Refreshing a sport sedan that was holding up just fine
There is something very Goldilocks about an Audi S4. The compact sport sedan is just the right size; the turbocharged V-6 is powerful and lusty enough to offer a thrill while still serving as a comfortable daily driver, and the Audi-caliber interior is just premium enough without dipping into a luxury coma that might threaten to lull the senses.
For the 2020 model year, the S4 gets a significant refresh—enough change to warrant a trip to Palm Springs, California, and a drive through the desert to see how the new S4 stands up.
The compact A4 family of cars is Audi’s bread and butter and comes in assorted flavors including the 2020 A4 Allroad and the S4 sport sedan. All variants of the A4 family got a significant facelift for 2020 to better align with the corporate look embodied by the Audi A6, A7 and A8.
Audi has never quite reached the top echelons dominated by Mercedes and BMW, but it carves out its own lane, distinguishing itself with stellar interiors and its ability to make vehicles that feel raw and visceral.
The 2020 S4 continues to run in that lane. Almost all the sheet metal is new. The A4 has double slats in the grille, but the S4 goes honeycomb with inserts in matte aluminum silver. The face also has larger inlets under the expressive matrix-design LED headlights from the E-Tron concept. Audi has always made distinctive lighting a priority; a fun addition here is that the headlight beam will dance around during engine startup. Both headlights and taillights offer a classy take on dynamic turn indicators with the elegant line of LEDs clearly signally which way the driver is turning. Finishing the car’s overall look are body color door handles, a trunk lid lip spoiler, and chrome quad exhaust tips.
Want to look meaner? A black optic package adds more black bits on the body and 19-inch 5-V-spoke-star wheels with summer tires. Standard wheels are 18 inches.
The powertrain is a 3.0-liter turbocharged V-6 that generates 349 horsepower and 369 lb-ft of torque. It is paired with an eight-speed automatic transmission and Quattro all-wheel drive is standard. With this latest-generation V-6, as in the larger cars in the family, the engine features auto stop/start. The standard A4 Quattro sedan has a 248-hp, 273-lb-ft 2.0-liter turbocharged I-4 with power distributed via a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission.
The power from the V-6 is not neck-snapping, but it sneaks up on you. Blink and you are exceeding the speed limit by enough that you are thankful the local authorities have not discovered the day’s drive route. Audi conservatively says the S4 will go 0-60 mph in 4.4 seconds, but the 2018 S4 we tested that did the sprint in 4.2 seconds. We look forward to seeing what our test team does with the 2020 model.
The sounds and sensations are reason enough to step up to the S4 from the A4. You feel like you are truly driving: in command, king of the road, in a semi-subtle kind of way. The engine has a highly satisfying soundtrack, especially when shifting gears, even if we didn’t get any good snorts or gurgles in Dynamic mode. Adding to the experience is steering with the right amount of weight. The driver feels connected and in charge, with a sense of having worked for that sharp turn-in and been rewarded. Dynamic steering is an option, but steering is dead-on without it. All S4s come with the three-spoke, leather-wrapped, flat-bottom steering wheel with shift paddles. Heated steering wheel is an option. Brakes offer strong stopping power without being too sensitive or jarring.
S4 buyers get a sport suspension that lowers the A4’s ride height by 23 mm, or they can opt for the S sport package, which adds a sport adaptive damping suspension, red brake calipers, and a sport rear differential. That provides better cornering as it splits the torque between the rear wheels and can direct nearly all the torque to one wheel. The pavement was relatively smooth for our drive, but there were some serious dips that could easily have caused a lesser suspension to bottom out. The S4 took them in stride.
Driver-assist systems include adaptive cruise assist with traffic jam assist, rear cross-traffic assist and top view camera. But most of the advanced systems are an option.
Inside is a cabin with a choice of 30 colors of ambient lighting. Settle into leather S sport seats with bolsters and massage, as well as extendable sun visors to better see the road you plan to carve up. There is a sunroof, and options include ventilated seats up front and heated seats in back. Moving down to a lower trim level registers barely a blip in the quality of the interior. In short, they are all darn good and for some it will come down to color and taste: red leather or black? Do you want the diamond stitch pattern to be subtle or overt? Is Alcantara on the doors enough or do you need more? We are also pleased to see that the high-end materials aren’t constrained to the front seat; rear passengers can also gaze at carbon fiber trim, stitching on the seat backs, and enjoy leather arm rests.
The S4 has the Audi virtual cockpit with two modes: sport and S Performance on the 12.3-inch display screen. In the S4, sport mode replaces classic mode as the default view, and an S Performance mode takes the place of dynamic mode, which brings the tachometer and speedometer to the front and adds a boost gauge and lap timer. There is also a color head-up display.
Audi debuted MIB 3, its latest infotainment system, with the A4. That means the S4 gets an upgrade from the 8.3-inch screen in the outgoing model that was controlled by a rotary knob, to a new 10.1-inch touchscreen. The third-generation system is 10 times faster, with crisper graphics, and it responds to natural language voice controls, so no more guessing which key words will get the machine’s attention. If I had to quibble, it would be the way the screen is propped up on the dash, not nicely integrated like it is in the new Q7 crossover.
Keeping connected is possible with USB outlets up front but adding two more for rear passengers is an option. Trying to put three people in a back seat far better suited to two is also an option in our opinion.
The S4 starts at $50,895. The model we drove ratcheted up to $62,840 with the Premium Plus package, as well as the sport, navigation, driver assistance packages, 19-inch wheels, and a few other goodies. Yes, it is a jump from a $38,395 base A4, but the price has dropped $300 and it is a solid value against a BMW M340i or Mercedes-AMG C43. The 2020 S4 is on sale now. It is a solid choice for the buyer who has done their homework and recognizes there are more than two flavors of luxury sports car.
|2020 Audi S4|
|LAYOUT||Front-engine, AWD, 5-pass, 4-door sedan|
|ENGINE||3.0L/349-hp/369-lb-ft turbo DOHC 24-valve V-6|
|CURB WEIGHT||3,850 lb (mfr)|
|L x W x H||187.5 x 72.7 x 56.2 in|
|0-60 MPH||4.4 sec (mfr est)|
|EPA FUEL ECON||20/27/23 mpg|
|ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY||169/125 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.86 lb/mile|