The quirky British — naturally — were the first to come up with the wacky concept of a rattlesnake quick, high-class station wagon (the "shooting brake" Aston Martin). But leave it to the Germans to one-up the Brits. Audi's S4 2.7T Avant is the only twin-turbo, six-speed, all-wheel-drive sportwagon in the world. It's just the ticket for hauling the dog — and hauling butt — all at the same time.
The only thing missing is a microwave in the glovebox and a shower somewhere in the back. The S4 2.7T has pretty much everything else you could think of to put in a car, including heated door locks and washer nozzle jets.
It's also quick, with the standard intercooled, twin-turbocharged 2.7-liter V-6 jamming 250 hp through the S4-only six-speed (a less fun five-speed automatic is available) and standard quattro all-wheel-drive system. The tenacious quattro setup allows the S4 to get going even when just one wheel has decent traction — so it's great in snowy/wet weather as well as superb on dry pavement. Few true high performance cars (let alone wagons) offer this kind of all-weather capability.
Though it's turbocharged, the S4's engine does not feel turbocharged — at least not in the sense of that "rush" one experiences with most turbocharged engines. It’s very torquey throughout the rev range — a characteristic of other Audi turbo engines, such as the 1.8-liter four used in the A4. There is no turbo boost gauge to betray the turbo's presence. Not much sound, either — it just goes.
Some fiddling is in order for the six-speed's shifter, which feels vague and even econo-boxy compared to the excellent, ratchety, precision-machine sensation of better-actuated gearboxes, such as the ones found in the Honda S2000 or Chevy Corvette. Audi should contract with Hurst or some outfit like that to get the action right.
The S4 is also a little on the small side, being based on the compact A4. That puts it, size-wise, in the same class as the $31,150 BMW 325xi sportwagon, which also has an all-wheel-drive system. But the 325xi is nowhere near as powerful — it has just 185 hp and no six-speed, and in the grand pecking order of German machinery, it’s a little down the food chain. Though the S4 is considerably more expensive, it has that all-important curb appeal the more common 325xi can't match. And the more powerful 330xi does not come in wagon form.
The S4 also outdoes the much larger Mercedes-Benz E320 4Matic — which costs substantially more ($51,500) and has less power, too (a comparatively meager 221 hp and no manual transmission option at all). The Mercedes has more room, but is less fun; you also get to pay an extra $10k for the added space.
A world of its own
Closest in feel, size and concept to the S4 is the 230-hp Saab 9-3 Viggen four-door hatchback — so long as it's summertime. Though turbocharged and similarly powerful, the $37,995 Viggen lacks AWD even as an option. A peaky, high-output turbo engine and tires designed for dry pavement traction are not the hot ticket when the flakes begin to fall. If you buy the Viggen, you'd better have an SUV in the garage as backup.
The S4 is thus pretty much a world unto itself at the moment. No other sportwagon has the combination of features — luxury, high-performance and real-world functionality — that Audi has built into this interesting, exceptionally fun-to-play-with vehicle.
Like the A4 on which it is based, the S4 2.7T is also available in sedan form for a bit less money ($38,900). But the added usefulness of the new-for-2001 Avant version, not to mention the distinctiveness of being the only twin-turbo, six-speed wagon, makes the Avant worth the nominal increase in sticker price. Avants also come standard with a roof/ski rack.
In addition to most everything you'd get on a loaded A4 2.8 Quattro, the S4 2.7T gets outfitted with special sport buckets with leather trim and "Alacantara" suede inserts. These seats are supportive but also a little hard, especially on long journeys. More cushioning would be nice. The S4's special sport suspension, however, is nicely modulated, delivering a commendable compromise between the welded-solid feel of a full-on race car and the smooth ride of a luxury sedan. It has plenty of grip for any sane kind of street driving and feels solid and stable cruising at high speed.
Audi's Electronic Stabilization Program (ESP), which is a combination of traction control and anti-skid control, is also standard. Upgraded brakes and fast-ratio steering, along with P225/45YR17 tires on 17-inch rims, round out the S4's performance upgrades.
Major optional equipment includes an electric sunroof (along with Homelink remote transmitter for the garage door and auto dimming inside and outside mirrors) for $1200, heated front seats for $450 and Audi's GPS-based navigation system for another $1280.
2001 Audi S4 2.7T Avant and sedan
Base price range: $38,900-$40,500
Engine: 2.7-liter V-6, 250-hp
Transmission: six-speed manual or five speed automatic, full-time all-wheel-drive
Wheelbase: 102.6 in
Length: 176.7 in
Width: 72.7 in
Height: 54.9 in (sedan); 55.8 in (Avant wagon)
Curb weight: 3704 lb (sedan); 3814 lb (Avant wagon)
EPA (cty/hwy): 17/24 mpg (manual &auto)
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, head and side airbags, stability control
Major standard features: twin-turbo V-6 engine, six-speed manual transmission; Quattro all-wheel-drive, climate control air conditioning, power steering, windows, locks & outside mirrors; cell phone pre-wiring, premium AM/FM stereo w/CD player.
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles