As more and more people are concerned about consumption of resources and output of emissions, the tide is turning on how our cars are propelled. Gone are the days of larger and larger engines to satisfy performance cravings, for the most part at least. In a few years, government-mandated fuel efficiency standards will tighten as well.
This may sound like bad news if you had your heart set on someday owning a high-performance car, but in a way it’s not. Some clever engineering is being employed to further refine the way gasoline is used to power our cars, the goal being that the energy in it is taken full advantage of.
A case in point is Audi’s new 2010 S4 sport sedan. The thrill-seeking variant of the A4 (itself a fun car to drive – just not that ferocious) used to come with a V8 engine that made it a wolf in sheep’s clothing, with all kinds of horsepower and torque available at a twitch of the driver’s right foot. Unfortunately, that car was never very good in the EPA’s fuel economy tests.
So Audi’s engineers went to work on building a smaller engine that could offer the same performance as the 4.2 liter V8. This year’s S4 is still a performer, but with a 3.0 liter V6 with a supercharger placed on top. Though turbochargers are going to become commonplace within a few years on passenger cars, superchargers accomplish the same result in a slightly different way.
While a turbo is driven by exhaust flowing past a small propeller-like device, a supercharger is driven by a belt on the front of the engine. Like a turbo, it forces air into the engine for increased performance without having to use a larger engine size.
In the case of the S4, it’s an absolute win-win situation. According to Audi, the new supercharged V6 makes nearly the same power as the V8, but provides better acceleration as well as improved fuel economy. There’s also a monetary savings, as the old S4 was subject to a federal gas guzzler tax of $1300-1700, thanks to its thirst for premium unleaded fuel.
So even though the supercharged S4 (curiously, the badges on the front fenders read “V6T” – sure to confuse people who will think that the T means “turbo”) makes 333 horsepower, its official fuel mileage ratings are 18 mpg in the city and 27 or 28 on the highway, depending on whether you choose the 6-speed manual or 7-speed automatic transmission, respectively.
By comparison, the 2008 S4 sedan (there was no 2009 model) was rated at 13-14 city and 20-21 highway, so today’s car marks a significant improvement. Beyond just the fuel consumption aspect, the carbon output of the new car is greatly reduced.
Standard on the S4 is Audi’s Quattro all wheel drive system, which helps get all those horses to the ground. The system also aids with grip during spirited cornering. While the standard A4 can often get along just fine with two wheel drive, a quick run through a curved onramp really demonstrates why the S4 needs the extra grip, and why it really pays off.
The car I drove was equipped with the standard 6-speed manual transmission, which is an absolute delight. Audi has done a great job at making the gear lever feel as though it’s connected directly to the gearbox, rather than sending its actions through a series of cables and rods. Shifting from gear to gear is smooth and positive. If you prefer an automatic, the new 7-speed is a dual-clutch design, replacing the more conventional 6-speed automatic in the previous car.
Another area Audi always seems to do well is with its interiors. Very comfortable seats, well laid-out controls, and simple switchgear all contribute to the overall driving experience. My only complaint is that Audi’s Bluetooth system (part of their MMI navigation and audio control) never seems to work with my cell phone. For some reason, I can pair my Verizon Motorola with every other car company’s system, but Audi’s always rejects it.
Base price for the 2010 Audi S4 is $45,900 for the manual transmission version, and $47,300 for the S-tronic (automatic) model. Those prices are lower than those of the 2008 V8 car, before the gas guzzler tax is even factored in. Overall, the new S4 will cost less to buy and cost less to drive.
Saving fuel is a good thing, as is putting out less pollution. And of course saving money is a good thing too, at least for most of us. Technology is allowing buyers to do all three of those in the case of the Audi S4.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7. He’s also a car enthusiast and owns several classics. Dave can be reached at TVCarz @ pacbell.net.