2008 Audi S4 Cabriolet Road Test Review
Compromise is the Best Choice
As the old A4, a car that was arguably the most attractive premium compact on the market for most of its tenure, bows out to make way for an all-new 2009 model, so do its various model iterations. Also gone is the A4 Avant, soon to be replaced by a larger more accommodating five-door sport wagon, and the A4 Cabriolet, after one more slightly shorter year as is, will be nixed completely, replaced by an even prettier A5 Cabriolet next spring. Change will come to all of Audi’s S and RS models as well, and as we’ve learned from the new S5, some changes can be good.
Before the S5 Cabriolet makes us all forget the wonderful S4 Cabriolet, a spirited blast down memory lane, and a few winding back roads, are in order. First off, I don’t think anyone opting for the 2008 S4 Cab should feel that they’ve pulled the short straw on styling. Just look at it, especially attractive with black paint on red hides. Since the A4′s inception, it’s been a well proportioned car, improved upon with each new generation. OK, there are some who won’t let go of their original B5 (’94 – ’01), which spawned the first compact S4 (the first S4 was actually a spiced up ’92 – ’94 C4-body 100 sedan, a midsize model replaced by the A6), because the new one doesn’t suit their personal style. Fair enough, it was ruddy near perfect for the times and still looks good today, but the 4s that followed have stayed true to Audi’s minimalist functional form design treatment to the letter, other than adding what has now become the brand’s signature grille, as well as some rather swoopy lighting clusters.
While I liked the earlier cars very much, I particularly love Audi’s more recent bold grille design, as its cars now have a strong, aggressive yet somehow elegant presence that can be distinguished from wannabe premium cars a mile away. The S4 adds a slightly more aggressive stance with larger 18-inch quattro wheels on 235/40 R18 rubber, a lower ride height, a few additional strips of chrome around the grille and a set of polished aluminum mirror housings, plus a few subtle aero add-ons, making its one-upmanship over the regular A4 as easy to spot visually as its rumbling twin exhaust pipes differentiate it audibly.
Audi swapped the turbocharged V6 used in its B5 S4 for a V8 when the first S4 in this body style appeared for model year 2004, and it got a lot of attention. That same engine comes fitted to the 2008 model, despite an update to the current B7 body style, and it thunders just as menacingly. Mated to a six-speed manual transmission or six-speed Tiptronic automatic it’s a real force to be reckoned with, although its 340-horsepower and 302 lb-ft of torque doesn’t quite match that offered by its competitors. Then again, Audi’s S4 doesn’t really compete against BMW’s M3 or Mercedes’ AMG-tuned C-Class anymore. That job is given to its new RS4, and will fall to the RS5 Cabriolet in the next generation. Rather, the current S4 Cabriolet fights it out with BMW’s regular 335i Cabriolet and Mercedes’ V8-powered CLK550 Cabriolet, and does a very impressive job doing so, with the bonus of permanent all-wheel drive for that extra level of grip no matter the weather conditions.
Compared to the first B5 S4, the new S4 is a bit softer and more of a grand touring car, with deft handling that’s engineered to understeer when pushed to the limit. It provides a comfortable ride, even over rougher inner-city roads, and fantastic highway cruising, with ample passing power and more than adequate stability when changing lanes or winding it through fast sweeping curves.
With the top up, its fabric roof is coupe-like quiet, and beautifully finished from front to back. I’m not totally sold on the merits of retractable hardtops, especially when cloth tops are built as well as the S4′s, and the added trunk room plus the overall elegance a fabric roof lends to a car’s design, in most cases, makes it easy to reason out the decision. On the negative, cloth roofs are easier to break into. Either way, the S4′s top drops quickly and with only one lever and another button to push, stowing neatly under a hard, protective, colour-keyed tonneau that makes the car looks even sharper with the roof lowered.
In such a state it’s easy to see just how masterful Audi’s artisans are. The German brand is now well-known for creating some of the best interiors in the industry, let alone the class, and the A4 has long been the class leader for tactile quality as well as fit and finish. S4 trim adds an S-Line three-spoke steering wheel with Tiptronic manual-mode shift buttons, if so equipped, and unique aluminum and lacquered carbon fibre accents in all the right places. It certainly is a feast for the eyes.
The front seats are wonderfully comfortable and quite supportive, although like the rest of the car, they’re not as robust and race-oriented as those in the sportier RS4. This makes them easier to get in and out of, mind you, and to that end Audi gives back seat rides handy levers on the tops of each seatback to pull the front seats forward. Getting in back is a bit of a stretch for larger folks or those critically out of shape, and once in back you’ll probably have wished you’d yelled shotgun faster, but they’re there and can be used in a pinch. For smaller kids they’re great, however, making the S4 Cab family friendly enough for most peoples’ second car duties.
Those with safety on their minds will appreciate the full array of airbags that come standard with every S4 Cabriolet, although being a convertible no curtain bags are offered. Instead, Audi strengthened the A-pillars and windshield frame and added twin pop-up steel hoops that reportedly deploy within milliseconds of detecting a rollover. All four-wheels frame large disc brakes, emboldened by ABS and electronic brakeforce distribution (EBD).
Although the S4 Cabriolet isn’t the razor-sharp handler its racy name implies, I can’t help but appreciate the compromise Audi has taken with this mid-level sport model. It certainly takes to the curves with more gusto than a regular A4, and provides a much meatier response to throttle input, but it’s not an over-the-top boy-racer rag top like so many in this class have become. Let the RS5 take that job, so we can enjoy the S4 Cabriolet as the seriously capable luxury convertible that it is.
Specifications (S4 Cabriolet):
Price Range (MSRP): $78,500 – $89,240
Body Type: 2-door convertible
Layout: front engine, AWD
Engine: 340-hp, 302 lb-ft, 4.2L, 30-valve, DOHC V8
Transmission: 6-spd manual (opt. 6-spd auto w/ manual mode)
Brakes (front/rear): disc/disc, ABS with EBD
Tires: 235/40 R18
External Dimensions (L/W/H/WB): 4,573 / 1,777 / 1,392 / 2,650 mm (180.0 / 70.0 / 54.8 / 104.3 in)
Track (f/r): 1,522 / 1,518 mm (59.9 / 59.8 in)
Cargo Capacity: 289 L (10.2 cu ft)
Curb Weight: 1,910 kg (4,211 lbs)
Acceleration (0 – 100 km/h): 5.8 seconds
Top Speed: 250 km/h (155 mph)
Fuel Economy (city/hwy): 16.2 / 10.3 L/100 km
Warranty (mo/km): 48/80,000 comprehensive
Direct Competitors: BMW 335i Cabriolet, Mercedes-Benz CLK550
Web Site: www.audicanada.ca