Not a Luxury Car
2014 Audi S4
Several years ago, Audi went through a bad patch. People were accusing Audis of unintended acceleration. The story was that you’d be plodding along through a school zone at 10 MPH when the Audi you were driving would suddenly accelerate at maximum speed into a gaggle of children. Audi disputed this. Consumers didn’t believe them, most likely because the media hyped the story, a lot. Turns out it was most likely the idiots behind the wheel. It still put a lot of hurt on Audi, and their US sales cratered.
On the plus side, though, with Audis kind of hard to sell in America, it forced them to lowball their pricing. Good times. Good times.
People eventually forgot about the unintended acceleration controversy, though, which allowed Audi to change from the poor man’s BMW to the rich man’s…Audi. Audi is now probably BMW’s closest direct German competitor in the US, since Mercedes trends more towards the luxury market, despite their performance-oriented AMG brand. Just as BMW has their M-series cars, Audi has the S-series. Within the S-class cars, Audi’s S4 is the direct competitor to the BMW M3. And all of the S4’s acceleration is most certainly intended.
How it looks
A few years ago, Audi went all-in on the design concept of the unified grill. Every Audi has a gaping maw in the front. I’m not a fan. But, at least Audi tries to make it look good. Sadly, because Audi is now known as a premium brand, rather than a demon-possessed, child-killing brand, it seems to have an outsized influence on the designs of other manufacturers, and it’s starting to be implemented elsewhere. Some of them do the unified grille concept very, very wrong. I’m looking at you Lexus. Your new grilles are wrong. In every way a thing can be wrong, they are wrong.
Essentially, the front of the S4 looks a lot like a Chrysler 300 with a shoutier grille and squintier headlights. For the rest of the exterior styling…meh. I don’t know why, but the S4’s looks don’t speak to me. It’s a mixture of things I don’t like or to which I’m completely indifferent. It’s not ugly. It’s actually quite well proportioned. I don’t know why I don’t like the exterior styling, but I know it bores me. Nothing about it catches my eye, except for the grille, which repels me. It’s a car whose looks I really want to like, and I just can’t.
It gets way better inside, though. It’s attractive, and just screams build quality—though I fear that, since it’s built by a VW subsidiary, it may not be as reliable as I’d like. JD Power seems to agree with me, rating it just above average. I’d like to see a more reliable car from a company that wants to charge me $55,000 for it.
Still, I give it top marks for the acres and acres of leather, brushed aluminum, and carbon fiber that slathers every surface. And the technology. It has…everything. There are extra SD card slots for your own music, and a built-in hard drive if that’s not enough. SiriusXM. Bluetooth. Voice command. Rear-view cameras. The list goes on and on. Everything you can possibly do inside the S4 is done electronically, or electrically. The last thing Audi wants to do is make you do something manually or mechanically. Only cars for dirty, poor people make you do that.
There’s even an iPod/iPhone mount in the glove box. Unfortunately, the connector is still the obsolete 30-pin Apple plug, not the new, smaller one that the iPhone 5 has. Basically, Audi is just another company that Apple screwed over. So, to hook up your new iPod, you’ll need to connect it through an adapter, like some kind of animal.
The S4 has decent leg and head room, front and back, with well-bolstered yet still-comfortable front seats—covered, of course, in leather, as is the flat-bottomed and tactilely pleasing performance steering wheel. It must be said, though, that the bolstering makes the front seats a bit harder to get in and out of.
The color-screen in the center stack is not a touch-screen. Instead, it’s a set-up similar to BMW’s, consisting of a multifunction dial and buttons on the center console by the driver’s armrest. It controls everything on the car, including drive and suspension modes, entertainment system, and sat-nav. Like most luxury cars, it gives you too much to do, and is too complicated. I guess making a usable interface for a car’s center screen is extraordinarily difficult, judging by how universally bad these things are. Still, it’s really the only negative thing I can find about the interior of the S4.
When just sitting in the S4, you’re cosseted in luxury. Everything inside is tasteful, or beautiful, or comfortable. All the bits and pieces are made from top-notch materials. So, you’d be perfectly justified in thinking that the S4 is a premium German luxury car.
But it isn’t.
How it drives
It’s the ride that tells you the S4 isn’t a luxury car. Luxury cars are supposed to coddle you and comfort you, and let you glide from destination to destination while making all the bad things about the road surface go away. The S4 does none of this. What the S4 does is try to get around the Nürburgring Nordschleife in less than eight minutes. While that’s a lofty—indeed, impressive—goal for a 4-door sedan to have, it means that some of the luxury aspects have to be compromised. Or, when it comes to the ride, thrown out the window.
Even with the drive setting switched to “Comfort”, there’s precious little of it, compared to other luxury cars. The ride is stiff, communicating the road’s imperfections to your backside. You can set the drive setting to the full-on “Dynamic” mode, and it is somewhat noticeably stiffer, but really, even the softest suspension mode on the S4 is sportier than it is luxurious.
I’m pretty sure this is unnecessary. The Jaguar XF Supercharged is every bit as fast and capable as the Audi S4, but the ride is far better. It feels obviously firm and capable, but the suspension doesn’t transmit every bump in the road to your butt. Jaguar seems to have worked out a truth that the German automakers are still grasping for. If the suspension is firm and rigid, you don’t need to install a suspension that stone-age tribesmen have hewed from granite. A good chassis allows you to put some give in the suspension and improve the ride quality.
Changing the drive settings does noticeably effect the steering, though. In comfort, it’s light and airy with little feel for the road. You can turn it with your pinky finger. In dynamic mode, the steering is heavy, requiring beefy input, and lots more turning resistance at speed—though, since it’s an electric system, it still gives you very little feel for what the tires are doing.
Not that you care, because with all-wheel drive, you’re always certain to have lots of grip. The S4 channels the engine’s powers to the wheels that can use it best, and the traction control keeps it all well-sorted. The engineers at Audi have even monkeyed around with the rear differential, to allow you some oversteer when you mash the throttle coming out of corners, and it lets the rear end step out a little bit. It’s not a drift car, but it gives you a little bit of a thrill. Though only a little bit, because the traction control will still keep you planted before letting the rear’s rotation get out of hand. That’s how this 3,982 lb. sedan still pulls 0.94 g on the skid pad before breaking loose.
This, by the way, is a measure of how far cars have come in the 21st century. In 1999, almost nothing could pull 0.94 lateral g. Now, 4,000 lb., four-door sedans can do it.
The Audi’s forward engine placement puts a little too much weight on the front end, which leads to noticeable understeer when you carry too much speed on corner entry. You turn the wheel, and the S4…doesn’t. So, the trick is to watch your entry speed—maybe brake into the corner a bit harder—and you’ll be rewarded by the point-and-shoot steering. Slow in, fast out; that’s the ticket to cornering fun in the S4.
I think Audi would argue—and who’s to say they’re wrong?—that understeer is a feature, not a bug. Compare and contrast a bit of understeer to, say, an AMG SL-Class Mercedes, which has no understeer at all, but tends to be rather excessively prone to oversteer. In the AMG, you’re blasting through a corner, happy as a clam, when all the sudden you experience a brief moment of disorientation, after which you notice that the road is receding from your view through the windshield. You have not suddenly exceeded light speed and started traveling backwards through time. You’re merely travelling backwards, with your gas tank preceding you, to The Land of Trees and Fire.
That doesn’t happen in the Audi. In the Audi, you can tap the brakes, scrub off some speed, and have a chance to pull the front end back into the line you want to take. With the S4’s understeer, if worse comes to worst, you’ll at least see death coming at you through the windshield. And there’s a better chance that worse won’t come to worse if you’re not skidding backwards towards a telephone pole.
It’s the powering out of the corners that really treats you, though, because the S4 will go from 0 to 60 in 4.4 seconds. That’s…fast. It’s amazingly fast in a car that Audi says only produces 333 HP and 325 lb-ft of torque from its supercharged V6. In fact, it’s so amazingly amazing, that I’m beginning to suspect that Audi is a big, fat liar. The Dodge Charger SRT8 also does a 4.4 0-60 time, and it requires a 470 HP V8 to do it. The BMW M3 can do it, too, again with a 425 HP V8. So, I’m pretty sure Audi isn’t getting that 0-60 time in a 2-ton sedan from a V6 that’s putting out 100 fewer horsepower, despite weighing 400 lbs. less. I think the S4’s actual power is hilariously understated by Audi, or that there’s something wrong with fundamental physics.
If you get the manual transmission in the S4, by the way, you’ll be pretty happy with it. It feels a bit clunky—though that’s to be expected considering the actual power it’s channeling through the drivetrain—but the throws are short and the shifts are positive. The clutch is also well-sorted, with a friction point that’s easy to find. The S4’s braking is rewarding, too, as you’ll come to a dead stop from 60 MPH in just 107 ft. That’s…really good. So, you can brake later going into those corners.
Overall, to the extent the S4 has any driving imperfections—and they are relatively minor ones—they’re the imperfections inherent in a heavy, 4-door sedan. As sedans go, however, the S4 is awfully good to drive.
What’s good about it
The interior is very nice, with lots of leather and carbon fiber. It’s roomy and comfortable. The performance is fantastic, and it’s got a great transmission. Braking performance is great. The speed is exhilarating. The All-wheel drive gives you tons of grip and confidence in inclement weather. It’s chock full of useful electronics and entertainment goodies. It matches the performance of much more powerful—on paper—sedans in its class.
What’s bad about it
The touch-screen interface is too complicated and clunky. The ride is harsher than it needs to be. It has dreary electric power steering. It has pronounced understeer at higher speeds, though, again, I’m not sure this is actually a bad thing. Rational people may disagree. I’m not a big fan of the exterior styling.
So, while it’s a given that the Audi is very nice inside, indeed, nothing else about it can properly be termed luxurious. I can think of several other terms that might apply—snarling, exhilarating, exciting, powerful—but not luxurious.
That’s OK, though, because you aren’t buying the S4 for the luxury, really, are you? You’re buying it because to can do eight-minute laps on the Nürburgring. And it has all-wheel drive, and can hold 0.94g of lateral force. It does 0-60 in less than 5 seconds. You’re not buying a luxury car. You’re buying a rally car.
When you realize that, everything about the S4 starts to make sense. It’s a Mitsubishi Evo with a nice interior for the affluent enthusiast. It a car that allows wealthy people to commute to work at 100 MPH down a dirt track in Finland.
Now, I’ve always said that if you choose a road going rally car as a daily driver, you’re quite mad. But if you are going to choose one, the Audi S4 is a choice I understand. In fact, I’m beginning to think I may be going a bit mad myself because…I want one.