By any measure, Audi's A4 has been a success for the company. Originally introduced in 1994, it is now in its fourth generation and has spawned a range of different models, including a cabriolet, estate wagon, front-drive sedan and the high-performance S4.
Available as a four-door sedan only, the S4 comes in two basic trim levels - Quattro and Quattro Premium - and is offered with either a six-speed manual transmission or seven-speed S-tronic automatic. I drove the latter, and it adds $1,600 to the car's price tag.
Obviously, Audi's Quattro all-wheel-drive system is standard and both gearboxes are bolted to a 3.0-litre V-6 that is supercharged and puts out 333 horsepower and 325 lb-ft of torque. Audi says the S4 will accelerate from 0 to 100 km/h in just over five seconds - the manual transmission version - and I see no reason to disagree.
This is a fast automobile, with intoxicating performance and seemingly endless amounts of reserve power. It's the kind of car that craves the open road, preferably with no law enforcement personnel in the vicinity, and when you stab the throttle, you're rewarded with a leap forward that presses you into your seat and reminds you that cars can still be fun and thrilling to drive.
But I must whinge about the automatic transmission in my car. In a word, it's un-co-operative. Especially at low, around-town speeds, when you need a short burst of acceleration to cross that intersection or merge into a busy thoroughfare. More than once, when reaching for power while clearing a busy intersection, I hit the gas only to be met with a pause and a momentary lapse in throttle response. Just enough delay to almost get me creamed by that garbage truck as it's bearing down on me. I'm not sure if this glitch is because of the engine management system or the transmission itself, but either way, it was disconcerting, to say the least. Especially given this car's price tag.
If I pay almost 70 large for an automobile, I expect absolute perfection; no lapses in throttle responses, no prevaricating while the car makes up its mind. I want power, and I want it right now. Anything less is unacceptable. Yet another reason why I distrust extensive computer technology. Harrumph.
Moving right along, I love everything else about this car - just about. I think it's drop-dead gorgeous when it comes to exterior styling: lethal looking but not crude or unrefined, with a nice athletic road stance and low ground clearance.
I also like the LED eyebrow running lights, which have become very popular throughout the industry, and, although my car didn't have it, Audi's trademark Brilliant Red paint (my tester was the more subtle Garnet Red Pearl Effect). And top marks for the interior layout, with the exception of the controls and switchgear, and the seats are among the most comfortable you'll find. Leather, of course.
About those controls. I've complained about this with other Audi products, and, not to put too fine a point on it, they're poorly thought out. The radio volume control, for example, is located away from the radio - beside the shifter - on the floor console, while the station selector is located behind the shifter and requires two steps to change radio stations - four if you want to change bands.
To change the heat/ventilation, meanwhile, requires the driver to first bring up the air flow graphic and then rotate a multi-function knob to send it where he/she wants it to go. You can hardly see the graphic and the whole process is distracting and unnecessarily cumbersome. A simple rotary knob would work much better and would allow you to keep your eyes on the road.
Ditto with the seat warmers (six settings!), and you can keep the electronic parking brake while you're at it. I love a fast, well-designed sport sedan, but something this powerful should be easier to get along with and less distracting.
That said, the Auto Drive Select option ($4,000) is an excellent idea. Through a console-mounted selector, you can alter your car's suspension settings, steering, ride, and transmission response, to suit driving conditions. Feeling frisky? Go for the Dynamic mode and hit it. Want to relax to take in the sights? Choose Comfort or let the car stay in Automatic mode, and relax. My car also had Audi's Navigational package ($3,200) and this includes a DVD player, rear-view camera and an English/French voice response system.
All of this performance does have a cost. My tester, with its various options, was almost $70,000, before taxes. As well, you'll be lucky to squeeze more than a 10 litres/100 km combined rating out of an S4 with the automatic transmission, and it requires premium, which these days, is running at about $1.50 a litre in my neck of the woods.
2011 Audi S4
Type: Mid-size sport sedan
Base Price: $58,800; as tested, $69,695
Engine: 3.0-litre, supercharged V-6
Horsepower/torque: 333 hp/326 lb-ft
Transmission: Seven-speed automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 12.1 city/7.9 highway; premium gas
Alternatives: BMW 328XDrive, Acura TL, Mercedes C300 4Matic, Infiniti G37x, Lexus IS 350AWD, Porsche Panamera, Volvo S60 T6
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