Audi’s performance extrapolation of its staple A4 range – the S4 – has been honed to a point where it doesn’t really allow its maker much wriggle room when it comes to broad-stroke updates.
Its size and packaging is prescribed, its quattro chops honed, its six-pot petrol motivation glove-fit even if, in the broader sense, it’s off the rack. The company is on top of the range between pedestrian A models and head-kicking RS variants with a five-strong line-up of the S4 Sedan and Avant and related S5 Coupe, Sportback and Cabriolet, so meddling under the skin isn’t warranted or necessary.
So a new look and in injection of techy window dressing makes sense if you want to take the good stuff and make it feel appreciably fresher.
Given the S4 follows the A4 and RS4 into Aussie showrooms in what’s been a hectic year of Audi releases, a forensic recap of exterior revisions is old news – in fact, I first drove a new-look version of the fifth-generation overseas 18 months ago.
In the case of sedan reviewed here, it’s a skin over the existing B9 core structure, save for the bonnet, boot and roof. From the grille theme to C-pillar shape, it’s new.
The other key change is the infotainment software and display, most conspicuously the customary move to a 10.1-inch touchscreen format – including the removal of console hardware control – and upgraded content that’s already migrated to much of the wider portfolio.
Change enough? We’ll see. But there’s not much news on the powertrain front. No hybrid motivation, and we still don’t have an option of choosing the 255kW/700Nm 3.0-litre V6 diesel as the Europeans do.
Australia does petrol for passenger cars and diesel in SUVs – or in the case of the Allroad wagons, SUV-like stuff. Indeed, you can now get the SQ5 in either six-pot petrol or diesel forms but the S4 and S5 remain TFSI only. Put to Audi Australia at the local launch of the wider S model spread, there’s no plan for diesel-powered versions of the S4 and S5… but never say never.
On review is the S4 Sedan 3.0 TFSI quattro, though everything past the ‘sedan’ bit is superfluous given a lack of alternative spec. We also got to steer the S5 during the local launch, which essentially serves as a good counterpoint on equipment and practicality.
As the most affordable of the five-strong S4/S5 range, the Sedan’s $99,900 before on-road costs pricing makes it the only option under six figures. Opting for the Avant wagon adds $2500 while both two- and five-door versions of the S5 essentially add $7000 to the four-door’s bottom line.
The sedan is only version of the range that hasn’t copped a marginal price hike in the new update.
Natural six-pot premium German nemeses are the all-paw BMW M340i xDrive ($109,900 list) and Mercedes-AMG C43 ($111,935 list) which puts Audi in the box seat for value. Understandably, $100,000 gets you all manner of sedans in a variety of sizes and states of luxury, but not much lines up neatly as a direct rival outside of Germany’s Big Three.
Options include Matrix LED headlights, adaptive steering, a sunroof, and a range of colour and trim material upgrades as well as a choice of two wheel styles, the latter at no extra cost. Our tester has a three options including a quattro sport differential ($2990), alternative 19-inch wheels instead of the standard alloys (no extra cost) and metallic paint.
The level of standard equipment is high enough the three assistance and interior packages that come as an upcharge in the A4 simply aren’t offered in the S4. There is a Carbon and Black package that, at $3500, blacks out exterior bright work and, of course, adds lashings of carbon fibre inside and out.
Outside, it sits on 19-inch alloys and features sporty S line styling, has LED headlights and tail lights, sport suspension, auto wipers and headlights, heated and power-folding mirrors, front and rear parking sensors, and a reversing camera, just like an A4 with S line package.
But the S4 adds adaptive damper suspension smarts and adaptive cruise with stop/go not featured as standard on the A4. Privacy glass is also standard.
Inside, the S4 fits S sport seats in Nappa leather with diamond stitching, heating/massage functionality and myriad electric and electro-pneumatic adjustment. The cabin features extended upholstery, a flat-bottom steering wheel with perforated leather trim, perforated leather gearshift trim, alloy pedals, three-zone climate control, ambient lighting, a frameless mirror, and a head-up display.
The virtual cockpit digital instrumentation gets fresh selectable skins – including the trendy ‘hockey stick’ tachometer graphics – while the MMI navigation plus infotainment system is framed in a 10.1-inch floating display.
Wired Apple CarPlay and Android Auto (odd given most new Audis offer wireless CarPlay), Qi-standard inductive phone charging, DAB+, proprietary satellite navigation, and Audi’s latest ‘connect plus’ connectivity suite all feature, and there are USB-A and USB-C ports throughout.
All pretty good stuff though, frankly, not much beyond the seating spec and some select trim and material choices are all that different, or much more upmarket than a A4 45 TFSI S line.
As outlined in our pricing and specs story, the S4 hasn’t been tested by ANCAP or Euro NCAP. However, both have awarded the structurally-related A4 family a full five stars off testing conducted when the B9 generation first went to market.
The caveat here is this ANCAP rating specifies it covers A4s of a four-cylinder configuration whereas, of course, S4 is a sixer.
For the record, the A4 assessment scored 89 per cent for adult and 87 per cent for child occupant safety, with a 75 per cent for vulnerable road users and 75 per cent for safety assist.
The S4 has eight airbags, all-speed autonomous emergency braking, forward collision warning, blind-spot monitoring, active lane-keeping, driver attention monitoring, an active bonnet and a tyre pressure monitor.
New for this update are the swerve assistant, rear cross-traffic assist, exit warning, pre sense rear proactive occupant tech, and traffic jam assist for the adaptive cruise control (which is more a convenience than safety feature really).
I imagine designing and configuring ‘S’ grade Audi isn’t without significant challenge. The ‘A’ stuff below generally gets a sporty S line makeover, the RS gear above it needs to exude proper high-performance intent, and our subject not only needs to hit a range-splitting middle ground when it comes to sporty spunk, it also needs to be somewhat relaxed enough in nature to fit the role as the go-to grand tourer. Striking that balance mustn’t be easy.
I’ve driven both Sedan and Avant versions of the A4 45 TFSI S line recently (reviews coming soon) and indeed the S4 injects just enough extra purpose to feel conspicuously different.
Crucial to it are the front seats: all singing, all dancing, with lovely waxy leather and enough adjustment for a tailor-made fit. The wheel is gorgeous, the updated and sport-themed display skins add a bit more purpose, and the extended trim work and suede-like door inserts all conspire to elevate the vibe to a richness befitting the S4’s price point. It’s just enough good stuff in strategic areas, then.
Adding a nice lift to our test car is the Rotor Grey colour theme, one of three available that mixes light and dark greys in a pleasing two-tone manner, particularly on the door trims. The double stitching throughout is superbly executed and, personally, I’m always a sucker for diamond stitches as featured here.
Like the facelifted A4, the S4 is a bit flashier in some ways (displays) and more clean-cut in others (button arrays, console design). I do lament the loss of the MMI touch controller and its handy shortcut buttons, but while the touchscreen returns to a more distracting format the driver still gets to control most functionality through the wheel controls and virtual cockpit. Not so much of a loss, then.
I’ve griped enough about conflicts between CarPlay and Audi’s own proprietary system before and they’re carried over here, but let’s highlight areas such as the clarity and sharpness of the navigation mapping.
Our test car had none of glitchy-ness of the last A4 I drove – its Google-sourced imagery often dropping to indistinguishably low-resolution – though the virtual cockpit mapping in the S5 I drove was a touch glitchy with occasionally jerky zooming. Strange.
The 360-degree camera system is good and the front-view perspective, set low in the front fascia, is handy though the rear view is quite grainy and distorted. The HVAC controls and switchgear are typically ‘Audi’ nice and the expanded third-zone climate control unit in the rear, plus dual device power, makes the sedan accommodating for rear occupants.
Then there’s the dodgy, deep-set dead pedal. I know, I harp on about this in every Audi model I review, and I’ll continue to do so until those responsible fix the damn thing.
In order for your left leg to rest comfortably, the accelerator sits too proud in the foot-well, arching your right leg. So you tilt the seat base to compensate and are left with an awkward seating position. It’s something I’d be even less tolerant about in the long burn of day to day ownership.
No surprises in row two: middling roominess in all directions, decent shapeliness to the seats and realistically more a four- than five-adult prospect for grand touring purposes. Added to the handy air-con controls and device power is the neat and elaborate fold-down centre armrest with a storage compartment and some of the neatest stowaway cup holders in the biz.
Strangely, we’ve seen the S4 Sedan’s luggage capacity quoted as 420 litres when the A4 Sedan’s boot is 460L. Where it loses volume is a mystery – perhaps it’s related to packaging the different suspension hardware.
It doesn’t seem to be a difference in floor height as both the A and S have space saver spares under their floors.
Key to the S4/S5 is the 3.0-litre turbocharged V6 heartbeat. With 260kW from 5400rpm (to a 6400rpm redline) and 500Nm between 1370-4500rpm, there’s not much newness happening with a unit that’s measurably more fitting for a mid-size German executive sport sedan than the 183kW/370Nm four-pot in the A4 45 TFSI, yet not quite as stirring as the RS4 Avant and RS5’s 2.9-litre bi-turbo V6 good for 331kW/600Nm.
Backed by a conventional eight-speed automatic and quattro all-wheel drive, the S4 scampers from a standstill to triple figures in just 4.7 seconds. Interestingly, it’s 0.2 seconds quicker than the 45kg heavier Avant, and the sedan is no slower than the S5 Coupe costing $7000 more.
Bang for your buck, the four-door is the pick of the crop. Find a stretch of off-street hot-mix long enough and it’ll run on to 250km/h.
Adaptive-damped steel-spring suspension is standard, as are the six-piston front brakes. The quattro system itself features a centre-locking differential that can send up to 85 per cent of torque to the rear axle and, as mentioned, our tester supplements the cost-optional rear sport differential, too.
At 8.6L/100km combined, it’s quite a bit thirstier than the four-pot A4 machines if understandably with the performance gains. In fact, for that sort of accelerative prowess it’s downright frugal.
On test it returned a truly impressive 8.8L/100km displayed figure for mixed country driving and dropped as low as six litres neat for the highway haul. Very handy, indeed.
This mid-strength performance car has long been a thoroughly satisfying all-rounder and it’s no surprise that A) this revised version continues that impressive form as expected and B) it really doesn’t drive very differently to the outgoing version or bring much new to the table. That is, on balance, not such a bad thing.
The powertrain is very good in that it’s well sorted, extremely well calibrated in offering polished flexibility for any driving occasion, and blends a really nice combination of performance purpose and executive sedan restraint. Not too heavy, not too light – just right.
I once spent a week bombing across Europe in the pre-update version and, particularly given I was paying for fuel, I couldn’t have asked for a finer blend for the grandest of grand touring.
It’s a cleanly-executed engine: instant response, linear delivery, some sonic richness without annoying passers by. It flies quite briskly in Sport (powertrain) or Dynamic (powertrain, steering, suspension) but, importantly, it’ll fly without attracting too much unwarranted attention and there’s enough pliancy in its more purposeful mode to not have to keep swapping between drive profiles. Shuffling through the Drive Select switches in the dash is, frankly, a cumbersome chore.
Jack of all trades
Polished and understated performance all round makes the S4 a true Q-car
Comfort and Auto ride slightly on the firm side of middling, which is perfect for an executive sports sedan. Dynamic ups the body control a bit and makes ride comfort a little more terse but it’s not all that necessary given the chassis is so nicely balanced in default.
Does the optional sport diff bring three grand’s worth of extra handling capability to the package? Not really, at least not across the lumpen and narrow roads chosen for the S4’s local launch. Chucked around a racetrack perhaps it might pay dividends, but the jury on that is firmly out.
Steering isn’t bad. Audi’s systems have a particular feel and, to some reviewers, no feel at all. I personally don’t mind it.
There’s lack of progressive load up in relation to how corners are attacked, granted, but the S4’s wheel is still quite clear and linear, while the chassis offers predictable front-end point. No gripes here.
There’s not a terribly sharp edge to the dynamics and it’s not as urgent to change direction as a thoroughbred RS, though that’s not really the S’s place in grand schemes.
You want it to dial in enough handling muscle to cooperate and satisfy, yet remain relaxed enough not to whiten your knuckles or fuse your spine together while it’s doing so. And that’s precisely where its spirited if tempered character sits punting along a country back road.
Where something such as the A4 45 TFSI quattro feels impressive on road, the S4’s combination of 3.0-litre energy and adaptively-damped suspension seems much more deserving of a proper premium mid-sized executive.
The shove, the stopping power, and handling nous are all ample and all meld together for a convincingly upmarket tourer. It’s downright placid around town and at a cruise, bar a bit tyre thrumming on the motorways. Again, it’s frugal and polite enough to easily serve as a daily driver.
Confession time: I always fancied the prospect of an S4 TDI ever since I first drove the lusty 3.0-litre oiler in the SQ5 when it first launched years ago. Similar power if with 700Nm and sub-7.0-litre consumption? Bring it on.
But here’s some disclosure. Audi Australia relaunched the SQ5 TDI on the same day as the S4 and S5 range, so I got to sample both powertrains back to back, albeit in different body styles.
After doing so, I can confidently say I no longer fancy the oiler S4 nearly as much. That’s because the TFSI powertrain is, drivability wise, the measurably superior format.
I would fit the S5’s 20-inch wheels onto the S4, which is only offered with 19s. Why? Because the 20s do styling many extra favours while, in my experience with S5 Coupe at launch, not really impacting ride quality in a measurable way.
Audi continues to stick with its ordinary three years of unlimited-kilometre warranty from the date of first registration.
In terms of servicing costs, Audi offers upfront packages of $1970 for three years and $2950 for five years, with intervals of 12 months or 15,000kms, whichever comes first.
That’s pretty decent if a little bit pricier than servicing an A4 ($1710 and $2720 respectively).
No surprises. Nothing broken. Nothing fixed.
But however its new sheet metal looks and how flashy its revised infotainment does or doesn’t bedazzle, the S4 (and S5) maintains high standards as a really likeable sports sedan or wagon (or coupe or convertible) with quality and depth across the board. It was an excellent all-rounder and remains so.
In many ways, the S4 Sedan sits closer to Audi’s core as a premium carmaker than almost any other model variant in the stable. A fine six-cylinder heartbeat, lavish (enough) appointments, equally good doses of sportiness and comfort and overall a well-sorted package.
In many ways it embodies how premium European motoring once was and perhaps should continue to be.
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