Audi S4 (B5) | The Brave Pill

Audi S4 (B5) | The Brave Pill


The first gen S4 is well on its way to modern classic status

By Mike Duff / Saturday, 13 August 2022 / Loading comments

Many PHers complain about the difference between review verdicts and their real-world experience of the car in question. The same disconnect can happen to professional reviewers. I know this because of a B5 generation Audi S4 very similar to this one.

As a teaboy-cum-road tester for a car magazine at time, I was involved with several stories involving the Audi when it was shiny and new. Two were comparison tests, and the S4 flunked them both, roundly beaten by both an E46-generation BMW 330i and a grey import Subaru Legacy GT-B.

That’s because, to stick up for my profession, on the sort of immediately obvious qualities like steering feel and chassis balance, the Audi was sorely lacking. It was a handsome beast, its cabin was great, and it had more grip than a convention of movie camera support technicians. But it felt dynamically inert and – a very fast Audi word – clinical when compared to cars with more spirit and charisma. It was fast but joyless during the punishing back-to-back drives that are used for comparative road testing. This wasn’t just true of my magazine, either. The poor S4 was beaten like a red-headed mule by almost every critic. The press office must have ended up with a drawer full of wooden spoons.

But then I had one for a longer loan and my opinion shifted dramatically. This was for three weeks over Christmas 2000 and into the new Year, with my action-packed itinerary – based largely on free accommodation – including the schlep from London to Edinburgh, visits to Kirriemuir and Ballachulish and then back down to Manchester for the true turn of the millennium, followed by a dash back to London four-up. Weather was miserable throughout the whole trip, with rain, sleet and snow in Scotland and flooding in the North West. But the Audi handled 2,500 miles without complaint, utterly secure in the treacherous conditions and yet quiet and comfortable when cruising at high speeds. By the end of the holiday I genuinely couldn’t nominate a contemporary car that would have handled the trip better.

Yet the B5-generation S4 lived its later life in the critical shadow of the rortier and more muscular RS4, the one that sat on flared arches and used a Cosworth developed 2.7-litre V6 to make what felt like an impossible 380hp – 115hp more than the S4 – and only came as a cool-looking Avant. The RS4 immediately made the lesser car seem a bit slow and sensible, which was doubtless what Audi’s marketing department had in mind, yet behind the froth it didn’t mean that the RS4 was objectively better. It was certainly quicker – indeed it was the fastest production estate in the world when it was launched – but it was also much harder and louder, making it a far less soothing companion on long journeys.

But while B5 RS4 prices have been on an upward trajectory for years – there’s a 105,000-miler in the classifieds for £26,995 – the S4 is still relatively affordable. Yes, they have been cheaper in the past than the £8,995 being asked for our Brave Pill, but by the overheated standards of the neo-classic market they look like stonking value at the moment, especially considering they are much rarer than the S4 generations that came afterwards.

Our Pill looks very well scrubbed up. It’s wearing the Nogaro Blue that was always a popular hue on these, and has covered 150,000 miles, a figure which certainly doesn’t look scary when divided by its 23 years of life. The dealer flogging it isn’t what you would call a fine detail merchant, the advert having little info beyond the basics of age and mileage, plus the presence of alloy wheels, electric windows and a radio-cassette player. But the advert’s claim that “98 per cent of our stock is below market value” is always encouraging. It’s up for £8,995, and although its relative cheapness is impossible to assert – it being the only B5 S4 currently on the site – it does look attractively priced by 2022 standards.

The pictures show blemish-free paintwork and what looks like a very fresh set of original alloys – spangly enough to be freshly restored. Inside the leather seats are showing signs of wear and age, as Audi hide tends to, and the steering wheel has been grained with use. Beyond all that it looks both fresh and original.

Granted, the MOT history isn’t short of discussion points – not least the fact that, as we publish this, it only has two days of ticket remaining. The online record shows a healthy crop of advisories for tyres, brakes and suspension components, plus some more serious fails for subframe and suspension arm corrosion, although no mentions since 2017. An optimist might also take comfort in the fact the most recent pass recorded an advisory for “underneath has been undersealed”, one that hadn’t been mentioned by any of the previous testers and possible proof of recent remedial work. Or is that too optimistic?

Is it risky enough to qualify as brave? That’s going to depend on a key question: whether it is still mechanically standard. Because while the base S4 powertrain is widely regarded as being tough – as proved by the number that have gone past the double-ton – they are also both easy and cheap to tune. The standard 265hp always looked like a timid output and owners soon found it was relatively easy to increase that by a significant margin, something more were prone to do as the cars got older and cheaper. While doubtless fun, bigger numbers tended to have a negative effect on the lifespan of many components, especially the turbos – and if one of those lets go, you’re looking at more than £4k for a new one.

There is nothing to suggest that this car has been Max’d, of course – visually it seems to be as it left the factory, lacking any of the additional gauges or boost controllers which often seem to come with bigger power gains. But nor does the advert promise virginal standardness; further research is required by anyone keen on pulling the trigger.

The B5 S4’s rarity is such that they are genuinely hard to track down these days. Even moving outside the PH classifieds – not something we encourage anybody to do – our elite internet rodents could only find two other saloons for sale in the UK at present, one of which is a Cat C write-off. It is rare enough that values for the later B6 and B7 generations have fallen to about the same level – and some are even cheaper. They are more advanced and quicker than the B5, of course – but that doesn’t make them better.

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