2007 Audi S4 Expert Review:Autoblog
To borrow a phrase, Smurfin' ain't easy-- at least not for those hoping to maintain a low profile. Case in point: Our Audi S4 tester, resplendent in Gargamel-goading Sprint Blue Pearl Effect ($750). The cop-baiting color readily illustrates that cartoon blue is the new 'Arrest Me Red' -- as if the S4 lacks sufficient visual and aural drama to begin with. Given the S4's throaty 340-horse, eight-cylinder urge, drivers quickly learn that striking a wallflower pose is near-as-dammit impossible... but we'll get to that later. In the meantime, prospective owners are advised to invest in a quality radar detector, pick an understated hue from the order books, and pray for understanding magistrates.
It isn't as if the S4 wants for a sense of occasion-- at least up front. As seen here, Audi's new corporate face centers around the large chrome-lipped horsecollar grille has quickly spread throughout the lineup to divisive reviews. While it undoubtedly fails to deliver the elegant proportions of previous iterations, it certainly doesn't lack presence. This is particularly true in light of S4's broad stance and wide footprints. Given the massive shove underhood, candlepower of similar urgency for safe nighttime travel is comforting, necessary stuff. To that end, piercing tri-element high intensity discharge headlights cast their gaze down the road, augmented by bumper-resident round auxiliary lamps. With the Premium Package mentioned earlier, adaptive lighting is also part of the picture. Critically, our evaluator was registered in Michigan, saving it the indignity of a front license plate-- something that has a way of really blemishing the face of automobiles whose grilles appear to run below the bumper line.
In profile, the S4 is remarkably similar to garden-variety A4s-- no lurid fender extensions or rude cutlines, just some subtle doorsill extensions and side mirrors mittened in chrome. Audi's lilting arc of a roofline continues to age as gracefully as you like, with windows edged delicately in brightwork. On the S4, the brand's now-iconic 18" Avus wheels come as standard-fit, but as part of a $2,900 Premium Package, ours arrived shod with somewhat timid-looking 18" 14-spoke alloys and summer tires. With just a pair of small dedicated turn-signal lenses hiding in the bumpers and a fender-punctuating repeater (adjacent a diminutive 'V8' badge), the S4's profile borders on Q-ship innocuous.
Out back, the rump plays the same restrained tune. Eagles-head taillamps (subtly echoing the fixtures up front) and a flash of chrome garnish mark out the trunklid, and a blacked-out lower valance bookended by the business-end of a pair of double-tipped cans add visual aggression. But without the modest S4 emblems front and rear, one could be forgiven for mistaking Audi's bahn-burner for a bog-standard A4 flexing upgraded wheels and tires.
The net-net is a split-decision. For some, the S4's visual enhancements will likely not speak loudly enough to the substantial price and performance increase over more common A4s. For others seeking a clandestine mod-rod, the reigned-in aesthetics (our tester's color aside) and lack of boy-racer aerodynamic addenda speak of the sort of quiet dignity and restraint best suited to high-speed, ticket-free running. Besides, for those with the financial wherewithal, a hotter RS4 arrives in Audi dealerships shortly and promises to ratchet up the visceral wattage another notch.
Stay tuned as we crack the door, peer underhood, and row through our S4's six-speed gearbox with great vengeance and furious anger in search of its Quattro-abetted, V8-motivated mettle and soul.
Can't stand the suspense? Here's a hint.
Recaro has long been synonymous with some of the world’s best driver-centric interiors... but as the seatmaker has expanded its influence as a original-equipment supplier, some might argue that the company’s racy edge has been lost. Happily, that isn't the case with the S4. Simply put, this Audi boasts some of the best sporting chairs going. Featuring 8-way power adjustability, a driver's side extendable lower cushion for those long-of-leg, 4-way power lumbar support and brilliant bolstering, ours arrived draped in Silk Nappa leather, a hue that does a nice job of lightening the interior, quite literally setting the tone. Great for hauls long and short, butts large and small, we're contemplating having a set made into rolling chairs for Autoblog's offices.... they're that good. They've even got little storage drawers underneath, perfect for storing valuables away from prying eyes.
Lest anyone forget, Audi has long enjoyed a reputation for standard-bearing interiors, particularly when it comes to finely crafted instrument panels and switchgear. Fortunately, the S4 will do little to sully that hard won reputation. Oh, it has its faults and its proclivities (as you‘re about to read), but make no mistake-- this is a focused machine with an interior to match.
Our Sprint Blue S4 came fitted with a dark gray dashboard and door cards of commendable fit and finish. Though most examples come spec'd with brushed aluminum trim, ours was outfitted with $300 of attractive carbon-fiber trim. Had it been paired with black hides, we'd probably recommend staying with the standard silver trim to avoid an overtly stark appearance.
As might reasonably be expected of a true sporting piece, a look at the gauge cowl tells drivers all they need to know. Dominated by the large silver-rimmed analog tachometer and 170-mph speedometer, a central rectangular screen also unobtrusively displays core information right in the driver’s line of sight-- including basic navigation directions, distance to empty, outside temp, rudimentary radio data, etc. Better still, most of the settings are easily manipulated via the clever little click wheels on the beautifully-proportioned leather-wrapped three spoker. Operating in a fashion similar to that of a PC mouse’s scroll button, they allow drivers to focus on the road ahead. Smaller auxiliary gauges monitor engine temp and fuel, and a trio of buttons on either side of the bottom of the binnacle adjust the usual -- clock, trip meter, and so on. Simple, intuitive stuff.
The same can't be entirely said of Audi's Multi-Media interface (MMi). While leaps and bounds better than, say, BMW's insipid iDrive and Mercedes' troublesome COMAND system, things are hardly 100-percent instinctual. MMi governs everything from inputting sat-nav data to the radio (AM/FM/XM), cd-changer and telephony functions. Drivers can pour through menus via the large twist knob adjacent the lower-right corner of the screen, and the four buttons surrounding it correspond to options offered on the four quadrants whatever menu is on-screen. For those willing to do without the sat-nav ($1950), a simpler layout can be had. As is the way with most media test vehicles, our S4 arrived loaded to the sills featuring everything from the aforementioned navigation system to a Bose Premium Audio system with Bluetooth capability and satellite radio ($1,500). The $2,900 premium package mentioned in the first installment brings to the party a slew of features including a moonroof, memory-enabled driver's seat and mirrors, rain-sensing wipers, Homelink and auto-dimming mirrors, among other features.
Audi's navigation software itself is fairly easy-to-use and boasts a high degree of configurability, enabling drivers to choose how they view their turn-by-turn directions, etc. Of note, a now industry-standard warning admonishes drivers of the dangers of operating the system while moving, requiring drivers to push the knob to "accept" responsibility. But critically, the system does not lock out those looking to adjust their destinations while on the move-- it simply repeats the distraction warning and lets one get on with the business of finding a destination. This strikes as a better solution to the liability issue, which has scared many automakers into disabling certain features when vehicles are in motion. Done this way, co-drivers can operate the system without stopping, particularly useful on long trips. In an amusing gesture, the 'points of interest' function on the GPS doesn't just find standard destinations like ATMs, restaurants and gas stations... it has icons for theme parks, golf courses, and... wait for it... casinos. Priorities, people.
As mentioned, our S4’s Premium Audio Package treats audiophiles not only to enhanced sound, but improved media options, as well. All S4s come with a glovebox-mounted six-disc changer, but the optional Bose system affords MP3 capability with two memory card slots hidden beneath the motorized 6.5” screen. iPod integration? Sadly, not so much.
Fortunately for all those involved, Audi has seen fit to keep the HVAC controls distinct from that of the MMI. Supervision for the dual-zone climate controls, defroster and weapons-grade seat heaters are via brace of buttons below the screen. They work well enough, but we still prefer the simpler three-knob variety, as all of the controls can feel alike and occasionally require a glance or more to decipher.
The center console's tall sides look to afford solid bracing during enthusiastic driving, and without turning the key, rowing through the slick six-speed gearbox topped by a pleasantly contoured leather knob is enough to give S4-intenders wannabe rally-driver fantasies. Shame about the anonymous-looking pedals, then. No slick aluminum pieces here, just mass-market rubber-padded items placed close together in standard European fashion. At least there’s an adjustable armrest for long-distance runarounds-- it integrates storage and cell phone accommodations.
While it's admittedly hard to give up the driver's seat, a quick look in back is in order. Rear seat occupants are likewise treated to Recaro seats, though obviously bolstering is a significantly less aggressive. A large, flat center armrest secrets a pair of retractable cupholders-- but for whatever reason, we couldn't get ours to budge. In keeping with the all-weather capability of our Quattro-aided S4, our example's Cold Weather Package ($400), included rear-seat heaters and a nifty ski-sack that extends into the cabin like a K2-sized prophylactic. The 60/40 split seats offer plenty of support, but the S4's major problem is its lack of legroom. Given a driver of standard size (say, 5'9"), rear seat passengers will find that there's barely adequate room behind the seats for longer drives. Head and shoulder room are acceptable, but those who ferry about a lot of adult guests would do well to note that this is a platform that would really benefit from 2"-3" more leg and knee room.
The abbreviated rear quarters means that the large trunk comes as something of a surprise. A tradeoff between the available 13.4 cubic feet of stowage and rear seat passengers obviously favors the former (that, or great effort has been made to preserve the vehicle's roofline and proportions). Regardless, the trunk's wide aperture and flat load floor are most appreciated, as is the cargo netting, a feature that should keep all and sundry intact when the driver summons the 4.2-liter V8's substantial reserves. With the seats folded (nearly) flat, it had no trouble swallowing a new 18" Diamondback mountain bike, though admittedly we took off the front wheel first. Should the occasion arise where one needs to remove a wheel on the S4, there's a full-size spare tire underneath the load floor.
Given the S4's decidedly lofty performance capabilities, a full complement of safety features are wisely in the mix, including a full compliment of airbags (front, side and curtain), seatbelts with pretensioners and force limiters, active front head restraints, LATCH points for child seats, and so on. Defeatable Electronic Skid Protection (ESP) is also standard-issue stuff, as are anti-lock four-wheel discs with brake-assist.
All-in, the S4's interior is a suitably sporting environment, with peerless seats, excellent built quality and a wide range of standard features and optional extras. Given a knack for electronic wizardry (MMI) and understanding friends and/or offspring (tight rear seat), Audi's uber-A4 makes for a compelling package.
Stick with us for the S4's final days in the Autoblog Garage, when we grab it by the scruff and see what Ingolstadt's four-ringed wonder is capable of.
Prod the S4's loud pedal, and chicks and geese and ducks better scurry. With apologies to Messieurs Rogers and Hammerstein, Audi's 4.2-liter V8-motivated surrey offers a soundtrack that borders on automotive pornography. Fortunately, with 340-horsepower and 302 lb-ft of twist routed to the ground via Quattro all-wheel-drive, it possesses the drivetrain bite to match its soulful bark.
While not apoplectically quick (0-60 mph in around 5.5 seconds), the S4 revealed itself as a prodigiously talented all-rounder over the course of our weeklong test. Many cars in its class impress with vulgar displays of power but struggle to put their gumption to the ground consistently and efficiently (Cadillac's CTS-V and Benz’s C55 AMG come to mind). Not so with the S4, which is the equivalent of a four-wheeled Sanford Sharpie pen, adhering faithfully to whatever surface passes 'neath its 18" Dunlop Sport SP Maxx tires. Whether the S4 is scribbling its signature on the interstate or autographing a set of undulating twisties in black silica, it leaves with a sound and fury signifying everything.
What's more, we're happy to report that Audi has finally figured out how to assemble a precise manual transmission. In the past, the four-ringed brand has been dogged by substandard DIY gearboxes. And while the short-throw six-speed unit in our Sprint Blue tester won't reorder the transmission universe, it makes for a pleasing tool by which to extract the best out of the Wards 10-Best Engine.
The clutch is similarly cooperative. Relatively light and commendably progressive, its linkage is easy to modulate. The fluidity of the S4's driveline and the heady racket of its 40-valver found us seeking out long tunnels with our windows down, if only to drop a cog and keep the engine within spitting distance of its 7,000 rpm redline. It's a sound that never gets old, even on mind-numbing straight-shot freeways. Critically, Audi has improved the S4's performance joneses for 2006 by employing a new Torsen center differential with a 60/40 rear-biased torque split on manual models. Tiptronic pilots will have to make do with a less sporting 50/50 setup, so consider this another reason to go for the self-swapper. Audi's subtle year-over-year change imbues the S4 with a more sporting character and allows for the occasional tail-out antic.
The Recaros we raved about in Day 3-4 reassuringly come good regardless of the task at hand-- be it a back-breaking interstate slog, or sine-wave of a b-road flog. Having an array of major controls at fingers' reach on the leather-wrapped wheel is a major plus, as is the multi-function information display nestled between the tach and speedo. With the exception of the occasionally cumbersome MMi, the S4's interior does right by the enthusiast, allowing drivers to concentrate on the task at hand-- righteously fast travel.
As one would suspect, Audi's reworked the suspension to cope with the S4's augmented drivetrain and sporting intentions. Ride height is abbreviated by 30 mm over the standard A4, with uprated shocks and anti-roll bars uprated front and rear. The amended quad-link front and trapezoidal-link rear setup works well, though matters can get a bit rough over pothole-strewn roads. Still, its rough-surface harshness is in-line/superior-to everything we've driven in class. Besides, the ride tradeoff quickly proves its worth when the tarmac gets interesting.
Brakes? Given the S4's top whack of 155 mph and tidal midrange torque that unwittingly invites extralegal speeds with frightening frequency, they'd better be good. And they are. The S4's anti-lock supervised ventilated discs are likewise governed by electronic brakeforce distribution (EBD) and traction control (TC). But given the inherently sticky nature of our S4's summer-biased Dunlops, we didn't regularly trigger Audi's electronic nanny state. When it did come into the picture, the (defeatable) Electronic Stability Control was reasonably progressive and didn't rudely cut engine output the way many systems often do.
All of which makes the S4's marshmallow-light helm such a tragedy. Audi's Servotronic speed-sensitive rack-and-pinion unit is over-boosted, plain and simple. In light of the S4's not-inconsiderable 3,800-pound heft, that the Audi's steering fails to adequately convey the gravity of the situation when thrown into a series of bends is problematic. It's a disconcerting omission for a vehicle otherwise supernaturally predisposed towards serpentine roads. Granted, all-wheel-drive is a recipe for traction, not necessarily for uncorrupted steering responses. Even still, we've had better. Audi engineers: "Once more... with feeling," please.
Obviously, the S4's a pedigreed back-road partner, but we couldn't help but wonder how Audi's compact sports sedan would measure up on a closed course. Fortunately, our new friends at Nelson Ledges were happy to indulge us. Almost by sheer happenstance, a drive around rural Northeastern Ohio took us to the door of the 2-mile roadcourse in Garrettsville. The well-respected racetrack plays host to everything from Spec Miata racing and Porsche Club functions to a number of motorcycle events and a 12-hour USERA enduro (the facility takes pride in being the birthplace of American 24-hour showroom stock races). With the racing season about three weeks away, we came upon a locked-up gate, but a quick conversation with the kind track custodian had us on the course in short order. As we hope to return soon to NL, we had to promise not to ball up the S4 into a decidedly unsmurfy paperweight.
Nelson Ledges' surface could use some work, but the track remains very fast and makes for a fine test environment, particularly for an all-wheel-drive vehicle not easily unsettled (as proved the case with our S4). We hammered away at her for the bulk of the afternoon, coming away impressed. The S4's brakes are commendably fade-resistant, and the suspension and driveline worked to iron out irregularities without punishing our spinal cords. Better still, the clutch and gearbox combine with the big V8 to reward quick shifts with cosmic shove in short order, providing plenty of thrust around the course.
With the ESP's safety-net switched off, the S4's handling limits remained confidently benign, even where the previously-discussed over-assisted steering threatened to cloud the issue. Despite the fact that we'd never taken a lap on the track (okay, so we've timed a One Lap of America event or two here), the S4's behavior never truly veered towards the land of sweaty palms and four-letter words, despite speeds well into the triple-digits. After a long afternoon turning the 14-spoke alloys gunmetal black with brake dust, our throats (and the S4's gas tank) were parched.
One thing that did take a serious hit, naturally, is fuel economy. The S4 exhibits a positively Dionysian thirst both on-track and off. During a mix of admittedly spirited city and highway driving, we struggled mightily to crack the teens. We don't even want to discuss the V8's single-digit thirst at Nelson Ledges, lest Greenpeace televise a protest at the foot of our driveway. And never mind those soft-pedaling saps over at the EPA who quote 15/21 mpg city/highway. If you drive the S4 in a fashion even remotely consistent with its purpose and potential, expect all-highway mileage in the 13-16 mpg range, and perhaps 11-13 mpg when urban. As the S4 drinks exclusively from the high-octane pump, enthusiastic motoring comes at a high price.
Not least of which is the going rate on the S4 itself. Our evaluator was loaded with nearly $8k worth of options - everything from the oft-cited Premium package to the cold weather provisions, nav-system and carbon fiber trim. Oh, and $750 dollars worth of that Smurftastic paint. Figuring in gas-guzzler tax ($1,700) and destination ($720), would-be buyers will need to muster $56,620 in order to secure the services of this particular example (base S4s trade for a significantly more palatable $46,400). In truth, there are a handful of other all-wheel-drive four-doors that are just as quick for less coin (Subaru’s WRX STi and Dodge's Magnum R/T AWD come to mind), but we can’t think of one that incorporates the S4’s dynamic and sybaritic refinement. For those with thick bankbooks, Audi’s Surrey With a Fringe on Top might just be the slickest gig they’ll ever see.
[Sources: Audi, NelsonLedges.com, NA-Motorsports.com, Stlyrics.com]
New Car Test Drive
Refined sedans, wagons and convertibles.
The Audi A4 is one of the better cars in a crowd of smaller sport-luxury sedans that, dollar-for-dollar, offers some of the best, most appealing vehicles in the world.
To be sure, Audi's A4/S4 line is more than sedans. For 2007, all-new convertibles augment the existing four-door models and wagons. Also new is the ultra-high performance (and at $66,000, expensive), 420-hp RS4. From the enthusiast driver's perspective, it's one of the best sedans ever.
The A4 line is complex, with 21 variants. The key is thinking according to priorities: body style, engine size, front- or all-wheel drive, transmission type. All are nicely balanced, enjoyable automobiles.
The A4 2.0T, still priced well below $30,000, is fun to drive. Its turbocharged, 200-hp four-cylinder is one of the better small engines going, with satisfying response and spry acceleration, particularly with the standard six-speed manual transmission. It corners like a sports sedan, and high-quality construction is evident inside and out. Audi's optional quattro all-wheel drive system can help keep the driver on the road regardless of the conditions or situation, and buyers don't have to choose a big engine or special model to get it.
Going up the line, there's a smooth V6 and two powerful V8s. Those who frequently carry gear, dogs or cargo will appreciate the A4 Avant, which offers the extra space of a wagon while maintaining the A4's sporty driving character. The new convertibles are stylish, sexy and reasonably practical, and they don't have to cost an arm and a leg. The S4 models will appeal to enthusiast drivers who crave their lusty power and sporty handling, for a lot less cash than the RS4.
Every A4 should appeal to techies. State-of-the-art engines feature direct fuel injection: the cleanest, most efficient means yet devised to blend gasoline and air in an engine's cylinders. Transmission choices include a six-speed automatic with Tiptronic manual-shift feature and an efficient continuously variable automatic (CVT) that delivers truly seamless shifting. Sophisticated suspension technology is augmented with electronic stability control, which can help the driver avoid a crash. The A4 is stuffed with safety features and offers rear side-impact airbags, while most cars in its class don't.
Unlike other tech-heavy cars, the gizmos blend nicely in the A4, enhancing comfort, convenience and safety, and improving the driving experience.
The A4 can be pricey and it's relatively small. On the other hand, you'll have to look long and hard to find a car that blends driving satisfaction, safety, convenience, practicality, great finish and reasonable ownership cost as well as the A4.
The 2007 Audi A4 line features a vast array of sedans, wagons and convertibles with four-cylinder, V6 or V8 engines, front- or all-wheel drive and a choice of six-speed manual, conventional six-speed automatic or continuously variable (CVT) automatic transmissions. The line includes more than 20 separate variants, including the S4 models.
The A4 2.0T sedan ($28,240) is the least expensive model, powered by 200-hp, 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine. The 2.0T Avant ($31,340) and other wagons come only with quattro, which is included in the price. The standard upholstery is cloth. Also standard: dual-zone automatic climate control with cabin filtration, cruise control, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, power driver's seat, auto-on running lights, a 10-speaker stereo with six-CD changer and 16-inch aluminum wheels.
Option packages for 2.0T: The Premium Package ($1,900) includes a power glass sunroof and 17-inch wheels. The Convenience Package ($1,900) adds driver's seat position memory, Homelink remote transmitter, rain and light sensors, auto-dimming inside mirror with compass, auto-dimming and power folding outside mirrors and Bi-Xenon headlights with adaptive front lighting.
The A4 3.2 sedan comes with the CVT automatic ($35,540) and FronTrak front-wheel drive; the 3.2 quattro comes with all-wheel-drive and the six-speed manual ($36,440) or CVT ($37,640). The 3.2 Avant ($37,440) comes with the manual or the Tiptronic six-speed automatic ($38,640). The A4 3.2 models feature a 255-hp V6 and come standard with leather upholstery, a sunroof, and 17-inch wheels.
Options for the 3.2 models include a Cold Weather Package ($1,000) with heated seats and a ski sack, and Audi's S-line Sport Package ($2,750), which adds 18-inch wheels with performance or all-season tires, sport suspension, brushed aluminum trim and S-line styling tweaks.
The S4 sedan ($47,500) and S4 Avant ($48,500), which feature a 340-hp 4.2-liter V8 and standard quattro. The S4s offer the DTM Appearance Package ($1,500), which is named for Germany's equivalent to NASCAR racing and includes carbon-fiber spoilers.
The A4 Cabriolet, or convertible, has only four seat belts, and is available in five models that roughly correspond to the sedans and wagons: 2.0T CVT ($39,100); 2.0T quattro with conventional automatic ($41,200); 3.2 quattro with automatic ($46,950); S4 manual ($55,700); and S4 automatic ($56,900).
The are lots of stand-alone options for all A4 and S4 models, including a navigation system ($2,100), a Bose stereo upgrade ($1,000) with XM satellite radio receiver, Parktronic distance warning ($350), special wood trim packages ($400) and headlight washers ($150).
The RS4 ($66,000) sits atop the entire lineup. This is a high-performance sedan of the first order, with a 420-hp 4.2-liter V8, manual transmission only and a special quattro system that biases power delivery to the rear wheels. It also includes most of the comfort and convenience features offered across the line.
Safety features that come standard include front-seat front and side-impact airbags, curtains-style head-protection airbags front and rear, and advanced, full-feature electronic stability and anti-lock braking systems (ABS). Rear-seat side airbags ($350) and a tire pressure monitor ($250) are optional.
The Audi A4 looks like a premium-grade car. It's classy and assertive, just short of overtly aggressive, with a tidy, well-planted stance that oozes presence. That presence is strong enough to disguise the A4's dimensions.
This is a relatively small car: considerably smaller than competitors like the Cadillac CTS or Infiniti G35, and very close in most measures to the compact Honda Civic.
The eye immediately settles on the A4's big, tall grille, of which opinions vary. The only consensus seems to be that it's different, and it immediately identifies the A4 as an Audi.
The headlights give the front-end an assertive look, with lenses that angle upward as they wrap around the fenders. Laterally split intakes below the body-colored bumper and outboard of the grille do double duty, housing fog lamps and channeling air toward the front disc brakes. A modest hood swell, which designers call a power bulge, carries the grille's vertical outlines back to the roof pillars. On the ultra-high performance RS4, the hood and fenders are fabricated from aluminum to reduce weight.
The A4's profile shows a sharply creased shoulder line running the length of the car, from the trailing corner of the headlights to the leading edge of the tail lights. The side windows are nicely proportioned to the body mass, atop a relatively high beltline. A bump strip breaks up the expanse of the lower door panels. The painted door handles look great, but they are hard to grab and can snap away from your fingers when you're in a hurry.
The A4 Cabriolets look good with the convertible top up and much better with it down, which is probably the way it should be. The fully automatic, electro-hydraulic roof will open or close at speeds up to 19 mph. That's handy if a rain squall sneaks up while profiling through town. The soft top is thickly insulated, with a glass rear window and defroster, so it shouldn't be too big a detriment in cold climates.
The premium-grade look outside the Audi A4 carries through inside, thanks to clean, elegant design, generally rich-looking materials and good finish work. Colors combinations tend to be muted, and a choice of wood trims or aluminum inserts complement the leather, cloth and plastics.
The standard A4 seats are well bolstered, with plenty of lumbar support. We found them comfortable. The sports seats in S and RS models have big side bolsters that are harder to slide over, but the payback is Velcro-like grip on a driver's backside and torso. The standard cloth upholstery feels durable and provides a bit of grip itself. The optional leather surfaces are elegantly stitched and fit our posteriors well. The seats, mirrors, steering column and other features adjust in every conceivable direction, helping drivers find a comfortable seating position.
Interior space, however, is not one of the A4's strengths, even compared to some sedans with similar exterior dimensions. To be sure, there is more than adequate space for average-sized adults to adjust, move and stretch in front, without pangs of claustrophobia. But the A4 may not be a car for the truly full-figured, or people who rise taller than six feet, two inches. On a regular basis, the smaller space in the back seat is best reserved for children and pre-teens.
All of the A4's controls are focused on the driver; with few exceptions, they're ergonomically configured and intuitively located. The steering wheel hub repeats the grille's trapezoidal outline. A minimalist set of secondary controls on the wheel spokes manages audio and other functions. Column-mounted stalks operate the usual array of features and are clearly marked, except for the rear wiper/washer switch on the Avant, which is controlled by the right-hand lever. We like Audi's lane-change signal feature, which delivers three turn-signal blinks with a tap on the lever. It works much better than some other manufacturers' efforts to re-invent the turn signal, most particularly BMW's.
The A4's gauges are shaded by a hooded panel and easily viewed through the top half of the steering wheel, regardless of how the wheel is adjusted. The TFT information display, reporting such data as radio frequency, trip mileage and service interval warning, separates the tachometer and speedometer, with fuel and coolant gauges tucked down in the corners.
Knobs and buttons for the audio and climate controls are clustered in the center stack, all easily deciphered and within easy reach. The climate system is easy to operate, but the air conditioning struggled to keep up on a 95-degree day driving through the desert. It was about then that we noticed that, at certain angles, the sun reflected up off of the silver trim surrounding the shifter on an A4 2.0T sedan.
When the navigation system is ordered, the stereo panel gives way to the map display, which then doubles as stereo controls. The display is one of the best available, and system controls are readily understood. It's easy to orient the cursor and shift the map scale, while on-screen telltales steal very little real estate from the map. The map offers both a flat, two-dimensional and a bird's-eye perspective, the latter with a distant horizon visible across top of the screen.
The premium stereo has MP3 capability and a pair of slots for Secure Digital memory cards. Unfortunately, only volume and pre-set radio stations can be changed without first pressing Accept on the opening menu every time the car is started. We find it annoying to sign the electronic equivalent of a liability waiver just to turn on the radio. Also, the stereo is on all the time the navigational system is active, and it's annoying. You don't turn it off, you just turn it down.
There are other minor annoyances with the A4. We wish the beep confirming the remote lock would sound more promptly, as we constantly found ourselves pausing for a momen.
The Audi A4 offers good handling and response, making it a lot of fun on winding roads. It's extremely stable at high speeds, as one might expect from a bigger, heavier car. Its engines range from spry and economical to Holy Cow! with gas guzzler tax.
The A4 is Audi's counterpoint to the BMW 3 Series, and we'd venture that each is the other's most obvious, direct competitor in the market place. The A4 is clearly competitive with the 3 in the quantifiable, objective measures. Much of the subjective and visceral is present and accountable, too. Even where it follows a different track, it doesn't stray too far. But in one measure, it's far ahead. Audi's quattro all-wheel drive system is almost legendary, and much better sorted than the all-wheel-drive systems offered in the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Meanwhile, the Acura TL and many other cars that compete in the sporty, near-luxury class only come with front-wheel drive.
The A4 lacks the quiet, almost Zen-like solitude afforded by some of its competitors, but those who appreciate its lively traits will find it more than quiet and smooth enough. Wind and road noise are nicely filtered in the sedan, less so in the Avant, where the large cargo space amplifies the hisses and rumbles. The same large volume of air works well with the stereo, however, giving the bass tones a nice, deep resonance in the Avant.
The 2.0T suffers from turbo lag, a trait that's amplified when paired with the Tiptronic automatic that comes with quattro. The Multitronic CVT (continuously variable transmission) with the four-cylinder and front-wheel drive is a competent package, but it's a combination that doesn't deliver what we look for in an A4. The A4 2.0T's four-cylinder engine works best with the six-speed manual gearbox and that's the combination we'd order here, though we wish the shift throws on the manual were a little shorter.
With the 2.0T turbocharged engine, there's not a lot of power down at the very bottom of the rev range. The manual allows the operator to keep the engine running where the torque comes in greater quantity. Yet even with the manual, the turbo is not great for squirting at a moment's notice, so passing a train of cars on a two-lane road can be a challenge. It's fantastic for winding roads, however, and we had a blast with it on a winding hill climb out of California's Carmel Valley.
The 2.0T does very well on the highway, feeling comfortable cruising at high speeds all day. We did this and got 27 mpg. An A4 2.0T Quattro is EPA City/Highway-rated to get 22/31 mpg.
The 3.2-liter V6 is a much better choice when ordering an automatic transmission. The V6 is smoother and more refined than the 2.0T. With the V6, the six-speed Tiptronic automatic is almost as responsive as the six-speed manual, and by far more accommodating in day-to-day traffic. We prefer to put it in Drive and go, and we suspect most people will rarely, if ever use the Tiptronic manual shift feature.
Those who do will find the Tiptronic falls a bit short in the manumatic game, mostly because it will not allow full manual control of the shifts. An algorithm in the powertrain management computer shifts up a gear to put the engine at the optimum point in the torque curve, and a button beneath the gas pedal shifts down a gear when mashed, as when passing or accelerating up a grade. This is an impressive application of computerization, but it mocks the Tiptronic's promise of a manual-override automatic. In practice, the downshift is occasionally helpful, but the upshift is disconcerting when it occurs in the middle of a corner.
All the A4 models offer crisp steering response with comforting directional stability. All feel planted and confident at high speed. There's less pogo over undulating pavement on fast and narrow winding roads than in other cars. Quick left-right-left transitions are handled with finess.
The Audi A4 is fun and spirited in any of its 21 variations. It delivers plenty of power, respectable gas mileage for its class, state-of-the-art sound and, above all, an integration of various systems that give it depth and a high level of driving satisfaction. Interior space is tighter than in many competitors, but Audi's quattro all-wheel drive system remains the benchmark. Prices range from the very-high $20,000 range to just past $70,000, when loaded with options. If you plan to look at entry-luxury sports sedans, we recommend that the A4 be one of them.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from Tucson, Arizona; with Mitch McCullough in Monterey, Greg Brown in Los Angeles, and J.P. Vettraino in Detroit.
Audi A4 2.0T FrontTrak manual ($28,240); 2.0T FrontTrak CVT ($29,440); 2.0T quattro manual ($30,340); 2.0T quattro Tiptronic ($31,540); 2.0T Avant manual ($31,340); 2.0T Avant Tiptronic ($32,540); 2.0T Cabriolet CVT ($39,100); 2.0T Cabriolet quattro Tiptronic ($41,200); 3.2 FrontTrak CVT ($35,440); 3.2 quattro manual ($36,440); 3.2 quattro Tiptronic ($37,640); 3.2 Avant manual ($37,440); A4 3.2 Avant Tiptronic ($38,640); 3.2 Cabriolet Tiptronic ($46,950); S4 manual ($49,700); S4 Tiptronic ($48,700); S4 Avant manual ($48,500); S4 Avant Tiptronic ($49,700); S4 Cabriolet manual ($55,700); S4 Cabriolet Tiptronic ($56,900); RS4 ($66,000).
Options As Tested
Convenience Package ($1,800) includes driver's seat position memory, Homelink remote transmitter, rain and light sensor, auto-dimming inside mirror with compass, auto-dimming and power folding outside mirrors and Bi-Xenon headlights with adaptive front lighting; Bose Audio Package ($1,000) with XM Satellite Radio; Cold Weather Package ($1,000) includes heated seats and ski sack; S-Line Package ($2,750) includes 18-inch cast alloy wheels with performance or all-season tires, sport suspension, S-Line badges, front and rear bumpers and steering wheel, and brushed aluminum trim; California Emissions ($150).
Audi A4 3.2 quattro ($36,440).
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