26 Dec 2012

Living with Audi S4 - Speedmonkey Fleet

Two weeks and 1,000 miles into ownership of the S4 and I've had more of a chance to experience it and think about the car, it's character, it's strengths and flaws.

With no commute to work (other than a 50 yard trek up the garden to my office, which is log cabin) the car is only used for local trips, unless I need to go somewhere.  And over the past couple of weeks I've had occasion to visit a few different places, which has tested the S4 over a variety of terrain.

First up was a day in Devon.  A 200 mile round trip down the A303, M5 and various back roads around England's finest waterlogged landscape.  It rained all day.  It rained when I got in the car, it rained when I drove along the A303, it rained when I got out to walk across some soggy fields, and it rained when I drove home.  And the S4 performed faultlessly.

The huge (245 section) tyres on 18 inch rims provide masses of traction, particularly with the accelerator pinned, coming off one of the many roundabouts that the southern section of the A303 has to offer.  The power from the 4.2 V8 lump (which still sounds glorious) is perfectly suited to the Quattro all wheel drive system.  Brake, steer, throttle.  Easy and fun.  Average economy over that trip was 20mpg.
© www.speedmonkey.co.uk

Next up was a day out to Silverstone to test a Boxster, 911 and Cayman round Porsche's Handling Circuit.  It was a dark, foggy, early morning start and I'd taken a small flask of tea (can't go a whole day without tea). The flask itself is as wide as a Coke can but 50% taller and kept toppling over in the beautifully designed cup holder which delicately springs forth from the dash.  The solution was to store the flask in a handy drawer which is located between the drivers legs under the seat.  It fitted snugly so didn't roll around.  The S4 doesn't exactly have a surfeit of storage space but that little drawer is now home to my sunglasses and various other bits and bobs which otherwise would get in the way elsewhere.

Nesting aside, what struck me was how good the car felt getting in it after driving brand new £80,000 Porsches all day. My previous car, a 2004 Golf, felt pretty ordinary after driving new Mercedes, Jaguars and the like but the S4 held it's head up high.  The interior might be 8 years old but Audi design is such it doesn't feel dated.  Mind you, the steering and handling isn't a patch on the Porsches'.  The Audi weighs almost 2,000kg and the steering is (should be) quite light.  The S4's suspension is a cut above that on standard A4s but it still could be improved in terms of feedback and feel.

The journey home from Silverstone was eventful.  The last 10 miles of the trip is across the worst roads Berkshire has to offer.  Rutted, potholed, mud strewn and bedecked with enormous puddles.  The ground is so soggy that the field drains have filled and are overflowing across the roads.  At one point I hit a 50 yard long puddle and the right hand side wheels became stuck in a rut.  I was doing about 50mph and didn't brake or steer suddenly so as not to upset the balance, which would have sent me spinning.  Instead I slowed as gently as I could and rode it out.

5 minutes later, halfway round a corner, and the steering went from nicely servoed to not servoed at all. I had lost power steering and muscled the car to the side of the road.  I was 2 miles from home and it was pitch black.  I tested the brakes and they were fine so drove home slowly.

The next day I investigated further.  At speeds of up to 15mph the steering is light but above 15mph it's as if the power steering disappears altogether.  Various internet searches yielded several theories, most of which involve loss of power steering fluid from broken hoses, a broken power steering pump (driven directly from the engine) and potential steering rack replacement.  However, given that the power steering is fine at lower speeds, and the power steering reservoir is filled to the top, my own theory is that the Audi Servomatic relay (which gives variable power steering input at differing speeds) is kaput and needs replacing.  Once I've found an Audi dealer open at this time of year I'll purchase one and see if that is the problem.  I hope so.

Then the car failed to start.  I was beginning to wonder if I should just take the Audi back to the dealer and demand my money back.  However, the S4 was jump-started from our Land Rover Discovery and all was fine.  The problem was obviously an expired battery.  I bought a new battery for a very reasonable £80 - and that's when the fun and games started.

The S4's battery is huge.  It's the largest I've ever seen.  And it fits into a space exactly the same size as the battery - inconveniently located at the rear of the engine bay.  Oh, and the new battery was 1 inch wider than the one it replaced.

The engine bay of the Audi S4 is so tightly packed that if you shone the worlds most powerful torch up from underneath not a chink of light would be seen at the top.  You cannot even poke a finger down the front of the engine to inspect the accessory belt which is hidden away down in the guts of engine bay.

It took 2 hours and the strength of Chuck Norris to install the new battery.  I didn't even bother putting the battery clamp back on.  It's rammed in so tight it won't move an inch - even if I were to perform a Dukes of Hazzard style jump.

The next long journey was another 400 mile round trip to relatives in Cheshire.  The steering stayed heavy, but predictable so is something I can live with.  The S4 didn't put a foot wrong.  It is perfect for motorway cruising.  The seats are supportive and comfortable, the engine powerful enough to sprint up to cruising speed quickly and the BOSE sound system wonderfully crisp and clear.  It's just a wonderful place to be.  The only down-sides were the continued woeful fuel consumption at 20mpg - but what did I expect with a V8 - and the immensely awful driving standards on the M6.  I've driven the M6 for over 20 years and it's always been a dangerous place.  The needless stop, start, stop, start - and rubbernecking at the slightest thing on the other side of the carriageway - made me think the only thing I would want adding to the Audi is adaptive cruise control.  Infiniti's system in particular is easy to use and quick to respond to a bunch of idiotic Sunday drivers slamming their brakes on like some kind of cretinous concertina.

The car's final long journey was a 100 mile round trip to Salisbury Plain.  My in-laws live in a village nestled on the plain.  With passengers in the car I had to be extra smooth with the clutch, which is quite difficult.  Pulling away smoothly from a standstill is easier done reasonably aggressively.  When trying to smooth things out with your wife in the passenger seat it's not hard to kangaroo, which is rather embarrassing and makes you feel like a learner driver.  It's also far too easy to forget the family are in the car and use the 340bhp available to conduct those cheeky little overtakes that the S4 performs so effortlessly.

Whilst everyone else rested after Sunday lunch I took the Audi and our three dogs up to the 1200 acres of land farmed by the family on Salisbury Plain - and had a ball.  We went along rutted tracks, through huge puddles (the air intake is right at the top of the engine bay), across muddy fields, along tank tracks and basically everywhere a supercar disguised as an estate shouldn't be able to go.  A BMW or Mercedes would have come unstuck as soon as it left the main gravel track but the S4 went wherever I asked it.  The dogs enjoyed a good long run around the plantations with no company other than rabbits to chase.

So after two weeks of ownership my new S4 has left me amazed, annoyed, amused, disappointed, relaxed and exhilarated.  Hopefully the negative aspects will melt away once I've fixed the power steering - although the economy will always remain poor.

One thing, though, remains untested.  My wife has yet to drive the car.  She's used to powerful machinery, and she's used to big cars.  But so far she has always come up with an excuse not to drive it - despite the fact her battered Land Rover is currently lashed together with cable ties and electrical flex.

She's decided she likes my old Golf so much she wants to keep it and, despite the fact I spent two hours cleaning it ahead of listing it for sale, has used it for several journeys.  She says she has fallen in love with it again.  So we're selling the Land Rover and keeping the Golf.  I will, though, make sure she drives the S4 soon and will then get the ultimate feedback and approval - from my wife.