Specialty Audis confront blizzards with quattro
Twice this winter, my driveway has been graced by three new cars for appraisal during specific weeks, and on both of those weeks my Great White North region of Minnesota became truly white with traffic-clogging blizzards on the North Shore of Lake Superior. On both of those weeks, Audi models have been the reluctant stars. First, I had two impressive new sedans, plus an Audi S4 quattro S-tronic sedan. Now, Audi makes a very fine A4 sedan, the company’s bread and butter vehicle that bridges the gap from compact to midsize. It drives well, handles well, and gets good fuel economy. Audi also makes an “S” model of the A4, called the S4, which gets all sorts of high-performance upgrades — engine, transmission, suspension, brakes, interior, exterior, virtually everything. Why, I thought, did they send me a sporty sedan built for high-performance in the middle of winter? For the first three days of the week, I hopped back and forth between the other two, both new front-wheel-drive sedans. And then we got hit with an 8-inch blizzard. The two front-wheel drivers were OK, but they did spend an inordinate amount of their drive time spinning for traction and chattering the traction-control indicator instead of filling me with confidence that we were going to go straight up that hill. So I ambled over to the snow-covered S4. Knowing it has quattro, which is a traditional all-wheel drive system that Audi created, improved, and has pretty well perfected by now. Audi, by the way, insists that “quattro” be spelled with a lower-case “q” — which I insert here just so readers of car magazines who see quattro always capitalized will appreciate how arrogance can supersede proper spelling. At any rate, I knew the quattro system would scratch and claw, even though the S4 comes with low-profile, high-performance handling tires. When I looked, however, those neat Audi wheels were shod with Bridgestone Blilzzak low-profile winter tires. For the rest of the week, I left the two all-new FWD sedans parked and cavorted over, through, uphill and around snowdrifts, plowed piles, and icy streets in the Audi S4 quattro. Blizzaks are among the very best winter tires available, because they grip the ground, even on ice, and enhance your ability to get through the worst storms without any of those white-knuckle moments where you’re not sure you’re going to have traction the next time the tires go around. The original Blizzaks did a great job on ice, but decomposed quickly when you drove on normal wet or dry pavement. It was important to take them off and mount summer tires and save the Blizzaks for the next winter. The contemporary Audi quattro system has a 40-60 torque split, front-rear, which tilts the balance slightly away from 50-50 to take advantage of the natural, physical weight transfer to the rear axle upon initial acceleration. Any slippage, as usual, shifts the predominate torque to the axle, and then the side, which is getting the best traction. Good as the quattro system is, though, having proper tires for confronting winter snow and ice driving is every bit as important. Having both makes winter driving a breeze. In a good, ol’ Minnesota blizzard, traction means much more than power with any vehicle. But even snow country spends more days on clear pavement, so the S4 is doctored considerably under the hood. A 3.0-liter V6, which isn’t very big for a performance machine. But this V6 is supercharged, which means it gains force-fed airflow into the direct-injection engine intake, luring in considerably more fuel and making considerably more, and immediate, power. This one has 333 horsepower, and 325 foot-pounds of torque, controlled by a seven-speed automatic transmission in either drive or manual mode. Radio alerts suggested nobody should drive unless it was absolutely necessary, and all the schools and most businesses were closed for the heavy snow day. With all the electronic stability and traction devices, the S4 made the most treacherous driving actually fun, and the worse the conditions the better it felt. Yes, the S4 is a lot more expensive than the A4; at $59,350, the loaded up test car approached being twice as much. But a short drive in foul weather can make you appreciate having a high-performance sports sedan and also have the best winter-beater on the planet. Between snowstorms, the S4 makes the most of dry pavement and all that traction makes it handle all the better. But unlike other high-performers, when the weather turns especially foul, the properly prepared S4 doesn’t even flinch. A few weeks passed, and before I got around to preparing a review of the S4 sedan, two other very good mainstream cars — and a very sleek Audi S5. Audi makes an A5, which is a sleek-enough two-door, four-seat coupe, built off the A4 sedan platform. This was, again, the S5, meaning it was thoroughly redone for high-performance everywhere. But more than that, it was the Cabrio, which is a four-seat convertible. Again, I wondered, why didn’t they hold this car until May or June, rather than sending it to me in the thickest, coldest part of winter? Rarely have I driven a convertible when I didn’t drop the top even briefly for the sake of a couple of photos. This time, I made an exception, because weather in Northern Minnesota dipped to the frosty neighborhood of 15 below zero — actual — and if you were going to have a convertible, a hardtop model would be preferable. It seemed like deja vu, as I didn’t even climb aboard the Audi S5 Cabrio because I drove the heck out of the other two all-new vehicles for two days. It warmed up considerably those two days, reaching about 33 degrees on Day 3, when a predicted snowstorm never quite materialized, replaced by freezing drizzle that became a sleet storm, leaving a coating of ice that was promptly covered by 3-4 inches of snow. That snow was blown swiftly enough by a harsh wind that it didn’t accumulate much, just leaving that glaze that made spinouts and sideways hill-climb driving the order of the day. Both of the cars I had been driving were OK in those conditions, but not great. My driveway tilts up abruptly as it gets to the road, and if you stop for cross traffic, you might not get going when it’s icy. So, once again, I walked over to the parked Audi S5 Cabrio, with much more skepticism this time, but to my amazement, this car also had Blizzak tires, fitted well to the stylish wheels and their low-profile design. For the second time in three weeks, away I went in a quattro equipped Audi. The S5 had the same 3.0 V6 with the same power, and with a 6-speed stick shift instead of the superb automatic. That made it even more fun, pushing the quattro power through those four Blizzaks, creeping easily up steep and icy inclines and maneuvering around spinning cars and assorted traffic problems without ever spinning a wheel. No, I didn’t put the top down. The temperature plunged again, down toward zero, which afforded me another facet of the test, which was to prove that the excellent heater system made you so warm and secure that you could quickly forget that the snow-covered top on the Cabrio was fabric. The Audi S5, of course, is no ordinary sedan, or even coupe. It combines the features of an exhilarating sports car, a luxury coupe, a high-performance vehicle, and, with the drop-top, a classic boulevardier. So it costs considerably. An A5 coupe can be had for $40,000, but when you give it the S5 makeover, with the supercharged V6, superb suspension, carbon-fiber and brushed aluminum interior trim, and the convertible treatment, it runs upward of $60,000. Either the S4 or the S5 cost a lot — as much as a loaded luxury SUV, in fact, which is a vehicle of choice by many in heavy-snow country. But if you mount Blizzaks on those flashy Audi wheels, the S4 or S5 will jump through some very SUV-like hoops when the weather is at its slippery worst, while offering 22-30 miles per gallon in the meantime. Plus, either car always offers the capability to sweep around a cloverleaf or over any curvy highway, providing genuine excitement every time you climb behind the steering wheel. It’s enough to make you everlastingly glad that you found an alternative to a luxury SUV to spend all that money.