High-performance Audi models have been coming thick and fast in the past few months. First there was the sleek S5 coupe, quickly followed by the aggressive A1 quattro and the drop-top S5 Cabriolet.
Hot on the heels of this rapid trio comes the S4 Avant. Based on the recently revised A4 and powered by the same muscular 328bhp supercharged V6 as the S5, this new car is the latest in a long line of fast Audi estates. And, as with its predecessors, it aims to mix scorching pace with family-friendly practicality and four-wheel-drive security.
However, on first impressions, you’ll struggle to identify the S4 as a high-performance flagship. Just like other S-badged Audis, the newcomer seems to play down its sporting credentials.
Look closely, and you’ll spot the discreet S4 logos on the grille and tailgate, the 18-inch alloy wheels and the S’s trademark metal-capped door mirrors. The four tailpipes poking out below the rear bumper are another clue. If you really want your S4 to stand out from the crowd, you can add the £665 19-inch alloys fitted to our test car.
An equally stealthy approach has been followed inside the S4. Apart from the flat-bottomed, three-spoke steering wheel, branded gearlever and grey-backed dials, you could be sitting in a normal A4. That’s no bad thing, though, because the logically laid-out dashboard, top-notch materials and second-to-none build quality of the A4 are all still present. A wide range of seat and steering wheel adjustment makes it easy to get comfortable.
You even get a decent haul of standard kit, including climate control, Bluetooth and xenon headlamps, but we’d also expect heated seats and sat-nav on a car costing £39,880.
Elsewhere, the S4 is every bit as roomy as the standard car, with rear passengers getting more space to stretch out than in the Volvo. There’s also more room for luggage because the well shaped boot holds 490 litres – 60 litres more than the Volvo. And, unlike in the V60, you get a host of useful hooks and nets to stop loads moving about.
Thanks to its quattro four-wheel-drive transmission and clever launch control system, the Audi polished off our 0-60mph sprint test in just 4.9 seconds – a full nine-tenths faster than the Volvo. Adding to the drama is the growling soundtrack from the V6 engine and the distinctive flutter from the exhausts on each gearshift.
Yet the S4 couldn’t quite match the V60 in our in-gear tests, partly because its 440Nm torque peak doesn’t arrive until 2,900rpm, which is 800rpm higher than in the equally muscular Swedish car. In the real world, the in-gear differences are much harder to detect, thanks largely to the Audi’s seven-speed twin-clutch box, which serves up seamless automatic or rapid-fire manual changes. It certainly helps the S4 feel more dynamic than its rival.
Turn into a corner, and the Audi responds quickly, while its four-wheel-drive set-up delivers astounding grip in all weathers. It also resists body roll better than the Volvo, and it’s possible to adjust the car’s line by lifting off the throttle. So it’s a shame the S4’s poised chassis is undermined by its lifeless electrically powered steering.
Our test car was also fitted with the optional £220 Audi Drive Select system, which alters steering weight and throttle response to suit road conditions. Yet in Comfort mode, the controls were disconcertingly light, while on its Dynamic setting the steering became artificially heavy.
The S4 gets a further black mark for its ride, which is uncomfortably stiff at low speeds and becomes fidgety on the motorway.
The Audi looks expensive against the Volvo, at £2,635 extra, but factor in the S4’s stronger residuals and lower CO2 emissions of 197g/km, and it makes more financial sense for private buyers and company users. Could that be enough to seal the deal?
Chart position: 1WHY: Audi’s rapid four-wheel-drive S4 estate benefits from visual and mechanical tweaks that aim to make it faster and more efficient than ever.