Sporty sedans may not be getting as much consumer love as they deserve these days, but there are still a few good ones tooling around. Namely, the 2020 Audi S4. It’s still little(ish), still fun, still lithe, still puts a smile on your face. These are all things a good sport sedan is supposed to do.
Compared to the last S4 I drove, which was from 2004, the new S4 is blown and exclusively comes with two pedals rather than three. In a rapidly evolving industry, 16 years might as well be a few hundred years. I don’t expect the overall S4 philosophy to have changed much, however.
(Full disclosure: Audi flew me out to and put me up in Palm Springs, California, so I could drive the 2020 Q7 and S4. It paid for all my meals and alcohol.)
Also, as a programming note, I hear you and I also would like a wagon version. But we clearly live in a place that generally does not encourage much wagon love from automakers so we just have to deal. I don’t like it any more than you do. But a sedan S4 is by no means a mere consolation prize.
Since 1991, Audi has been building sporty accompaniments for its compact A4 sedans. Current A4/S4s are in their sixth/B9 generation. To get to this point, the S4 has had a turbocharged inline-five, a twin-turbo V6, a naturally aspirated V8, another naturally aspirated V8, a supercharged V6, and finally a turbocharged V6.
The reason for the switch from a supercharger to a turbocharger, as an Audi spokesperson explained, was because of a 10 percent improvement in fuel efficiency and an increase in horsepower and torque (16 HP and 44 lb-ft, respectively). There’s also “significant refinement to drivetrain smoothness” and “greater flexibility” for “many driving conditions” with the current eight-speed automatic versus the outgoing seven-speed dual-clutch.
The S4 competes with BMW 3 Series M-line cars, as well as the Mercedes-AMG C43. Once upon a time, there was just S versus AMG versus M, but that’s not really a thing anymore. At some point, Audi committed the S to be its Sport Lite trim and RS to be the top, even though they are much, much harder to get here in the states.
The 2020 S4 has a 3.0-liter, turbocharged V6 that puts out 349 HP and 369 lb-ft of torque. A naught to 60 mph sprint takes a claimed 4.4 seconds. The car also uses Audi’s Quattro all-wheel drive system and has an eight-speed automatic. Top speed is an estimated 155 mph, 130 mph when equipped with all-season tires
Visually, you can usually tell an S4 apart from an A4 because of its sportier design language, quad tailpipes, generally bigger wheels, and brakes, optional red brake calipers, as well as the signature silver mirror caps.
Maybe it was because I had just gotten done with driving the 2020 Q7, but getting into the new S4 proved to be a delight. The car was elfin in its response to the road, hugging it in the curves and darting happily into turns.
Three hundred and forty nine HP is a very good amount of power, perhaps even the Goldilocks amount. It’s not enough to shoot you into stratospheric, jail-time speeds with just a hint of breath on the throttle, but it’s also more than adequate for hauling ass and putting a smile on your face.
Compared to the whale-like Q7, the S4 relished the tight and winding mountain roads, the weightier steering feeding information smoothly up to my fingers. True, the S4 isn’t the smallest nor lightest car out there (Audi says it weighs over 3,800 pounds), but it does shrink around you once you get moving.
The greatest impression I walked away from the S4 with was that it’s a car without excess. Not overly designed, not overly powerful. It has what you need in terms of rear passenger room and trunk space. You won’t always be able to fit everyone and everything in it, but for most life’s requirements, it’s great.
I know it’s a little pointless and stupid to yearn for the linear delivery of a naturally aspirated V8 in 2020, but I do anyway. The turbocharged V6, though a lovely and powerful engine, is a little laggy when getting into the power. And compared to the Q7, road noise in the S4 was definitely present.
The eight-speed automatic handles its job just fine and probably is better suited to the new engine, but I also miss the seven-speed dual-clutch. It just appeared to respond in a quicker and snappier way. The eight-speed felt a bit at odds with the trim athleticism of the rest of the car. You can still get the seven-speed DCT with the 2020 A4 models, though.
And I would have actually appreciated the updated, dual-screen interior in the new S4. True, this is just a refresh of the B9, but it still has that awful and cheap-looking stick-up screen. At this rate, the interior of the S4 might not get updated until the B10 generation and who knows when that’ll be.
Well, the great news is Audi didn’t screw up the S4. The thing is still a darty, sporty sedan with streamlined Audi looks and all-wheel drive, even if it’s no longer a true M or AMG fighter.
It’s great for commutes and errands, but will also cheerfully hammer on those back roads with you whenever you want. And slapping on a good set of snow tires basically means you’ve got a tank in the winter months.
All that being said, though, my colleague Tom McParland brought up a great point in 2016. The B9 S4s are objectively good, but are they good enough to justify buying over a used B8? Especially when you consider the B8s are only marginally less powerful but supercharged (a personal preference of mine) and come with DCTs or manual transmissions (!). They don’t even really look that different.
It’s up to you.