Tag Archives: sports car

Review – 2010 Audi S4 quattro

The Good: Sports-car performance, sedan convenience, inspires Kobe Bryant-levels of confidence.

The Bad: Not as fuel-efficient as the EPA would have you think, transmission a bit rebellious.

The Verdict: A near-perfect harmony of speed, style and substance.

The best automobiles are more than transportation appliances. Sure, they move you from place to place just as well as any car, truck, golf cart or Segway – but they do so much more. They inspire passion. They inspire lust. And, like Hugh Grant in any number of estrogen-tastic romantic comedies, despite their flaws, you ultimately come to love them wholeheartedly.

The Audi S4 is one of those cars.

On the surface, the S4 doesn’t seem very different from the A4 on which it’s based. While the S4 receives unique bumpers, a mildly different grille and quad tailpipes in lieu of the A4’s twin pipes, only the hardest core of enthusiasts are likely to notice. It’s a stealthy approach to speed – in stark contrast to the in-your-face aggression of potential competitors like the BMW M3 or the Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG.

(Of course, Audi insists the S4 doesn’t compete with those macho models, instead preferring to stack its stealth sports sedan against the “regular” six-cylinder entry-level luxury sedans – specifically, the BMW 335i, which the S4 is locked onto like a Tomahawk cruise missile.)

The trend of stylish subtlety continues inside, where the biggest variation from the A4 are a pair of sport bucket seats up front – though a handful of other differentiators, such as S4-branded gauges and steering wheel, pop up around the interior. But lack of style was never really a problem with the A4 (at least from my point of view), and the S4’s differences, though minor, add a bit of panache to the car’s looks.

Pop the hood, though, and the changes become a lot more apparent. Instead of the turbocharged 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder in the A4, the S4 runs wild with a 333-horsepower supercharged 3.0 liter V6 capable of propelling the S4 from 0 to 60 in 4.9 seconds, according to both Audi and Car and Driver.

But those numbers seem so cold and abstract compared to those 333 horses. This car is fast. Whee! Fast. The supercharger has effectively no lag (a major advantage blowers have over turbochargers) – punch the throttle, and you’re thrown back into your seat and on your way to that inevitable court date. (“Reckless driving,” my ass…)

While the S4 is based off a front-drive platform (indeed, you can buy a FWD A4 if you really want, but good luck finding one), it thankfully comes with standard all-wheel-drive, which harnesses those gallivanting ponies and sticks them to the ground with the expected Germanic efficiency. Between it and the electronic stability control, even the slipperiest Vermont roads were easily negotiable.

That said, though, click off the ESP, and the S4 will hang its tail out in curves all day long if you want it too (especially on those aforementioned icy dirt roads). I spend the better part of ten minutes baking donuts in the fresh snow of an Asian fusion restaurant parking lot – including several continuous loops around a blue spruce in the middle of the lot. (And I don’t regret it one bit, Ma.)

While a six-speed manual transmission comes standard, my tester put the power down through a seven-speed dual clutch transmission. In the past, I’ve been quite happy with this type of transmission (both in the Audi TT-S and the Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart), and the S4 was no exception – in automatic mode, shifts are as smooth as a slushbox, while in manual mode, it cracks off shifts with Barry Allen speed.

Adding a seventh, higher gear to the mix adds some virtue to the car’s hefty serving of vice, allowing the S4 to reach an EPA-claimed 28 mpg on the highway and 18 mpg in town. Of course, the EPA test cycle was designed by an engineer who drives like Ralph Nader in a snowstorm, so real-world mileage is a bit lower; I averaged 22.45 miles per gallon over a week of mostly highway driving.

The dual clutch ‘box isn’t perfect, however. Even in manual mode, flooring the throttle in high gear causes the car to drop down several cogs to put you in the heart of the powerband again. In automatic mode, this certainly makes sense, but presumably any driver who’s enabled manual mode wants to make his or her own decisions – and if he/she wants to, say, test top-gear acceleration along the New Jersey Turnpike without being unexpectedly flung towards the Pennsylvania state line, that’s his or her perogative.

Less startling but more annoying, the aluminum paddles on the back of the steering wheel are on the small side – small enough to be all but invisible behind the spokes at 9 and 3 o’clock. I presume this was an intentional move to keep them out of the way for drivers who don’t want to be bothered with shifting for themselves – but it seems kind of a burn to the enthusiasts who, presumably, make up a hefty percentage of the S4’s clientele.

Quibbles aside, the S4’s powertrain makes for one hell of a fun ride; luckily, when the road turns curvy, the suspension and chassis proves more than capable of cashing the checks the supercharged V6 loves to write all over the pavement. As with true sports cars, the S4’s limits will almost always lie beyond those of your nerves (at least on public roads).

Push the car into turns, and it urges you on, encouraging and emboldening you. While the steering can be heavy at low speeds, it lightens up as the car builds velocity, never feeling floaty or disconnected. Few cars instill as much confidence in their drivers as the S4 does.

On a side note, this was the first Audi I’ve tested lacking the Audi Drive Select system, which allows the driver to adjust the suspension, steering and drivetrain’s responsiveness. To what degree the ADS improves non-“S” models, I’m still unsure, but given my experience with the S4, I’d be hard-pressed to imagine how the system could improve on the car’s dynamics – at least, not enough to warrant its $3,950 price.

Of course, sport sedans promise a measure of convenience along with performance – after all, as Mitt Romney learned, society tends to frown on strapping your dog to the roof of your car; there will be times you need that extra room. Not surprisingly, the S4 offers all the convenience of the A4 it’s based on – it just goes faster. Granted, it’s still on the smaller end of the sedan spectrum; it’s possible to fit three adults and a week’s worth of luggage into the car, but let’s just say my backseat-dwelling father would probably not enjoy repeating that drive from Boston to New York City anytime soon. (Especially since he had to share the rear bench with several large bags.)

The Bottom Line:

For anyone seeking maximum driving excitement for around $50,000 without sacrificing utility, the S4 is as good as it gets. It’ll take winding back roads like a sports car at noon and let you drive octogenarian ladies to and from dinner at night. The S4 packs 95 percent of the fun of a sports car with 100 percent of the comfort and handiness of a four-door luxury sedan.

As an automotive journalist, people often ask, “If you could have one car, regardless of price, what would it be?” Usually, I’ll respond with my supercar crush du jour, then offer a quippy remark about the fun factor overwhelming the little inconveniences – crappy gas mileage, hefty insurance rates, lack of room, tricky behavior in town, and so forth.

But today? I might just tell them, “Audi S4.”

Base Price/Price As Tested: $48,125/$53,450

0-60: 4.9 seconds (courtesy Car and Driver)

Fuel Economy: 18 city/28 highway (EPA estimate); 22.45 mpg (observed)

Key Competitors: BMW 335i/335xi, Ford Taurus SHO, Cadillac CTS

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Review – 2009 Audi A5 3.2 quattro

The Good: Playful chassis, movie-star looks, surprisingly versatile.

The Bad: Needs more power, S5 only a few grand more expensive.

The Verdict: About 100 horses shy of being a great sports coupe.

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Just like people, some cars are destined to stand in the shadows of their siblings. The Porsche Cayman may be considered by many to be the superior driver’s car, but the 911 will always be the car that stirs the hearts of 12-year-olds of all ages.

Likewise, the Audi A5 is doomed to sit one row behind its brother, the S5. Rocking a 354-horsepower V8 and aggressive bodywork, the S5 is a sinfully lustful piece of machinery, capable of dropping jaws and seducing women with a glimpse.

And then there’s the (barely) more prosaic A5, waving, “Hey, I’m cool too! What about me?”

To be sure, without an S5 nearby for comparison, the A5 will suck in gold-digging women and midlife-crisis-afflicted men for blocks around. With its long hood, taut lines, narrow headlights and wide grill, there’s a predatory mien to the A5, as if it fuels itself by stalking the streets at night, hunting for unlucky deer and pedestrians.

The car is so good-looking my tester’s black paint job seemed detrimental, hiding the car’s creases and blurring its crisp lines. Anyone purchasing an A5 ought to consider something a little more vivid. I mean, you’re not buying this car to blend in.

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Anyone with experience sitting in an Audi (or frequent readers of this blog, for that matter) won’t be surprised to hear the interior continues the stylish trend set by the sheetmetal.  Controls and materials are Audi standard – which is to say, top of the class. The interior is a feast for the senses, and controls fall easily to hand. The only variations from the Audi status quo are the sport seats partially upholstered in Alcantara (fake suede) that came along with the sporty S-line package.

Those seats lived up to their name, proving supportive while I wound the car through the twists and turns of north central New Jersey. Highway slogs, however, weren’t quite as ideal in the chairs; while comfortable at first, a not-quite-pleasant case of numb butt seemed to creep in sooner than one would like. Still, given they were designed more for spirited driving than cross-country expeditions, it’s a minor complaint.

The rear seats, however, proved another story. I’ve always been of the view that people ought to only buy as much car as they’ll need most of the time – that is, if you usually only drive around with one passenger or by yourself, you should get a coupe, not an SUV or sedan. But the backseat of the A5 was…well, let’s just call it inconvenient. It proved quite suitable as a parcel shelf, helping me and my girlfriend move most of her possessions from one apartment to another across Manhattan; however, any living creatures you want to put back there had better either weigh less than 100 pounds or lack limbs. Even large anacondas and Mini Me-sized amputees will probably want out of there before too long, as the scarcity of headroom and lack of view makes for a claustrophobic ride.

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But stick to the front seats – especially the one on the left – and the A5 makes for a pretty thrilling ride. It only takes a couple of turns to realize this is a true sports coupe – not a luxury sedan given a stylish makeover, but a two-door car aimed at people who love to drive.

Toss the Audi into a curve, and it claws its way around the bend with glee. Body roll is minimal, and the suspension doesn’t give in easily. This car wants to play, wants to dance around slower vehicles and through weaving two-lanes. As in the best cars, when you’re driving the A5, those yellow “winding road” signs are less a warning and more an invitation.

And, lo, what’s this sprouting from between the seats? Why – it’s a stick shift! Praise the Lord and pass the gasoline! Yes, while the A5 can be had with the six-speed automatic common to nearly every Audi, my tester came with a six-speed manual with a baseball-sized shift knob that fell right into the palm of my right hand. While shifts aren’t quite as crisp as those of BMWs or Hondas – who tend to set the standard for pleasant shift feel – it’s still a joy to use, and further indicates the Audi’s goal of being perceived as a sports coupe, rather than a two-door luxury car.

Paradoxically, though, choosing the manual also forces you to deal with a frustrating indicator under the speedometer telling you to upshift. As if its existence alone weren’t bad enough, the light often starts blinking ridiculously early – often telling me to shift up to the next gear at a mere 1800 rpm. Clearly, it’s designed to maximize fuel economy – but follow its guidance, and you’ll find yourself frequently outaccelerated by passing scooters. Razor, not Vespa.

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(Devastatingly, though, as of the 2010 model year, Audi no longer offers the six-speed stick on V6-motivated A5s. You might be able to find some new ‘09s still on dealer lots if you look, but finding them might be hard, given the American preference for slushboxes. However, Audi now offers their torquey 2.0 liter turbocharged I4 in the A5, and it’s still available with a manual.)

Unfortunately, even winding the most out of the A5’s 3.2 liter V6 won’t result in earth-shattering acceleration. Five years ago, 265 horsepower would have put the Audi at the top of its class; these days, however, it just can’t hold its own against engines like BMW’s silky smooth 300 horsepower twin-turbo inline six or Infiniti’s snorty 330 horsepower V6. And given that the S5 starts at $1,490 less than my tester, the A5’s place in the lineup becomes a little unclear.

Still, my loaded model was strapped down with nearly 14 grand in options, which cost-conscious customers could consider chopping (alliteration five!).  The S-line package (including sport suspension, tires and the aforementioned sport seats) is probably worth the $2,900 if you’re a performance driver; it also makes the $2,950 adjustable suspension seem somewhat redundant.

Likewise, the technology package ($2,200 for a rear parking camera and sonar, turning headlights, a blind-sport warning system and keyless entry) and the rockin’ Bang & olufsen sound system ($850) seem worth the money for a choice ride like this; however, I for one could do without the $1,900 premium package (though it does include those badass LED daytime running lights) and the navigation system (handy, but not worth $2,390 – not when a top-of-the-line Garmin GPS system costs $500).

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The Bottom Line: The Audi A5 is an honest sports coupe – a two-door vehicle bigger than a real sports car, but still capable of handling itself with as much glee as Fox’s Wednesday night lineup. Sadly, though, there’s little to distinguish it from its faster, sexier sibling, the S5, beyond a smaller engine.

The A4 and S4 sedan manage to stand apart because of their more utilitarian nature; there are plenty of people out there who want a capable luxury sedan, but don’t crave driving the way David Duchovny does poontang. Coupe buyers, though – especially ones looking at performance-oriented ones like the A5 – are more likely to be interested in the extra grunt of its V8-powered sibling.

But if you can’t stretch to the S5 and are forced to make do with the A5, you probably won’t regret it. After all, they say it’s better to drive slow cars fast than fast cars slow. And that way, you give the bystanders more time to stare.

Base Price/Price As Tested: $40,700/$54,715

0-60: 5.8 seconds (courtesy Car and Driver)

Fuel Economy: 16 city/27 highway (EPA estimates)

Key Competitors: BMW 3-series coupe, Infiniti G37 Coupe, Audi S5.

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A Burst of News – Hybrid Toyota Supra, the next Ferrari, and the Toyobaru Coupe

It’s once again time for one of our semi-regular bursts of news, where we bring you up-to-date on interesting things happening in and around the automotive world that you’re probably not going to read about in the newspaper. (If you actually read the paper, that is.)

Let’s start off with two bits of sports car news regarding vehicles that, like Misters Plessy and Ferguson, are quite separate but of equal importance.

First up comes news that despite several public denials, Toyota is hard at work on a successor to the much-loved Supra sports car. Rumor has it the next-gen car will pack a hybrid V6 drivetrain putting out a total of 400 horses; however, they’ll also be offering a non-hybrid version for people who’d rather screw the planet over, thank you very much. Rear-wheel-drive will almost certainly be a given; styling inspired by the FT-HS concept car is a possibility. Expect to see a concept car version sometime next year, with production models coming in the fall of 2011.

Toyota FT-HS Concept

Toyota FT-HS Concept

Given the success Nissan has had with its Z, it’s surprising Toyota has waited this long to bring out their own middleweight sports car. It should be interesting to see how the hybrid technology holds up in a performance car – especially since Toyota’s hardly the only manufacturer exploring the tech’s sports-car potential. (More on that further down.)

The other sports car news from Japan regards the much-rumored “Toyobaru” – the cheap sports car being jointly developed by Subaru and Toyota. According to 7Tune, Subaru will be making a sportier STI variant of the car, even if Toyota only chooses to offer the car with one engine.

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The insiders’ report reveals the Toyobaru will also feature styling similar to the Lexus LF-A supercar that’s been taunting car enthusiasts for years as a concept, a prototype and even a subtly disguised race car. Supposedly, the Toyobaru joint task force (I don’t know what they call themselves, I just like the sound of that) wants to keep the price under 2 million yen – as of today, a little more than $20,000.

The LF-A attempts to hide by closing its eyes and pretending it's invisible.

The LF-A attempts to hide by closing its eyes and pretending it's invisible.

If they can bring it stateside for that price, equipped with the rumored 200-horsepower four-cylinder engine and six-speed manual, they can start the line right behind me. If you want in, we’ll be lining up sometime in 2011.

In other sports-car related news, Ferrari told AutoCar they may be unveiling their successor to the F430 at this year’s Los Angeles Auto Show in December – as a hybrid. Go on, take a second to clean away that coffee you just spit-taked onto your monitor, I’ll wait.

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Yes, folks, Ferrari – who usually rank between Bentley and Pratt & Whitney in terms of environmentally-friendly engines – want to start nudging forward the idea that, hey, maybe hybrids can be fun! Indeed, they recently filed patents for an all-wheel-drive hybrid system, among other environmentally-friendly technologies that seem as bizarre as George Clooney’s bat-suit nipples.

However, don’t expect to see a hybrid AWD system under your brand-new F450, as everyone is referring to the new mid-engined Ferrari until they unveil the actual name. The company is understandably concerned about whether customers are ready for “green” Ferraris – hence the “concept” moniker attached to the hybrid version set to be unveiled this winter. Production F450 Hybrids should become available sometime in the middle of the next decade.

Few concrete details are known about the F450, but don’t expect much departure from the formula that made the 360 Modena and F430 successful – a high-revving V8, two seats, and a sleek design. Power will probably be in the 500-550 horsepower range, with the California’s seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox.

In addition, the folks at CzechFerrari.cz have posted some pictures they claim to be the F450. The pictures don’t reveal much, since the prototype in them is missing its front end…and its back end…and wheels…and most of the interior. But if nothing else, they hint at the overall shape of the car – and it looks pretty good so far. (For some reason, the images won’t seem to save, so we can’t show you them, but we can point you to the CzechFerrari page with all the images.)

Finally, Kelley Blue Book has just released a list of what they consider this year’s coolest cars for under $18,000. While we don’t like to be nitpicky (oh, who am I kidding – I live to pick nits), there are a couple worth mentioning. First off, Kelley, I think you mean cars for less than $18,000, unless you’re literally referring to cars with 18 grand of cash plopped on the roof. Secondly, some of those picks seem like padding. The Focus’s SYNC system may read your incoming Tweets aloud, but it doesn’t change the fact that beneath the skin it’s pretty much the same car that went on sale a decade ago.

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Fantasy Files – 2008 Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano

The Good: Everything.

The Bad: Eleven miles per gallon. Oh, and you can’t have one.

The Verdict: It will be mine. Oh, yes – it will be mine.

You have to be a certain age to appreciate a car like the Ferrari 599. Oh, not just because even the smartest, most dedicated of us will have to work decades before our salaries approach the realm necessary to afford this car. There’s another reason.

You have to know what sex feels like.

You don’t drive this car. You dance with it. You love it, romance it along the roads, building to a crechendo in each gear. You merge together, man and machine combining into something bold, beautiful and heroic. It makes you feel like a god.

The Ferrari flows along mountain roads like liquid mercury, blasting along at speeds that astoundingly fast and incredibly controlled at the same time. Colors seem brighter, sounds seem sharper as the Ferrari’s V-12 races through its range with orgasmic fury. This isn’t a car, you realize. This is a state of mind.

 

Wherever it went, the Ferrari drew crowds.

Wherever it went, the Ferrari drew crowds.

Of course, when you’re paying at least $318,045 for a car, you’d hope for a pretty transcendent experience – and not just in terms of how it handles the road. You want that baby to be perfect, inside and out. Thankfully for Ferrari (and for humankind), the 599 pulls it off. Inside, anything not covered in contrasting cowskin is made out of carbon fiber. If you’re worried about damaging the leather, you may want to invest in some gloves, because the urge to touch everything in sight is hard to fight. You’ll be hard-pressed to find leather smoother or softer in any wallet.

But it’s more than just the quality of the interior that makes this car a gleeful place to wile away the miles – it’s the styling, too. Vents jut out of the center console like afterburner nozzles on an F-15. Every control falls directly to hand, importance dictating proximity to where the driver’s hands should be. Shift paddles? Right at 9 and 3, an inch away from your index finger. The button which drops the car’s sequential manual gearbox into automatic mode lies down where the cupholders would be in a lesser automobile, far enough away to make you think twice about pushing it. And the radio lies concealed beneath a retractable plate, out of sight and mind. Press the plate, and it slides up like Iron Man’s mask – but like that mask, any millionaires planning on on taking their new toy out for a spin would be better served keeping it closed.

Of course, no review of the 599 could be complete without mention of the marvelous manettino, the small red switch on the lower right of the steering wheel. While it might look like the sort of device used to launch missiles against Tupolev Tu-160 bombers, it in fact controls an arsenal of on-board electronic systems, from how fast the transmission swaps gears to the stiffness of the suspension. Five settings are available (although Nigel Tufnel’s car goes up to 11); turn it all the way to the left, and your Ferrari is ready for driving on icy roads (ha!), whereas turning it all the way to the right disengages everything traction control, stability control and everything short of the power steering to give you the full Han Solo experience. I kept the dial in the middle position – “sport” – the whole time, and I expect most people will do the same.

As for the car’s exterior, there’s been plenty of discussion in the automotive world as to whether the 599 is as pretty as it could be, with some going as far as to call it “ugly.” While it may not be the prettiest car on the road, it certainly has presence, and anyone who’s seen it in the flesh and still calls it “ugly” could probably use a vision check or a whack upside the head.

Then again, it’s probably wise to give people the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the car’s appearance – they’ll have to be pretty quick to catch a good look at it, given its performance figures. In their September 2008 issue, Car and Driver ran a Ferrari 599 GTB from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 3.3 seconds, and blazed the car through the quarter-mile in 11.2 seconds at 131 mph. (Interestingly, C/D mentioned in the article they thought Ferrari might have slipped the 650-horsepower engine from the Ferrari Enzo under the hood of the test car in place of the 599’s specified 612-horsepower V-12, but considering every other test of the 599 – including an earlier one by C/D – displayed similar acceleration figures, it seems more likely to me that the folks at Maranello are simply understating the power figures on the 599’s 6.0 liter engine out of respect for the Enzo.)

Of course, power corrupts, and in the Ferrari’s case, the atmosphere ends up getting the bad end of the stick; the EPA rates the 599 at 11 miles per gallon in the city and 15 on the highway. This may be a little optimistic; Car and Driver managed to eke out only 9 miles per gallon in their comparison, and a recent test by British TV show Top Gear found the Ferrari capable of only 1.7 miles per gallon during a five-car track race. (You can see footage of the latter here.)

But in the end, it doesn’t matter whether the 599’s engine makes 612, 620 or 650 horsepower. Even for the folks who forked over enough money to buy a nice house and waited two years for their car, the numbers are, in the end, beside the point. The point of the Ferrari 599 is that it is, right here and now, the evolutionary peak of the automobile. No other car synthesizes state-of-the art technology with raw emotion to such magnificent effect. Should you ever find yourself tripping over a thirty-pound gold nugget and wondering what to do with it, I’ve got a damn good suggestion for you.

Grade: A+

   

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