Good sport

Good sport

Ben Cottam, MD of Cottam Brush, Jarrow, unleashes the boy racer within when he takes to the road in the new Audi S4.

ne6 main2When I met Chris March, BQ’s publisher, at a business dinner a little while ago, I think it took me about five minutes to ask him if I could test drive a car for the magazine. I would describe my interest in all things motoring as a hobby, a pastime or maybe even a passion.

My wife would describe it as an obsession. I’m a car guy, a petrol head, a los… well, we’ll leave it there. So reviewing a car is my dream job. Talent for writing is another matter; let’s hope my enthusiasm gets me through this.

So, as the Managing Director of my family’s business, it’s my job to keep our customers happy, our vision focused and our business profitable. Nice and easy then, and fortunate that we’ve got such a fantastic team here at Cottam Brush; our business is strong.

We’ve been designing and manufacturing industrial brushes in the North East for more than 150 years now. We supply into many different markets and that has proven critical in the recent economic downturn; our risk is spread. So what does a car-crazy MD drive? Well, sorry to disappoint, but I’m a serial Smart car driver (I’m on my 3rd now).

I love the concept, experience, cost (or lack of it) and status-free image. Smart cars are like Land Rovers - they’re one of the few class-less cars that keep you guessing about the owner. It could be a student, an MD, a single mother or Lord of the Manor. I’ve got a couple of other cars lurking in garages around the North East, but I’m already eating into my space allowance, so we’d better get on with the review. So to the Audi S4.

If Jeremy Clarkson is to be believed, the annoying fraternity that spent the 90s and early 00s buying BMWs (you know, the ones that don’t let you out of junctions and use too much hair gel) have made the switch to Audi recently. I’m not so sure; my Dad’s got an Audi and he’s a nice chap. And he doesn’t have enough hair to need the gel.

Anyway, let’s park the image issue for the moment and look at the car. First impressions were, well, underwhelming initially. This car lists at nearly £36k before you start playing with the option list, from which you could easily find another £10k of things you’ll convince yourself you really do need.

The car looks like, well, an Audi A4, which is a handsome enough car, but lacking a little in wow factor.

The test car’s silver paint also reduced the impact, simply because it’s such a popular choice. In another colour it would stand out a little more, particularly with the aluminium effect wing mirrors. A quick walk around the car and it gets a nod of approval for the quad exhausts sticking out the back. I’m sure they’re not necessary (I can’t get my head around four exhaust pipes for six cylinders) but they look great. I jump in and start it up using a slightly odd key arrangement - you push the key fob into the dash and then push it again to start the engine.

I’ve never thought there was anything wrong with the basic design of a key that turns, but I guess this keeps the design engineers happy and it works well enough. The electronic handbrake button is also a neat touch. I showed the car to a few colleagues and, in summary, we liked the reversing camera, the daytime running lights, radar cruise control(never used it, but it looks good) and the three-zone climate control.

And we didn’t like the naff S4 logos on the seats, the white stitching on the black seats, daytime running lights (again), and the boring silver paint. My personal take on the daytime running lights is that, despite being generally pro- EU, I’m not that keen that a committee somewhere in Europeland has decided that I have to have my lights on all the time.

I like to make that decision myself. And to make matters worse, someone at Audi thought that fairy lights from a Christmas tree on the front of a car was good idea. Anyway, what’s it like to drive? Pretty good really.

It’s quick enough (0-60 comes up in just over five seconds) and it will sit on its self-imposed speed limiter at 155mph - in Germany, obviously. Although this car would be classed as a ‘compact executive’ it is still a big and heavy beast.

Audi have done a good job with the handling though, as it feels pretty nimble to me. The test car was fitted with Audi’s latest seven-speed dual clutch automatic gearbox which was fantastic. Move the gear selector to manual and change gears with the paddles behind the steering wheel.

I’ve driven a few cars with this set up and I’m a big fan. I’d prefer larger paddles, as on this car they are no more than buttons, but no matter, I like. I delve into the car’s menu system – quite intuitive to use when stationary and guaranteed to make you crash if you try and use it on the move.

I quickly change the suspension to sports, the gearbox to sports and the engine to sports. Not sure why; must be a bloke thing. Anyway, with everything set to sport the car was still pretty comfy. I didn’t have it long enough to try all the settings and I suspect you would never bother changing them if you owned the car.

Nice touch though; I like having the choice. Personally, the thing I like most about this car is that it has a smaller, lighter, less powerful engine than its predecessor. But crucially, it’s quicker and more fuel efficient.

I’m pleased that German car manufacturers have declared a truce and have stopped playing a Top Trumps power game.

By being more intelligent, this new S4, with its 3.0l V6 engine is lighter and more fuel efficient and faster than the 4.2l V8 car that it replaces. Well done Audi; now let’s see BMW and Mercedes doing the same.

As the legendary Lotus founder, Colin Chapman, said: "Simplify, then add lightness.” It would be great to see more of this philosophy in automotive design. It’s a shame that it’s taken environmental pressures for this to start; to me it’s just good engineering.

So then, back to the image; well, I don’t think that anyone will be making ‘special’ hand signals to you if you drive one of these. Well, not on the relaxed and friendly roads of the North East at least. So, I wouldn’t worry too much about it. I think that this is also one of those cars that (despite its price) you needn’t be embarrassed to park in your customers’ car parks.

It’s not a ‘we must be paying him too much’ kind of car, which is a good thing. Rather, it’s solid and interesting without being flashy - and let’s face it, you can’t always say about its German rivals. So, overall I like this car. Personally, I’d take the estate version - there’s something special about a fast Audi estate.

I’d also choose any colour except silver. It’s maybe lacking a little in excitement, but perhaps that’s the point. This is a Q-car - an under the radar machine. Except for the fairy lights and the dodgy seat logos of course. So then Chris, same time next quarter?

The Audi S4 driven by Ben Cottam is priced £44,990 and was provided by Teesside Audi, Brook Lime Avenue, Stockton-on- Tees, TS18 3UR, tel 01642 603 444, www.teessideaudi.co.uk