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KICKING THE HABIT

This article is from our archives and has not been updated and integrated with our "new" site yet... Even so, it's still awesome - so keep reading!

Published on Tue, Sep 13, 2005

By: The LACar Editorial Staff

KICKING THE HABIT

By JOHN GRAFMAN

It all comes down to a few key words in the dialog of everyone's favorite classic gangster flick, Scarface with Al Pacino. Michelle Pfeiffer coldly explains the rules to Pacino's character, Tony Montana, "Don't get high on your own supply." It seems drug dealers (albeit fictitious) can figure it out, but petrol-buying Americans will never get the hang of it. Cheap energy has us hooked. We now have a habit we just can't kick.

I admit it, I'm a junkie. No, this isn't an illegal substance, but at what gasoline is costing, it's starting to feel like it. I can place the blame squarely on cars like this 2005 Audi S4 quattro.

To add insult to injury, while the hybrids are costing a premium for buyers looking to save money, the Audi is saddled with a gas-guzzler tax of $1,700 on top of less than stellar gas mileage. And in the immortal words of radio personality Tom Leykis, "Do you care"?

One drive in the S4 and it's all over. I hate to shovel more money down the hole as often as I do in the Audi, but once on the road I don't give a rat's pituty about how much this is costing. Even when the fill fuel symbol emerges on the information screen, I plow onward with afterburners ablaze annihilating every atom of petrol I can before the tank sputters and wheezes and finally resembles nothing more useful than an empty can of coke.

At first blush, the Audi S4 closely resembles the A4. The trained eye, however, can pick up on the subtle changes. And if that isn't enough, the little badging will let those being passed know just what it was that blew past them. The S4 will definitely do this too often. The Audi will bring out the worst, or best, in a driver (depending on how you look at it).

Breaking from the S4s of the past, the design is still balanced and elegant. Yet, with a new oversized grill, it becomes more menacing, confidant, while still fitting in the Audi mold of neo-classic.

On the performance side, it has all the right pieces a driver could want. A smooth and powerful eight cylinder motor that can run with the best of them, a six-speed manual transmission that shifts both purposely and effectively with just enough feel to be addicting, and power being delivered to all corners of the machine guarantee an engaging experience.

It shouldn't be this difficult to meld these few parts into a pre-existing sedan, yet I see so few companies able to pull it off like Audi. First off, the 4.2-liter churns and burns a healthy 340 horsepower from its eight chambers. It's smoothness all the way up the power band to an respectable redline of 7,000 rpm. What this means to me is I can mash my right foot down in almost any gear and find plenty of pulling power to get my blood pumping. The rumble created by the exhaust note is akin to having a little devil on your shoulder whispering bad ideas into your ear.

Manuals can be rewarding in ways that are sublime. The rowing up and down the gears is more than a means of switching from one gear to another. The ability to hold a gear in order to squeeze out the last bit of power - or upshifting is to find better economy - is a natural part of the experience. Shifting routinely up-and-down as perfectly as the Audi does only encourages one to do it well, and do it often. While the Audi S4 does bring out the hooligan in us, it can offer a refined, sedate shifting when the moment calls for it. Certainly, many a modern automatic can offer shifting that will allow the driver to both pick the gear as the driving warrants, and a full automatic mode as well, but that misses the best part of this six-speed. Shifting this is as gratifying going to a batting cage and taking a swing at a baseball fast pitch and connecting perfectly with the ball, time-after-time.

For years, Audi has provided its quattro all-wheel drive system on its cars. In a performance car with the power of the 4.2-liter dual overhead motor, a delivery system is an essential part of the equation - otherwise goosing the gas only results in tires turning to smoke rather than forward propulsion. Simply put, quattro allows me to fly down bends in the road at scary fast speeds. The side effect to the system (besides creating added grip) is some of the best road feel that I've had in a long time. Front wheel drive cars offer good feel at the expense of overpowering the ability of the tires to both drive and steer a performance car. Rear wheel drive just doesn't provide the same sort of link to the power that the quattro system does.

I get to enjoy all the systems the S4 ponies up at nearly every chance I get. Coming down the 405 at mid-day I find the S4 preparing to do battle against a youthful contender, a Mitsubishi Evo. I find the two cars interesting as they are both offspring of much more mainstream vehicles. The Evo is hardcore to the max, more than likely destined to find itself the property of an adolescent who can deal with the hard sprung suspension and economy car trim and are willing to trade comfort for performance. The Evo is also not exactly stealthy-looking with its overblown bodywork. The Audi is really not all that different in some respects. The driver is looking for a ride that is explosive, a relatively affordable car that can make an impression be it with the engine either on or off.

I don't think the Evo driver knows that this isn't just a run of the mill A4 that is until he looks over and notices the Audi has no problem keeping up with his cut and thrust behavior. I chill out, as there is no need to push the envelope, or my luck with the long arm of the law. I think the sensibility of S4 drivers will be much the same, how much fun can you have if your license is revoked?

The flip side to the S4 is that of a sensible sedan. During the day, I challenge myself to explore the holding power of the Audi. Subsequently, I become an upstanding member of society as we head of to a new local haunt (Mastro's Ocean Club Fish House) for dinner further down the coast. The four doors do make life easier to provide the transportation to and from our evening out. With a car full of people, the Audi does just what it's supposed to do - offer a well-mannered ride. What it doesn't offer is abundant room in the rear with the front seats forward or not. It's manageable, but not expansive - or highly recommended for long drives.

The S4, as an upper shelf car, is refined far beyond what I might have imagined. The handling soaks up bumps and road variations without effort. If the driver is a little patient, the Audi can be shifted as smoothly as any automatic without any surging or head snaps - but it does require some restraint.

The passengers do get seats in the Enhanced Interior Package (at no additional charge) that use Alcantara (synthetic suede) seat inserts that feel great. It keeps the seat cooler to the touch on hot days, and provides additional assistance in keeping my rear firmly planted in the seat through hard G turns. I notice the front passenger's seat has some of the Alcantara fabric poking out like a bed sheet that wasn't tucked under properly. Not a big deal, and an easy fix in an otherwise tight, high-quality interior.

In such a well-sorted interior, I am surprised to find myself at odds with the center armrest. It blocks the operation of the parking brake and one of the two cup holders. In defense of the offending armrest, it does flip back out of the way as need be, and is able to hold odds and ends inside.

Another welcomed surprise is the audio system. The Audio Package comes with the Bose Premium Sound System and XM Satellite radio. The simple-to-use adjustments allow for contouring the sound, with a range that can turn anyone into an audiophile. The additional cost of a thousand dollars isn't cheap, but in the grand scheme of things (no pun intended) in a car of this caliber, it is justifiable. Furthermore, it wouldn't be nearly as exciting a car without it. I feel myself in the same mindset as perhaps the Evo owner as the thumping speakers of the Audi gets the heart beating fast even when traffic is at a dead stand still.

The navigation system is great. I like the way the destination is entered via a rotating dial coincides with a graphic that spins to the letters in the alphabet for selection, unlike the usual horizontal layout. Using the same dial button, I can simply zoom in and out without going to various other more complicated commands (as is so common in other cars). Adjusting the volume of the audio directions is also easy to figure out without referring to an owner's manual. I just plug in my destination, and let the nav system guide me fifty some miles from The OC to the Beverly Hills area without problem. The nearly two grand system can buy a lot of Thomas Guides, but as I have the option of the nav I become more reliant on it. I find it allowing me to wander out of my normal comfort zone knowing the nav will get me back on track - plus I don't have to take my eyes off the road to flip pages or jostle a inch thick map on my lap while driving.

The system does help in locating specific items, such as hospitals and gas stations. That's a good thing, as I can't believe this needs more juice. Is this horse thirsty or what? All the fun of driving a S4 over the course of a week brings about the greatest irony of the car. The more I drive it, the more I like it. However, the more I drive it, the more I start to feel my wallet shrinking like the President's approval ratings. I want to have my cake and eat it too.

Given how much fun it is to open the throttle of the S4, and just how much that is eating into my budget, maybe I will forgo feeding my face as much. For now, make that slice of cake a small one.

SUMMARY JUDGMENT

The 2005 Audi S4 is a beautiful blend of performance and grace, in spite of tight quarters and marginal fuel economy.

www.audi.com

SPECIFICATIONS

Price: Base $46,100, as tested $54,370

Engine type: 4163 cc V8-arrangement 8-cylinder with double overhead camshafts and two-stage variable intake manifold, aluminum alloy cylinder block, crankshaft and cylinder head

Horsepower: 340 hp @ 7000 rpm (man) @6800 rpm (auto/tip)

Torque: 302 lbs. ft. @ 3500 rpm

Drive configuration: Front engine / all-wheel drive

Transmission type: Manual 6-speed quattro

Suspension: Front: Four link, upper and lower control arms, stabilizer bar, coil spring/shock absorbers (gas charged) Rear: Fully independent, trapezoidal link rear suspension, stabilizer bar, separate coil springs and shock absorbers (gas charged)

Wheels and tires: Front: Size 8J x 18 8J x 18 cast alloy 6-spoke "AVUS" cast alloy 14-spoke, 235/40 R18 speed rating Z Conti Sport Contact 2 Rear: Size 8J x 18 8J x 18 cast alloy 6-spoke "AVUS" cast alloy 14-spoke, 235/40 R18 speed rating Z Conti Sport Contact 2

Brakes: Front: 13.6 in. 345x30 mm - Ventilated disc Rear: 11.9 in. 302x22 mm - Ventilated disc

Service brake dual circuit brake system with diagonal split, Anti-lock Brake System (ABS), Electronic Brake pressure Distribution (EBD) and Electronic Stabilization Program (ESP); tandem brake booster

Overall length: 180.6 in. 4586 mm Overall width: 70.1 in. 1781 mm / 76.3 in. 1937 mm (with mirrors) Overall height: 55.7 in. 1415 mm Curb weight: 3869 lbs. 1755 kg

EPA mileage estimates City/ Highway: 15/21

Top Speed, mph: 155 MPH electronically limited (250 km/h)

0-60 mph: 5.3

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