For all its power and easy performance, the best thing about the last Audi S4 was its uncanny ability to act like a normal (but very high-spec) A4 for most of its life. Then, when you needed or wanted a bit more speed or a bit more grip, you pushed a button or opened the tap and it became something else. It became a thing with more grip, more poise, more focus, and more gristle, but the changeover between the two S4 characters was seamless.
That doesn’t seem to be the case with the new one. The latest, B9 A4 has been well received and is probably the best mid-sized premium car out there, so that should have left the S4 a simple job to become the best warmed-up premium mid-sizer.
It hasn’t quite happened like that. The spec sheet suggests the S4 should come out on top in the fight with the BMW 340i and the Mercedes-AMG C43, but the numbers aren’t everything. The engine seems impressive on paper; the all-new EA838 3.0-liter turbocharged V6 was jointly developed with Porsche (and it’s closely related to Porsche’s next V8, with which it will share non-internal bits like the camshaft chain).
That’s enough motivation to move to 62 mph in 4.7 seconds. There’s a new all-wheel-drive system that usually shoots 60 percent of the torque to the back but can ramp that up to 85 percent when it needs to, or it can swing it around to fire more than 70 percent to the front axle.
The category benchmarks suggest turbocharged 3.0-liter gasoline sixes are the thing to have, with the Mercedes-AMG C43 using one, the 340i BMW having one (though it’s straight), and Maserati’s Ghibli also using one. The oddball is Jaguar’s XE S, which uses a supercharger. You know, like Audi just ditched. The S4 trumps all but the C43 on power (the nine-speed Benz has 362 hp).
Perhaps the main area we struggled with was that while the old car was a perfect example of the best of the A4 with a bit more performance, this one has even more top-end purpose but is slightly less good at being an A4. That’s partly because the lowered suspension robs the car of some harshness-absorbing travel.
The upshot is that the latest S4 is not a massively involving car to drive, slowly or quickly. It doesn’t engage the driver and never feels warm to the touch, never invites the driver to push that bit further, and while it has big bundles of speed and grip reserves, it doesn’t question your willpower every time you get behind the wheel.
What the S4 has are its obviously deep engineering, a brilliant interior, a top-shelf technology package, and the ability to eat miles quickly and effortlessly. It just lacks the last pieces of engineering and development cohesion that complete the puzzle. It’s still a good car, just not a great one.