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Audi's S4 packs a supercharged 328bhp punch, but it's not the most engaging high-performance saloon on the market

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The Audi S4 is one of those curious cars that appears to have lost its place in the world order.

Not long after the turn of the century its role was clear: it was Audi’s answer to the likes of the BMW M3 and AMG versions of the Mercedes C-Class, and to that end it enjoyed the memorable services of a mighty V8 motor under the bonnet.

Audi's S4 features a supercharged 3.0-litre V6 that produces 328bhp and 324lb ft

Problem was the car wasn’t any good, and Audi knew that if it were to be taken seriously as a manufacturer of supercar-slaying compact family cars it would need not just a different approach but a different badge.

Up stepped its Quattro GmbH tuning division with its RS branding and the rest, including the rather more cheerful tale of the RS4, is a different story.

Audi could have just killed the S4, of course, but that would not have appealed to its sense of order and the fact that S versions were either planned or already existed for every other mainstream model in its line-up.

So instead of being beefed up even further, it was put on a diet. The V8 became a V6 and the car remarketed as a head and heart kind of machine, one still worth taking out on a Sunday morning but which was also sensible to live with day to day both in terms of general civility and running costs.

Which is where we find the S4 today, costing upwards of £39k in four-door form or over £40k as an even more attractive, more practical and, frankly, more desirable estate.

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Each Audi S4 can also be had in ‘Black Edition’ specification, offering a whole raft of chintzy design details inside and out majoring on a highly polished black theme, but with some useful additional hardware and software, too, including automatic headlights and wipers, a digital radio, a Bang & Olufsen sound system, 19in rims, a parking camera and a multi-function steering wheel. For an additional £1250, that sounds like conspicuous value.

DESIGN & STYLING

The supercharged Audi S4

For a car company whose ranges of saloons, estates and SUVs are now so conformist as to appear as different sized versions of the same school uniform, the S4 is pleasingly iconoclastic.

The Audi A4 platform upon which it’s based is and has been for some time the only one in its class to offer the curious blend of front-wheel drive and a longitudinal engine installation, and it’s a configuration that’s retained for the S4. This despite the need to direct power to the rear wheels as well, both to eliminate torque steer and allow it to play the quattro card so dear to Audi's marketing department.

The cosmetic differences between the S4 and the conventional A4 are few

The engine is also neither the large-capacity normally aspirated unit nor the smaller, turbocharged powerplant that would be traditionally employed in such a car. Instead, Audi uses a 2995cc V6, boosted by a supercharger to provide the throttle response, torque spread and aural encouragement often lacking in turbos today.

There is a price to pay, and quite a severe one at that, and you’ll not need to look past the ‘MPG and running costs’ section to find it. Those hoping to change gears themselves will be disappointed. A six-speed manual transmission is entirely compatible with the car and it’s sold so equipped in other countries. For the UK, however, a seven-speed dual-clutch paddleshift gearbox is all that’s available.

Like other Audi A4s, the S4 is suspended by multiple links at each corner but is naturally lowered and stiffened. A limited-slip rear differential is optional, as is Audi’s drive select system that in the case of the S4 provides driver selectable maps for both the steering and engine, but not the suspension.

Brakes are suitably vast ventilated discs at each corner – 345mm in diameter at the front – which is just as well. As we shall see, this is a high-performance car and, at 1705kg (1750kg for the Avant), not a light one either.

INTERIOR

Audi S4's interior

There’s real class here, beyond even what we now take for granted from Audi. For some reason, perhaps the way the cabin seems to wrap around the driver, you feel cocooned inside a structure so strong you could roll it down a mountainside and emerge needing no more attention than a comb through your hair.

You’ll not be bothered by the displaced pedals and odd driving position that affects lesser Audi A4s either, because there are only two pedals fighting for space in the footwell. The steering wheel, with its squared-off bottom, can be pulled tight into your chest, and while its rim is thick, it’s not made from that soft and squidgy material BMW insists on using in its performance cars.

Standard kit for the S4 includes climate control, cruise control and automatic lights and wipers

But there’s no denying the cabin is ageing. You only have to look at the architecture of more modern Audis such as the Audi A6 to see how much the brand’s interior design has progressed since the S4 was introduced back in 2008. Perceived quality is no problem: the leather is excellent with contrast stitching and all the controls and vents have silver surrounds. But the last generation MMI switchgear is starting to feel its age, as are the pale grey dials. You can see it, too, in the modestly proportioned sat-nav screen.

You should also be aware that just because your children will fit in the back of a standard Audi A4, it does not mean they’ll be happy in the S4. The car is fitted with vast, heavily bolstered front seats that are almost as good at removing rear leg room as they are at holding you in place under the impressive lateral forces the car is able to generate in corners.

As for the boot, there’s not much space for luggage even in the Avant, let alone the saloon. There’s enough for a family’s everyday clobber but holiday packing will need to be done carefully. No wonder Audi goes to such lengths to keep the word ‘estate’ at its distance from this car.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Audi S4's V6 engine block

You’d think 328bhp would be enough to make any car as small as this feel exceptionally rapid, but instead the Audi S4 feels little more than refreshingly brisk.

True, the 5.0sec 0-62mph time (5.1sec for the Avant) looks impressive, but it speaks as much of the car’s all-wheel-drive traction and all but instant gearshifts as it does the car’s true performance potential. Had this car been rear-drive only and with a manual gearbox, we’d estimate it would still break the 6.0sec barrier, but not by much.

The S4 has plenty of traction, so it's easy to reliably deploy all 328bhp

Still, there’s much to be enjoyed here. True, even supercharging a V6 doesn’t create any of the aural theatre enjoyed by owners of the V8-powered last-generation S4s, but it does mean there’s no need to wait for the drama to start.

At almost any revs in almost any gear, the S4 doesn’t need to be asked twice before knuckling down to the task set by your right foot. And because the throttle response is so quick and reliable, there’s no second-guessing what you’re going to get or when it’s going to arrive when you put your foot down

The gearbox matches these high standards and shifts between its closely stacked ratios so quickly and positively that even those wedded to three-pedal transmissions are unlikely to feel short-changed.

Despite its weight it stops well, thanks to big vented discs behind its alloy wheels. We’d have preferred a little more feel in the pedal but at least those days when fast Audis had notably over-servoed brakes now seem far behind us.

RIDE & HANDLING

Audi S4 saloon rear

Audi is still chipping away at its reputation for being unable to equip anything other than its RS-badged cars with the chassis to match their performance, but on this evidence much work remains to be done.

At first that might seem a harsh judgement. Drive it and you’ll be awed by its traction and not much less impressed by the amount of grip available, especially in the dry.

The Audi gets down the road in a capable fashion but you'd have a much more rewarding experience in a BMW

More impressively, especially with anyone familiar with the way older ‘S’ products tend to handle, the car is properly damped, giving it the ability to breathe a little with undulations in the road which, in other words, provides the ability for it to feel pleasant on the road rather than just simply quick around a track.

But others are more accomplished still. While the S4 is not the dogged understeerer we’d once have expected it to be, not does it yet offer a truly interactive driving experience.

In particular there’s too little feedback through the steering wheel and almost no opportunity to use additional power to modify your line through a corner. Snap the throttle shut in the middle of a turn and it will tuck in a little, but rear-drive rivals from Mercedes and BMW in particular offer better balance and better steering by far.

Nor is there as much grip in the wet as its vaunted Quattro system would like you to believe. It will slingshot you away from slippery roundabouts, but in steady-state cornering offers no more lateral grip on any surface than would be possible were it merely front-wheel drive. And because the suspension is notably stiff, those grip levels are limited.

It’s the same reason the ride is mediocre: the car is just too firmly suspended to offer a chance of real comfort. It doesn’t feel inept in any way, but its ambitious spring rates feel honed for the immaculate surfaces more commonly found in Germany than here.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Audi S4

Look at the fuel consumption figures and you might be pleasantly surprised to see 35mpg is possible on the combined cycle. If you’re the owner of an older S4 used to the hilarious 21.0mpg it manages under the same conditions, you might feel inclined to whoop for joy.

But be careful. Just because 35mpg is technically achievable in a laboratory doesn’t mean you’ll get close to it on a road. And if you think the same is true for all cars and so the figures are at least equally misleading, think again.

The Audi comes with a conventional three year/60,000 miles warranty as standard

One reason supercharged engines are no longer popular is because in the real world the parasitic losses encountered under full load are so great that fuel consumption can be truly terrible.

Although Audi does not provide a figure, another manufacturer making a 3.0-litre V6 supercharged engine of similar output admits that 60bhp is accounted for just driving the blower.

So it will be the unusually light-footed who see even 30mpg from their S4. Drive hard and less than 20mpg is routine, while everyday driving in and out of town, along the motorway and through the lanes should approximately split the difference.

And even with a reasonable 61-litre fuel tank, times when you cover more than 300 miles between fills are likely to be the exception rather than the norm.

VERDICT

3.5 star Audi S4

So long as someone else is paying to fill it up, there’s much to be said for the Audi S4.

It looks great and is clearly fabulously bolted together out of almost uniformly high-quality materials. It’ll put a broad grin on your face just seeing it outside your house.

The S4 is a refined and desirable car, but those seeking an engaging driving experience should look elsewhere

Which is perhaps just as well because the driving experience is unlikely to elicit more than a thin smile. In cars such as this, mere competence and point-to-point speed is not enough.

We know this is no RS model, but BMW shows clearly that even small saloons and estates need not be piping hot to fully engage the driver: nicely warmed up can do the job just as well.

In the end, while we admire and respect the depth of the S4’s engineering, the car takes itself a little too seriously to be able to charm its way into your heart. And for this kind of money and that kind of power, we don’t think that’s too much to ask.

Audi S4 2009-2015 First drives