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Another new Audi? What, are the designers and engineers on some sort of bonus scheme?
It would appear so; Audi’s neverending onslaught of new metal continues with the new S4 Avant, driven here in the UK for the first time. We can tell it’s the S4, because it’s got the badge on the back. Oh, and it has silver mirrors.
So it’s an S4. Let’s get this settled early: fast, but not as fast - or naughty - as an RS?
That’s pretty much the theme of it, yes. The S4 slides into the top of the A4 range until the - invariably mighty - RS4 comes of age later this year. And if you wanted one-potato-two-potato ranges, then Audi has succeeded brilliantly; this is faster than the top-of-the-range-yet-unprefixed 4s, with plenty of headroom for the forthcoming RS.
Well, out goes the old supercharged V6 six-pot, and in comes a turbo 3.0-litre V6 that makes 349bhp and 369lb ft of torque. That’s some 20bhp and 44lb ft up over the old car, handing out predictably rapid performance stats of 62mph from rest in 4.7 seconds and a limited top speed of 155mph.
The ‘box is now a proper torque-converted eight-speed auto (a seven-speed DSG in the previous car), doling out gears like a close-up magician deals cards, and that deck of ratios drives through the usual quattro all-wheel drive system. That four-wheel drive briefly breaks down like this: in normal driving there’s a 40/60 front/rear torque split, but feed it low grip levels and the computers can shuffle either 70 per cent of the available motivation to the front axle, or 85 per cent to the rear. Not at same time though, because that’s not how maths works.
Efficiency is up to 37.7mpg on the combined cycle (meaning 171g/km C02), not hindered by the fact that the new A4 platform means this version of the S4 is about 75kg lighter than the car that went before it, you can pay around £1500 for an actively torque-vectoring ‘sports’ rear differential, and the stability system will gently brake an inside rear wheel to add some pivot to your turn-in. There are also optional continuously variable dampers, optional LED headlamps, an optional flat-bottomed steering wheel, optional ‘Virtual Cockpit’… in fact, true to Audi form, there are actually enough options to make this list very long and boring, so we’ll just get on with it…
It looks either subtle or boring - can’t decide which?
Ah. That’s a point-of-view thing again, isn’t it? With a slightly different grille, slightly swollen sills, four tailpipes and silver mirror housings, the S4 is either discreet or dull depending on how you feel about such things. Personally, a little bit of street sleeper menace is no bad thing, you just have to back it up with surprising performance. And no doubt the S4 is quick. Anything that manages sub-5-seconds to 62mph feels rapid, and the combination of close-set and quickly-accessed gears makes mid-range overtaking pretty clinical. You can force the gearbox to hesitate a little, especially if you dither on the throttle, but if you get going and use the paddles, there’s proper pace to be had.
It also rides better than the previous S4, with more comfort in Comfort and a decent edge in Dynamic mode, though the steering still isn’t entirely interested in telling you exactly what’s going on with the front wheels. As ever, under-power grip really isn’t an issue, and you can’t really feel the drive being shifted around until you lob the car into a corner at injudicious speed - at which point you get a bit of understeer followed by a kind of steady-state half a turn of oversteer. It’s not so much fun as effective, but definitely offers more options than the last-gen.
The car we drove had quite a few cost options, but even trying to look past them - including an entirely suspect quilted grey leather set of sports seats - the S4 is a really bloomin’ lovely place to sit in and spend time. Everything works, is intuitive (although the sheer amount of things to play with gets a bit baffling), and feels like it’s been thought about. It’s refined, quiet, and has that clunky-thunky solidity that makes you feel good, a feeling generated somewhere near the centre of your chest. The extra advantage of 490-litres of Avant-y space and split-folding rear seats adds to the appeal.
What’s bad about it then?
Well, here’s the rub. In making the S4 exactly what it needed to be to fit into the range, it’s sort of lost its edge. The ’S’ models used to be RS-lite, but now they feel more like über-top-spec cooking models. The noise it makes is interesting but cultured, the way it goes about being surprisingly fast, surprisingly unenthusiastic. It’s a brilliant car in lots of ways, but a sober-suited, lightly disguised hooligan, it is not. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that I’d probably end up either going for a top-spec non-S and saving some money, or waiting for the RS4 for something with a less complex personality.
Verdict: Fast, capable, lovely interior. But somehow loses the ’S’ edge that we used to like so much - feels like a very fast lesser model, rather than RS lite. 7/10
Engine: 2995cc V6, petrol, turbo
Power: 349bhp at 5400rpm; 369lb ft at 1370rpm
Economy: 37.7mpg (combined); CO2/tax band 171g/km
Performance: 0-62mph 4.7sec; Top speed 155mph (limited)
Transmission: eight-spd automatic, AWD
Kerb weight: 1,630kg