I was fortunate to have generous (foolish?) relatives who would allow me access to their company BMWs throughout the 1990s when my licence was still fresh. The 320i was still kicking around; my father had a 520i and then a 523i, my stepfather a 318i. I loved every moment behind the wheels of these cars and longed for my first BMW at least as much as I longed for other things that teenage boys long for.
2001 was another significant year. I married; bought my first house, and my first new car: a SEAT Leon 20vt. Of course, I could have stretched to a 316i Compact but that was not, in my view, a “real” BMW. “Real” BMWs had “real” performance. The SEAT lasted 18 months and was swapped (at my wife’s insistence) for a Mini Cooper S.
The Mini was four months old when my wife became pregnant and would have to go. Finally, I was to get my first BMW, a 5 month old, 4000 mile 330i Sport Touring with a manual gearbox.
After 18 years of waiting, the following two years were the most disappointing of my motoring life. The BMW and I just could not get along. I loved much about the car: the sound; the engine; the (manual) gearbox; the performance. But the way the car drove was appalling. At higher motorway speeds the car felt as if it would at any moment throw you into the Armco and every bump sent the car skipping across the road. The car was returned to the dealer after 4 days – and another 3 times over the following year. Finally, at my insistence, the dealer did the appropriate test and found the steering geometry to be incorrectly aligned. This improved the situation but the problem remained.
The last straw was whilst holidaying in France in August 2005 when the BMW proved unable to keep up with small Peugeots and Renaults on the back roads around Gaillac. I became obsessed – it nearly ruined my holiday and my marriage! In stark contrast, I found one road near Rabastens where the BMW showed its true character – a smooth, winding road, over which the BMW was quite incredible – the only time in two years of ownership I was able to get a feel for what the BMW could do when pushed. The rest of the time it simply scared and disappointed me.
The BMW had to go but what to get next? Not another BMW. I need a small estate and I like my cars to be understated with serious pace. Of course – the Audi S4 Avant. It fitted my budget, my taste and my practical and performance needs.
The car was ordered in February – in metallic black, with black leather and a few other necessary options (most notably for its London bound life, parking sensors).
I collected the car on 7 April from Guildford Audi. Over the last 2 months I believe I have found my perfect car. Of course, the whole experience is completely dominated by the fabulous 4.2 litre V8. The noise is just wonderful: the modern whirring of 4 camshafts and 40 valves from under the bonnet and good old fashioned V8 rumbling from the exhaust’s four tail-pipes.
The performance and driving experience is utterly intoxicating. Even trickling along in traffic listening to the V8 burble is enjoyable and on the open road it’s mind-altering (and possibly licence altering too). The engine is always on song – any gear, any revs – its power delivery as addictive as any drug. Each empty stretch of road brings temptation – right foot hard down for another fix of relentless acceleration. There are faster cars of course, including the S4’s nemesis, the BMW M3, but few cars at any price can deliver such satisfying performance.
The S4 wins my heart: the engine, the noise, the performance, the understated good looks, the great Audi interior and perfect Recaro seats.
The car is great fun to drive – up to a point that I very rarely cross. Once or twice the suspension seems overwhelmed by what’s asked of it – something that never happened in the BMW. It never feels frightening but can sometimes lack sophistication. The same is true of the steering – no real complaints but it lacks a certain finesse at the limits of adhesion. However, I very rarely drive anywhere near the limits of the car – my skill and nerve are exceeded well before that point. At 8/10ths, the car has enough grip to make passengers gasp and is incredibly easy to place accurately on the road.
Mine is also the new Audi S4 that comes (when selected with a manual gearbox) with the “next-generation” Quattro from the RS4, so I assume it feels more dynamic than the earlier models which were not well reviewed in the UK press.
The negatives are limited and tug at the brain rather than the heart strings (my heart is most definitely won by this wonderful machine): running costs (economy is no worse than I anticipated at 20 mpg overall and insurance group 20) and the ride is harsh (though this concerns my wife not me) and the tyre roar from the Michelin Pilot Sports is always present and barely acceptable.
The S4 teaches me not to believe all I read in the motoring press. I have found my own motoring nirvana! In the summer I will be undertaking a 3000 mile pan-European drive – London – Toulouse – Nice – Florence – Zurich – London. On the return leg, I’ll be driving the Stelvio Pass. Even with weeks to go and already I am kept awake at night by the prospect of so much time behind the wheel.