It happened about five months ago. I'm sitting around the house in my underwear, wondering how the hell Drew Carey puts up with all those aging Midwesterners who scream like an airplane-riding infant the second they win a bottle of Listerine. And I get a message from Jalopnik editorial fellow Chris Perkins.
It's a picture of an Audi S4 parked on a Manhattan street. But this isn't just any Audi S4: it's an S4 Avant, the station wagon model. In Audi's beautiful Nogaro Blue color. With a stick shift. And a for sale sign on it.
For those of you who don't follow the world of high-performance Audis, a Nogaro Blue S4 Avant with a stick shift is rare. A unicorn, if you will. But finding one sitting randomly on the street with a "For Sale" sign is even more unbelievable. It's the automotive equivalent of a unicorn and Bigfoot and a space alien all sitting in one room, playing poker, and then the Loch Ness Monster walks in and gets a Royal Flush.
"I thought you might be interested," Chris tells me.
In reality, very few things would interest me more. To me, a Nogaro Blue S4 Avant with a stick shift is up there with having the power to become invisible. And if I were invisible, one of the first things I would do is figure out who owns a Nogaro Blue S4 Avant, so I could steal it.
So anyway, I called the number on the "for sale" sign, and I spoke to the seller. It turned out the car had some small scuffs and scrapes, and a minor accident on the Carfax. Mileage was a little high, at 122,000. But the seller only wanted thirteen grand! For a 340-horsepower, all-wheel drive station wagon! In Audi's famous Nogaro Blue! WITH A STICK SHIFT!!! I called Chris and asked him to set up a test drive. As long as it moves under its own power, I told Chris, I want this car.
And then, that night, I went on the Audi forums and did a little research.
As it turns out, there's a reason these things have gotten so cheap. And given that this is a Volkswagen Group product, the reason is exactly what you'd expect: the engine has the propensity to blow up at any random moment, requiring a repair that costs approximately the same as one of those public art sculptures that always looks like a huge piece of discarded construction equipment, but actually symbolizes something like the struggle of the Asiatic Snapping Turtle against the tyrannical oppression of airplane noise.
Here's the background: the previous Audi S4, which came out in 1999, used a timing belt rather than a timing chain. This annoyed the hell out of everyone, because the belt had to be changed every few years, and the only way you can do this job, or any job in a 1990s Audi, is you have to remove the front end, and the engine, and all the glass, and then you have to do a little jig on the service drive that involves a socket wrench and some lederhosen. For this, you may bill 31 hours.
So what Audi did on the V8-powered S4 model, which came out in 2004, was obvious: they ditched the stupid belt for a chain, like most other automakers. And since the chain was now designed to last the life of the car, Audi decided to stick it waaaay in the back of the engine, up against the firewall. Apparently the theory was that the chain would be so robust, and strong, and dependable, that it would never have to be serviced. You can probably guess what happened next.
Yes, that's right: it had to be serviced.
You see, as it turns out, the chain itself didn't have any problems with dependability. But Audi, being Audi, decided to use substandard materials for the chain tensioners, and the cam adjusters, which are two related – and highly important – components that keep the chain turning around and around and around every time you drive the car. The result is that these parts eventually fail, requiring the replacement of virtually everything you see in this amazing image of an Audi S4 engine worryingly sitting outside an Audi S4:
Photo credit: nogaroblue.com
Apparently, what happens is this: you're cruising along one day in your 2004-2009 S4, listening to electronic dance music, thinking about how cool it would be to stance a Rolls-Royce Phantom. And all of a sudden, you hear a little rattle coming from the engine. This is the sound of your timing belt wobbling around like a toddler in a McDonald's ball pit.
Now, I know what you're thinking: this doesn't seem so bad! Hoist the engine out of the car, replace a few tensioners, and a few adjusters, and maybe a timing chain or two. And then you're good for another eight years!
Well, here's the thing: there's no such thing as "not so bad" in the world of used Audi repairs. According to this excellent summary of the problem over on the Audi forums, an Audi dealer charges around eight grand to fix this issue. You want to do it yourself? No problem. The parts alone are three grand, and then you have to consider the hours you'll spend under the car, covered in grease, wondering why the hell Audi designed this vehicle so that it could only be fixed by a creature the size of a cicada. All for a car that's only worth about fifteen grand, according to average pricing on AutoTrader.com.
Now, since this column will undoubtedly hit the Audi forums – a group of folks who haven't exactly been my biggest fans, ever since I once said that "a vehicle made entirely by chimpanzees using random car parts" would be more reliable than an Allroad – I should issue a disclaimer. This issue might not affect all V8 S4s. Some people have made it to 150,000 miles without issue. Some people have suffered the failure at 75,000 miles. But in the world of $8,000 automotive repairs, "might not" is hardly a comfort – especially since the problem could present itself at any time, without warning. Just a little rattle, coming from the engine. And that's when you know you're not buying name brand toothpaste for the rest of the year.
So I never did buy the S4 Avant that Chris found for me – and the last I heard, it's still for sale. Driving around Manhattan. "For Sale" sign in the window. With a nervous driver behind the wheel, fingers crossed that he doesn't hear the rattle.
@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars. He owned an E63 AMG wagon and once tried to evade police at the Tail of the Dragon using a pontoon boat. (It didn't work.) He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer, largely because it meant he no longer had to wear pants. Also, he wrote this entire bio himself in the third person.