CARLSBAD, Calif. – It’s only natural to be seduced by whatever is newest. It’s part of the reason I get to do what I do: People are eager to know about the most recently introduced cars, and in many cases, buy them. They’re bound to be more excited when they do, too, and want to show them off. In this way, we never really grow up. I’m not sure how many of us bounded over to a friend’s house to show off a toy your brother had seven years ago.
Well, there is nothing new about the 2023 Audi S4. The car you see here is the result of a 2020 mid-cycle refresh of a generation that debuted for 2017 – though we first drove it back in the summer of 2016. It would be easy to dismiss the S4 as yesterday’s news. I certainly pondered whether anyone would actually want to read about Grandpa S4. That’d be a shame, though, because what we have here is an oldie but a goodie, to borrow a phrase from your actual grandpa. It may be familiar; it may show signs of its age, and it may look like a car that someone bought new three years ago, but whatever. The Audi S4 is a terrific sport sedan that deserves to have a spotlight dropped back on it.
As a refresher, because even I had long forgotten what you actually get with the A4’s high-performance sibling, the 2023 S4 is powered by a 3.0-liter turbocharged V6 that produces 349 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque. Audi says it hits 60 mph in 4.4 seconds. That’s a huge jump from the Audi A4 Quattro (aka 45 TFSI Quattro), which is good for 248 hp, 273 lb-ft and a 0-60 time of 5.6 seconds. That makes the S4’s acceleration technically closer to a BMW M3’s even if it still falls well short. That’s by design. Audi’s RS models continue to be the M fighters, and while the RS 4 no longer exists, the RS 5 Sportback does and is the equivalent of an RS 4 in a fancy suit. At least in terms of 0-60 times, it matches the RWD M3 Competition (the all-wheel-drive version is 0.4 quicker), but here I am getting distracted by newer things again. Back to the S4.
Parking S4 so it won’t feel quite so old. At least it’s not filled with dead flowers.
Since it’s an Audi and the year is 2023, Quattro all-wheel drive is standard and an eight-speed automatic is mandatory. And it’s a traditional, torque converter automatic, too, unlike the seven-speed dual-clutch found in the A4 that can’t handle the torque of the big V6. The DSG might be swell for efficiency, but the speed, smarts and smoothness of ZF’s tried-and-true eight-speed are hard to beat. Put the car in Dynamic mode, slap the shifter down into S, and you can forget about the shift paddles. Which is good because they’re flimsy plastic and an affront to the rest of the cabin’s lovely switchgear.
The S4 features the same Sport suspension that’s optional on the A4, including its 23-mm lower ride height. Way back in 2016, contributing writer Michael Taylor was unimpressed by this standard setup, noting that the lowered suspension robbed the car of harshness-absorbing travel resulting in sharp initial responses to bumps before the otherwise capable dampening softened the blow. This particular S4, however, came equipped with the S sport package that you might as well consider mandatory.
The key item is adaptive dampers, which add another vector to the various drive modes, including the mix-and-match Individual setting. Per usual, Dynamic firms the suspension as tautly as can be, but also per usual, the undulating pavement and rapid grade changes found mid-corner on tighter, more technical Santa Monica Mountain roads resulted in the middle-ground setting of “Balanced” and its greater suspension compliance being the better option. Thanks to Individual, though, I could select that and leave everything else in Dynamic. Later, when making the 130-mile trek down the 405 and 5 through L.A., Orange and San Diego counties, I swapped Dynamic for Comfort in the Individual setting and experienced none of the initial harshness Taylor reported. Actually, the ride was perfectly fine in Balanced, but why not enjoy a bit of cushion when dealing with crap pavement and monotony?
The S sport package adds two other elements. One is red-painted brake calipers. Yippee! The other is a torque-vectoring “sport rear differential” added to the standard Quattro all-wheel-drive system. Though I haven’t driven an S4 without the sport diff, its presence is nevertheless obvious and benefit profound. After great initial bite when braking into a corner, get back onto the gas and feel the car expertly whip its tail around. This is the result of a one-two punch. First, this version of Quattro, shared with most of Audi’s S and RS line, is a permanent system, meaning both the front and rear axles always receive some amount of power (as opposed to the “Quattro with ultra” system found on A and Q series Audis that defaults to front-wheel drive with power sent rearward as needed). The default is rear-biased 40:60, but can change to as much as 70:30 should the rear wheels lose traction, or as much as 15:85 should the fronts lose traction or during more exuberant driving moments. The sport rear differential then takes whatever amount of power is going to the rear and sends most of it to the outside wheel (this would be torque vectoring).
Not only will this reduce understeer and hasten your pace, it adds even more feedback to a car that already offers a surprising amount of chassis communication that you can detect in your heels and backside. You can feel the chassis interacting with the pavement and the power being put down in the best possible way. I honestly wasn’t expecting this from an Audi, as it hasn’t always been the case.
On top of the S sport package, you can add a Dynamic Steering option that this test car also included. Audi says it “increases handling and stability at all speeds” and results in “the most dynamic iteration of the S4.” I’ll take their word for it, but will offer that I liked the steering. While the standard A4 and Allroad steering effort is overly light in the current generation (their Dynamic settings are basically the equivalent of the previous generations’ single setup), the S4’s Dynamic option is spot on. Power assistance is consistent and restrained, without much difference between the Balanced and Dynamic modes. It doesn’t weight up just to provide the impression of sportiness, nor does it get overtly light at lower speeds. Well done. Importantly, feedback is superior to what you’d get in a BMW 3 Series, and I doubt it’s too far off the pace of the M3.
Besides the agreeable ride and halfway decent 30 mpg on the highway, the S4 demonstrated plenty of other road-trip-worthy attributes. The seats are sensational, the driving position is perfect and the Bang & Olufsen sound system … oh lordy. I had just downloaded Fleetwood Mac’s remastered Rumours Deluxe Edition, and it was like Lindsay Buckingham was sitting in the back seat while Stevie rode shotgun. But without all the lingering anger.
As is often the case, the rest of the cabin is where the S4 ultimately shows its age. Audi retrofitted the A4/S4 with a bigger infotainment screen and the latest MMI user interface back in 2020 (when the above interior photos were taken), which meant that a touchscreen replaced the long-standing knob-and-display interface originally fitted to the car back in ’17. It’s certainly not my favorite touchscreen system, but as with the equally retrofitted Q5, it’s disappointing that Audi didn’t see fit to redesign the center console after removing the MMI knob and menu buttons. There’s literally a hole in the middle of the console where they used to be – and I say “hole” rather than “bin” because it’s basically the size of a tissue packet. It then joins another tiny “bin” that’s really only big enough to hold the key fob, and an under-armrest “bin” that’s been commandeered by the wireless phone charger. At least the cupholders are decent, but there’s so much wasted space due to a disappointing amount of effort put forth for a modern luxury car.
The placement of that hole also brings to light an objection I must officially log, even if I know it is ultimately futile. As good as the ZF auto is, the S4 would be absolutely delectable with a six-speed manual shifter sitting where that tissue holder is. If it was an option, I would absolutely buy one of these with a manual instead of an M3.
Sure, at $67,570 as tested, it’s about $7,500 more affordable than a manual-equipped M3 (or about $16,000 less than the AWD, auto-only M3 Competition). It wouldn’t have the same performance envelope, obviously, but in the real world, I’m not sure I’d be able to fully enjoy the extra $7,500 worth of capability. And to be honest, a lot of that preference has to do with the S4 being a substantially better-looking car than the absurdly schnozzed M3. It’s made even better by the test car’s Turbo Blue paint that received plenty of compliments during its stay – my 2-year-old son is still lamenting the absent “blue Audi” three weeks after it left. So am I, actually, even with the auto. It may not be the latest or greatest, but there’s still plenty of life in this old guy. Love live the S4.