100 Years of Audi: S4
100 Years of Audi: General
The history of Audi is inexplicably fused with Porsche. Before the company came into the VW fold in 1964, its most famous car was not even a road car.
Auto Union was best known for its forbidding pre-war racing cars. Silver Arrows racing cars dominated circuit racing at the time and carried the design signature of Ferdinand Porsche, founder of the famous sportscar company.
After the war most of Audi’s fare was rather uninspiring two-stroke DKWs.
Soon after the company was taken over by VW in 1964 and purged of its naming heritage - there was a lot of baggage, constituting the lineage of four brands, Audiwerke, DKW, Horch and Wanderer - the 72 model, the first real Audi, debuted. The 100 followed, a car which brought Audi to prominence in the early 1970s.
The prince of Porsche
Around this time an apocalyptic fallout scuttled the tremendously talented design team at Porsche, when cousins Butzi Porsche (911 designer) and Ferdinand Piech (engine development genius) were effectively expelled from their grandfather’s company.
Piech moved across to Audi and set about an ethos of innovate design which would propel the company into the hallowed sanctum of German premium manufacturers – previously only a duel, between BMW and Mercedes-Benz.
Encouraging his designers to experiment with exotic materials and egging on engineers to find innovative solutions, Piech fathered a product portfolio which was commensurate to the company’s tagline – Vorsprung durch Technik, or advancement through technology for the non-German speakers.
The 1980s were challenging year for Audi, bringing both acclaim and notoriety.
Audi's Quattro Coupe. It was boxy-looking, yet handsome. Had a smooth five-cylinder turbocharged engine and all-wheel drive, which meant reckless speeds on snow or dirtroads were mandatory. Brilliant car to own.
Its Quattro S1s changed the format of rallying forever and their Coupe road-going cousins were simply the definitive performance car of the decade.
Unfortunately the third generation 100 sullied the company’s reputation badly (and undeservedly) Stateside, when a spate of Audi 5000 (as the 100 was monikered in America) accidents were blamed on the car exhibiting a mechanical foible named "unintended acceleration".
Even America’s influential 60 Minutes chronicled the 5000’s curious ability accelerate when the brakes were actuated.
For an engineer of Piech’s ability this was a particularly trying episode, especially considering the size and importance of the American market.
Ultimately, Audi was cleared of any engineering negligence.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) concluded most the of the unintended acceleration cases, including all the ones leading up to the 60 Minutes report, were caused by simple driver error – stomping on the acceleration when meaning to engage the brake…
A legacy of excellence
After the tumultuous 1980s, Piech left to become CEO at VW in 1993, which heralded a tipping point for Audi. As Piech left, the legacy of his two decades at Audi came sharply into focus with a slew of models which finally elevated Audi to its current position as one of the German premium trio.
In 1994 Audi banished the memory of the short-lived 200 V8 with the A8. Boasting an all-aluminium spaceframe, this luxury saloon has become the alternative choice for people who would love an S-Class or 7 Series, but prefer to differentiate themselves.
Audi’s obsession with aluminium construction and all-wheel drive heralded the design brilliance of the TT sportscar in 1998, one of the most iconic designs of all time. This was only an inkling of what was to come, though.
One of the most endearing gifts Ferdinand Piech gave Audi, even after his departure to VW, was the Lamborghini brand, acquired via Audi during a Piech buying spree in 1998.
After the product planners were sure there was sufficient market space, Audi visited the R8 supercar upon an apparently saturated high-end performance market in 2006. They’ve sold nearly 10 000 to date…
Dismissed as an architecturally watered-down Gallardo by pessimists, the R8, built in its own facility at Neckarsulm in Germany, has peculiarly proved faster than its lighter Italian cousin in track tests…
Clever product placement and an untarnished performance car heritage (there has never been an Audi supercar before) has endeared R8 to the public too, thanks to nuanced novelty appeal.
If you postulated the possibility of Audi producing a Ferrari rivalling supercar in the 1980s, well, suffice to say a severe dose of Lithium would have been slipped into your drink to quell any bi-polar disorder…
Supercar. Plain and simple.
Audi spoilt us with a few laps around Kyalami in the new R8 V10.
We spent the morning warming up in the latest S4, a curiously engaging all-wheel drive performance four-door thanks primarily to some rather neat rear differential technology.
They call it Audi’s sport differential and what it does is vary drive distribution between the rear wheels.
You’ll be well acquainted with the quattro all-wheel drive system and its ability to vary drive between the axles, assuring optimal grip, but also exhibiting an understeer bias at the high dynamic loads.
When things are on the limit, you yearn for some limited-slip diff character traits at the rear, to add some additional drive to the outer aft axle wheel, tucking the nose in tighter. This is exactly what the S4’s active sport differential does. Even when attempting silly lift-offs down the mineshaft – trust me.
R8, in turn, elevates the driving experience to an unfamiliar level.
Although 386kW and an 8 700r/min engine speed ceiling is simply an accident waiting to happen, R8’s impeccably resolved dynamics makes it awfully accessible. I tried my hand at the six-speed manual version.
It’s not perfect. Pedal placement is hardly ideal for standard size 11 footwear (bring proper, narrow, driving shoes) and the seat doesn’t really adjust low enough for drivers 1.8m and taller.
Levels of dynamic driving engagement at the helm though, are simply epic.
With 0-200km/h elapsing in only 12 seconds, clipping points and braking zones seems to follow each other in a sequence of eye blinks.
Through Sunset the balance on trailing throttle (for a mid-engined car) is hugely flattering. The grip up the hill through the Esses, astounding.
Anybody who dares call the R8 V10 an artificial supercar, a Lamborghini Gallardo sanitised by German design precision, simply has not driven one with abandon yet.
At a time when BMW has no supercar and Mercedes-Benz has all but wrapped up production of its joint venture McLaren Mercedes models, the last brand to join the German premium trio is the only one producing a credible supercar.
Quite a fitting state of affairs to celebrate one’s centenary, you’ll surely agree. It really is the achievement of decades of Vorsprung durch Technik.