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Audi's newest S4 proves that power and fuel economy are not mutually exclusive. Pushed by upcoming European and U.S. regulations covering CO2 emissions and fuel economy, the company created a 2010 Audi S4 that delivers exciting performance, everything you would expect from an Audi S, and very reasonable fuel economy.
The new S4 gets rid of the previous version's 4.2-liter V-8 in favor of a supercharged 3-liter direct-injection V-6, giving it much better fuel economy with no real loss of power. The new S4 also benefits from Audi's improvements to its Quattro all-wheel-drive system, its Nvidia-powered 3D navigation system, and Bang & Olufsen audio quality, along with other features making it a créme de la créme tech car.
Talking to a car
Heading toward our favorite Northern California driving roads (think a lonely road winding through rolling hills covered in green fields), we pushed the voice command button and said, "I need gas." Immediately, the navigation system went to work, responding with a list of nearby gas stations. Glancing down at the list, we merely had to say the line number for our preference, and the navigation system guided us off the freeway toward a full tank of gas in preparation for an afternoon of hot driving.
Beyond finding gas stations, Audi has incorporated other natural speech voice commands into the S4's cabin electronics. Most usefully, you can tell it to call Joe, and if you have a Joe in your phone's contact list, the car will dial the associated phone number. Other new voice commands include, "I'm hungry" and "I need cash," each activating different point-of-interest searches (rather than popping a pastrami sandwich or a bundle of cash in your lap).
Downtown San Francisco looks incredible on the S4's navigation system.
The navigation system itself showed us an incredibly detailed 3D map of downtown San Francisco, rendering all buildings and even texturing a few. Audi launched this new navigation system, which uses an Nvidia graphics chip to draw the buildings, in the Q5. Out of the city, the map shows the topographical features of those rolling hills toward which we were heading. This is a car a geographer would love.
Live traffic is also a feature of this navigation system, along with the capability to dynamically route around bad traffic. In fact, the only thing we don't particularly like about it is the destination-entry screen, which lacks an aesthetic touch.
When purchasing an S4, you are faced with four choices: Premium Plus or Prestige, with each trim giving the option of six-speed manual or seven-speed automated manual transmissions. Our car was a Prestige model, which not only brings in the navigation and voice control systems, but also adds a 14-speaker 505-watt Bang & Olufsen audio system.
Believe us, Prestige is the way to go, as the audio system delivers a very clean and balanced sound. We found that the bass was sharp without being thumpy, and the highs showed nice separation. The system seemed to favor midranges, making vocal tracks shine.
A 505-watt Bang & Olufsen audio system comes standard in the Prestige trim.
As for the transmission, the high-tech choice would have been the seven-speed automated manual, Audi's newest dual -clutch gearbox, but we had the six-speed manual. We didn't have any regrets about this gearbox, though, as it shifts with silky precision, proving a perfect partner for the supercharged V-6.
This is one responsive, yet subtle, engine. Making 333 horsepower and 325 pound-feet or torque, it should make a throaty growl as it pushes the small S4 to 60 mph in less than 5 seconds, but instead it purrs with the sound of precisely engineered German parts interacting. All you hear is a slight whoosh from the supercharger squeezing power from the relatively small-displacement direct-injection engine.
We didn't miss the basso profundo of a bigger engine; we were too busy being thrilled by the speed or looking for the right lines through the curves. Of course, the S4 comes standard with Audi's Quattro all-wheel-drive system, along with a sport-tuned suspension that kept it composed during hard cornering.
But this car wasn't all it could be. Audi keeps some of the performance gear on the options list. Our car didn't have the available rear sport differential, which vectors torque to the outside rear wheel in a turn, nor did it have Audi's Drive Select feature, which includes an active suspension and sport settings for the engine and steering.
As it was, our S4's suspension provided a nice ride in normal driving and mostly counteracted body roll in the corners. It didn't stay as flat as it would have with an active suspension, but still allowed us to carry a lot of speed through the corners. In this way, our S4's handling felt slightly retro, with a little looseness when it got stressed by inertial forces in the turns.
We were impressed that, after a good bit of city, freeway, and performance driving, the average fuel economy was 21.3 mpg. Most sports cars of this caliber would be down around 16 or 17 mpg. The EPA rates the S4 at 17 mpg city and 28 mpg highway.
The center display on the instrument cluster tries to help you economize by indicating the appropriate gear for the current speed, but we got tired of trying to follow its guidance when it said the car should be in sixth gear at 40 mph. We like a little more ready power than what's available with that ratio.
The instrument cluster display lets you choose music from an attached iPod.
That center display, a color LCD between speedometer and tachometer, offered a lot of control in conjunction with the steering-wheel-mounted controls. At the push of a button it switches between trip, navigation, phone, and audio displays. We had full control over an iPod plugged into the car with the center display and steering-wheel buttons. Likewise, we could thumb through a paired phone's contact list, all without having to touch the console-mounted controls for what Audi calls the Multimedia Interface.
We did need to look to the center LCD for the back-up camera, which has long been a high-point in Audis. It not only shows distance lines, but trajectory lines also curve around as you turn the wheel, showing where the car will go when backing up. The next step, which a few other automakers have already incorporated, would be an around-view monitor, but that technology is of debatable usefulness in a small sedan.
When we first got onto the freeway in the S4, we lamented the lack of a blind-spot warning system, but checking the option sheet later, we saw it is available, as is adaptive cruise control, two high-tech driving aids that would make a nice addition to the S4's equipment roster--the latter especially if you take long road-trips.
Though Audi's sport brand falls short of the BMW's M or Mercedes-Benz's AMG, there is little that will disappoint in the 2010 Audi S4. It is a thoroughly civilized car that happens to offer exciting performance. We give it a top score for performance, as the supercharged engine gives you speed when you want it, yet doesn't drain the tank after 100 miles of driving. Audi offers the high-tech seven-speed dual-clutch transmission for quick shifts, and the Drive Select package gives it modern handling technology.
It earns almost as high of a score for cabin tech, a rating propelled upward by the rich maps in the navigation system. The Bang & Olufsen audio system helps that rating, as well as the next-generation voice command system. We like that adaptive cruise control and blind spot detection are available, but Audi stops short of more esoteric cabin tech such as drowsiness warnings or night vision.
The only real flaw we found with the S4 was in the design of some of the input screens for navigation and phones. The usability of the instrument cluster display gave it a design boost, and the overall look of the car is distinctly Audi.
|Model||2010 Audi S4|
|Power train||Supercharged direct injection 3-liter V-6|
|EPA fuel economy||18 mpg city/27 mpg higway|
|Observed fuel economy||21.3 mpg|
|Navigation||Standard hard drive-based with traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Disc player||MP3 compatible single CD|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||Onboard hard drive, SD Card, USB drive, auxiliary input, satellite radio|
|Audio system||Bang & Olufsen 505 watt 14 speaker|
|Driver aids||Adaptive cruise control, blind spot warning, back-up camera|
|Price as tested||$51,575|