Test Drive: 2020 Audi S4

The impressive sedan hustles along Southern California's meandering desert roads

Look around a shopping center parking lot, residential city street or multilane highway and you’ll see a multitude of crossovers and traditional SUVs. The delineation between segments and body styles has become increasingly blurred with every new generation of these vehicles as automakers try to both anticipate what buyers want and serve each niche within a niche. While there are obvious benefits to crossovers intended to be both durable and sporty, they ultimately fail to grab attention the way a really well-conceived sport sedan does. We were recently reminded of just how good a traditional four-door car can be when proper balance is the primary focus, thanks to a day spent driving the 2020 Audi S4 around Southern California’s meandering desert roads.

Exterior differences between the outgoing S4 (and the A4, on which it is based) and the latest are subtle, but in a marketplace overrun with garish styling, a little subtlety goes a long way. With the exception of the roof, each panel on the new S4 has been adjusted to deliver an overall more muscular effect and the most obvious change is to the entire front fascia which brings new headlights with available LED matrix animations and a reworked grille, which ditches the boring A4 slats for a honeycomb design. Standard S4 models feature visually pleasing silver contrast bars that appear to float in the grille, while those equipped with the popular Black Optic Pack lose the silver finish in favor of a more stealthy look.

Inside we found the kind of familiar, ergonomic cockpit that Audi has been delivering for the better part of a decade, but now without a multifunction rotary dial adjacent to the gear selector. Instead they’ve mounted a new 10.1-inch touchscreen to the dash that runs one of the top three infotainment systems in the industry, MIB 3. While the system operates flawlessly, featuring large icons and seamless smartphone integration, we’d like to see the screen worked into the dash in a cleaner way. Right now, it looks like an afterthought and with the 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster serving up everything the driver needs right in front of them, one wonders about the need for a center-mounted screen at all—other than to give a front-seat passenger something to get fingerprints on.

We pull keys for an Ibis White model equipped with Black Optic which adds high-gloss black mirror housings, Titanium Black exterior trim and the best of the wheel options, a 19-inch 5-V-spoke style finished in matte titanium and wrapped in sticky Bridgestone summer tires. To our eyes, the standard 18-inch 5-Y-spoke and optional 19-inch five-arm-torso directional look wheels don’t do the car justice and would be more at home on one of Audi’s volume model crossovers. Beyond the visual appeal of the titanium-finish wheels, we truly appreciated the upgraded rubber around them as we took the car from a standstill to 60mph, then beyond that most famous of thresholds, and back to a standstill again.

Motivating those sprints is a twin-scroll turbo 3.0 V6 that carries over from the previous S4 untouched, which provides more than enough shove to make mundane day-to-day driving more exciting and gets the most out of open road cruises. Across the varied inland landscape of Southern California, the S4 is always compliant and regularly inspiring. Roads in this part of California differ in quality and style as they cross through the three distinct bioregions of Mojave, South Coast and Colorado Desert. One minute we are carving up smooth corners, the next we’re navigating rough patches at the bottom of large dips. Either way, those high performance tires are welcomed, but sticky rubber can only take a car so far.

Fortunately our car is also equipped with the new unimaginatively named, but totally worthwhile S Sport package. For an additional $2,500 Audi fits the S4 with an excellent sport adaptive suspension, sport rear differential and sport red brake calipers. The sting of paying for a sport package on a sport sedan is somewhat mitigated by the starting price of the 2020 S4 being $49,900, a few hundred lower than the 2019 S4 was. The aforementioned undulations in the pavement has our co-driver concerned about the S4 leaving the ground, but the quick thinking suspension put such worries aside. It simply compresses at the bottom and clings to the road at the top. Ripping through corners and navigating slow moving rural traffic proves just how sporty that rear differential is too.

With excellent torque vectoring able to deliver nearly the full amount of twist to either rear wheel and Audi’s renowned Quattro all-wheel-drive system able to send up to 85% of power to the rear wheels, the spirited driver has a worthy companion in the 2020 S4. We are reminded of this at every turn of the chunky flat-bottom steering wheel and burp of the exhaust that coincides with upshifts and downshifts. We’d still like better paddles fixed to the back of the steering wheel to trigger those shifts as the plastic units that are in there can be found across the entire Audi model range (including the R8). That said, fun as it is to play F1 driver, setting the drive mode to Dynamic and letting the eight-speed transmission do its thing is just fine.

By the time the sun begins its descent behind the peaks west of Palm Springs, we have a couple definitive conclusions regarding the 2020 S4. Most obvious is that of the four optional packages, the S Sport is definitely the top pick, with the Black Optic and Warm Weather rounding out the top three option boxes to be ticked. It’s worth mentioning that if you do opt for ventilated front seats, you’ll lose Audi’s signature diamond stitching and massage function. The difficulty of this decision will vary depending on your local climate, but as much as we enjoy seat fans, we can’t imagine passing on the snug 12-way adjustable S Sport seats. Our car features handsome Rotor Grey leather with Anthracite contrast stitching, but we’d go for the Rotor Grey Alcantara option that harkens back to S4 models from the mid-2000s. Not only will the Alcantara inserts do more to hold you in place during more aggressive driving, they’ll also trap less heat, thus reducing the disappointment of not having seat ventilation.

The other big conclusion we arrive at is that while the S4 may have lost some of the “specialness” it possessed during the B5 through B7 generations, it’s still very much a noteworthy vehicle.

Images by Andrew Maness