Thursday, December 12, 2013

Test Drive: 2014 Audi S4 Premium Plus 6MT

Some people look for pure speed when buying a car. Others look for nothing but total luxury and comfort. Others still want nothing but the ultimate driving experience. But what if you could find a car that combines all of these traits. Imagine a car that offers excellent power combined with superb handling and wrapped in a high quality leather-swathed package with room for 4 adults and their luggage. Even better if it comes available with a manual transmission. There are only a small handful of cars that fit such an exacting and rigorous set of criteria and the current generation Audi S4 is precisely one such car.

In the past, Audi's A4 platform offered many of the desired traits, but was too small to comfortably seat 4 adults for anything longer than a run to the local pub or organic grocer. The up-rated S4 models, which sported everything from turbo-charged six cylinders up to a high-revving V8, heaped on mountains of power and improved the handling, but could never address the fact that the backseats were nearly useless for anyone larger than a preteen. However, with the introduction of this latest platform, Audi took the extra measure to stretch the wheelbase enough to offer what is finally usable legroom for rear seat passengers. Add to that a typically Audi interior layout, the all new supercharged V6 motor, and, of course, the latest version of Audi's ubiquitous Quattro AWD system and what you have is one of the most balanced cars available on the market.

But, is it good enough to justify its nearly $60k pricetag?

Let me first say that, as boring as the overall shape and design of the S4 is compared with some of the more daring competitor designs out there, Audi has absolutely designed a car that should withstand the test of time and look good even in a decade. I admit, I had some issues when Audi first introduced their single-frame grille design, but the evolution of it over the last few generations has definitely improved my opinion and in conjunction with the latest version of Audi's now signature LED DRLs, the overall look combines an air of menace with the elegance and simplicity of a well-tailored suit. Throw in a set of four oval exhaust tips poking out from under the rear valance and the car demands to be taken seriously. The standard wheels are a touch on the frumpy side, but that is easy enough to remedy.

Pop open the rear door and grab a seat. This is where we find what is the single biggest improvement to the S4 from the prior generation. The rear seats now feel downright capacious when compared with all previous generations. Up front, Audi has done a wonderful job combining a unique design with premium materials where they count. Every surface that is visible both looks and feels of quality. The center console still carries enough knobs and buttons to cover the most basic functions while the most advanced features are accessible using the intuitive MMI controller. Seats, nicely bolstered and trimmed in glove soft leather, are comfortable and enormously adjustable, making it nearly impossible to not get into a proper driving position while maintaining total comfort.

Dip the stiff clutch and press the metal starter button to awaken the heart of this beast. The exhaust thrums to life, as the car settles into a smooth idle. Yank the chunky shifter into 1st gear and slip the clutch slightly while breathing gently onto the throttle to experience a smooth pull away. The car lopes easily around at city speeds, ambling along in traffic without the need for too much extraneous input from the driver. I find an entrance onto the highway and plant my foot to the floor, the whine of the supercharger audible over the faint burble of the exhaust as a wave of thrust shoots the car down the on-ramp and onto I-95.

Kick, snick, 2nd gear. The supercharger whine gets more insistent the higher the revs.
Kick, snick, 3rd gear. That exhaust burble is a touch faint. I do wish I could hear it a bit more.
Kick, snick, 4th gear. Oh sh#t!I'm doing 25 over the speed limit. Okay, time to back off.

Out on the highway, the car glides smoothly down the road, the suspension stiff, but not punishing. This pays off as soon as we exit the highway and onto some back roads nearby, where off-camber corners and tight s-bends put the S4's suspension through its paces. Around corners, the suspension does an admirable job of providing flat cornering, minimizing weight transfer in this 3800+ lb sedan. There is no compromise in comfort as the damping is well tuned and the mid-corner bumps are handled with aplomb, never allowing the car's line to deviate from where I am expecting. The Quattro AWD system certainly plays its part, shuffling power where it can be best utilized and helping to reign in the understeer that is noticeable on turn-in from this still front-heavy platform. My only real complaint is that the steering, while nicely weighted, does feel slightly artificial, though is exceptionally accurate. I tried out the various modes of the Drive Select, but ultimately just left it in Dynamic mode as I felt it offered the best throttle response and steering feel of the predetermined settings.

I took the first pass of the roads to scout for law enforcement before doubling back and giving it another run. The throttle responds promptly when called upon for quick downshifts. The shifter requires a little bit more motion than I like and does not quite offer the rifle-bolt accuracy I have become accustomed to in my Acuras, but for an Audi is absolutely top notch and completely livable. It does offer a satisfying finality when it slams into the gate and the clutch, while stiff, is easy to modulate and very communicative. Smooth starts are a nonissue and quick rev-matched downshifts are accompanied by that hint of supercharger whine and a bit of raucous intake growl. When the time comes, stand on the middle pedal and speed bleeds off rather quickly. Need only a little bit of braking? No problem as the pedal response is linear and really allowed me to shift the car's weight to which ever corner I wanted.

Parting with this car is decidedly bittersweet. I have driven a lot of cars this year, but few cars have truly been so well-balanced. Is the S4 perfect? Absolutely not. Every minute behind the wheel, I wanted just a bit more fanfare from the exhaust, a few hundred more revs to squeeze every last bit of potential from the motor, and just a bit less artificiality in the steering. Its biggest fault, however, is the rather dismal fuel economy, which pales in comparison to its closest rival, the BMW 335i sedan. However, it is hard to overlook the balance and versatility that this car provides. The thrust, the sound, the comfort, and refinement are all what make this car greater than the sum of its parts. If only they would edge the fuel economy a few notches higher, I might have one sitting in my driveway now.