Some years ago, a change was introduced to the Company Car Policy that has governed the choice of cars I have had ever since I started working. Rather than being confined to a brand new car, it became possible to take on the balance of a lease of a car returned by someone leaving the company. Not only did this mean that you were no longer making a four year decision, but theses returned cars were generally offered at a significantly reduced cost compared to a new one, and as the rule that we could contribute as much as the company did towards a car still applied, then in effect this opened up the possibility of getting a more expensive car than that to which you had been previously entitled. Whilst a three year old Vectra that had been around the clock was hardly much of an attraction to anyone, the more unusual and costlier cars that appeared on the list that was published on a weekly basis generally were, and you had to move fast if you saw something that you wanted. I’ve taken advantage of this option ever since returning my much-loved Alfa 164 in mid-1999. In 2003 the timing was perfect as about 30 minutes after receiving the order package to replace the very short-term Volvo C70 I was driving, a new list of available cars appeared, with a 30 month old Audi S4 on it. Some weeks later I would find out that at least one colleague whom I knew well had seen it and hesitated a couple of hours, by which time he had found it had been taken. By me. It proved to be an excellent car, and I loved driving and owning it, finding little to fault at all. Just one thing troubled me. When it came to replacement time, due in early 2005, the price of a new one was out of reach, and it would be a question of luck as to whether anything like it would appear on the list of returned cars, but extremely unlikely, as the S4 was not exactly a big seller. Not long before the car replacement order package was due, though, I secured a promotion, which brought with it a big enough increase in my monthly allowance, which meant that it was now possible to order a new S4, after all. Question was: now I could have one, was that what I actually wanted?
During the autumn of 2004 I drew up a short list of cars to try to test, able to borrow most of them for a weekend to try to find the answer. It was quite a mix, and certainly one which puzzled the Subaru garage from whom I borrowed an Impreza WRX who, when he asked what else I was considering, did not really think that a Peugeot 406 Coupe and an Audi S4 were obvious rivals to their car. Sourcing the Audi proved to be the most difficult, as this was the time when the B6 generation A4 range was in transition to the B7. Whilst it was likely – and indeed my fervent hope – that if I went down the Audi route, the car I would get would be a B7 generation car, the S4 versions had not reached the UK, and most of the B6 generation demonstrators had been sold on. In the end, Audi’s central demo fleet came up with an S4 Cabriolet for me to try. It was delivered to the office whilst I was elsewhere, and I recall getting the message from the location security guard, who had supervised its parking in the basement car park, saying that it “sounded rather good”. He was not wrong. Any V8 and underground car park tends to sound rather special, and with the test car being a Cabrio, and despite the fact that it was late October, I had put the roof down before starting it, this one sounded particularly beguiling. I knew even before I had reached second gear that this was the car for me. And that weekend loan just confirmed it. All the goodness of the B5 generation I had been so enjoying was preserved, and this one was even better in terms of interior finish, quality of the gearchange and that engine. Whilst I love the Cabriolet, I was unsure whether the limited rear seat space and relatively small boot were things I could live with on a daily basis, and of course it was quite a lot more money. I placed my order for a saloon version as the loan car was disappearing back from whence it came, the following Monday morning. And then waited. And waited. Eventually, I got a delivery date of early March, and sure enough, just a few days after the 05 plates became available, my car was due to be delivered to our Bedfont Lakes location. That proved to be a long day, not just for me, but also the colleague who was buying my old S4 off the leasing company, but eventually, around 4pm in the afternoon, a transporter arrived with my car on it. It was the first B7 generation S4 I had seen and indeed one of the first in the country. In Brilliant Red, it looked fantastic, and I was sure that I was going to enjoy the next three years in my first brand new car for a while.
What distinguishes the S4 from other A4 model Audi is the fact that for this and the related B6 generation car, Audi have shoe-horned their 4.2 litre V8 engine under the bonnet. It is quite a tight fit, but it is all there, and the result is access to a 344 bhp unit, a significant increase on the 276 bhp of the old twin turbo 2.7 litre V6 of the B5 generation cars. It is an excellent engine. Its brilliance is apparent from the moment when you fire it up, as you hear all 8 cylinders waking up with a pleasing and smooth reverberation which never failed to delight me. Once underway, the engine continues to impress. It really will do what you want, with voracious amounts of power at your disposal. Sadly, of course, traffic laws mean that you cannot exploit even half of its speed potential legally in the UK (the car is limited, like many German performance cars to 155 mph) but thanks to the copious amounts of torque, 310 lb/ft of it, you can tootle along at low speed then put your foot down and experience impressive levels of acceleration regardless of the gear you are in. There is no lag, as there are no turbos here, just a wall of available torque from low speed to “oops, I’d better ease off”. You won’t mind using the gears to help out, as this car has probably the best change quality I’ve ever experienced on a VW Group car, with any trace of notchiness or baulkiness finally banished completely, even reverse engaging readily. There are six forward gears. The clutch is light, and the bite point is where you would expect. Whilst the engine does make that nice rumble sound when you start it up, in everyday motoring, it is nicely muted, only evident as you flex your right foot. And you will do that some of the time, just for the aural pleasure it brings. But on a motorway, at a steady speed, the noise is well suppressed and there is little in the way of contribution from the road or the wind, either. I was a little apprehensive about the fuel economy prospects of this car, as press reports suggested that the overall consumption may well start with a 1 rather than a 2. Perhaps a consequence of the fact that a lot of my mileage has been at steady speed on the motorway, I have generally seen between 25 and 30 mpg on any given trip, and having left one of the trip computers unreset since new can report that the overall average to date is 26.4 mpg. Urban motoring will see this figure drop quite significantly, and now matter how hard I try, it is hard to get much beyond about 32 mpg, but 26 is a figure I can live with as a price to pay for the glorious 8 cylinders.
So far, so good. And I doubt that there would be much dissent from the motoring press in my assessment so far. However, considering the other driving dynamics, this is where their view and mine start to diverge. They will complain about understeer and nose-heavy handling and a feeling of woodenness, phrases that they apply to every Audi, before they return to veneration of the BMW rival. It may well be the case that driven in extreme the things they complain about would become apparent, but they absolutely do not when driving on public roads. The Servotronic power steering is well-judged with sufficient feel for my tastes, so that I always felt that I had a good idea what they steered wheels were going to do. There is little body roll and masses of grip, with the standard quattro all-wheel drive meaning that you have traction from all four corners of the car. Bends are to be relished, too, with the Audi proving fun to punt along a twisty road. The only penalty comes from the ride which is on the firm side. I must have quickly got used to it, but it certainly occasioned comment every time my parents rode in the car, with them finding it too hard for their tastes. The chassis is lowered 20mm compared to an A4 and there is sport suspension specific to the model. My car rides on the standard 18″ alloys. Larger 19″ ones are available as a cost option, and I cannot imagine that they improve matters. There are powerful brakes which are clearly engineered to cope with far sterner tests than you are likely to encounter in everyday motoring. There is a conventional pull-up handbrake between the seats. This Audi is also easy to see out of and not hard to manoeuvre. There is quite a stubby tail, so although you can’t see it, it was not hard to judge where it might be, and the door mirrors give a decent field of view to the sides.
If the driving dynamics were not enough to sell this Audi to you, then the interior might just clinch the deal. I can think of no better quality on offer at this price point, or indeed were you to spend considerably more money. The materials used are all superlative, and the way they are all put together is exemplary. Being an S model, you get carbon fibre inlays around the gearlever and across the width of the dash, but otherwise it is an all black finish, with just very subtle chrome highlights, and the S badging on the steering wheel and in the instrument cluster. Combine this with black upholstery and the wisdom of specifying a sunroof for added light into the cabin becomes even more apparent. Everything feels of high quality to the touch, with a precision to all the switches and knobs and the leather-wrapped steering wheel is particularly pleasing to hold. The dash very much follows the Audi house style. A curved binnacle houses the dials, with the large rev counter and speedo joined by smaller fuel level and water temperature gauges outside them, and a central area used for the trip computer displays, which you cycle through by pressing a button on the lower edge of the instrument cluster. There are S markings in the rev counter. The graphics are clean and clear to read. Stock VAG Group column stalks are used for indicators and wipers and the lights operate from a rotary dial on the dash to the right of the wheel. In the centre of the dash, below the air vents you get pop-out cupholders and then the audio unit. I went for the standard Audi Concert item, which includes a single CD slot and Bluetooth. There is dual zone automated climate control, with buttons for this below the audio unit, leaving space at the bottom of the centre stack for a small cubby area. If you upgrade the audio and add navigation, the unit is deeper, so the climate controls are mounted lower down and you lose this cubby area.
The seats of my car are trimmed in Nappa leather, which has a wonderful soft feel to it, and a smooth surface which still looks good even after a couple of years and 50,000 miles. Adjustment of the Recaro-designed seats is all electric with the added benefit of a pull-out bolster for extra under-thigh support for anyone with particularly long such bones. That is not me, but even so, I found the seat to be very comfortable, and combined with a telescoping steering column, easy to get the optimum driving position. I do a lot of long journeys in the car, but they never really feel to be so, such is the comfort as well as the other attributes of the car.
When Audi switched to the B6 generation car, increasing the amount of space in the back was one of the objectives, and there is more room here than there was in my old B5 generation car. It is competitive by class standards, but still not overly generous. If you set the front seats well forward, as I do to suit my short legs, then there is decent legroom, but set them well back and there is not that much space for the longer of leg who may wish to sit here. There is quite a pronounced central tunnel, so a third occupant would need to sit with their legs astride this, and as the cushion is more obviously shaped for two, then you would be better considering this a four seater with space for an occasional or smaller fifth occupant. Head room is sufficient, and there is a drop-down central armrest.
The boot is a good size. The larger wheels of the S4, and the fact that there is a full-size spare to stow under the boot floor means that there is a very slightly uneven floor, though you would barely notice this. There is space under the floor for a few odds and ends. and there is a well to the nearside behind the rear wheel which I found useful for things like the ice scraper and a bottle of water. If you want more carrying capacity, the rear seat backrests are asymmetrically split and fold down to give a much longer load bay. There is also a ski flap which goes through the central armrest area. Inside the cabin, the glovebox is a decent size and there are pockets on all the doors. As well a cubby area in front of the gearlever, there are a couple of separate recesses in the centre console. Rear seat occupants get stowage nets on the back of the front seats.
Until the arrival of the RS4, the S4 sat at the top of the extensive A4 range. Available in all three body styles of saloon, Avant and Cabriolet, visually it is not that different from the regular A4 models, with the slightly flared wheel arches, Avus-designed 18″ alloys, quad exhaust pipes and the silver door mirrors being the easiest recognition points. That subtle visual change over the cooking models is all part of the appeal to many of Audi’s customers, me included. A lot of the extra cost over the top spec A4 is going on the mechanicals, so from an equipment point of view whilst you are getting a car that is nicely finished you are largely getting no more kit than you will fit in an S-Line and there is a lot more you could spend on options if you were so minded. I limited my incursions to the extras catalogue to the electrically operated tilt/slide glass sun roof and silk nappa leather upholstery. Available options include a palette of metallic paint finishes, larger 19″ alloy wheels, a multi-tronic automatic gearbox, an upgraded Bose sound system, satellite navigation, a solar sun roof which links to the car’s ventilation system and Xenon lights which when combined with a link to the car’s cornering are branded as adaptive lights.
Whereas most of my test cars are with me often only for a day, and certainly rarely more than a week, I’ve been driving this one for over a couple of years at the time of writing, so I can pass comment on reliability in a way that you rarely can for a one-day rental car. It’s not been perfect, sadly. The biggest challenge has been with the ignition coils, a problem which has bedevilled all VAG Group cars of this vintage, as I found out when chatting to the Audi roadside assistance guy who came to replace one of them, who told me that they were replacing 1000 a week. He had the right one on board, so it was a quick job once the laptop was plugged into the OBD and it advised which one was making my car feel intermittently like a 7 cylinder machine. Other issues included an issue with the climate control with an ambient temperature sensor which decided it was cold on some of the hottest days of the year and a stone-punctured radiator. This may not entirely be the car’s fault, but it has two wing-mounted radiators for extra cooling and the problem is quite widely reported, so beware. I was also warned to check the oil levels regularly, as the car does burn enough that it cannot last between service intervals without a top-up. That is not that easy unless you have a funnel, as the oil filler is on a slant on the side of the engine. Thanks perhaps to the number of motorway miles I’ve done, tyre life has proved good, with around 25,000 miles per set being achieved. Replacement of the tyres as a set of four is recommended and you should prepare for the fact that each tyre is not cheap! At least as a company car, this was something included in the monthly contributions to the lease cost so I was somewhat insulated from it.
I signed up for a three year lease on this car, which means that its replacement is due in March 2008 and hence the job of selecting what that might be will come around the turn of the year. It’s not going to be easy, as this car has met my requirements pretty much perfectly. It is just the right size, having space for passengers and luggage when I need it, without being too hard to park or take on narrow country roads, it is beautifully finished inside, and has all the essentials covered from an equipment point of view. More importantly, the V8 engine proved that you can have something this big and with such an aural sound track without paying too high a price tag at the fuel pumps. Fix the ride and eliminate the reliability niggles and it would be pretty much a perfect car. It would be tempting to get another one. But that is unlikely. A new B8 generation car is due later in the year, and everything suggests that although there will be an S4 version, it won’t be on the market in time, so I will have to find something different. Whatever that turns out to be is going to be a hard act to follow.