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Overdrives: Audi S4 Avant in South Africa

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh  November 30, 2012 10:30 AM

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I love the Audi S4. The reason has something to do with it being: a) German, b) fast, and c) able to plow through a New England snowstorm. It's tough to get all three together in the same car.

The supercharged six-cylinder engine is velvety smooth and full of torque, the quattro all-wheel-drive keeps the the chassis stable and safe at high limits, and both 6-speed manual and 7-speed dual-clutch gearboxes are flawless. Combine that with decent fuel economy (18 city/28 highway) and a crisply tailored, high-quality design in and out, decent room, great steering ... gosh, the only things I don't like about the S4 are the tricky HVAC knobs and silly radio controls. Give me the rest.

Or rather, give me the station wagon. Drop 19-inch rims off the hot-and-heavy RS5 coupe and paint it Ferrari red. God almighty Father, give it to me.

Since I can't order an S4 like that in America, I had to drive one in South Africa some 9,000 miles away. (That's not why I came here, of course, but it ended up being a good bonus.)

Audi-S4-Avant-2013-rear.jpg

Look closely. That is not a deer.

Certainly there are more extreme station wagons on sale, like the 556-horsepower Cadillac CTS-V or the 550-horsepower Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG. By comparison, the 333 horsepower in the S4 Avant seems as punchy as flat soda. But where can you use 556 horsepower on a daily basis? And why would you want to get 11 mpg if you could?

When I stepped into the right-hand-drive S4 Avant here in Pretoria, South Africa's capital, I could have been fooled this was the even-faster RS4, which we also can't get. That's because I had been stuck with an 85-horsepower Volkswagen Polo Vivo -- the most popular car here -- which I had to floor just to get up hills. In the S4, I was in possession of nearly quadruple the power. And I'm glad it didn't have more, because I would have plowed into some diplomat's barb-wired, electrified fence. More on that later.

Audi-S4-Avant-2013-interior.jpg

No, this image is not mirrored. You get used to it, but it never feels "right."

Aside from being on the wrong side of the road with all the car's instrumentation mirrored, I felt right at home in the S4 Avant. For some reason, this car looked lower than the last red S4 sedan I drove at home, and with its quad exhaust pipes sticking out under the back hatch, I really found it hard to look away. It's gorgeous.

The 2013 S4, like the A4, is just a mild refresh. The designers carved the headlamps and grill into an even more aggressive shape. Inside, Audi added Google search and Google Earth onto its already-great MMI infotainment system, and fitted an auto start/stop feature to curb emissions at red lights. Subtle improvements, all expertly crafted.

South Africa is doing the same. In the country's post-Apartheid landscape, the government has made major progress in moving its many races to equality. They call themselves the "Rainbow Nation." The mix of cultures has made the food stupendous. The geography, weather, and array of outdoor activities would make Californians jealous. Just the other day, I went hiking on mountain trails next to wildebeest and giraffe. That's a normal day here.

The roads are mostly fantastic, too. They're better paved, lit, and marked than in New England. Sometimes there are potholes that will swallow your entire front end. But people drive much better than in Boston, which I'm now convinced is the Third World on account of its nonsensical roads and enraged, utterly stupid drivers.

But while I'm staying just a few minutes away from where Nelson Mandela made his inauguration speech as South Africa's first black president, there's still a chilling line cutting between white and black, a divide that makes Roxbury and Dorchester look like country clubs.

We don't have white areas with huge houses and gates and electrified fences and maids in one corner, while black people live 20 minutes away, in rows of tin roof shacks without running water, shoeless, begging for rides on the sides of major highways. America does not have this kind of divide. Watching it all blur by in the S4's premium leather cabin makes my stomach knot up with guilt. And sadness.

It's weird to drive an expensive luxury car, parking at cafes next to other expensive luxury cars, while at least 25 percent of the working population is unemployed, while unarmed workers get gunned down by police, while millions wrestle with HIV, the highest percentage of any country in the world. It feels a bit wrong. Yet at the same time, you'll see black policemen driving in new BMWs and plenty of black couples in the supermarket or dining in fancy restaurants in nearby Sandton. With time and better governance, more and more people will rise out of poverty all over Africa, as a recent Time Magazine article insists.

South Africa is a country in transition, not altogether fast or fair, but in transition nonetheless. The economy is plenty strong to command cars like this Audi. But I'm not sure I'd recommend South Africans pay nearly $80,000 to import this S4, considering Americans can grab one with the same equipment for about $55,000. Still, Audis, BMWs and Mercedes are among the most popular cars in the country.

In the US, we don't even have the regular A4 Avant. All we have is the A4 Allroad, Audi's empty-handed attempt at selling an upscale Subaru Outback. It's the biggest, overpriced let-down I've driven all year.

But it's a lesson, too. It's tough to get everything you want, all in a nice and easy and attainable package -- no, it's impossible. South Africans know that feeling more than we'll ever.

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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