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2010 Audi S4: Easy to live with, obsess over, and forgive

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh  November 17, 2009 12:50 PM

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(All photos: Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com)

Everyone knows how this goes: you’re riding around western Massachusetts in a McLaren F1 — a few easy scoots to 140 miles per hour here and again — and when you finally clamber out in some parking lot to rejoin middle-class America, you come to the same conclusion. Every other car looks awful.

That goes for the electric blue Audi S4 I tell Herb Chambers to park next to at his latest BMW dealership in Sudbury. That also applies to Herb’s other McLaren, the last of the vaunted half-million-dollar Mercedes SLR roadsters, sitting nearby. His silver F1, which he graciously used to complete my entire life in a half-hour, is 14 years old. The Audi, a few months. “That’s a good car,” he said earlier about the S4, the air rushing through the McLaren’s roof intake to the snarling V-12 behind our backs.

The S4, with its silver-painted mirrors, decaled brake calipers, and curvy LEDs under the headlamps, was my smoking hot date before the F1 pulled alongside. Now I can’t take it seriously, and I’m trying not to mention its 200 m.p.h. speedometer to Herb. Clearly, Audi never imagined an encounter with (what was) the fastest production car on earth, a car that bolts to 240 in the time the S4 never hits 200. When the F1 is maxed out, the S4 is about to be tugged by an electronic leash at 155. Nice try.

This isn’t fair game, but things never are when you’re next to a McLaren. It’s like the cast of Twilight crashing a middle school dance as every guy in the cafeteria dances with himself. That’s what happens when there’s a choice.

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But like most celebrity fantasies, the McLaren F1 — now estimated at $4 million — is as close as a magazine cover or bedroom poster, except for the roughly seven Americans like Herb Chambers who can stare at the pictures and then grab the real keys. For modest upper-middle class Americans, there’s the Audi S4, which for $51,000 as-tested buys two more doors, a decent trunk, and unstoppable traction in every turn, in every season.

In September, I had the chance to pitch an S4 sideways at Pocono Raceway in the pouring rain. It never happened, despite my best newbie efforts tearing out of corners at full throttle. The combination of stability control and all-wheel drive — which sends 60 percent of torque to the rear — keeps the S4 planted without Audi’s typical nose-heavy understeer.

While the variable speed steering doesn’t firm up as quickly as it should to bolster handling confidence — it’s very light at low speeds — the accuracy and on-center feel are spot on. The S4 is balanced, safe, and makes you believe you’re Robert Pattinson flying through the forest.

On public roads, the drive is even more rewarding, thanks to a comfortable ride and a forgiving clutch with an easy engagement point. Compared to the last S4’s huge 4.2 liter V-8, the 3.0 liter supercharged V-6 in the 2010 model makes nearly the same power (333 vs. 340) and 23 pound-feet more torque (325 at 2,900 r.p.m.). Along with the S4's 100 pound weight loss, the boosted engine also boosts gas mileage to 19/27 with the six-speed manual versus the outgoing model’s deplorable 13/19. It’s a sonorous unit, too, with minimal supercharger whine and a steady load of torque that pulls past 5,000 r.p.m.

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Our tester didn’t have Audi’s fancy drivetrain options, such as the 7-speed dual-clutch automatic, an active rear differential that splits torque left and right, or the Drive Select menu to change suspension and power settings. Save yourself the money and the repair costs — you won’t need them.

The six-speed shifter treats your knuckles to precise and weighty shifts, offering the serious driver full and immediate control only a manual can provide. And the S4 already does double duty as smooth commuter car and all-out highway dominator without the need for extra controls. I’d also skip the optional 19-inch wheels and keep the 18s, which fill the wells without the rougher ride and bending that larger wheels inevitably bring.

When you’ve slowed down, the S4’s two-tone leather cockpit — with aggressive, single-piece bucket seats — is a fine place to relax, a noticeable upgrade from humdrum A4s, and makes the McLaren’s interior feel like a twin bed in a Motel 6.

But it also gives you time to notice Audi’s questionable ergonomics and materials. When the F1 was finished, McLaren engineers had so many precious metals left over they made wrenches from titanium and gold and wrapped them in tidy leather carrying cases. When the S4 was finished, Audi engineers had so many SD card readers from Best Buy they slotted them in the dash where the radios should have gone. The result is a power and volume button to the right of the shifter, seek buttons right below the armrest, and everything else controlled by a knob that operates counter-clockwise with four surrounding buttons.

Apparently Audi expects owners to delete their digital photos and load their SD cards with music. This, instead of plugging in a USB snap drive, ripping CDs to an on-board hard drive, or streaming music wirelessly via Bluetooth. You can get most of those features in new Kias, but not the S4. That the SD slots are so prominent on the dash is even more puzzling, until you get to the all-in-one HVAC knobs that adjust temperature, fan speed, fan direction, and seat heaters. Hopefully Audi didn’t waste money on patents – even the Chinese automakers wouldn’t copy this.

But how quickly — and perhaps unfairly — you forgive Audi for that mess. The S4 is so brilliant at keeping its poise and packing a big punch in nearly every situation, whether it’s slinging through a tight highway onramp or putting quietly in traffic. It is both wildly entertaining and comfortable as a daily driver. The details, like the silver chin spoiler and quad exhaust pipes, give the S4 a boutique feel that’s lacking in the similarly priced BMW 335i, even when that car has an M body kit. Second nature may not prevail for the dashboard, but it permeates all the mechanicals.

After waving Herb goodbye, I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed. Gone were the F1’s violent acceleration and mild whiplash, replaced by a half-sized engine and conveniences like power steering. But considering I could buy an S4 for myself and 79 of my closest Facebook friends for the price of one McLaren, I’d be very satisfied if the rest of my life were that disappointing.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
AAA's Car Doctor, John Paul John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
In the garage: Hyundai Sante Fe, Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible
Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
In the garage: 1968 Buick Riviera, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 1974 Honda CB450
Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on About.com. He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
In the garage: Mazda 5, Dodge Neon
George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
In the garage: Lifted 1999 Jeep Cherokee
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