Cars that announce their thrilling performance with wings, spoilers, stripes and neon undercarriage lighting have their place. Mostly that place is in the fantasies of eighth-grade boys, but it’s a place. There isn’t an eighth-grader on Earth who’ll draw anything that looks like the new Audi S4 Cabriolet in his study-hall notebook.
It’s hard to think how Audi could have made this S4 Cabriolet more staid. Maybe they could have painted the side-view mirrors black instead of finishing them in aluminum? But there really isn’t any other ornamentation to dull down or remove. The S4 styling is affectation-free; a Listerine bottle laid down on its side and put on four wheels.
But the driving experience is anything but antiseptic.
Simple formula, well stirred
Audi engineers rushed the S4 Cabriolet to market after getting the corporate go-ahead just a bit more than a year ago. So there’s no big surprises in its engineering; this is an A4 Cabriolet stuffed full of the V-8 engine, quattro drivetrain and utterly capable suspension bits from the S4 sedan. In fact the only surprise would be if S4 stuff didn’t work just as well in the zip-top car as it does in the four-door.
The most compelling element of the S4 package is its 340-horsepower, DOHC, 40-valve, 4.2-liter V-8. There are loyalists out there who’ve bad-mouthed Audi for moving from the previous S4’s twin-turbo V-6 to this powerplant, as if it’s a betrayal of some sort. Betray away! Positioned longitudinally, the V-8 fills every micro-nook and nano-cranny of the engine bay and has so much low-end torque you half expect to open up the hood and be overrun by a thundering herd of pound-feet. Yet it still loves to rev. In fact the engine makes its peak 302 pound-feet at a modest 3500 rpm and sustains much of that right up to the redline — those 340 horsepower live at a super-zoomy 7000 rpm. Much of the credit must go to the five-valve combustion chambers, the variable timing on the intake valves, and the variable-volume intake manifold. Even with all that technology going for it, the output is still impressive considering the all-aluminum engine’s compact dimensions, low weight, and relatively modest displacement.
Buyers can opt for either six-speed manual or six-speed automatic Tiptronic transmissions behind that V-8. As this is written the automatic still had yet to be released, but the manual is a sweet shifting device. Fifth gear is already overdrive so sixth is like falling off a cliff and most high-performance romping is done in second, third and fourth. Audi’s quattro all-wheel drive system, incorporating a Torsen limited-slip center differential, distributes power to all four wheels.
Just like the engine, the suspension carries over from the S4 sedan to the Cabriolet intact. The front end sits on double A-arms done in aluminum while the independent rear suspension is built around trapezoidal links done in the same material and there’s a coil spring at each corner. Considering how Mercedes and BMW both have dived into the deep end of the electronic suspension technology pool lately, the S4’s lack of such complication is almost refreshing and the S4’s electronic stability control system is relatively unobtrusive. This is a performance machine so the suspension is stiff, but 235/40ZR18 Continental Conti Sport 2 tires are relatively quiet and respond quickly to input from the rack-and-pinion steering.
The Cabriolet body doesn’t share a single panel with other members of the A4 family and has a more rounded nose. On the S4 that face decorated with a unique egg crate grille, larger air intakes in the bumper, xenon headlamps, a “titanium-colored” frame around the windshield, and of course those aluminum-finished side mirrors (now a hallmark of Audi S-series machines). In the rear the big change is the presence of wrist-thick twin exhaust pipes. There’s not even a hint of a rear deck spoiler on this car.
So it’s not a stunning looking car. The thrills come elsewhere anyhow.
Not an M3 — but so what?
2004 Audi S4 Cabriolet
2004 Audi S4 Cabriolet
The top itself is identical to the A4 Cabriolet’s. Constructed of three bonded fabric layers with a heated real glass rear window, and operated with nearly-silent electro-hydraulic machinery, the whole thing is triggered by a single touch of a button and hides under a hard tonneau. This is about as good as convertible tops get for quality, easy of use and sheer beauty. And at reasonable speeds there’s virtually no wind noise.
Pound past 100 mph and head towards 120 or so and the top starts whistling a bit as the airflow forces the leading edge up slightly. Naturally these are extra-legal speeds that are rarely to be seen on roads in America. And the easy fix is just to make sure the top is down before you decide to travel at triple digit velocities.
Top down and cruising the S4 Cabriolet’s driving experience differs from the A4 Cabriolet’s mostly in that the exhaust sounds so much better. The structure is solid and putting up the wind blocker makes conversation between passenger and driver easy even at freeway speeds. There’s a hint of cowl shake going over things like speed bumps, but if there are a lot of speed bumps in your life…well, you probably can’t afford an S4 Cabriolet anyhow.
Unlike an M3 which, when running unfettered by traction control, can be induced into oversteer with just a touch of the throttle, the S4 Cabriolet tends to understeer like a front-driver at its high limit. The steering feels a bit heavier in this car than in other A4/S4 models and that’s probably a combination of the bigger tires and the 4090-pound curb weight (that’s 276 pounds more than a front-drive A4 Cabriolet and 265 pounds more than an S4 sedan). But this car is very well-balanced; the clutch action is light, the shifter snicks between gears easily, the steering is precise, there’s always enough power to pull through a situation, and the oversize brakes provide enough anchorage to stay out of anything really nasty. Audi claims a 5.8-second 0 to 60 mph clocking for this car, and considering that Car and Driver has clocked the sedan doing that same trick in 5.0 seconds flat, Audi is likely being conservative.
So much fun, so little drama
The S4 Cabriolet is flat-out blast in so many ways that what’s most startling about it is that there’s so little in the way of drama about it. It’s not loud, it’s not obnoxious, and it’s not raw-nerved like an M3. At the same time there’s passion at work here from the soulful exhaust note to the graceful way every switch and control operates. This is the fast convertible for people who don’t want more drama in their lives — just more performance.
Note to eighth-grade boys: When you grow up, you’ll want a car like this one. And with prices starting at $54,570, you probably won’t be able to afford it unless you stay out of study hall. And with that morality clause duly delivered, we’re Audi.
2004 Audi S4 Cabriolet
Base price: $54,570
Engine: 4.2-liter V-8, 340 hp
Drivetrain: Six-speed manual transmission, all-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 180.0 x 70.0 x 54.8 in
Wheelbase: 104.5 in
Curb weight: 4090 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 15/21 mpg (est.)
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, side airbags, four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, automatic rollover protection system
Major standard equipment: Power windows/locks/mirrors, A/C, cruise control, CD player, keyless entry, power driver’s seat with memory
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles