As the first manufacturer to stuff eight cylinders in a B-class car, Audi announced a loud intention to take on its German rivals where it's really noticed, in the fast lane of the autobahn. Bravado was added to the A4's suave demeanor, resulting in a classic European sport sedan. But is it the right motor for a world where fuel prices keep creeping ever higher?

Let's get this clear right away: This exhilarating sedan could have carried off the prize, and no one would have complained. First of its class to get eight cylinders stuffed under the hood, the S4's 340-bhp is matched to a chassis with such control of the road that it defines no-fault driving fun. If it runs with the likes of BMW's M3, it also comes close in price, our test car's sticker totaling $50,790, about five grand above the base price of $45,650. But for half a hundred g's, you get a complete automobile, fulfilling its mandate as a sports sedan with a touch of elan unmatched by any other car in its class. The no-charge silk Nappa leather upholstery suggests no-cost luxury, but there's also a manual shifter in the console, linked to a six-speed transmission and the 4.2-liter V8 also found in the Audi A6 and A8 lines. You can get a Bose sound system for those times you want to hear something else than the glorious exhaust note, but there's no choice on the driveline. Anyway, why should anyone opt out of Audi's tried and true quattro all-wheel-drive system?

Quibbles? Complaints? Heft and price were mentioned, but not in the sense they would stop anyone from owning this car. One staffer said it was the Audi he's been waiting for over the past 20 years; another admitted that having an S4 would mean almost instant revocation of his driver's license.

The Buzz...
"Hand's down, the most rewarding car on our 'road course'."

"The wide powerband is a thrilling reflection of the engine's huge torque."

"Great sounds...best voice of any motor in the bunch. Shifting is precise as it comes. The car begs to be flogged but is easy to drive--soft or hard. Freaking awesome."

"It's fast, it's quick, it sticks, it handles any curve you throw at it."

"Trigger-sharp throttle makes it hard to be smooth in everyday traffic."

"Sucks gas like a 340-bhp sports car--which is just what it is."

"This isn't the S4 I fell in love with...it's a bit more mature to meet higher expectations. But, at what price...?"

"Hugely entertaining; hugely expensive; hugely wanted."

The Contenders

0408Ec S4 01 S
Audi S4
0408Ec Auditt 01 S
Audi TT 3.2 DSG
0408Ec 545 01 S
BMW 545i
0408Ec 645 01 S
BMW 645Ci
0408Ec Clk 01 S
Mercedes-Benz CLK500 Convertible
0408Ec E500 01 S
Mercedes-Benz E500 Wagon
0408Ec W12 01 S
Volkswagen Phaeton
0408Ec R32 01 S
Volkswagen R32
0408Ec Volvo 01 S
Volvo S40

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