- Handling is sharp on sport models
- Shift quality (except CVT)
- Still an attractive design
- Supportive front seats
- Luscious Google Earth maps
- CVT is the weakest link
- Rearview camera option on some models
- Drive select can be skipped
- Back seat isn't especially comfortable
- ATS, 3-Series are quicker, more nimble
The 2015 Audi A4 and S4 sedans are tech-laden, trim, handsome alternatives to the other expected German cars, as well as one very good American one.
The 2015 Audi A4 stands as a strong entry in its segment, and that's a testament to its trend-setting design—even with a redesigned version waiting in the wings. With the A4, you can take your pick from its tasteful palette of exterior and interior trims, high-tech features, and various driving flavors from mild to intense.
Just like BMW's 3-Series, with which it competes, the A4 encompasses a vast swath of compact luxury, ranging from four-cylinder CVTs to the S4's supercharged six-cylinder and all-wheel drive. But it's definitely more limited than in the past, going by what's under the hood. A4 models all now come with the 220-horsepower, turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder, which responds with zest once it cuts through some initial turbo lag. It's teamed with one of three transmissions. Front-drive cars get a continuously variable transmission, and good gas mileage, but CVTs aren't known for quick responses. All-wheel drive is an option.
Those with quattro all-wheel drive can also have either a six-speed manual shifter, or an excellent eight-speed automatic with a sport shift mode, which only lacks paddle-shift controls. On either of these versions, the ones we recommend, acceleration is strong, and fuel economy on the highway is reasonable, with the automatic rated at 31 mpg highway.
The S4 is quattro-only. The powerplant is a 3.0-liter supercharged V-6, with 333 horsepower and a 0-60 mph time of about 4.9 seconds and a top speed of 155 mph. It delivers loads of torque almost evenly up the rev band, with a somewhat snarling soundtrack to match an otherwise smooth personality, and it's hooked up to either a six-speed manual or seven-speed dual-clutch transmission with paddle shifters. It's nearly, but not quite, as fast as a BMW M3 or a Benz C63. And surprisingly, gas mileage is rather good for such a high-performance car—up to 18 mpg city, 28 highway.
Side by side, the A4 shares the lead in styling with the ATS, sleek and rakish and embossed with details back in 2013 for a fresh take on its spare lines. Trimmer headlamps and a toned-down grille are subtle enough, but the grille's angled corners are an expert touch; wider fog lamps build more muscle at ground level, where the car could use it. The cockpit's trimmed in aluminum or a warmer-looking wood, and leather is standard. The controls are more easily understood since they were rearranged a bit last year, too.
The S4 wears its own body kit and metallic trim, but it's largely a lookalike to the standard four-door. The cabin of the S4 gets a new piano-black and steel trim option that coordinates in a hot way with red-stitched sport seats.
No matter which one you choose, Audi's entry-level sedan has good front seats, excellent sport seats available as an option (they're standard on the S4) and good room for those passengers. The rear bench sits low to the ground, though, and space is snug in back, particularly in knee room for taller passengers. The trunk's on the small side compared to the likes of the 3-Series.
The A4 handles well with its basic suspension and steering, with a slightly firm ride and decent electric power steering feel. A sport package stiffens things up considerably, with summer tires, 18-inch wheels, and sport shocks. Buyers can also choose dynamic steering and Drive Select, which adds variable settings for the suspension, steering, throttle and transmission. In our experience, the stock setup is more pleasant and more predictable, even on the S4, which gets a sport suspension and bigger wheels and tires standard, for awesome road-holding and grip.
In the past, the A4 has scored well in safety tests, but the IIHS has taken it down a notch in its newest crash test. Audi still doesn't make a rearview camera standard, but one is available, as are blind-spot monitors, and adaptive cruise control that can bring the car to a full stop if it senses obstacles at up to 19 mph.
The A4 offers some exotic features make it a complex, high tech piece. The usual power features, leather seats, and satellite radio are standard on the A4; Bluetooth and a music interface are standard for 2015. The S4 gets sport content standard, as well as a rearview camera.
MMI, the Multi Media Interface that takes charge of available navigation systems, is standard on both, and it also controls the beautiful Google Earth and Google Street View mapping. That setup requires a monthly subscription to Audi Connect, which also adds 3G wireless Internet service -- turning the A4 into a rolling wireless hotspot. MMI can also control an optional Bang & Olufsen audio system, an expensive option, but one of the cleanest-sounding systems we've heard.