Cars are undergoing a seismic shift. Meet the man ready to surf the tidal wave
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Ooh, we do love a fast, subtle Audi estate. Check, check and check. This is the new S4 Avant, and well, it’s the definitive fast family wagon, isn’t it? Spangly exhausts and mirrors excepted, you’ve got to be a professional car geek to pick it out from the hordes of 2.0 TDI S-line A4s. The noble art of the Q-car ain’t dead, folks. It’s got unimpeachable Quattro all-wheel drive, an eight-speed paddleshift automatic, and an enormous, supremely appointed interior boasting a 1510-litre boot. Ready those ‘all the car you’ll ever need’ rosettes… Wow, that was a short review. All that being said, there is a nagging doubt about the new S4. See, Audi very deliberately prioritised comfort, quietness and technology with the new A4, and admitted it wasn’t supposed to be as sweet a drive as a Jaguar XE or BMW 3-series.
For the humdrum models, it created a very serene operator – a hugely unstressed mile-muncher. Great for the everyman, but we’ve wondered how it’d fare when Audi about-faced and turned the A4 into a go-faster, driver’s car. Exactly how fast are we talking? Cayman-fast: sprint times fall 0.3seconds from the old car, giving 0-62mph in 4.9 seconds (4.7 for the saloon) and 155mph flat out. There is power everywhere: from a standstill, out of tight second-gear turns, striding past dawdlers on A-roads and in the wilds of take-no-prisoners motorway. Even allowing for a smidge of turbo lag obviously alien to the old supercharged V6, it’s pretty difficult to be caught out in the S4. See, the S4’s sprouted a new engine. The old car ran a 3.0-litre, supercharged V6 that sent 328bhp through a dual-clutch seven-speed gearbox. In its place, we find a new, 14kg lighter, 3.0-litre turbo V6 that offers up 349bhp and 369lb ft – on tap from 1300-4500rpm. See what I mean about never getting caught off guard? Officially greener, then? Naturally – 37.7mpg and 171g/km of CO2 play 36.2mpg and 180g/km in the old car. Will I miss the supercharged V6 throttle response? You might. Audi’s crammed the S4’s single turbo between each cylinder bank to shorten the intakes and sharpen its reactions, and while you’d never call it laggy, you do notice a slight softness to the delivery when all of the berries are demanded. Shortly, a theme will emerge here… How’s it sound? Really nice. You get a meaningful, tuned rasp from the V6 when it’s under load, without any speaker-faked nonsense or drumrolls from the exhaust. Cruise in eighth gear and it settles politely into the background without a hint of wearisome blare. But again, it’s not a firecracker – something’s being held in reserve to give the next-gen V6 RS4 space to bellow into. I assume it’s gone auto because the S-tronic can’t manage so much torque? Correct, and while the eight-speeder works obediently as an auto and extremely swiftly and smoothly in manual mode, the shifts are ever-so-slightly slurred through even at the redline, rather than pinging home with the delectable precision of a twin-clutch slotting a new cog. Once again, the S4 feels like it’s taken on a less aggressive, (even) more mature character. And guess what, it’s the same story with the ride. Funny, I thought fast Audis rode like skateboards… Not any more, particularly the S cars. Stiffer, 23mm-lower sports suspension is standard, but all our S4 test cars ran the optional adaptive three-mode set-up. Shock of shocks, (pun unintended) even Dynamic mode, once a bigger no-go area in a fast, 19-inch alloy-shod Audi than crossing a minefield wearing diving flippers, is utterly usable, tightening up the body roll but pliant in town. Not just bearable, but actually comfortable. See what I mean about this new S4 rounding off its sharp edges?. Blah blah usability, everyday comfort – where’s the entertainment? Steady on. The S4 can play the fool, but you’ll need another option – the sport differential. In addition to the S4’s standard-fit ability to brake its inside wheels in a corner, the active differential sends power to the outside rear wheel, tickling the best from a drivetrain which apparently sends 60 per cent of power rearwards in normal driving. The result is a fast Audi that feels nicely neutral in the corners, and will actually tighten its line and squirm out of tight bends overspeeding the rears, before squatting down on its malleable suspension and sling-shotting past that pesky hot hatchback into a new county. That sounds like fun… It is. The S4 offers a very sensible sort of high performance, but a rewarding one – that warm, reassuring sense one hundred per cent of its power can be deployed one hundred per cent of the time. And it’s not as one-dimensional as Audis of old if you’re prepared to lean on it hard enough. This is still an S-car after all: a sported-up Audi rather than the bespoke tuning of Quattro GmbH, better known as the RS division. Ultimately, it doesn’t feel entirely special. But what a superb bit of kit it’d be to live with come rain or shine. Wonder how those RS guys feel about this S4’s ability to easily keep tabs on a flat-out V8 RS4? How much? Audi doesn’t know yet. At the time of writing Audi is still deciding UK spec levels (LED lights and 18s will be standard, the clever diff, adaptive suspension and Virtual Cockpit all optional) so prices will rise from the outgoing car’s £41k to around £43k, we reckon. It feels more than classy enough inside to justify that, and 1510 litres of boot space is a handy deal-sweetner.
£29,080 – £46,940
The 3-Series Saloon leads in its sector. Guess what? So does the Estate - bigger and better than ever
£31,785 – £77,713
Classy, sensible and easy to live with. Not the most exciting small estate on sale, but possibly the most well-rounded