First Drive: S4 Cabriolet – A Subtle Form of Sin

Lake Las Vegas, NV – It’s rather fitting that Audi chose the Italian-inspired community of Henderson on the shores of Lake Las Vegas as the venue to launch their new S4 Cabriolet. Vegas weather in April is temperate and calm; perfect top-down weather. The landscape is beautiful and nearby Valley of Fire State Park is home to rocks almost as red as the Audi Sport swoosh adorning the grille of any Audi S-Car. Splendid back drop and weather for sure, but it’s the personality of the place that is so fitting for the S4 Cabriolet.

Everyone knows Las Vegas is the city of sin. As such it seems the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce has distanced themselves as of late from the family orientation come-ons for a more adult “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” tag-line, and there’s no denying that those with the urge to go a little nuts, can do so virtually anywhere along the Vegas “Strip”. New and modern dance clubs are all the rage where the rich and famous party through the night, and often the following day with reckless abandon. However, spend a few days on the Strip and it’s easy to get burned out. It’s not for everyone, and a short visit, for many, might seem much more attractive than living there full time.

Just up the road, the communities springing up on the shores of Lake Las Vegas are a different animal. With lush green grass, gardens filled with a wide variety of flora, and Italian villa-inspired architecture, Henderson, Nevada is starkly different from downtown. Walk into the lobby of almost any hotel there and you won’t be greeted by the song of thousands of slot machines as you would on the Strip. Casinos are definitely still there, though not in-your-face, and much better for day-to-day living. While most folks would enjoy visiting the Strip, all but the most hardcore would probably choose to live near the lake.

Such a striking contrast between the Strip and the Lake is not lost on the S4 Cabriolet and parallels are drawn quite easily. With its V8 engine, standard 6-speed manual transmission, and 18-inch wheels, it’s no surprise that the S4 Cabriolet is built for having fun. However, compare it to alternative market offerings such as the M3 Convertible, and you’ll find the Audi is much more subtle and livable. The boy-racer body-cladding and hooligan-inspiring rear-wheel drive gear the BMW for a more hardcore set, like the automotive equivalent of those crawling into their Strip hotel suites at 10AM in the morning after a night of partying. The S4’s more practical and controllable quattro all-wheel drive system and more subtle exterior design bestow it with a more understated elegance characteristic of the village on the lake; dignified and practical, but still willing and able when it’s time to cut loose – a more subtle form of sin, if you will.

At the heart of the S4 Cabriolet is the same version of Audi’s tried and true 4.2-liter V8 engine. This variation, shortened 42mm from previous units, was purpose-built for more compact engine-bays. The new design is now not only being used in all versions of the S4, but has also been installed in the allroad 4.2 and the upcoming 2005 A6 4.2.

Whichever transmission you go for, the 4.2-liter is mated to a 6-cog box that helps both straight-line performance and also fuel efficiency – something certainly appreciated as the 4.2 is certainly not the most frugal engine offering from Ingolstadt. Audi says their ratio between manual gearbox and automatic Tiptronic will be an aggressive 70:30, which is much more accommodating to the driving purist than the automatic-only Mercedes-Benz CLK 55 AMG, for example.

To slip past the bouncer and into the S4 Cabriolet party, the pricetag is $53,850 – if you opt for the manual gearbox. Add Tiptronic, and the price jumps $1,150, to $55,000.

Like new S4 sedans and Avants, this new 6-speed Tiptronic drops 21kg from the previous 5-speed in the old S4. With a 25% wider spread in gearing, this helps optimize both performance and fuel mileage, while the unit also has shortened shift times from previous generations. Surprisingly, you give up little performance with Tiptronic; only .3 seconds from 0-60mph and an even narrower .2 seconds in the quarter mile. Even better, the Tiptronic actually beats out the manual in EPA fuel mileage ratings, jumping from 21mpg to 23mpg highway and from 17mpg to 20mpg in the city, respectively.

Like its A4 Cabriolet brethren, the S4 is not short on safety equipment. Driver and passenger next generation front airbags, belt force limiters for front positions, safety pedals and steering column, automatic rollover protection, side head/thorax airbags, and upfront crash sensors are all standard.

Most of the fixed-roof S4’s sport suspension was moved over to the S4 Cabriolet with limited changes. With just over 200 lbs. difference between them, spring and shock rates were adjusted accordingly, with the S4 Cabriolet lowered from the A4 Cabriolet by 30mm. Larger front and rear sway bars have also been added.

Like much of the suspension, 13.6-inch front and 11.9-inch rear brakes are carried over from the Sedan and Avant. So, too, have the 18-inch Avus alloy wheels and Conti Sport Contact 235/40 Z-rated tires.

Same goes for the steering where the shorter 14.5:1 steering ratio with 2.48 turns lock to lock has been included with the S4 Cabriolet, and Audi’s Servotronic speed sensitive steering does its best to bestow the car with additional steering feel.

Walk up to the car on a nice day, and your first thought is to obviously put the top down. Taking a well-known Audi feature of driver’s side door lock window control to the next level, one can now operate the top by holding that key in the lock or unlock position just a little bit longer; about 25 seconds to be exact. That’s how long it’ll take you to get the top, with its heated glass rear window, up or preferably down. Europeans go one step further, as they’re also able to operate the top via the S4’s key fob.

Top up, the S4 has a satisfyingly quiet ride. Even better, Audi has designed a rather ingenious variable soft top compartment that, with the switch of a lever, pulls the top compartment up flat against the roof of the trunk area, giving you significantly more bag room when traveling or living with the car through winter months in colder climates.

Another nod to cold weather livability is the car’s standard “ski pass-through”. Fold down the rear seat armrest, and up to two snow boards, three pairs of skis or a bag of golf clubs can be slipped through the hole from the trunk compartment and into a protective sleeve that will keep dirt off of the soft Napa leather.

Climb in the car, and you’ll notice the familiar A4 Cabriolet interior with some significant upgrades. Gray birch wood trim is standard, with optional Carbon-Fiber. Unfortunately, as far as we’re concerned, there is no Aluminum offering as with the Sedan and Avant.

Seats, while not the striking Recaros from other S4s, have larger bolsters, unique Napa leather and contrasting piping. We’re told that the Recaros would have needed a more significant re-working as they have a four-legged base, and the Cabriolet models of the A4 use a unique 3-legged base. While it may have been worth the cost, Audi product planners weren’t willing to hold up the car for months or even years to make the change. S4 Cabriolet owners who will have their cars in time for the warm winter months will salute that decision, though it’s a shame because the sedan and Avant Recaros with handsome contrasting Alcantara shoulders would have looked spectacular with the top down.

Walking around the car, the S4 Cabriolet certainly appears more aggressive than lesser A4 offerings. Though no new body panels were added, including lower front and rear fascias, the Cabriolet’s more aggressive grille and color combinations do their part to make sure it won’t be mistaken for a 3.0 or 1.8T. Like the Recaros, development time of new panels would have slowed the car’s development up to two years, and that wasn’t acceptable, given the facelifted B7 A4’s impending debut.

A more astute eye will note that, even with satellite radio, the Cabriolet’s design is cluttered by not one single antenna. Such a feat is accomplished through use of a composite trunk lid. Going this route, Audi was able to mount the antennas inside the car, though this does make affixing a spoiler to the lid a bit more difficult than the equivalent steel unit.

Composite material was only one reason Audi chose to hold off on placing a trunk-lid spoiler on the car. Product Management Leader for Audi of America Norbert Seitner pointed out that S4s traditionally do not apply upper rear spoilers unless they help rearward aerodynamics. That’s the reason there is no rear spoiler on the S4 Avant, and the same reason Audi chose to go sans spoiler with the drop-top.

Fire up the S4 Cabriolet and you’re greeted by the super-sweet burbling exhaust note of the 4.2-liter V8. It may be missing the tech-friendly turbos of the previous S4, but there truly is “no replacement for displacement,” at least when it comes to exhaust note.

Out on the road, the open-air S4 performs much like other current S4s. Torque comes on quite low in the RPM band, and heaves with authority on up nearly to redline. Our test car, equipped with manual transmission, launched hard and pulled well. For the tuner crowd, the 4.2-liter may not be the engine of choice, but for those who want to purchase a strong car and drive it as such, the S4 is an extremely satisfying choice that, according to published claims by the manufacturers, will easily play with target competitors such as the BMW M3, Mercedes-Benz CLK 55 AMG and Jaguar XKR.

Suspension is smooth and well dampened, and even when traversing washboard-like roads, the car remains composed. Minor cowl-shake is evident, though it doesn’t seem as pronounced as earlier A4 Cabriolets we’ve driven.

Push hard into corners and the S4 Cabriolet demonstrates the typical controllable understeer of its siblings. Cornering speeds really do need to be quite unreasonably high before such understeer becomes a concern, though, as the 18-inch wheels shod with the Conti-Sports do an excellent jog in retaining a firm grip on the pavement below. The S4 Cabriolet is a dexterous package that dances through the curvy Nevadan roads, giving the oft-mentioned Las Vegas term of “topless dancer” a whole new meaning.

Steering quality is a subject for which Audi often gets panned. Polling some other journalists who’d sampled the car, the speed-sensing ServoTronic system of the S4’s still caught its share of criticism. That said, combined with the shorter ratio rack, it’s a marked improvement over the A4 Cabriolet’s steering.

Get out on some long Nevada straights and the car climbs into triple digits with ease. Also overheard from other journalists was that the folding wind barrier can blow down during triple digits speed runs. Having hit a top-speed of 110mph ourselves, we had no such problems, but made a note of it just the same. The wind-blocker does not come with a button release. Rather, it snaps into its upright position, leaving the blow-down experienced by another journalist as not out of the realm of possibility.

Should we have pushed past 110mph, we’d have ultimately discovered that Audi has installed a speed limiter at 155mph. We chose not to to test how strongly the car would push to that lofty figure – that shall be left for track or Autobahn.

All things considered, the S4 Cabriolet is definitely a more livable choice – much like the lakeside town of Henderson, NV. It may not have the badge status of the CLK or the raw performance of the M3, but it cuts its own path alongside, offering a more practical package that’ll hold its own when the partying starts. For those who want to join the party, S4 Cabriolets are arriving in U.S. ports as we speak. Audi expects them to arrive in dealerships over the next several weeks.

Significant Dates

Oct. 2002 introduced Cabriolet

Jan. 2003 introduced S4 Sedan and Avant

April 2004 introduced Cabriolet

Price (USA / Canada)

6-speed Manual Transmission – $53,850 (USA) / $81,350 (CAN)

6-speed Tiptronic Transmission – $55,000 (USA) / $82,690 (CAN)

Power and Performance

4.2-liter V8 Engine

340 horsepower

302 lb ft torque

0-60mph in 5.8 seconds (manual), 6.1 seconds (Tiptronic)

1/4 Mile in 14 seconds (manual), 14.2 seconds (Tiptronic)

EPA Estimated Fuel Economy

Manual – 15mpg (city), 21mpg (highway), 17mpg (average)

Tiptronic – 18mpg (city), 23mpg (highway), 20mpg (average)

Optional Equipment

Premium Package

– HomeLink

– Wind Deflector

– Auto-dimming interior/exterior mirrors

– Driver Side Memory Seats

Audio Package

– Bose premium sound system

– Satellite Radio (U.S. Only)

Stand-alone Options

– Carbon Fiber Beltline Trim

– Heated Front Seats (Canada: heated rear)

– Audi Navigation System

Exterior Color Availability

Brilliant Red, Brilliant Black, Arctic White, Cambridge Green, Light Silver Metallic, Moro Blue Pearl Effect, Sprint Blue Pearl Effect, Deep Green Pearl Effect, Dolphin Gray Pearl Effect

Convertible Top Colors




Silk Napa Leather Colors

Ebony / Silver Piping

Silver / Black Piping

Red / Black Piping

Target Customer Data

Median Age – 45

Median Income – $150,000

Male – 75%

Married – 65%

College Graduate – 85%

Child in Household – 20%

Projected Annual S-Car Sales

S4 Cabriolet – 2100/year (USA) / 80/year (CAN)

Sedan – 4000/year (USA) / 300/year (CAN)

Avant – 6900/year (USA) / 70/year (CAN)

Projected Annual Cabriolet Sales

A4 1.8T/3.0 Cabriolet – 7100/year (USA) / 320/year (CAN)

S4 Cabriolet – 2100/year (USA) / 80/year (CAN)

Primary Competitors

BMW M3 Convertible

Mercedes-Benz CLK 55 AMG Cabriolet

Jaguar XKR Convertible

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