Audi has always been an interesting company to me. Not in the way most folks would expect, either, as it hasn’t ever had a definite attraction for me. No, it is more that the company seems to have this attitude of trying so desperately hard to please everyone at once. That isn’t a bad thing; look at the Sonic movie that was set to release this year but went back to square one after the outburst from the ’80s and ’90s nostalgia fans crying over the trite content and frankly offensive design that gave off more of a parody vibe than a throwback. With that kind of mentality, Audi appears at least similar in a few respects. May I direct your attention to the S4 and its various generations that bring us up to the present day B9 S4.
When it was first introduced, the B5 S4 was a great car but competed with BMW, Mercedes, and, to a degree, Jaguar for the luxury sport model. Except, it didn’t. Where BMW had the E46 M3, a 333bhp, naturally aspirated, coupe or convertible, Audi had the compact sedan and Avant wagon with a much milder and smaller turbocharged engine. Mercedes had the big V8 coupe and sedan options that were geared almost exclusively toward luxurious comfort and powerful highway cruising on the Autobahn. The B5 was not in the same ballpark for interior amenities or built for maintaining 120mph+ in quiet comfort for long trips. It was somewhere in the middle between the two in terms of comfort and performance and didn’t have a different body style besides the sedan and Avant options to appeal to a wide range of buyers. While it has since gained popularity as a tuner car, at the time, it was rather overshadowed because it didn’t do one thing well, it just sort of existed, trying to be all of the things at once without achieving one proficiency. It was the second fiddle in every category, but it played that second fiddle spot well and did it independently of what naysayers exclaimed in protest.
Then came the B6 and B7 generations, which is where the ‘people pleasing’ aspect takes off dramatically. Audi listened to their customers and the market; they stuffed a brand new V8 under the hood, made the cars bigger, more comfortable, and eager to compete with the E46 M3. Naturally, everyone complained from day one. “Why did they ditch the 2.7-liter twin-turbo?” “Why is it so big?” and other grievances quickly filled Audi’s eardrums shortly before the sound of failing timing chain guides drowned out the clatter of whiners who would complain about a free $100 bill because it wasn’t $200. With the notorious engine-out timing chain woes plaguing the B6 and B7, and the complaints that the naturally aspirated V8 wasn’t true to Audi form, once again they went back to the drawing board.
For the B8, they brought back a V6 3.0T. The “T” clearly designates “Supercharger” because Audi logic, duh. Sarcasm aside, the B8 was bigger, lighter, faster, and relatively more reliable than the previous two generations. It had an available DSG transmission that arguably made the car a real competitor to the SMG M3s, and the S5 coupe option was introduced to tap into the market segment dominated by BMW’s E92. With comparable performance, the beloved boost, and a redesigned interior that focused on both comfort and ability, the B8 seemed to have finally hit the mark. But did it? Really? It still represents pandering to the market rather than creativity and what I believe would be the ‘best version’ of the B8 S4/S5. Had Audi just built what they wanted from the beginning, we would likely have a very different car; one that demonstrates the best Audi could do rather than a panicked scramble to pack in all the suggestions from the peanut gallery who probably couldn’t afford the previous generations anyway.
That suggestion box brings us to the B9. While some would argue they truly hit the bulls-eye in this generation, I posit this question: why go through the obvious rough-draft revision in the first place with two B8 models, the B8 and the B8.5, just to arrive at something you easily could have produced in their place? It always puts them behind the market since they are waiting for the complaints. To offer an analogy, it’s like a kid who is mildly bullied about his outfit at school and that he is slightly out of shape.
Taken out of that environment, there is nothing inherently ‘wrong’ with the kid. There is nothing wrong with his outfit and he isn’t some bloated whale of a person huffing and puffing from bench to bench at the mall, belabored by his existence. But when that kid listens to the folks just trying to be popular by collectively hating on him, he goes off one summer and lifts weights religiously, buys all the fashionable clothes he can with his part-time job money, and comes back to school the next semester… only to find that the ‘stylish’ clothes he bought are no longer desirable and being cut isn’t as popular as being a skinny sad boi with a skateboard tucked under his arm, torn up women’s jeans restricting his circulation, and superficial interest in surface-level anime.
The long, drawn-out, and probably overcomplicated point I am trying to make is that while Audi was focused on pleasing everyone at the moment, only to be a year or more behind the trend when their next S4 is released, BMW, Mercedes, Jaguar, Porsche, and even GM were focused on designing things for themselves that, because of their individuality, became the new trend that once again left Audi behind.
Back to the B9, with its introduction, Audi revisited the turbocharger rather than the supercharger on a newly designed hot-side-in V6. Inside the car was a completely refreshed combination of suede and leather with VIP-inspired quilted inserts, an all-digital virtual cockpit dash, minimalist three-spoke steering wheel, and technology of every kind spilling out the windows. It’s essentially the same response as the bullied kid who went to the gym three times a day, drank protein until his stool was the color and consistency of raw coal, and developed a hair-trigger temper often signified by his new catchphrase ‘you wanna go?!?’
Not only that, but they ditched both the DSG and Manual Transmission options for an 8-speed traditional automatic sourced from ZF. Without going into detail about how transmissions work, there is nothing wrong with an automatic. The lazy buildup of power before it transfers from the crank to the wheels, though, is not indicative of a performance car, especially one that once again suffers from some boost lag. So, where we at least had the lightning-quick responsiveness of the DSG or the engaging nature of the manual transmission in the previous models, now we have a comfort-oriented, fuel-economy-minded, 8-speed gearbox with a torque converter straight out of the ’70s. It’s like Audi, fed up with trying to please everyone, said “Fine! Do you want comfort? Here’s an automatic. Do you want a turbo? Here’s a new V6 turbo engine with 360hp. Do you want comfort? Here’s an interior straight out of a SEMA trophy truck or Nissan President VIP car. ARE YOU HAPPY NOW!?” As they throw their drink to the cafeteria floor and storm out to sneak a cigarette in the parking lot before Mrs. May’s 4th-period chemistry class while they grumble about how much those new Jordans cost.
Regardless, while it may have been nearly two decades of Audi chasing popularity, the result is they seem to have finally discovered themselves and arrived at a product that represents them. It isn’t the fastest, flashiest, untamed performance car. It isn’t the biggest, softest, luxury barge. It’s distinctly Audi; a perfect blend of all those things with some logical sacrifices aimed at hitting their target market of tasteful folks. Those with a sense of reserved fun and the desire to drive their beloved sport-oriented executive sedan year-round in any conditions without the need to shift gears if they want to plant their right foot on the highway to pass a few astonished commuters. The B9 S4 is, then, a modern reintroduction of the spirit of the universally loved B5 S4. It hits its mark in that it isn’t just like the competition, it has a unique approach that says ‘I do my own thing my way and I do it well enough to make me happy.’
Yes, the B9 S4 is a wonderful car. As a die-hard BMW and Nissan enthusiast, that says something, considering my natural aversion to sacrifices in the name of comfort and love of inline engines. The technology and racing inspiration behind the virtual cockpit, Quattro system, and hot-side-in 3.0T under the hood make the B9 S4 incredibly engaging to drive and easier to live with than any of its competitors, Mercedes aside, while it is friendly to modification and carries a lineage that supports that attitude, where Mercedes traditionally does not.
So, after years of pandering, pleading, redesigning, and angrily racing to keep up with an impossible to predict fashion trajectory, Audi has finally developed something specifically theirs that has become widely appealing to a range of customers that now praise the B9 despite what some would call sacrifices. So what if it doesn’t have a manual transmission? It can still outrun your ‘Stage 2+’ ’05 STi without so much as a cold air intake and will do so with dignity while your fillings are rattled out, your A-pillar falls into your lap, and your synchros explode with each bang shift. Whether it sits by itself in a lonely parking lot, stuck in gridlock on the morning commute, or winding down a country road, the B9 S4 is distinguished by its ability to subvert attention for quiet success and envelop its driver and passengers in a cocoon of German luxury.
After all the points are tallied, the B9 S4 emerges as a clear choice for an adult enthusiast with a penchant for rambunctious fun who has finally accepted himself when he looks in the mirror every morning. Gone are the days of wearing a façade of branded clothing intended to earn approval from small-minded simpletons. In their place, the confidence and success of someone, who through trial, mistakes, and a return to their true personality, has become a distinguished individual with the wisdom of experience and pain supporting their newfound sense of self-worth.