On Snow: Testing the 2013 Audi S4

2013 audi S4 side snow
Will you look at that! It’s a dirty red 2013 Audi S4 shot in the snow, in winter! I hyperbolize because you’ve probably only seen shots of pristine Audis from launches in sunny climes. Lame.

Recently I got to test a 2013 Audi S4 in all its quattro AWD glory, to exercise its flexible, 333-supercharged horsepower V-6 to happy use, and to row the S4’s creamy six-speed manual while plying gravel-infused, twisting, slush-caked back roads, and not once did it hesitate for grip.

The only “sin,” if you can call it that, is that although you can adjust throttle tip in and suspension tautness through Audi’s Individual button on the dash, the electrically assisted steering merely increases weight in “Dynamic” mode, but feel remains isolated. You grock what’s happening on the road surface through your bum more than your hands, which is no sweat if you’ve spent some time on the track. But compared to a corporate cousin, say any recent Porsche 911, the Audi errs a little too much on placid steering.

If that’s a dig, it’s my only one.

Especially because quattro at this point does such an excellent job at masking the pretense of driven front wheels. That’s no small feat. Audi doesn’t make rear-wheel-drive-only cars, so they have to bias power going to the “wrong” axle so that the S4 understeers playfully, and allows a quick snap of the wrists and a soft onlay of throttle to rotate the S4 around the next hard curl of crud-coated blacktop. No sweat. They’ve nailed it. Even though so many other AWD cars will throttle oversteer you into the weeds if you try that.

Also, a word on this “traction” thing, while I’m talking about hammering the fine S4 through slush. Audi wisely shod its baby with a set of Dunlop Wintersport 3D snow tires because the Germans know something Americans can’t ever seem to fathom: It’s not just about the driven wheels. It’s about the plasticity of the rubber in the cold. If my loaner had come with summer tires you could forget any Valentine’s card from me (or any other driver). The S4 is precisely the kind of car that would be dangerous with summer performance tires on black ice because it’s not whether the car can move, it’s what happens once it does (you know, steering, stopping…yeah, that stuff).

2013 audi s4 trunk mountain bike
Audi knows you bike, or golf, or ski, and they leave that utility you sorely need.

Moving off my buy-some-snows-already pitch, the other thing the S4 does oh so deftly is handle daily chores. Note my bicycle in there? I took the front wheel off, but more than one performance sub-brand will “cheat” to stiffen a chassis by walling off the trunk-cabin pass through with a cross member. Audi knows you bike, or golf, or ski, and they leave that utility you sorely need.

This is also a massively comfortable, even placid sedan. Even with noisier snows at the corners you could hear another passenger chomping on stale saltines in the backseat at 75mph on the interstate. There’s some engine noise, and a lovely, smooth (not throaty) exhaust note if you blip the throttle ahead of a downshift, but the S4 reminds you why it’s worth spending $50,000 on a performance sedan.

When done right it’s not about speed or handling at all costs. It’s about a daily driver that can tussle with Mustangs, but doesn’t have to make you smile.

At least a few more words should go toward what’s not here: Audi’s seven-speed S-tronic dual-clutch transmission. S-tronic is what Audi used to call DSG, and what it affords is a broader gear spread and 1mpg better highway fuel economy; also, obviously, paddle shifting keeps both mitts on the wheel and in our experience, despite how very good the clutch/gearbox interplay is in the S4, there are times like the daily commute when you might prefer your S4 to run like an autobox car, especially since S-tronic isn’t a conventional automatic; it’ll hold a gear right up ’til it bangs off the rev limiter and it’ll downshift far quicker than any human driver can. Often, nearly always, we’d shy away from the automated version of anything car-wise, but S-tronic is a rare exception.

Audi's navi harnessing the goodness of Google Earth.
Audi’s navi harnessing the goodness of Google Earth.

Speaking of robots, here’s another we like. It’s Google Earth used by the optional and very expensive, ($3,050 as part of a package of other baubles lumped in with parking assist and Bluetooth audio) navigation system. We like it, because it lends a lot of richness to map software the usually lacks it. For obvious reasons, being able to see topography, not just street names, helps with navigation at a glance, because you can see landmarks more readily. In urban settings it’ll even show you a Google Streetview image of your eventual destination. It’s pretty tremendous and given how often we encounter in-car GPS that’s not even worth $500 let alone $3,050 this is one system that although princely, truly is one we’d consider.

Design and styling-wise, Audi’s still ahead of the curve. Note how when every Kia on earth is getting ringlets of LED’s around its headlights, Audi, which pioneered the latest illuminated “automotive jewelry” trend, now puts a solid band of light around its S4’s headlamps. It may become more challenging for Audi to stay at the apex of automotive styling (I mentioned Kia since they bought out one Audi designer in 2006 and Hyundai nabbed another in 2011), but at least for the present Audi’s design language is both immediate and transparent: Audis won’t be mistaken for Buicks or, for that matter, for in-house brand-mate, VW, a problem Audi had not that long ago.

2013 audi S4 led headlight
Audi, LED, now pushing beyond a hallmark headlamp style they pioneered.

And that goes double on the interior of the S4. While Volkswagens are getting increasingly Americanized (sadly, that means going both generic and a little cheaper on some models) a simple intake of graining patterns on the plastics used inside the S4 tells you Audi’s not giving up supremacy on interior design. Just ogle a door panel and note how Audi didn’t just include accent-points like knurled metal adjusters and thin, inlaid metallic accents of trim—they made it all fit together impeccably. You won’t see other carmakers try to make their interiors this complex because it will lead to obvious imprecision. Audi, apparently, has swagger to spare on interior design.

The most "muted" of cabin trim options is shown here; our tester came with brighter trimmed doors and seats.
The most “muted” of cabin trim options is shown here; our tester came with brighter trimmed doors and seats.

The most obvious question any S4 buyer might ask is how it stacks up to the BMW $46,045 335i xDrive. Yeah, you might prefer to rate the Audi S4 vs. an M3 but no doubt both brands would pit hottest vs. hottest: that’d be the RS4 vs. the M3 and yes, at some point we think that would be exceedingly interesting to muse about.

Meantime, our most recent drive of the newest 3-series came in a rear- not AWD 335i, a car that’s so exceedingly close on ticking every box that the S4 does that you’d be hard pressed to say one was far more mind blowing than the other. Save that supercharging may give the S4 a lead on horses (333 vs. 300hp from the inline six BMW), but the BMW smokes the Audi on fuel economy: 17/26 for the Audi vs. 23/33 for the RWD BMW. Opt for AWD and you’ll still get 21/31 from the 335i. Does that matter if you can afford either? We leave that for you to decide, but being eco conscious and getting 300 horses to boot is certainly in BMW’s favor.

On the TFLcar scale of:

  • Buy it!
  • Lease it!
  • Rent it!
  • … or Forget it!

The S4 is most certainly a Buy/Lease, perhaps despite the so-so fuel economy. The “slash” is with a wink toward the reality that all of the German luxo brands depend heavily on leasing programs. It lets lots of buyers afford to drive slick metal like the S4, and it’s a superb feeder for certified pre-owned programs that let the rest of the masses have a shot at the S4 two-years into its depreciation cycle. And any way you can make it work, trust us, the S4 is worth it.

Check out this TFLcar sights and sounds video of the 2013 S4 cousin – the Audi S5.