20 DECEMBER, 2016 - So we’ve driven our new B9 S4 development car for 24 hours now - the first customer car released in the UK. And of course everyone wants to know how the it feels. We’ve got a good starting place for the comparisons, as we’re coming straight out of our last-generation B8 S4 development car as our benchmark.
The big news under the bonnet is the switch from supercharger to a single turbocharger on the 3.0 TFSI EA838, plus the adoption of an 8-speed automatic gearbox replacing the old car’s dual clutch S-tronic (DSG) box. The turbo engine’s power outputs are up 20bhp over the old car to 354bhp and the new S4 weighs in at around 75kg less. So the signs are good.
In our case, performance is a slightly unfair performance comparison, as our B8 S4 is packing quite a few extra horses for our OEM+ calibration development. The new turbo engine is an interesting configuration. It has a single turbo fed by "reverse flow" heads which have the exhaust ports in the V of the engine, a similar 'hot V' arrangement to what we've already seen on the twin-turbos of the 4.0L V8 S6/S7. The manifolds for both banks are now integrated into the twin scroll turbo housing - all of which should improve spool response. This engine has been developed jointly with Porsche, with similar versions appearing in the Macan already.
Although the new engine has decent throttle response for a turbo, compared to the supercharged motor it does start to feel softer-edged towards the top end. Torque is strong in any gear, right from low revs. It’s certainly the old engine that feels the more characterful with a sharper edge to the driving experience - but for daily driving, the new engine is smooth, refined and exceptionally quiet. Only a little more exhaust burble plus the new cabin noise-generator adds a more purposeful growl than the old car offered – although we can argue about electronic noise synthesisers all day long, it undeniably sounds better under acceleration.
The new ZF 8-speed auto box is superbly good, with smooth and quick changes. Rather disappointingly, we never found the old B8’s S-tronic ‘box to be quite as surgically precise and quick-acting as we hoped it would – certainly not as whip-crack sharp as the DSG ‘box does in fast Golfs. So even if it instinctively feels like a retrograde step giving up on dual-clutch and going back to a torque-converter auto box, it actually does achieve that magic mix of being fast-acting when you want, and invisible when you don’t. Very good - and maybe the beginning of the end for the twin-clutches?
The Quattro system in the new S4 can now send 85 per cent to the rear when it needs to, which on first impressions help avoid the slightly nose-heavy feeling powering out of bends in the B8 model. A bit more time in the car on dry roads will tell us more about the on-limit handling under power; but so far, so good. The steering is light and crisper than the B8 feels, with keener turn-in and more agility than before, feeling a bit lighter on its feet than its predecessor. Brakes haul off the speed with good pedal feel, although just starting to feel slightly spongy after a few hard stops. No doubt carrying 75kg less helps with these dynamics.
Inside the car, it’s like we’ve leapfrogged several decades in one step. Think how the Back to the Future DeLorean looked when it went back to the 1955 scenes; that's the effect of switching from B8 to B9. The first thing that strikes you about the B9 S4 is the superb interior layout and sheer quality of the materials (especially those fabulous hard-backed SuperSport diamond-stitched seats in our car). Power the car up and the brilliant virtual cockpit system springs into life, along with the central wide display mounted high on the dash (is it a bit of a shame that it doesn’t power itself in and out like other high-end Audis do...?). The gadget list of Car Play and Google maps are just exceptional and a delight to use. The LED light packs turn night to day, with even the turn indicators lighting up signs half a mile ahead. We won’t get bored of this interior or gadget-count for a long while.
This all sounds like the new car is in a different league to the old B8 S4. Which it is, technologically. But is it perfect? Our only problem is that the S4 feels slightly too soft-edged, refined and, well, polite to be an invigorating enthusiast car. It’s all incredibly well-sorted and is certainly a good car packed with deep levels of engineering excellence, but it misses any sort of hard-edge to it, any sort of driving thrills. We can’t help feeling that it’s a bit more like a fast A4 than a true performance S-model. Our planned list of upgrades will undoubtedly help to turn this into the exceptional car that it clearly has potential to be.
And we can’t avoid mentioning the exterior styling can we? Sharp edged, beautifully detailed and crisply finished bodywork, certainly. But should an Audi S-model not look a little more…exciting, or different to a ‘cooking’ A4? Sure, the plastic parts are treated to brushed-aluminium finishes, but is that alone enough to please us enthusiast owners? Maybe part of the appeal of the S4 is indeed its subtlety. But you’d be hard pressed at a glance to identify it as the top of the B9 range, which seems a missed opportunity. A bit of work on the wheels and ride height on our car to give it a little attitude certainly won’t hurt.
No doubt we’ll keep discovering more about this new B9 platform over coming months. On first impressions, we’re sure that an exceptional enthusiast car is lurking just underneath the surface. Now it's our job to free it.
The hard work begins now for us – watch this space!