► High-performance version of A4 saloon
► Low-key looks and high-spec cabin
► Lighter, cleaner and punchier than last S4
At times it can seem as though the whole world has gone crossover crazy. But amid all the high-rise faux-SUVs, not to mention the coupes and hatchbacks, there are still plenty of traditional three-box saloons. Towards the high-performance end of the saloon spectrum there’s been, on and off since 1991, an S4 version of the Audi A4.
This 2017 Audi S4 is lighter and more fuel efficient, but also more powerful, than the previous S4. It also has a relatively subdued look compared to some of the S and RS performance models from Audi’s rich back catalogue.
It’s not cheap, so the question is whether such a traditional style of car – albeit one laden with current technology – still has a place when there are so many alternatives.
Read on for our full Audi S4 review.
Looks familiar. What’s new on the 2017 Audi S4?
The engine is a turbocharged 2995cc petrol V6, replacing the supercharged V6 of the previous S4. It comes with an eight-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission and all-wheel drive. You can switch between four driving modes (Efficiency, Comfort, Auto and Dynamic, plus a customisable fifth set-up), giving differing levels of responsiveness from the engine, steering and gearbox. Dynamic will hold on to low gears for longer as you accelerate, whereas E mode will be up into sixth before you’ve topped 30mph.
The S4 has its own look, albeit relatively subtle: black brake calipers, with an S logo on the fronts; a different grille and side air vents; a rear diffuser and tiny spoiler; and two sets of twinned oval tailpipes.
We live with the last Audi RS4.
Inside the S4’s cabin
The classy but not flashy interior has different seats to the A4: sportier without being hardcore buckets, they’re heated and electronically adjustable, and nicely finished in nappa leather. There are brushed aluminium inlays, or optional carbonfibre. There are paddles for manual gearshifts, as well as a chunky gearlever that doubles as a wrist rest while you’re fiddling with the MMI dial.
You have a choice about how you control the audio and some of the other comfort and infotainment functions. As well as the MMI dial and the central screen, there are many, many stalks, buttons, switches and dials, most of which double or even treble up. This may seem perverse. But the reality is that these minor controls are so logically grouped that using them is entirely natural. If you guess how to adjust something, you’ll guess right; the manual on many an S4 will go entirely unread.
It’s not a plush car, but it is comfortable and reasonably quiet, although you get a good dose of engine noise when you first fire it up and again when you up the pace when you exit the 30mph zone.
Passengers have a reasonable amount of room – the saloon shape is kinder than coupe alternatives – and a lot of comfort. The boot offers 480 litres of luggage capacity.
Lowdown on a high-performance saloon
If you’re anything like us, you’ll spend a few days experimenting with the different driving modes but end up leaving it in Dynamic. This is where the Audi S4 is at its most engaging and responsive; it feels like it was created with Dynamic mode in mind, and the others were added to placate back-seat drivers.
In Dynamic, the engine and chassis work together in harmony. You find yourself enjoying driving at high speeds, soundtracked by the urgent V6 gurgle, discovering that the S4 has far more grip and braking ability than you’ll need in everything bar the most extreme circumstances.
Whether you let the Tiptronic transmission make the changes itself, or you over-ride it, the shifts are quick and rewarding, as you dip back into the S4’s deep reserves of torque.
The most direct rival is the Mercedes-AMG C43 4Matic: another all-wheel-drive V6, with similar power and performance. BMW’s line-up is slightly out of kilter, with the M2 closest on price and power, while the 340i M Sport has a saloon body but is slightly cheaper and less powerful.
The S4 has a familiar Audi feel to the steering and ride – firm, slightly remote, less involving than a good 3-series – which some people dislike, but doesn’t take much getting used to.
It’s when you’re driving faster that you really appreciate the traditional saloon set-up, the all-wheel drive and the firm suspension: you’re sitting close to the road, hugging it hard, with minimal lean through the bends – a timeless pleasure, and one that’s rarely experienced in taller, softer cars.
Options for making the S4 more special
The S4 is more than just an A4 with a more powerful engine, tauter steering, upgraded brakes and firmer suspension. It also comes with a lot of equipment that’s on the options list for more modestly priced A4s. You get aluminium-effect door mirrors, chrome trim on the door handles, 18in diamond-cut wheels, different front seats and upholstery, a chunky steering wheel and high-grade audio.
Cost options for the S4 include adaptive dampers, a sports differential, dynamic steering, 19in wheels, a variety of different wheels and steering wheels, and further infotainment upgrades.
The S4 is not the ultimate anything, but it is a superb all-round package if you’re in the market for a fast, high-quality saloon. It helps you to drive very rapidly, while never giving the feedback and nerve-jangling excitement of a sports car.
It’s perfectly happy being used for supermarket or school-run duties, but hit the open road and it will up the pace with flair and gusto. It has enough electronic augmentation to look after you, nicely balanced with the raw appeal of a throaty V6. It also feels like it will last for a very long time.
More Audi reviews by CAR magazine