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First look: 2004 Audi S4

Eight-cylinder Gans-Fleisch

Greg N. Brown
Feb 24, 2003 SHARE

In addition to "Vorsprung durch Technik," add the "goose-pimple factor" to the list of Audi core values. Maybe the flesh-tingling imagery doesn't have the industrial majesty of "Progress through Technology," but Audi boss Dr. Werner Mischke thought it appropriate to describe the new S4's role in the company's "decidedly sporty direction." And based on my first taste of the S4 sedan and wagon duo, Dr. Mischke made an accurate diagnosis of their effect on the enthusiastic driver. This emphatic emphasis on performance is hardly trend-setting in today's horsepower-rich market, but Ingolstadt is aiming at the very toughest of targets with its high-performance projectiles and is determined to make its S and RS cars as coveted as the M and AMG models from Munich and Stuttgart. Audi isn't at all shy about its ambitions, which a couple of years ago would have been met with some skepticism, but now, with the RS6 and S4 models providing the muscle, this reach for greatness is to be taken seriously.

Audi's recent racing successes, and perhaps some opportunities arising from the change of regime in Wolfsburg, seem to have given its production car program an invigorating jolt of high-test. Audi traditionally has had a strong stable of innovative engineers and product planners, but now they've really been unleashed, and so far their efforts have generated great results. The challenge is just beginning, though. The S and RS tuning programs will be expanded to include more models across the line. Imagine an A4 RS with a twin-turbo 3.0-liter six, or consider the upcoming revised A3, which should be coming to the New World, in RS tune.

If those scenarios do nothing for you, check for a pulse.

I definitely had a wild heartbeat, and a whole gaggle of goose pimples, at the launch of the S4 in Italy last fall. The goose pimples were brought on by cold and rainy weather and the pounding pulse from driving in a very fast new car, on a drenched racetrack with unknown corners and braking zones. It was the sort of wet, blustery day that makes most folk yearn for the warmth of a crackling fire, but I wondered how it could get any better. And then I took a few scorching laps sitting beside race driver Emanuele Pirro. The Le Mans winner showed me, in contrast to my tentative laps, how much more the S4 had in reserve.

From the turn of the key all the way to full throttle, the V8 burbles and roars like the best of its breed. Few V8s, though, have been so willing to see 7000 rpm and respond so quickly to the throttle pedal, whether it's fully engaged or when blipped for a heel-and-toe downshift. The official ratings of 344 PS (339 bhp) and 302 lb-ft of torque are impressive numbers, but it's their accessibility that makes the S4 such a rewarding machine. Little of the engine's twist goes to waste, and the standard quattro all-wheel drive complements the tires' grip like no other production Audi.

"Amazing grip," Pirro yelled over the sound of a V8 taken to its limit. "But a little frustrating, too," he added, referring to the ESP traction control program. For experienced racers like Pirro, it intrudes when powering through corners because sensors indicate to the ESP electronics that control of the car is threatened. Full ESP interaction can be moderated with a dashboard switch, but because the car has to be able to to handle such slippery conditions as climbing icy hills, a small amount of electronic "help" is always made available. For the average driver at legal speeds, it's a wonderful complement to the quattro system and on that soggy track helped keep me away from the barriers. For Pirro, it was a minor annoyance but did little to dampen his enthusiasm for the car. Even when he had the steering wheel in full opposite lock, the dynamics were so controlled we were able to carry on a pleasant conversation about his three victories at Le Mans in the Audi R8.

After five laps with Pirro, my climate-caused goose bumps had dissipated from the heat of action. My pulse, however, continued to spike as though it were governed by a nitrous-enhanced pacemaker. Still, as exciting as the S4 is, and even though it provides a totally new, unprecedented-for-Audi visceral driving experience, it doesn't lack the comfort and ergonomic brilliance we've come to expect from all contemporary Audis.

The S4 performed well on the track, but it was later, on the winding back roads that rose steeply from the storm-tossed Adriatic, that the S4 displayed all its qualities. Even though I was now in an Avant, it proved to be nothing less than a wickedly quick sports car--that also happens to boast the level of creature comforts usually associated with sedate luxury cars, not to mention the utility of much larger, and slower, vehicles.

Despite the slick asphalt and unfamiliar terrain, the S4 Avant took me around tight corners as quickly and surefootedly as some exotic cars. And though I was charging up and down the roads with the zeal (alas, not the skill) of a budding F1 star, my two passengers made not a single peep of complaint. It helped that they were snugly cosseted in the spectacularly good Recaro sports seats that come standard in the S4 for all four occupants. Plus, because my colleagues had already become acquainted with the car's skills, they knew my aggressive driving was still short of the stupidity needed to overcome the S4's tenacious roadholding.

The massive torque and equally stout brakes--13.3-in. rotors in front and 11.8-in. rotors at the rear--allowed me to charge deep into a bend and then not worry too much about which gear would make the exit quicker. An additional aid to the great brakes is a clever dual-rate brake servo. If sensors measure more than 0.5g of deceleration, the servo's ratio is raised to reduce brake pedal effort and travel for optimum stopping distances.

This technology illustrates the car's primary engineering goals--powerful but also lightfooted and nimble. Specific measures to give the S4 that sports-car feel begin by minimizing unsprung mass with the use of aluminum suspension components (for instance, 4.4 lb is saved at each wheel carrier compared to steel carriers). Specially tuned shocks, springs, and anti-roll bars deliver a brilliant combination of comfort and handling, the best I've ever felt in an Audi, and revised rear toe-angle kinematics assist directional stability. Speed-dependent Servotronic steering; and light alloy 18-in. wheels with 234/40-R18 performance radials. Audi had shod the S4s at the launch with the superb Continental ContiSportContact 2s.

Besides an adrenaline-inducing drivetrain and suspension, the S4 sports an interior that does justice to Audi's reputation for designing the best cockpits around. The usual electronic goodies are scattered throughout, and there are enough combinations of leather, cloth, carbon fiber and other interior trim finishes to ensure no two S4s are likely to be alike.

Available here in the fall as 2004 models, the S4 sedan and wagon are as bold and brash as any cars of their type. Factory performance figures are 0 to 62 mph in 5.6 sec. and 0 to 124 mph in just 20.6 sec., but it's the "feel" of this car that makes it different from any other Audi. The V8 fits the compact platform like a vital sequence in Audi's DNA and adds another remarkable engine to its heritage. The 344 bhp interacts with the chassis dynamics so well, it feels as though it were developed with no other goal than to make the S4 the most exciting Audi ever. And it is.

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By Greg N. Brown
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