, thanks in part to the S4’s tires, adaptive damping suspension and sport rear differential all working together.
Audi partnered with Hankook to design and build a tire for the new S4. The Hankook engineers worked with the Audi engineers to develop a tire to match the dynamics of the new car. While driving through the mountains, the tires provided an adequate amount of grip, but I’m interested to hear from owners about how the Hankooks hold up.
On the way back down, meanwhile, the S4 holds up well thanks to its big brakes. Audi engineers chose to fit six-piston calipers over the brake discs. They bite very hard, and after our mountain drive, there was never a sign of any brake fade. Requiring only slight inputs, the amount of feedback returned by the brakes is very impressive.
Must Have Options
The S Sport package, which adds sport adaptive damping suspension, sport rear differential, and red brake calipers. This option package is something no S4 should be without as the handling improvements are hard to top even with aftermarket add-ons. While accelerating up the mountain roads outside of Palm Springs, the combination of the sport rear differential and the new sport damping suspension provided a setup that helped maintain confidence through the drive up the twisty mountain roads. Even in dynamic mode our attempts to kick the back end loose we were not successful.
Through the off-camber sections of road, the suspension kept the S4 level, and the sport differential allowed me to push the S4 harder through the turns. It uses two clutch packs on each rear drive shaft to move power to the outer rear wheel to force the back of the car to follow the front wheels as closely as possible.
The Dynamic steering was an option that I never understood until I optioned it on my S6. On the S4, the high- and low-speed feedback is great, and I didn’t notice any dead spots. Even slight steering inputs provided the feedback that I was expecting. Sometimes on the older systems, a small turn of the wheel would often result in no output.
The Technology package adds navigation and the Audi Virtual Cockpit. The high-resolution screen displays navigation, media, phone and performance data. With the push of a button, you can switch the displayed information. For the S4 Audi has also added a performance display option. The performance display moves the tachometer to the center of the display with speed in the inner ring and the performance data, navigation, media/radio, and telephone information flanking either side. After getting so used to the previous MMI touch in my S6, this new system took me a bit to learn. There’s just so much information available at your fingertips it’s sometimes hard to decide what information is relevant.
We could experience the Audi traffic jam assistance on the way back to the hotel thanks to the heavy traffic. The system’s aggressiveness is adjustable based on the Drive Select mode. Once stopped for more than three seconds, you only need to tap the accelerator to start moving, and the car takes over from there. I chose to leave the car in Dynamic Mode, and the car would brake late and accelerate aggressively from a stop. The reaction time is instantaneous even for the person who cut us off. It was like the car knew it was about to happen.
Take it or leave it?
The S4 is a bit of a cult car. The typical buyer knows what they want and expects Audi to deliver. I’ve had the opportunity to own the previous models, and it’s safe to say that Audi has built the best S4 yet. Though just like the move to turbo engines in Formula 1, we demand a bit more noise from these engines – especially after owning and living through the V8 era. But it’s a balance, and from an engineering point of view engine sound is lost energy. I just wish the engineers turned up the volume a bit.
After being able to sample the BMW 340i, Mercedes-AMG C43, Lexus IS 350 F Sport over the past few months, I don’t think Mercedes, BMW or Lexus currently has a response to what this new S4 has to offer. While driving enthusiasts will miss the six-speed manual and might immediately write it off, the S4 is certainly worth your time.
The way I see it, the combination of the new engine and eight-speed transmission allows you to enjoy the car and focus on the driving without having to worry about changing gears. If you spring for just one option, take the S Sport package even if you skipped the rest. At the end of the day, Audi engineers have built a car that allows you to enjoy it right out of the box. Taking the S4 through some twisty mountain pass or other fun local driving road will make you realize this.