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Behind the Wheel | 2010 Audi S4

Less Motor, More Grip, and It All Makes Sense

SETTLED IN The S4, once Audi’s hard-edged performance sedan, now falls in the middle position of the A4 line. More Photos »

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ONCE upon a time — say, around 2004 — the 340-horsepower S4 was Audi’s 8-cylinder answer to the mighty BMW M3. It seemed pretty crazy at the time, a little car like an A4 running around with a V-8 under the hood.

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2010 Audi S4

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GARAGE SALE The redesigned S4 carries a sticker price 9 percent lower than its predecessor. More Photos »

But soon, the Great German Horsepower Wars went nuclear: Audi rolled out the 418-horsepower RS4, and BMW introduced a V-8-powered M3. Further down the line, BMW’s lesser 3 Series models were also fortified, with the BMW 335i getting a twin-turbocharged 6-cylinder good for 300 horsepower.

This left the S4 competing against the 335i, while the RS4 took on the M3. Aligned to this revised hierarchy, the new 2010 S4 has a bit less power than the old S4, a bit more power than the new BMW 335is, and exactly the same output — 333 horsepower — as the previous-generation M3. You follow?

In accordance with its new role as the middle child of the A4 lineup, the S4 is entirely more sensible than its predecessor. The V-8 is gone, replaced by a supercharged direct-injection V-6. Also gone is the V-8’s gas-guzzler tax; with the dual-clutch automated manual transmission, the S4 is rated 18 m.p.g. in town and a relatively respectable 28 m.p.g. on the highway, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The price is down, too. With a base sticker of $46,725, this S4 costs 9 percent less than the last one. Come on down to Crazy Ferdinand’s Bargain Haus, where you will see Audi prices drop like an ill-prepared hiker from the top of the Weisshorn!

So Audi has downsized the cylinder count, lifted the fuel economy and cut the price. Is this austerity, or what?

Not exactly, because the S4 is also faster. With either the 6-speed manual transmission or the 7-speed automated manual, the S4 will sprint from a stop to 60 miles per hour in a bit less than five seconds, about a half-second quicker than the old S4 with the V-8.

In fact, this supercharged V-6 feels more potent than the V-8 although its horsepower is nominally less. That’s because you had to wind the V-8 to within a hair of the rev limiter to extract its power, while the V-6’s forced induction helps it pump out piles of accessible torque at low engine speeds. The 3-liter V-6, despite giving up 1.2 liters of displacement to the V-8, produces 325 pound-feet — 23 more than the 8-cylinder could muster. And you can feel it.

In any previous Audi review (save for those of the midengine R8), this would be the place where there’d be a caveat about the handling. Audis are based on front-wheel-drive platforms, so they have a pronounced front-end weight bias. This means that, when driven hard, the front tires will want to push wide in corners.

But I drove the new S4 on a tight road course, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that this is the first Audi sedan that truly dances. Its all comes down to the “sport rear differential,” an $1,100 option that any serious driver should consider mandatory.

As in cars like the Saab Turbo X, BMW X6 and Mitsubishi Evo, Audi’s rear differential can apportion extra torque to the outside rear wheel in corners, effectively throttle-steering the rear of the car and tucking the nose in toward your intended line. The effect is transformational. The car seems to work better the harder you drive, powering from corner to corner with supreme confidence. It feels a lot like an upmarket Evo, in that the S4 always flatters your driving skills, its trick all-wheel-drive system compensating for all but the most egregious mistakes.

I’d be interested in comparing the lap times of the 2010 S4 and the old RS4, but I’d wager that on a tight track, the S4’s muscular torque curve and superior handling would more than make up for its horsepower deficit.

When you’re not exploring the limits of physics, the S4’s interior is a comfortable place to while away a commute, with all the expensive-looking materials that are expected of a car in this price range — and especially in an Audi. On the options menu you would probably want the $1,000 “silk nappa” leather seats, which look and feel as if they belong in a six-figure sports car. The 14-speaker 505-watt Bang & Olufsen sound system is a bargain at $850.

But the navigation system (which includes a rearview camera and parking sensors) is a staggering $2,500. I’d rather buy a portable $80 GPS and hire a helicopter to follow me around and radio down when it’s all right to back up.

Based on all of the new S4’s superlatives, you’d think the old one was an ill-handling, gas-guzzling blunt instrument, the German reincarnation of a 1970 Chevelle SS 454. But the 1970 Chevelle SS had its charm. And so did the V-8-powered S4.

And that leads to my only significant gripe about the new S4 that, along with all the qualitative improvements, Audi may have inadvertently given the car a bravado-ectomy. With the demise of the 3.2 V-6 model, the S4 is now the midrange A4, slotted between the 4-cylinder 2.0T and the inevitable RS4. And it seems Audi is saving the overt aggression for the RS flagship.

For example, the flat-spoke S4 wheels that defined the first two generations (and evoked the gorgeous alloys on an old Bugatti) are gone, replaced by split-spoke wheels that look nice enough but seem a little generic. The bombastic V-8 exhaust note that consistently startled onlookers — that little car is making that noise? — is history.

And if I may, let’s have a moment of silence for the seven horsepower that are no longer with us. I know the difference is academic, but it’s symbolic: performance cars are supposed to become more powerful, not less. Given that this is a supercharged motor, Audi could easily have tinkered with the boost to arrive at, say, 341 horsepower.

Instead, it decided to take a small step back, sacrificing those seven horsepower to tell a story of sober restraint and responsibility. This seems just a little bit contrived: I like to imagine that horsepower numbers are dictated by the engineering, not the public relations.

Still, the redesigned S4 is superior to its predecessor in just about every other way. It’s quicker and less expensive, it gets better mileage and it finally offers handling that challenges BMW. But I’ll still miss that noise.

INSIDE TRACK: The S4 gets smart.

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