In addition to its six-spoke Avus-style wheels and low-profile running shoes, the S4's visual threat is enhanced with more aggressive grille work up front and larger dual exhausts out back. Polished aluminum side-mirror housings are Audi's polite way of saying, "Out of the way, Jack!" Out of respect for the unwritten law that insists that every automobile with sporting intentions must have a deck-lid spoiler, there's one on the S4 sedan's rump. At least it's discreet.
Inside, Audi didn't sacrifice driving fun in headlong pursuit of comfort, luxury, or entertainment. Recaro bucket seats offer unflagging support for cruising or charging, with eight-way power adjustment to fine-tune your spot behind the small-diameter, leather-wrapped wheel. The dead pedal is ideally positioned, and the brake and throttle pedals are close enough to facilitate heel-and-toe manipulation with only modest ankle stretching. Audi sets the gold standard for fit, finish, and interior trim quality, and the S4 upholds that reputation with delightful soft-touch surfaces, flawless joints, and tasteful details throughout. Textured metal accents are a nice break from commonplace wood and carbon fiber.
Actually, you have to pinch yourself to remember the S4 is a sprout off Audi's most affordable branch. The reminder that this is also Audi's most compact local sedan comes through clearly in the back seat, where two adult passengers have no difficulty consuming the available space. Bolsters are shaped to acknowledge that fact, although restraints are provided to accommodate a fifth tag-along on short trips. Just in case the sedan's 13.4-cubic-foot trunk isn't capacious enough for all your goods, Audi offers a three-step remedy. There's a pass-through portal in the rear seatback to accommodate your long rifles or plumbing supplies. The 60/40-split backrest can be incrementally folded. Or you could step up to the world's stealthiest sporting conveyance, called the S4 Avant, Audi code for wagon.
On the busy local roads surrounding eastern Italy's Autodromo Santamonica (a.k.a. the Misano), the S4's abundance of torque was especially handy for squirting through the rare traffic gaps. A dab of throttle accomplishes the same end that a downshift and a wait for boost previously achieved. It's easy to understand how Audi engineers were intoxicated by what they describe as "the beefy sound and feel of a V-8."
The suspension has a supple feel underfoot, although it doesn't hesitate to snub roll motions when you toss in armfuls of steering. The body remains flat in the face of acceleration, braking, or cornering provocations, yet there's minimal payback punishment over rifled or potholed surfaces. The S4 proves that sport and comfort can live peacefully under a common roofline.
Lapping Misano served a dual purpose: as the S4's acid test and as our Italian junket's dessert course. Rain upped the challenge of hustling the small Audi with big power around a tight road course. To probe the S4's handling soul, we switched off the stability control system and threw the car through wet transitions and puddled sweepers with abandon. It might as well have been a conspiracy between Audi and the weatherman, because this car thrived in such adverse conditions. The S4 was utterly dependable in its willingness to hold the chosen line without a whit of tail wag. Early and aggressive throttle applications exiting the turns posed no problem, either. When the limit inevitably came, the front tires slid wide with ample warning that physical laws are, in fact, inviolable. Easing off the throttle was the most effective means of recouping traction. We tried more abrupt pedal play to coax the tail wide, but the S4 scoffed at that ploy. Wet or dry, limit understeer comes with the territory in every front-heavy all-wheel-drive car we've experienced.
Those hoping that BMW's illustrious M3 might be knocked off its perch by Audi's newest bullet will be disappointed. While power and price are comparable between the two, the S4 is heftier by some 300 pounds, a handicap partially attributable to, but not fully alleviated by, its all-wheel-drive hardware. On the other hand, the S4 does trump the M machine on several counts. It's a more luxurious package, particularly in terms of rear-seat access. The Audi offers vastly superior bad-weather mobility, and its fail-safe handling is better suited to driving enthusiasts climbing the steep part of the learning curve.
Now that the boys from Ingolstadt have finagled V-8 power under the hood of their basic sedan, their next move is obvious: an RS4 model, packing the 450-horsepower, twin-turbo V-8 that already energizes the RS6. That beefy sandwich could add some truly serious zest to Audi's menu.