- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 17, 2004

What’s not to like about a car like this? It’s handsome whether the top is up or down, and that alone is relatively rare in convertibles. As often as not top-down cars look great in the open but clunky and awkward with the tops up. Audi struck a nice balance on this one. The cloth top is powered, of course, and has a heated glass rear window.

Speaking of balance, the new S4 is a kick to drive. Everything works in harmony, from the 340-horsepower V-8 engine to the six-speed manual transmission (hence the “MT6” designation). All-wheel drive makes the overall feel akin to being somehow glued to the road surface, no matter which way that surface happens to turn. The ride is pretty comfortable too, in spite of the 235/40 series performance tires and stiffer shock rates. Again, Audi managed to make a performance car feel good enough that you can take a long trip and not feel pummeled when you arrive. One can only describe such a car as “refined,” and Audi does it as well as anyone can.

All that horsepower makes you think the car can outrun most anything on the road. It won’t blow the doors off a Corvette or Viper, but it feels really, really good when you mash the accelerator and let the revs crank way up. Instead of the stump-pulling, high-torque feeling of the big-displacement cars, the Audi’s 4.2 liter (about 246 cubic inches) V-8 somewhat leisurely arrives at its power curve higher in the rev range. It comes on stronger and stronger the longer you let it wind up, but it’s more a “wine and cheese” performance car than a neck-snapper.

Of particular note are the power windows. Like several other convertibles, they drop down about a half inch when you touch the door handle. This allows them to slip under the weather seal without creating undue lateral tension on the glass. I wonder how these devices will work when they are 10 years old, but who know?

What I really like about the windows is their “pinch protection.” The idea here is to keep the window from pinching you head, hand or finger at its top travel position. I’ve actually tested this feature and, although I experienced some trepidation at first, I found them to work flawlessly. Just as the window exerted the lightest pressure on my finger it reversed itself. That’s a great feature and will undoubtedly be mandated in the years to come. (If you want to try this for yourself on your own car, put a pencil against the top window channel and run the electric window up. It will break the pencil.)

Another safety feature is active rollover protection. It works with the ABS and will sense when the car’s pitch and yaw are excessive for the speed, at which time it will compensate by applying brake pressure to specific wheels and cutting engine power. How anyone can be inept enough to get an all-wheel-drive car with sticky tires going too fast in a curve is beyond comprehension, but we hear about it all the time. It seems that the more stable the car, the more likely some idiot will flip it over, so these electronic last-chance stability systems are worth every penny.

The S4 Cabriolet Quattro is a wonderful piece of machinery and it is only reasonable that you have to pay for what you get. In this case the base price is $53,850, but that’s just the start. One simply must have the Dolphin Gray metallic paint ($450) and the premium Bose audio package ($1.000), not to mention the Premium Package ($850) that gives you memory seats and mirrors, a wind deflector, auto-dimming mirror with compass and auto-dimming side mirrors (that’s a great feature). To top off the options you might as well spring the extra $450 for heated seats.

Because the S4 Cabriolet gets only 21 miles per gallon on the highway, it is saddled with the federal “gas guzzler” tax. Based on its mileage, this particular car is hit with a $1,700 penalty. Add in the destination charge of $720 and the grand total for the S4 is $59,045, a serious amount of money indeed.

So what? If you have this kind of money to spend on transportation, you could do much worse than the S4. It’s an elegant, understated performer that will treat you very gently along the way.

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