The Audi S Range, playing darts blind folded
Even the experts are beginning to get muddled.
The triple twenty on a darts board, an elusive target for the casual player and the initial shot of any professional. Automakers don’t realise how much of a darts game they are playing with their offering until they start to miss. Walk into an Audi dealership at any time in their history, and you will find some corkers, and some ‘better luck next time’ machinery. Like the darts player who has just thrown a brilliant hand, they always then seem to chuck a few off the board, out the window and into the pub lawn gardeners neck. The S range resides in a bit of a trench for Audi, on one side of it is the company car, diesel heavy (at least until recently) solid but predictable range, and on the other is the fire-breather RS models and their drinking buddy, the R8.
Most of the range don’t have S models further than a couple of generations old, the S1 looking like it will continue to traipse into a second-generation while cars like the SQ2 and SQ7 have no predecessor at all.
Starting with the Audi S3, there is some form, the original model back from the late ’90s got its own flared arches all around, and the hottest version of the well-loved 1.8 20v turbo unit. A Haldex all-wheel-drive system and unique bumpers finished off the effort. It didn’t exist to set the world alight but rather as an upgrade to Golf GTI owners that wanted to get faster but not confused with the local roundabout racers. It was a solid effort.
The S4 tracks back even further and started on a pretty high note, offering V6 power, turbochargers and an understated look so well executed that the banker's co-workers may have seriously worried that their hedge fund was failing. The fast executive sleeper was born.
Then there is the S6 and S8, the middle and upper management big bruisers that have no place in this world outside of the overtaking lane of your nearest highway.
Today there is an S variant of just about every model, whilst RS’s are still reserved for the trunk of Audi’s range, the RS3, 4 and 6 will probably always exist unless they employ someone so inept that they end up throwing the dartboard out the window rather than just the darts.
So, what of the new S range, and our dartboard, sadly it appears someone has been blindfolded, spun around three times and throw their sharpened prong straight at the marketing team. A split range, of electric and petrol you ask? Is the tech-heavy S8 going to go into full Tesla takedown mode with some borrowed Porsche power? No.
Someone at Audi seems to still have a shrine to heavy oil. The Audi S3, along with its shared power unit in SQ2, and SQ3 will remain a four-cylinder petrol rocket.
I rarely offer buying advice, but if four rings are all you will consider at this end of the market then just buy the S3, its an incredibly capable and efficient machine with enough space for a small family, the SQ2 and SQ3 are just stilted version that will cost more to own and offer less of a driving experience. Even if you live at the top of Ben Nevis, the S3 is your car.
So that’s one dart thrown and, a triple twenty. OK, two more to throw. And uh-oh, someone spun Fritz around too many times.
The Audi S4, S5, and the SQ5, my oh my. The 3.0 V6T offered in the pre-face-lift S4 gave the family workhorse some character, something to look forward to in the morning, are there better competitors, certainly, but assuming we again must buy from the four rings catalogue, this was a fantastic machine. The SQ5 had a run with diesel power, only for a certain well-known scandal to rush it out the door and be replaced with petrol, and now, curiously, back to diesel.
I still can’t fathom what Audi was thinking about offering these cars in diesel, dropping a very capable V6 petrol motor. There are some valid points that can be made, company car tax in the UK is still charged by Co2, so a diesel variant is still cheaper, the fuel range is longer, and at this size vehicle, isn’t it a motorway wagon?
All valid, but besides the point, buyers are catered for in the standard range with a torque heavy 2.0TDI. Not only that, these buyers are dwindling, with such bad press on air quality and noxious gases from diesel, family buyers are looking back at the smaller punchy petrol units or hybrids.
To offer one of your hottest variants as a diesel in the smaller executive range seems foolish, if they wanted lower Co2 then a mild-hybrid version of the 2.0TFSI from the S3 would do it, the S4 only had 15% more power with the V6 anyway.
If this isn’t mad enough, the S5, a hot coupe and convertible is exclusively diesel-powered now, again losing their petrol V6 upon a facelift. At the high point of diesel popularity this didn’t make sense, today it seems like a decision made a decade ago and accidentally carried out. Today, you can buy a Mercedes C43 AMG, a BMW 340i, or even go left field and buy a Mustang (DO IT, before the V8 disappears once and for all!), oh and shoehorned in the corner of that picture is a nose-heavy oil burner rattling along doing forty miles to the gallon. Someone in the performance department at Audi must be on sabbatical. The SQ5 is the only one in this mid-range size that justifies its power unit, driving dynamics are long lost once you’re elevated to this degree, and so Audi can have a reprieve here. They may still scare off buyers, let's face it, diesel has been demonised for its part in childhood respiratory problems, with little Timmy and Tiffany in toe, would you part with your hard-earned money to further contribute? Petrol isn’t a perfect answer, but its a step away from supporting VW Diesel engines with your custom.
So the final dart, the room isn’t spinning anymore, the big boys have arrived. The throw is for a bullseye, sadly it's just wide of the mark, 25 points isn’t bad I suppose, at least you didn’t hit the wall.
The S6, S8 and SQ7 (this review was written on the SQ7 before 2020 update back to petrol, their flip flop everlasting). Interesting the Audi would separate this one in the middle. The SQ7 with a Diesel engine that was fantastically engineered, still diesel, and still difficult to justify as anywhere near clean. We’ll give it a pass. I would have rather seen a trick V8 petrol with some hybrids that can miraculously return mid-thirty fuel economy but move like a scalded rat, but it's a good effort. You only have to look at petrol Range Rover sales in Europe to see the appetite is exceptionally low. It’s a shame really, I'm not a huge fan of diesel, never have been, but I can appreciate great work and the SQ7 has some talented engineering to showcase.
(Edit August 20’. I doubt Audi read this article and took it so close to heart that they made the change, but I’m pleased they did.)
Many of you may have forgotten that the S6 exists since the thunderous RS6 gobbles up the headlines in the A6 range. I suppose the diesel engine here is either right or wrong depending on your approach. If you find the S6 from looking at the RS6 and realising it is just out of your budget or too bulging and steroidal for you to consider, the diesel offering will be very underwhelming. Looking up from a top-spec diesel S-Line A6 the S6 becomes quite tempting. It's completely understandable that someone who wants a big fast wagon may not want to take up two car parking spaces at the local supermarket because their flared arches are so wide that the lorry parking would actually be preferable. So a detuned RS6 unit, perhaps with a smaller turbo, smaller injectors and a lower tax bracket would be a better match. The diesel probably won’t cut it for performance car buyers, its a real leap to go from thinking of an RS6 to ending up in a big diesel with little character, a shadow of the performance and no theatre. On the other side, those A6 diesel buyers who want to go a bit quicker maybe happy, something tells me they will stick with an S-line diesel and only a very good offer or fondness for fast diesels in an age where their curtain call is coming will tip the scales.
So if the S6 is diesel then what hot diesel does the S8 have, well, a petrol one actually. A bit strange that Audi would offer two cars that take up a similar footprint on the road in two very different flavours. The ascension from S6 being an S8 and then to an RS6 is possibly the thinking here. I’m sure someone did some homework. S8’s market is probably Russia, the USA and China anyway, all markers where diesel won’t cut much mustard. No one at Audi is mad enough to try and sell big diesels to the USA again.
So a mixed bag, I’m not sure why the S6 isn’t petrol, in my eyes, it could catch those buyers that see the E63 and M5 as a bit too much. Audi clearly sees it differently. Shame really. The SQ7 will surely have to reincarnate as a hybrid petrol in a couple of years' time. The SUV market is going to get busier as the big boys at Lamborghini, Aston Martin and Ferrari invade the very top of the space, we may be witnessing the last hot offering from Audi. For that ultimate niche of fast diesel SUV fans, watch this space.
(As indicated in the article this was written before Audi's switch of the SQ7 model from diesel to petrol)