Proper Sendoff: Driving the Final Audi S4 Offered with a Manual Transmission
We Say Goodbye by Ripping Through the Ohio Back Roads
For a company who trumpets fancy slogans like "Truth in Engineering" and "Advancement Through Technology," you'd imagine Audi would have phased the manual transmission out of its model lineup years ago. It nearly succeeded in the gearbox subjugation, but the B8 S4 remained a stick-shift holdout during the advent of the dual-clutch, right up to the end of the 2016 model year. This is the final year for both the B8 generation of S4 and Audi's manual transmission, at least here in the U.S. On the twilight of their departure, we took one last gulp of what made the transmission and the outgoing S4 special.
The B8 S4 arrived for the 2009 model year, packing a somewhat demure 333 hp to the 2008 BMW M3's 414 hp and the Mercedes' C63's 451 hp. Then again, Audi's S lineup was never designed to butt heads with such super sedans. The S4 and bigger S6 always aimed right down the center of the performance bull's-eye, not leaning too far into soft, cushy comfort nor too far into the opposite end of the spectrum of punishingly harsh performance. Unlike some of its more powerful rivals, the S4 wasn't a performance car that happened to have four doors; it was a livable, comfortable four-door sedan that was still able to crack off whip-quick lap times.
That was then, and this is now. The S4 has remained on the market for seven years, sporting only a handful of updates to keep the innards market fresh. Initially in a class of its own, the S4 now occupies a $50,000 segment bursting with options like the BMW 340i and Mercedes-Benz C450 AMG Sport (C43). Somehow, despite its age, the S4 still feels special in a segment that sometimes tries too hard.
To give the S4 a proper send-off, we scuttled down to central Ohio, where near-abandoned roads snake through hills and valleys to create an ideal, real-world test track. It's close to a five-hour drive from metro Detroit, and the deliciously dual-purpose S4 couldn't have been more compliant; our bottoms and our ears escaped fatigue. On the highway, the car is as reassuring and confident as any regular Audi four-door. Inside, Audi did its best to cram the sedan chock-full of gizmos and tech bits from its sizeable stable. The age of the car shows through but just barely; the car was refreshed in 2012, so the switchgear and design isn't too stale.
Ohio State Route 26 undulates through a lush, idyllic swath of countryside, carving through a landscape of decrepit farmhouses and abandoned general stores. The road brims with elevation changes, switchbacks, and long, smooth straights. On Route 26, the S4 shed its lazy road-cruiser attitude and hopped from turn to turn with surprising lightness. The 3.0-liter doesn't have the explosiveness of its twin-turbo counterparts, but the V-6 was exceptionally smooth. It pulled clean and hard to redline, ripping from a standstill to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds, according to Audi. From behind the wheel, we're sure that is conservative; we've seen tests producing the B8 S4's 60 mph sprint at around 4.4 seconds.
Despite the fun we had, it's not perfect. The S4's V-6 is still mounted over the front axle, serving up an unhealthy dollop of understeer when you push too hard. Ours did not have the optional rear sport differential either, an option we've heard makes a large difference during corner exit.
On back roads the six-speed manual is a joy. The shifter and pedals are spaced perfectly, accommodating simple heel-toe downshifts without fuss or muss. Gearing is short, so the 333 hp and 325 lb-ft of torque are managed well in tight environments.
When we finished pretending to be DTM superstars, the S4 settled down. We rejoined major highways and cruised comfortably back to Michigan, with our nerves and the car no worse for the wear. Over the course of around 800 miles, the B8 S4 and its six-speed manual proved itself to be as dual-purpose and easy to drive as sports sedans come. When the 2017 Audi S4 arrives on dealer lots, we'll be first in line to see how the new conventional eight-speed lives up to the bygone six-speed manual. And with the handling improvements Audi has made to even the regular A4, our hopes are high for Ingolstadt's sporty sedan.