Subtle cosmetic add-ons don't reveal all of the 2014 Audi S4's performance credentials, but one trip around the block in this supercharged sedan is all the convincing most drivers will need.
The S4 performance version of the pedestrian A4 has remained relatively unchanged since the current generation's introduction as a 2010 model, though it got some touch-ups in 2013, including redesigned bumpers, grille, hood, headlamps and LED daytime running lights. Changes for 2014 are minor, but important things like the 333-horsepower, supercharged 3.0-liter V-6, performance-tuned all-wheel drive and an S4-specific sport suspension continue to offer a well-rounded performance package.
The S4 isn't a racy sports sedan that begs to be driven on the track. It's more of a casual experience, perfectly appropriate for back-road fun and the occasional blast down the highway, where the immediacy of the supercharged V-6 never disappoints. Tipping our S4 test vehicle's fun scale into the red was the standard six-speed manual transmission, which is the only way I want to experience the S4. A seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission is optional.
Competitors are more along the lines of a BMW 335 with M Sport package than the track-ready M3, or a Lexus IS 350 with F-Sport package instead of the V-8-powered IS-F. Audi's coupe version of the S4, the S5, has a higher-performance RS5 version that competes on a similar level as the BMW M3 sedan and M4 coupe, but Audi's sedan has no such variant. Compare the S4 versus its rivals here, and S4 models over the years here.
The S4 comes in two trims, the Premium Plus, starting at $48,995 (including destination), while Prestige models start at $54,895 and include adaptive front lighting, navigation, blind spot monitoring and a Bang & Olufsen stereo in addition to the Premium Plus' standard equipment, which you can see in detail here.
Exterior & Styling
The S4's appearance differs very little from a bare-bones A4. It's even harder to distinguish on the road now that all upper A4 trim levels include an S Line style package with unique front and rear bumpers, side skirts and door sills that nearly match the S4's look. The S Line package can even be had on base A4 models.
On the S4, an available Black Optic package costs $1,300 and is a must; it increases the car's menacing factor with a high-gloss black grille and gloss-black window trim, plus stand-out, 19-inch Rotor-design wheels in Titanium finish and body-colored side mirrors that replace the standard imitation aluminum ones. The package is also available on the A4. On the S4 I drove, the Black Optic package really set off the Misano Red exterior. In fact, stepping out to the Cars.com parking garage to pick up the S4 for the first time — not knowing what color and wheels to expect — the S4 elicited an audible "Nice" as I walked over, even if it wasn't very distinguished from an A4 configuration.
How It Drives
The S4 makes everyday driving entertaining. The supercharged V-6 is perfectly matched to the hefty 3,858-pound S4 and is especially enthusiastic with the standard six-speed manual transmission. The manual gearbox works harmoniously with the engine and standard all-wheel drive, with a smooth shifter and clutch pedal offering an accurate feel that's neither too fluffy nor too firm, and always precise. The whole driving experience is refined and livable, whether you're poking through traffic or banging gears on an onramp.
Audi's Drive Select is newly standard on the S4 for 2014 and gives individual control of steering, engine, adaptive suspension (when equipped) and automatic transmission (also when equipped) responsiveness, adjusted through the Multi Media Interface controller. There's also a Drive Select button just above the climate controls; it's a much-needed addition considering how cumbersome it can be to call up the dedicated Drive Select menu then change settings within the MMI display. In the manual-transmission S4 I drove (which lacked the available Adaptive Dynamic Suspension), Drive Select adjusted just accelerator sensitivity and the amount of electric power steering assist. It was nice to dial in a little heftier steering feel for Audi's traditionally over-boosted steering.
Push the accelerator pedal down, and power is instantaneous in the way you'd expect from a supercharged engine. Even as power builds, the 3.0-liter never falls off at higher engine speeds. Then there's the fantastic sound — it's almost exotic, though the engine/exhaust volume could use a few cranks up. Zero to 60 mph happens in 4.9 seconds. The manual transmission and all-wheel drive let you manage power off the line — a sometimes precarious task in powerful all-wheel-drive cars with manual transmissions.
A key component of how the S4 puts power to the ground is Audi's Quattro all-wheel drive, configured for the S4 with a rear bias of 40:60 front/rear, giving the S4 a more rear-wheel-drive-like feel. Paired with the optional $1,100 Sports Differential — which transfers more power to the outside wheel during cornering, for added traction — the S4 is playful. Worth $1,100? Yes, but I'd expect a sports sedan to include something as valuable as the Sports Differential standard. Also, my impressions come with a caveat: My test car was equipped with winter tires, which didn't have the roadholding ability that the standard summer tires would provide. With the winter tires, I could coax the S4's rear end into sliding around, though the car's default move with these tires was understeer.
One option not equipped on my S4 was a $1,000 adjustable-firmness Adaptive Dynamic Suspension, which you can probably live without for casual daily driving, as the standard sport-tuned suspension already has an exceptionally well-balanced blend of ride comfort and handling. Another caution, though: Those soft winter tires could have been playing tricks on me; a stiffer sidewall summer tire could easily change the ride quality. You'll have to see for yourself.
Fuel economy for the manual transmission S4 is rated 17/26/20 mpg city/highway/combined, while the dual-clutch automatic is rated a bit better, at 18/28/21 mpg. For a supercharged engine, these numbers are respectable; many vehicles in the segment are turbocharged or naturally aspirated, which typically offers an efficiency advantage. The turbocharged BMW 335i xDrive is rated 20/28/23 mpg with the manual transmission, while the naturally aspirated 2014 Lexus IS 350 V-6 with all-wheel drive is rated 19/26/21 mpg with its automatic transmission.
Audi's interiors are predictable, in a good way. They deliver a modern blend of quality and style that leans toward the mechanical side of design, and you'll always find nice materials on the inside. The S4 is no exception, even though its insides haven't changed much since 2010. New for 2014 is an available layered aluminum/black wood inlay for the center console, door and dashboard trim. This $1,100 trim package is a unique addition that stands out against the carbon fiber or piano-black pieces common across the segment.
The S4's standard sports seats are covered in leather and suede-like Alcantara material; they're heated and completely comfortable. There's not much room to spare in the small backseat.
Ergonomics & Electronics
I have a love-hate relationship with Audi's knob-based MMI control system for multimedia and car functions. I always need a few runs to the grocery store to acclimate to Audi's quadrant-based system, but once I do it's always easy to use while driving because the controller is within easy reach. In the S4, it's mostly a positive experience because Audi includes the Drive Select button for a quick change of driving modes. Other Audis don't have the Drive Select button, even though they should.
Cargo & Storage
A smallish 12.4 cubic feet of cargo space is very usable, as it's unobstructed by intruding wheel wells. Still, the trunk is smaller than the BMW 3 Series sedan's 13.0 cubic feet and the Lexus IS 350's 13.8 cubic feet. The Audi's rear seats fold down for additional cargo room, if needed.
The 2014 Audi S4 received the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's highest, five-star overall crash-test rating, but it has not been tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. A backup camera is optional, which is disappointing given the car's high entry price. A blind spot warning system, called Side Assist, is available as a $500 stand-alone option or included in the Prestige trim for $54,895. Backseat side-impact airbags are also optional. A backup camera is included when the S4 is equipped with a navigation system, which comes standard on the Prestige and is optional on Premium Plus S4s for $3,050.
See more safety features here.
Value in Its Class
The moderately equipped S4 we tested totaled $56,045. On top of that, there's still room for more than $10,000 worth of options in the form of the Prestige Package, Driver Assist package, automatic transmission, adaptive suspension, backseat side-impact airbags, Nappa leather upholstery and more. For my tastes, I tested the perfect S4. That is, before options put the price into an area the S4 isn't equipped to mess with: BMW M3 territory.