Audi's A4 has been a worthy competitor in the compact to midsize upscale sedan market for a decade. With clean, elegant proportions inside and out, fine materials, excellent assembly, and rewarding vehicle dynamics, the car has been a big success for Audi.
But what if you want to add some salsa to the mix? That's what the S4 does. While the A4 does just fine with its 2.0-liter turbocharged four and 3.2-liter V6, the S4 gets a whopping 340-horsepower V8 under the hood, and the bulked-up and lowered suspension to make it work. An S4 with the sweet-shifting manual six-speed can race from 0 to 60 mph in a mere 5.3 seconds. Not bad for a car that will also carry five people comfortably and safely. Of course, with EPA fuel ratings of 15 City, 21 Highway, there's $1,700 worth of Gas Guzzler Tax to pay, but it's worth it. I accumulated 19.7 mpg during my test week.
For decades, Audi's design philosophy has been one of subtlety. Although the latest models have moved to an enormous vertical grille up front, overall the packaging is still restrained, with carefully tailored surfaces without a lot of extra decoration. Although it is significantly more powerful (and expensive), the S4 looks just like an A4, until you notice the more aggressively styled grille texture, lower-body extensions, Avus 18-inch custom wheels, and V8 fender badge.
You can certainly feel the difference when you press the accelerator. Unlike a Ford Mustang or classic muscle car, this V8 doesn't holler about its potency-it just takes off with a muted rumble. Especially with a manual transmission, this car begs for the open road, where you can poke the right-hand pedal now and then to feel the energy surge. Audi beefed up the structural elements beneath the S4 to give you level starts and stops and controlled cornering ability, knowing you're going to use the car's prowess at least some of the time.
The body shell looks strong, and it is. The S4, along with the A4, is the first car in its segment to earn the Double Best Pick rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). Very few cars earn this superior rating at all. A rigid body structure with carefully designed crumple zones makes the S4 one of the safest cars you can buy at any price. Audi equips each S4 with a collection of front and side airbags that work in milliseconds to protect occupants during impacts.
Audi has done its homework with the braking system. Its Electronic Stabilization Program distributes brake pressure where it's needed and makes sure it is always as much as is required to stop effectively. The traction control aspect of the program uses an electronic differential lock to keep the car on course during emergency braking situations. There is even a feature to wipe the four-wheel discs to keep them dry on wet roads. This means more effective stopping under the conditions where it's especially needed.
The S4's interior looks much like the A4's, which means quietly elegant, with smoothly integrated panels and a strong feeling of security and comfort. The A4 and S4 won the 2005 Auto Interior of the Year award from Ward's Auto World, an influential automotive trade journal. My car's black Silk Nappa leather seats were a luxurious delight with their six-level heating, and the car's brushed aluminum trim gave a high-tech feel.
Driving an S4 is a blissful experience if you enjoy a firm chair and want to feel the road. This is not a car for disengaged cruising, especially with the manual transmission. Bumper to bumper commuting is probably not its happiest place, although I had no complaints. To me, the S4 delivers sports car performance in a practical package with a little less "Hey, look at me!" than a BMW or a Mercedes-Benz, and certainly outdoes a Lexus or Infiniti for road feel.
An S4 does not come cheap. The A4 starts below $30,000, but an S4's base price is $46,400. My Light Silver Metallic tester (add $475 for the paint) included the Premium Package, Audi Navigation Plus, Premium Audio Package with Sirius satellite radio, and a cold weather package. When all was said and done, the sticker said $56,045; this puts the S4 in serious competition with some pretty impressive rivals, some of them larger. You do get the Audi Advantage, with four years of free maintenance and roadside assistance, as a small consolation.
The S4 is a choice, not a necessity, but you will not regret it from behind the wheel.