Review and road test of the Audi S4 (2008 - 2016)
By Jonathan Crouch
And you thought power was everything. Proof that it isn't comes with Audi's post-2008 third generation S4. Though equipped with less power than its predecessor, it proved to be significantly faster. Perhaps more importantly, it was also greener and considerably more fuel efficient. So you can have your pleasure without so much of the guilt.
4DR SALOON, 5DR AVANT (3.0TFSI PETROL)
If you want something powerful, practical, prestigious and capable of embarrassing the odd Ferrari round the Nurburgring, you tend to think of one car: BMW's M3. It's a great driving machine, but for most people most of the time, Audi reckon they can sell you one that will suit you much better: it's called the S4. Before the purists shake their heads and walk away, let us hit you with a few statistics. This 333bhp post-2008 third generation version is virtually as fast as an M3 from its era, yet is much less expensive and about 40% more economical. Plus it's better equipped and features drive to four wheels rather than two, so in the wet, the BMW driver wouldn't see which way this S4 went.
True, you have to do without the glorious V8 soundtrack common not only to an M3 from this period but also, in 344bhp 4.2-litre form, to this car's MK2 model predecessor. That was a great powerplant but even its most committed fan would have to admit that, averaging 20mpg and belching out 322g/km of CO2, it wasn't really an engine to suit these enlightened times. It was a heavy old lump too, one reason why the second generation V8 S4 wasn't appreciably quicker than its six cylinder predecessor, a car with 80bhp less. Hence Audi's need back in 2008 to revert to V6 power for this MK3 model. With a supercharged 333bhp 3.0 TFSI engine developed for the larger A6, the Ingolstadt brand had just the engine for the job. This car sold until a new generation S4 was launched in late 2016.
What You Get
This post-2008 supercharged S4 doesn't shout about its performance. Yes, there's a bodykit but it's an understated one, combined of course with sports suspension (which sees the ride height lowered by 20mm) and gorgeous 18-inch alloy wheels.
Inside, the story is the same, with supportive sports seats which look the part without clamping you in as if you're about to start the Nurburgring 24 hour race. Everything of course is beautifully put together, with an expensive feel that's emphasised by the beautiful leather and Alcantara that's standard on the seats, plus there's brushed aluminium dotted around the cabin and original buyers had the choice of carbon, birch wood or stainless steel mesh for the trim. And of course, this is an inherently practical performance car, with class-leading interior space, especially for rear seat passengers who get decent amounts of head and shoulder room, though legroom might be slightly at a premium for taller passengers stuck behind lanky drivers.
Luggage capacity is another S4 virtue. The 480-litres offered by the saloon version is significantly more than a 4-door BMW M3 and, unlike Audi, BMW doesn't offer an estate model of its performance flagship, so you'll have to go elsewhere to match this S4 Avant's 490-litre cargo bay, the capacity of which rises to 1430-litres with the split-folding rear seats flattened.
What to Look For
Very little goes wrong with typical post-2008 S4 models; that's one of the reasons why people buy them. Our survey revealed the odd glitch but nothing really serious. One owner had problems shifting into 2nd gear. Another had a Bluetooth 'phone streaming problem. And yet another reckoned that the brake rotors weren't up to track use. That was about it for the ownership issues uncovered by our buyer survey.
Otherwise, it's just the usual issues to look out for; scratched alloys, incomplete service records and so on. In our wider A4 owner survey on models from this era, we came across reports of things like windows creeping open, alloy wheels corroding badly, issues with the central locking mechanism, loose door handle outside trim bits and constantly high levels of humidity in the car after being parked up. Also listen out for a rattle from areas like the driver's side B pillar, dash vent and glovebox area.
(approx based on a 2013 S4 saloon) An air filter will be priced in the £17 to £27 bracket, an oil filter will sit in the £5 to £11 bracket and a radiator will be around £78, though we found pricier-branded radiators selling at £130, £170 or even as much as £220. The brake discs we came across sat in the £46 to £73 bracket, with pricier-branded discs costing between £100 and £142. Brake pads are in the £55 to £65 bracket for a set. Shock absorbers are around £35 (though you could pay £95 to £105 for pricier brands). A water ump is around £50 and a replacement mirror glass will cost between £15 and £30. Wiper blades cost in the £10 to £30 bracket.
On the Road
The first thing to say is not to worry about the 11bhp drop in power suffered by this supercharged S4 over its predecessor. The 20kg weight saving over the previous version's old V8 more than compensates, enabling this S4 to deliver a 0-62mph sprint time of 5.1s that's over half a second faster than before, all but matching BMW's far pricier V8 M3. More tellingly, thanks to nearly 440Nm of torque, the 50-75mph overtaking increment is dispatched in 4th gear in just 4.4s, which is very fast indeed. As with most German cars of this kind, top speed is limited to 155mph but take the restrictor chip out of the engine and you'd probably get well over 180mph given a clear autobahn. But we haven't got to the best bit yet. Fast Audis were always, well, fast, but they were never as rewarding to drive as they should have been. That's all in the past now, as the MK2 RS4 and R8 supercar models have proved.
This quick Audi takes a typical 'Vorsprung Durch Technik' approach to driver satisfaction, mainly due to its clever Sport Differential which can vary the amount of torque distributed to each driven wheel. Let us explain. Go into a corner too fast and in most quality cars, there's an 'ESP'-type stability programme that uses braking on the inner wheels to 'pull' your car back into shape. Here, it's a bit different. Rather than using braking, the optional 'Sport Differential' instead sends additional wheel speed to an outer rear wheel to 'push' you around the corner. The effect is a smoother, quicker and less obtrusive way of exiting a bend. Ask the buyer of the car you're looking at whether this feature was fitted from new.
So that's one part of it: the other is Audi's 'drive select' driving dynamics system - one of those set-ups that allows you to use different modes ('dynamic', 'comfort' and 'auto') to tweak steering feel, throttle response, stability control thresholds and (on auto models) gearshift timings. Rather annoyingly, 'drive select' was optional from new, though virtually all buyers specified it. More money was needed from new to get this system fitted out with adaptive damping. The 'drive select package also changes how the optional 'Sport Differential' reacts, meaning that in 'dynamic' mode for example, a determined hooligan can get the car tail-out, M3-style. Most un-Audi-like.
Even if it didn't have all this hi-techery, this car would feel inherently sharp. This is thanks in part to the way that Audi was able to mount the V6 powerplant further back in the engine bay for a 60:40 front-to-rear weight distribution that sees most of the mass residing behind the front axle line for better balance. So you can feel comfortable throwing this car around a bit if the mood and circumstance are right, safe in the knowledge that bodyroll is well controlled and that you'll almost certainly run out of courage before it runs out of grip.
Mercedes and BMW say that you've to pay a considerable amount for shattering 5 second rest-to-sixty performance. With those two brands, such speed must often also be accompanied by crippling fuel consumption and appalling, tax-heavy emissions. Audi reckon differently and in 2008, wheeled out this MK3 model S4 as perfect proof. Here's a car that makes perfect sense in such a wet country as ours. With all wheel-drive traction and a whole raft of electronic safety measures, it's effortlessly secure, offering fewer of the heart-in-mouth moments that often accompany a combination of big power, damp roads and an enthusiastic approach.
That's not to say the S4 is a fuddy duddy that's forgotten how to entertain. Learn to drive the car properly and you'll be able to use more of that power more of the time than you ever thought possible. It's so addictive that only the realisation of quite how much Optimax unleaded you've burnt per session could possibly quell the temptation to repeat ad infinitum. Overall, if you're thinking of buying a potent sports saloon of this kind from this era, say a BMW M3, a Mercedes C63 AMG or a Lexus IS-F, then the S4 is an alternative you must try. If common sense prevails once you have, it'll be a hard car to ignore.
Audi S4 (2008 - 2016) review by Jonathan Crouch