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Future Classic Friday: Audi S4

Published 23 February 2018

In some walks of life, subtlety is important – yet rarely in performance car terms. The 2003-06 Audi S4, then, is something of an anomaly. Apart from brushed aluminium door mirrors, 18-inch alloys (or optional 19s) and some discreet badges, the car looks pretty much like a standard A4.

That’s not such a bad thing, as the B6 generation of A4, as it’s known by the cognoscenti, is a handsome car, whether you prefer it as a four-door saloon or sleek Avant estate body style. Yet there’s little to give away the fact that, under the bonnet, there’s a thundering great V8.

The normally-aspirated 4.2-litre unit replaced the turbocharge 2.7-litre six in previous generations of S4, and while the performance figures were broadly similar, the soundtrack and power delivery were completely different.

Audi S4 (5)

Whereas the previous generation car was fast and frantic, with a luscious induction noise when fully wound-up, the V8 was a much more civilised car to drive in an urban environment (overly-firm suspension not withstanding). Yet set it free on an open road, and the big V8 would open its jaws, emitting a raucous growl and a linear yet voracious power delivery. It’s a car of immense character, but hidden beneath a discreet and smart exterior.

But there's more to the S4 than its engine. Although the 40-valve 339bhp unit is the car’s defining feature, it also got uprated Continental brake callipers, speed-sensitive Servotronic power steering and standard quattro four-wheel-drive.

A Getrag six-speed manual gearbox was standard equipment, but the S4 was also offered with a sports automatic transmission, supplied by ZF, with ‘Tiptronic’ flappy-paddles on the steering wheel to allow manual changes.

Audi S4 (4)

A Cabriolet model appeared in 2004, and although it lost some of the tin-topped car's torsional rigidity, it was still reassuring and brutal to drive, while dropping the roof allowed you to sample its aural delights yet further.

With standard manual transmission, the S4 could despatch 0-60mph in five seconds flat – enough to keep up with most contemporary sports cars – while it also had incredible grip thanks to the quattro system and an electronic differential lock, which ensured maximum traction even in slippery conditions.

As super execs go, it’s a great package, although the downsides are monumental fuel consumption if you drive it hard, along with £290 a year road tax – though this is preferable to the £560 a year you’d pay to tax a 2006-on version of its successor, the identically powered B7.


Audi S4 (2)

When new, the S4 wasn’t cheap - £40k for the saloon or £1500 more for the Avant. Today, though, it’s a veritable bargain, with the cheapest examples on offer from as little as £3500. That’s a piffling amount for a car with such performance, style and driver appeal, not to mention its inherent practicality, thanks to its mainstream underpinnings.

Of course, the cheaper cars won’t be the best, so listen for cam chain rattle, especially when cold, and be wary of anything with little or no service history – despite being a standard A4 in many respects, the S4 does require specialist maintenance. If you can push your budget out to £5k, there are quite a few examples around with less than 100,000 on the clock, low owner numbers and decent history.

Given that the earlier cars are already on an upwards trajectory in terms of prices, though, we can’t see good S4s getting much cheaper, and they’ve always been quite rare cars, so there really has never been a better time to buy.

Audi S4 (3)

A performance car bargain, and a bona fide future classic, the S4 is a wonderful machine and terrific value for money.


Moro    on 23 February 2018

I bought an ex-demo S4 Avant Tiptronic in 2004 which I still think was the best car I have ever owned. Fond memories of more than 3 years and over 30k miles of quite troublefree motoring @ mid 20’s mpg - although a spirited memorable drive in the Alps did show single figures! I did have the complex cam chain replaced under a warranty recall - which I remember being a lot of labour hours - and also had an excruciatingly expensive door mirror casing (real alloy!) and glass replaced after a coming together with an oncoming vehicle which didn’t stop...but I have recently been looking at getting another as a classic. Good article.

Si tranter    on 26 February 2018

Don't do it! A perfect car to drive but a nightmare to fix. Expect to pay 3500 quid to fix the rattling cam chain, knowing the engine will go bang if you don't. Simply to fast for normal driving conditions anyway, you will be stuck behind everyone on the road after the gentlest prod of the accelerator. Will absolutely shock any joy boy off the line at the lights though to 30 mph of course!

Stuart Ivison    on 6 May 2018

Firstly it does not cost £3500 to change the cam chains, it costs £2200-2500 at most. Any big engine work is an engine out job which inflates the coppers greatly. I have owned my S4 for 8 years now and apart from an alternator/battery issue it has been an absolute joy to drive. I fitted a stainless steel exhaust not long after buying it as it was very 'civilised' for a V8 and it now turns heads in car parks even on low revs. Chain rattle on start up is ' a characteristic of the car ' as Audi UK stated, only worry if it does not disappear after a second or two ( I changed the rattley on start up chains on my 65k car only to find 20k later they started to rattle on start up again, something to do with a coating on the chains when new ). As long as the chains and guides are changed on or before 100k its fine, it goes without saying that clean oil is a must. It has been said that a pre-oiler system will pre lube the chains before start up to avoid the rattle but this would involve a tank being fitted in the front bumper. Now bragging aside officer but 178mph on a remap air intake and cat back exhaust alone ? cant argue with that. Going back to the dreaded maintenance costs interestingly a friend of mine just spent over 2k on his 2004 Ford Focus ST 2.0 so I feel fine with the maintenance costs on my Q car super estate.

Going fast costs money, now take the badges off and go hunting scoobies

A DeAngelis    on 30 November 2018

Greetings from the USA. I just turned 50,000 miles on my 2004 S-4 Cabriolet 6 speed manual trans., which i purchased new for $ 65,000 US. I never had any problems and plan to keep it another 14 years. I couldn't trade it in for a Toyota Corolla, which I wouldn't be caught dead driving anyway. Great car, It still never fails to thrill on the sunny days when it's driven.

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