2018 Audi S4 and S5: The Goldilocks Sports Cars

The 2018 S4 sedan Credit: Courtesy Audi

There's an interesting battle brewing among producers of premium, sporty cars these days. Their goal: produce sedans that capture the essence of their most potent models, but wrap them in a more usable package — say, a sedan, coupe, or wagon. Let’s face it: You’d rather be seen in a supercar than a sedan, but you park on the street and you notice the city hasn’t paved any potholes recently; you sometimes take your recreation equipment with you; and the four-doors with proper sports-car credentials like the Cadillac ATS-V, the Mercedes-AMG C63S, and the BMW M5 are slightly out of reach.

What about Audi? The company has quietly led the charge with its S cars (gutsier than the A cars, less wild than the RS cars), while other carmakers have adopted a "performance-lite" approach that splits the difference between ordinary and extraordinary styling. Mercedes has done it with the C43, E43, and a host of other -43 models featuring a 3.0-liter turbo V-6. BMW took the same approach with M-Sport, as did Cadillac with V-Sport, offering a taste of the best life at a price point that makes sense. Don't think of them as decaffeinated performance cars, but they're not exactly barn-burners, either.

Back to Audi's efforts: The latest S4 sedan and S5 coupe are triumphs, by comparison. They improve upon the capable but uninspired A4 and A5 in measurable ways. This duo is a pair of performers. You wouldn't know it from the subtle changes to their exteriors (a grayed-out grille and bigger wheels), but the S models bite as ferociously as they bark. This is the first S4/S5 combo to offer a turbocharged V-6, and it captures the always-on feeling of the supercharged six-cylinder fitted to the last S4 and S5, with almost no lag and just as much noise. It doesn't have the raw grunt of the S4/S5's former V-8, but this V-6 is more powerful by the numbers and in the real world.

Usability in the real world is why you select an S4 or S5, after all. You want to be able to hit the ignition switch and hear a deeper thrum from the exhaust pipes: loud enough to make a statement, but not set off a car alarm. In these regards, the S4 and S5 deliver. In both models, steering is effortless and precise, with enough weight to make you want to dial in to a corner and seek them out on the daily commute. Acceleration is surprising, too: just about five seconds to 60 mph, but you’ll never feel rushed. It's about having the ability to do all of these things without causing too much attention. It's the Superman effect. In short, the S4 and S5 sharpen the edges of the already refined A4 and A5, and are degrees more fun to drive every day.

Just because an R8 isn't in the cards at this stage in your life doesn't mean you have to sacrifice on noticeability and beauty. Between the two, the S5 offers more beautiful lines but slightly less practicality, but the S5 Sportback (a five-door variant!) ameliorates that issue. The elite feeling is amplified by an interior experience that feels much, much more expensive than it actually costs. At just under 60 grand, the S4 and S5 are relative bargains.

These are Audis, after all, so choose your options wisely. Splurge on the sport differential and suspension, and dynamic steering, to further crispen driving responses. Skip the heated steering wheel; it supplants the super-cool flat-bottomed one that comes standard. And go for the top-trim (Prestige) models. Talk about bang for the buck.

[S4: 354 HP, $52,375; audiusa.com]

[S5: 354 HP, $55,575; audiusa.com]