Right car, wrong timing? At a glance, it would seem that way. The new Audi S4 arrives in the midst of a global economic slump. It was unveiled in October at the Paris show, where hybrids and electric vehicles stole the limelight, and it unashamedly advertises the motto Vorsprung durch Technik (Advancement through Technology) when everybody is talking low emissions and high mileage. Look closer, though, and the new S4 emerges as a surprisingly sensible proposition. It is expected to cost about the same as the car it replaces and it bristles with torque, yet it should deliver about 24 mpg overall (EPA figures haven't yet been released). At the same time, it's a tour de force that employs trick steering, chassis, and driveline setups to beam you from point A to point B quicker than some of its rivals.
But who, exactly, are these rivals? Audi identifies them as the BMW M3 and the Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG, but the 333-hp S4 falls between BMW's 300-hp 335i and the 414-hp M3. It also falls between the 268-hp Mercedes C350 and the 451-hp C63. The upcoming RS4 sedan and RS5 coupe, which both should get about 450 hp and 330 lb-ft of torque from Audi's 4.2-liter V-8, likely will arrive in 2010. For now, though, the highest-performance version of the new A4 is the S4. It won't go on sale in America until fall 2009 as a 2010 model and then only in sedan form: farewell, ultra-low-volume S4 wagon and convertible.
A comparison of the basic engine specs of the old S4 and the new car does not bode well: only six cylinders instead of eight, 3.0 liters of displacement instead of 4.2 liters, 333 hp instead of 340 hp. Are we getting shortchanged here? We are not. Maximum torque, that crucial parameter for drivability, increases from 302 to 325 lb-ft, and it is now available between 2900 and 5300 rpm rather than peaking at 3500 rpm. And although the curb weight is about the same, Audi claims that the new S4 surges from 0 to 60 mph in 5.1 seconds, outsprinting the old S4 by about half a second.
While most supercharged engines develop their sweet spot between 3500 and 5000 rpm, the direct-injected 3.0-liter V-6 shoots fireworks all the way to its 7000-rpm redline. It thus combines the low-end torque of a force-fed engine with the top-end energy of a high-revving, normally aspirated one. The result? Enough power to rocket the S4 from 50 to 75 mph in only about 4.5 seconds in fourth gear, says Audi.
The seven-speed version of Audi's dual-clutch S tronic transmission, which makes its U.S. debut in the S4, is definitely the gearbox to go for, although a six-speed manual is standard. The main advantage of the dual-clutch arrangement is, of course, the totally seamless torque delivery, which helps maintain momentum during gearchanges. In auto mode, the system can be outfoxed by certain borderline situations, such as aborted overtaking maneuvers or a sudden shift of driving style, but the chips learn fast, and the fluency of the S tronic never ceases to amaze.