Reacquainting ourselves with the Audi S4 – on track

Audi Sportscar Experience.

Audi Sportscar Experience.

The racetrack isn’t normally a place you would spend a lot of time in a high-performance sedan like the Audi S4. Oh sure, it’s fast, with 333 hp from its supercharged, direct-injected V6 engine and available seven-speed S Tronic transmission. It goes around corners pretty well, too, thanks to 19-inch wheels, high-performance tires, and lowered, stiffened suspension. But with its powerful sound system, luxurious interior, and full suite of infotainment gear, you sense it’s designed more for making the commute interesting and fun, than setting ultimate lap times.

You’d be right; it is. It does all of that. Drive it along a winding California coastal road, and it’d be a pretty comfortable ride – using Audi Drive Select, you can set up the car for comfort, riding out the bumps smoothly, the steering effort light and easy. As the road starts to twist and turn, you can dial up more aggressive settings and start to enjoy the chassis and engine, the car’s mood sharpening right along with you. But you’re always cosseted by the gorgeous two-tone power seats, and you are still in a high-performance sedan, something to drive enthusiastically to work, but probably not something bred for the racetrack.
But guess what? You’d be hugely surprised at how well this car performs outside its natural habitat.
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Racetracks are fun, and almost all modern cars will perform well on one over the course of a few laps. After all, manufacturers hone their best models on the track, using them to simulate in a few hours the abuse they’ll experience over the course of a few years. But outside of a handful of elite vehicles designed to spend their time on a circuit, most road cars start to get progressively less fun the more laps you turn. Their brakes, which would never fade in road use, start to wilt, the pedal travel getting longer and longer. The tires and suspension start to protest. And you just get the sense that, while this is all a lot of fun for you, that the car isn’t enjoying it quite as much.
Which is what makes the S4 special. At the Audi Sportscar Experience at Sonoma Raceway a few weeks ago, we spent all day pounding on one, and it kept coming back for more. From a whole morning doing standing starts, slaloms and high-speed cornering exercises on a sticky tarmac paddock, to hours of high-speed lapping on the 12-turn, 2.5-mile circuit, the S4 took a licking and kept on ticking. And in fact, it felt better and better the more, and harder, we drove it. The Pirelli P Zero tires warmed up but never started to feel flaky; the brake pedal remained resolutely firm; and the powertrain dealt with the sweltering temperatures without skipping a beat. It was an impressive performance from a car whose looks convey conservatism rather than determination, and whose on-paper stats belie what it’s really capable of.
Audi Sportscar Experience.

Audi Sportscar Experience.

Technology plays a huge part in making the S4 a competent track car. Direct injection and supercharging mean that the 90-degree six’s power is right there when you ask for it, with no turbo lag (but the fuel consumption benefits of running with six, rather than eight, cylinders). The S Tronic gearbox means you’ll never botch a manual change, the car’s ability to deliver the right gear never hampered by the driver’s fatigue or flagging concentration. Quattro all-wheel drive channels the power to all four wheels, meaning you don’t have to fight under- or oversteer if you’ve taken a turn properly. The unsung hero is probably the sport differential, which aggressively accelerates the outside rear, giving you incredible traction even out of the tightest corners.
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This, too, is a car that feels better the faster you go. The steering, which is well-damped and a little numb at regular speeds, weights up nicely when you’re pushing harder, and the car seems to shed weight and size the more aggressively you drive. After a few laps, you find yourself leaning really hard on the fade-free brakes, using the shift paddles to snatch lower gears, and rolling onto the throttle earlier and earlier as you build trust in its abilities.
All the while, the air conditioning is pumping, your passenger (if you have one) isn’t feeling sick, and you may even have tunes streaming out of the B&O audio system. It’s only when you roll into the pits and you feel the waves of heat wafting off the tires and brakes that you realize how fast you’ve been going. And you realize just how complete a car this is.
Audi Sportscar Experience.