Pros: Superstar ride/handling balance, satisfying supercharged V6, beautiful cabin with plenty of available technology, adult-friendly back seat.
Cons: Unnecessary options can inflate the already hefty price.
It's not often that we struggle to come up with a single "con" for a car, but the 2012 Audi S4 put us squarely on the horns of this dilemma. Here's the problem: for an aspect to be a con, it has to be a reason not to buy the car-a potential deal-breaker. And we're just not sure what could break a deal for the fantastic S4.
Oh, we came up with a couple kvetches when we really tried. For one thing, as capable as the supercharged V6 is, it doesn't sound very inspiring. We still miss the previous S4's mellifluous V8. Also, the S4's steering has a distinctly synthetic feel that's only exacerbated by the optional Drive Select system with its adjustable settings.
But let's be honest-with the rapid ascendance of electric power steering over the past few years, funny-feeling steering is basically the norm, at least until engineers figure out how to make EPS feel normal. And if you want a sport-sedan engine that really sounds special, you'll have to stretch for a Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG or find a used M3 (BMW doesn't even make the M3 sedan for 2012). In other words, there's nothing in the S4's class that's dramatically better on either count.
So we're left with just the S4's price, which we do find a bit dear. The S4's closest rival, the BMW 335i, is about five grand cheaper to start, and any S4 you find on a dealer lot is likely to carry a pile of expensive options that you don't need. If you can find an S4 that fits your budget, though, we can't think of a single good reason why you shouldn't snap it up on the spot. All things considered, the S4 isn't merely short on cons; it's one of the best all-around cars in the world.
Comfort & Utility
The 2012 Audi S4 sedan is offered in two trim levels: Premium Plus and Prestige.
The Premium Plus comes with 18-inch alloy wheels, xenon headlamps with LED running lights, foglamps, quad tailpipes, a sunroof, power heated front sport seats, leather/Alcantara upholstery, a tilt-telescopic steering wheel, tri-zone automatic climate control (including separate rear temperature control), Bluetooth and iPod integration, the Multi-Media Interface (MMI) system with a dash-mounted control knob and a ten-speaker audio system with an auxiliary input, an SD card reader and satellite radio.
The Prestige upgrades to 19-inch alloys with wider low-profile tires, adaptive xenon headlamps, parking sensors, a blind-spot warning system, keyless entry with push-button ignition, MMI Plus with navigation and a console-mounted control knob and a 14-speaker, 505-watt Bang & Olufsen audio system.
MMI Plus can be added to the Premium Plus as an option. Ditto the Bang & Olufsen stereo and the 19-inch alloys with more serious rubber. Silk Nappa leather upholstery and a "sports rear differential" with side-to-side power distribution are available on both trim levels. Exclusive Prestige extras include adaptive cruise control, power rear sunshades and the Drive Select system, which adds the sports differential, adaptive suspension dampers and electronic adjustments for steering, suspension, transmission (automatic models only) and throttle response.
The S4's interior is largely shared with the regular A4, which is just fine, as the A4 has one of the nicest cabins in its class. Happily, the front sport seats mostly address our criticisms of the A4's standard seats. I-n particular, lateral torso support is much improved, though we'd like to see electric adjustability for those side bolsters for a snugger fit. The tilt-and-telescopic steering wheel has a wide range of adjustability, so most drivers should have no trouble getting situated. However, drivers with long legs may find their left elbows hanging off the back of the door armrest.
As with the regular A4, the S4's ergonomics are hit-or-miss. Try to adjust the climate control's fan speed and you'll see what we mean-it's a two-step process. A dedicated fan knob that does what it's told would make on-the-fly adjustments much easier. On the bright side, we think Audi has made great strides with the MMI system's intuitiveness (see "Technology," below).
The S4's back seat is much more accommodating than it used to be, providing plenty of room for two adults to ride comfortably. Also, the outboard rear seating positions feature unusual seatback-mounted side bolsters that emphasize the car's sporty theme. The standard separate temperature control for rear passengers is another nice touch.
Trunk capacity is about average for a compact sport sedan at 12.4 cubic feet.
The S4 comes standard with iPod and Bluetooth connectivity, as well as an SD-card reader. Some may be troubled by the absence of a USB port, as the S4 won't accept flash drives or USB-connected mp3 players. In any case, the star of the show is the MMI system, which comes in two forms. In standard spec without navigation, MMI is controlled via a knob on the center stack that requires an uncomfortable reach from the driver's seat. If your budget can handle it, we recommend stepping up to the MMI Plus system, which includes navigation, a more sophisticated display screen and a control knob that's conveniently mounted precisely where your right hand rests on the center console. Audi has greatly improved the intuitiveness of MMI's menu structure, and the console-mounted knob now features a nifty joystick-like top section that aids operation.
Performance & Fuel Economy
The S4 is powered by a supercharged 3.0-liter V6 that makes 333 horsepower and 325 lb-ft of torque. Quattro all-wheel drive is standard, as is a six-speed manual transmission. A seven-speed dual-clutch automated manual with paddle shifters is also available.
If you've read our A4 review, you know that we're not too high on that car's modest power output, but the S4 obviously has no such issues. The supercharged V6 is seriously strong across the rev range, besting even the mighty turbocharged inline-6 in the BMW 335i. It's also highly refined-maybe too refined, as there's not much bark to go with this motor's bite, quad tailpipes notwithstanding. You can't go wrong with either transmission. We're partial to the conventional manual for its satisfyingly precise throws and forgiving clutch, but the dual-clutch automatic is a superstar, executing quick upshifts and perfectly rev-matched downshifts on demand.
Fuel economy is more than respectable at 18 mpg city/27 mpg highway with the manual and 18/28 mpg with the automatic.
The 2012 Audi S4 comes with standard stability control, four-wheel antilock disc brakes and six airbags (front, front side, full-length side-curtain). Rear side airbags are optional.
The S4 has not been crash-tested, but the regular A4 received four stars out of five overall in government crash-testing, including four stars for frontal impacts and five in all other categories. The independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the A4 its highest rating of "Good" in every category.
The S4 may be based on a front-wheel-drive platform, but it's more capable on a winding road or racetrack than the rival rear-drive BMW 335i, especially if you get the optional torque-vectoring sports rear differential. The S4's steering feels synthetic to our palms, but it's remarkably precise, and the supercharged engine's instantaneous throttle response is a driving aid in its own right, giving you absolute confidence when you squeeze the throttle. Despite the S4's world-class athleticism, it's got a reasonably supple ride in ordinary driving, and road noise is rarely an issue. Notably, we prefer the S4's standard suspension and steering calibrations to the artificial-feeling (and expensive) Drive Select setup.
Other Cars to Consider
BMW 335i: The new 335i isn't quite as sharp as the previous model, but it's still a very capable sport sedan. This is the S4's principal competitor.
Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG: The C63 is much more expensive than the S4 if you look at base prices, but it's easy for a well-optioned S4 to creep up toward AMG territory. If you ask us, the base C63 is more appealing than a fully loaded S4.
Infiniti G37: Although the burly Infiniti lacks the S4's refinement, it makes almost the same horsepower without the aid of forced induction. Worth considering if the price differential is significant.
Skip the Drive Select package, we say, but do spring for MMI Plus-which means you'll be looking at either a Premium Plus with the MMI Plus option, or a standard S4 Prestige. We also recommend the sports rear differential It's not that expensive as a standalone option, and driving enthusiasts will notice a real improvement.