If I could stymie any automotive trend in 2020, I’d halt lineup bloat. Aside from every shape, size, and category of crossovers, someone must’ve mandated that luxury automakers are required to have both a performance and pseudo-performance sub-brand to attract buyers who think they want something ‘Ring-ready, but really just want a cushy turbocharged sled that thrills at half-throttle on the on-ramp. Here’s the issue: when everyone’s special, no one is. These half-measure performance trims feel just that—trims. In most cases, they’re faster than the base car, but feel distinctly worse than the full-bore performance super-sedan or sports coupe they’re imitating. Some show, some go, but never enough to satisfy.
Not Audi. It got in this performance-lite game early, setting clear demarcation lines between its S family and the rortier, burlier BMW M and Mercedes-AMG counterparts in the 1990s. Power goes up, but not to a level where it’s too much for regular use. Suspension stiffens, but it’s plenty pliant for craggy city streets. Seats are more aggressively supportive, but not so narrow to make it any more difficult to climb in. All this, while maintaining clear individuality from the “lesser” versions of the same car, something most other automakers cannot claim.
Case in point—the Audi S4 remains one of the best in the biz if what you seek is to have your strudel and eat it too. Now, with a minor refresh for the 2020 model year, it’s even more compelling, even if the changes are on the subtler side. Still, if you were at all interested in the prior iteration, the updated S4 should be a no-brainer.
The lion’s share of the changes falls to aesthetic tweaks of the exterior. A new honeycomb-style “Singleframe” grille with aggressive inserts and larger air inlets is up front, along with a new back bumper with pronounced quad exhaust outlets, silver mirror caps, and an extra chrome strip between the rear tail-lights. Speaking of lights, the ones up front are a new design with available matrix pattern, as are the reworked taillights. Rounding this out are a few new wheel styles that either dress it up or down, depending on preference.
The interior gets some love, too. New for 2020 is a 10.1-inch infotainment display that is now completely touch-operated, compared to the outgoing screen operated by physical controls on the center console. Other than that, it’s the same clean, cool architectural environment we’ve come to know and expect from Ingolstadt.
Mechanically, it’s the same B9-generation S4 we’ve loved since 2017. A 3.0-liter turbocharged V-6 provides the same 349 hp and 369 lb-ft of torque, routed to all-four wheels through both a ZF-sourced eight-speed automatic and standard Audi quattro all-wheel-drive system. Straightline performance remains strong, with a 0-60 mph sprint of just 4.4 seconds, on its way to a top speed of 155 mph.
All good stuff for impressing your boss on a lunch run, but drivers hoping to tackle local canyon roads on the weekend would do well to equip the S Sport package that includes an adaptive sport suspension, rear differential, and—the most important part—the brake calipers painted in red. Dynamic steering is also an option, though I can’t speak for its efficacy, as the S4 I drove at the launch in Palm Springs didn’t include that on the order sheet.
Out on the roads running through the mountainous desert scrubland outside Palm Springs, the S4 was home. Thick gobs of torque from that V-6 led to supralegal cruising speeds, though acceleration is not explosive. It arrives in a progressive wave, almost surreptitiously gaining alarming speed without fraying nerves or instigating white-knuckle reactions. Of course, it’s dead-on stable, even over the most undulating desert pavement; this might be the finest ‘Bahn-burner short of the more musclebound RS5 Sportback.
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Like the aforementioned RS5, the S4’s track feels wide with a meaty contact patch, though that likely has quite a bit to do with the quattro system slingshotting the car through corners. In my experience, Audi has historically done a great job at making a complex and heavy car feel far lighter and nimbler than it actually is, and this S4 is no exception, with light, well-balanced inputs. Nice and dainty on the backroads, while remaining wholly usable day to day.
That’s the S4’s party trick—identity and usability. Compared a BMW M340i or Mercedes-AMG C43, the S4 is a more cohesive, self-aware product. The Mercedes feels special, but is let down by undue harshness and heavier price tag, as is the BMW M340i—which also suffers from a lack of special aesthetic touches both inside and out to differentiate the experience from a regular 3 Series.
The 2020 Audi S4 feels distinctly special when compared to the rest of the segment, though that’s no surprise—this is what Audi built the S sub-brand on. It’s fast, usable, comfortable, handsome, and well-designed. Now, with all this extra tech and botoxed face, go ahead—have a second piece of strudel while you’re at it.
|2020 Audi S4|
|ENGINE||3.0L 24-valve turbo V-6/349 hp @ 5,400-6,400 rpm, 369 lb-ft @ 1,370 – 4,500 rpm|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD sedan|
|EPA MILEAGE||20/27 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||187.5 x 72.7 x 56.2 in|
|0-60 MPH||4.4 seconds|
|TOP SPEED||155 mph|