I’ve previously made fun to the term “Unicorn” as it relates to selling…well, pretty much any of the cars we feature on these pages. Truth told, as special as you think your car is, it’s really just one of probably a fairly large number of cars just like it out in the wild. Yet that doesn’t stop the P.T. Barnum’s of the used-car market from touting how unusual it is to see their particular circus attraction. In fact, many times it seems to be considered the main selling point:
Salesman: Now that you’ve selected all your other options, I’m going to tell you about one final “dealer special” option we can offer you – but it’s only for select, and discerning customers!
Rich Plebian: Uh, okay, what is it?
S: It’s the not offered to public “Unicorn” option
RP: “Unicorn”? Like, horned mythological beast?
S: Yes, exactly. The Unicorn Package is option code 785.
RP: Okay, what does it get me?
S: You get to tell everyone how unique your mass-produced car is.
RP: Wait, it gives me special powers?
S: No, you just get to say that your car is more special than the other cars that are exactly like it.
RP: Well, people have always told me how special I am, so sign me up!
So here we are again. In the sales pitch for this 2006 Audi S4 Avant, “Unicorns are real” appears. The question is – is this really something you never see, and is it the horned mythological beast you’ve been looking for?
Just the other day on one of the internet chat groups I probably spend far too much time looking at, someone posed the question “Should I buy an Allroad?”
There are two camps of thought on the Allroad. On the one side is the group of individuals, many of whom still own them, for which Audi’s light-off-roader is the best vehicle ever designed. Quickly in speaking with them you realize few of them remain stock, which points towards the cause of the other side of the story.
For those who aren’t fully in love with the Allroad, they’re one of the least reliable, most unnecessarily complicated Audis ever built. And from a company that likes unnecessarily complicated designs, that’s saying something. The electrics fail. The suspensions fail. The turbos (count ’em, two!) fail. Look, I’m a huge Audi fan, but I can acknowledge that you have to really, really want an Allroad to buy into the kind of maintenance you need to perform to keep it going. My mechanic bought my parent’s 6-speed example, and now he’s afraid to drive it because every time he does it breaks. All he talks about is how expensive it is to fix. An ex-Master Audi mechanic. Think about that.
What was interesting to me as this discussion quickly devolved into “It’s the best car ever! (but here’s the laundry list of how to make it the best car ever…)” versus “You can’t afford to own one, because you have to own three so that at any given time one is theoretically working” was that no one brought up the S6. To me, the S6 is the perfect solution for wanting an Allroad. It looks better. It’s got a nicer interior. It’s got more power, and exactly zero turbos that blow. And it’s got an all-steel suspension that doesn’t fail. But as S6 Avants were quite expensive at $60,000 in 2002 after gas guzzler tax but without options, it (as the other expensive wagons in period) sold slowly. Only around 1,200 were imported over the brief two year period, compared to exactly 3.2 million Allroads if I calculate correctly based on the number that turn up at sleazy second-hand dealers in the greater Providence area. They wander the streets of Rhode Island, three wheels in the air and one on the ground, a winky Xenon vibrating up and down as the bumpstops are tested to the extreme. So let’s look at one of the nicest alternatives to the certain suspension failure:
The S4 Avant is no stranger to these pages, offering enthusiasts a “have-your-cake-and-throw-it-squarely-at-that-M3-owner’s-face-too” package which combined functionality and sport in a very discrete wrapper. Well, for the most part they were discrete; most were ordered in shades of gray because a fair amount of people ponying up new were conservative with everything but the money they were paying for this small executive wagon. Lightly optioned, an S4 Avant was north of $50,000 in 2004, a price today that would having you knocking on the A7 and S6’s base price. That sticker shock masks that the B6 and B7 represented a huge price increase over the B5 generation; out the door, the cost on average about 20% – 30% more only 3 years later – but then, they offered a full 90 horsepower advantage over the twin-turbocharged V6 with that awesome 4.2 V8, which of course could still be combined with a 6-speed manual gearbox. Subtle though the exterior colors may be, the performance on tap was anything but.
But some enterprising individuals chose the vivid colors which had become the signature of the model in B5 form. Nogaro Blue Pearl Effect was, of course, the go-to for all things fast Audi since it was originally called RS Blue on the original super Avant RS2. But a nearly equal amount were requested in Imola Yellow, a staggering, retina-burning banana-toned shade that seems initially out of character with a family wagon, yet raises the cool-bus level to 11. Though Nogaro was replaced in the B7 chassis refresh with Sprint Blue Pearl Effect, Imola carried over for the end of the V8s.
Today, I have one of each – so which is your style?
The C5 platform S6 Avant offered a considerable amount more power and performance than the A6 on which it was based. Packing a 4.2 liter, 40v all-aluminum V8 that developed a meaty 335 hp and a hefty 310 ft-lb of torque, the S6 was capable of sprinting to 60 in around 6 seconds. Those numbers might not seem as impressive as they once did, but back in the late 90s/early 00s that was no mean feat for a healthily sized family hauler that tipped the scales at just over 2 tons. To keep the tires firmly planted on the road, the S6 utilized a Torsen-based Quattro system that split power evenly between the front and rear wheels. Unlike the Allroad, these steel-suspended Avants ran the 1BE sport suspension, while aluminum body bits helped (marginally) to keep weight in check. Exterior styling cues separating the car from its more humble siblings were kept rather subtle, limited to slightly wider fender flares, chunky S6 specific Avus alloys, door blades, a slightly redesigned bumper and aluminum caps on the wing mirrors. This was a car that might go unnoticed in the school parking lot, but could hit (a limited) 155 MPH on the highway on the way home.
Circuit Paul Armagnac probably isn’t a name which is familiar with you. It’s not even a particularly famous race track, if I’m honest. But the city where that track is located will be suddenly make sense in the context of this post – Nogaro, France. It was the name of that small city in Southwestern France that was made famous when it replaced the moniker “RS Blue” in Audi’s go-faster lineup. The result was a color synonymous with speed, though few fans of the shade know the origination of the name. Blue was, of course, the racing color of France, so in a departure from the typical country-color orientation, Audi popped the obscure name onto its purpley-blue missiles starting with the B5.
That the tone had previously been assigned only to Audi’s skunkwork quattro GmbH (recently renamed Audi Sport) S6 Plus and RS2 was an indication of the sporting potential of the new S4. Power came from not one, but two KKK turbochargers feeding a 250 horsepower 2.7 liter V6. That power was delivered via a 6-speed manual transmission through all four wheels utilizing a center Torsen differential and rear electronic locking unit. Though the new S4 was neither the first fast Audi nor the first to wear the “S4” badge, it was a departure in that it was the company’s first attempt to really take on the M3 head-to-head. It was comfortable, quiet, and quick in all conditions, and while it may not have been a huge threat to BMWs on the track, in the real world the S4 was arguably a superior car:
I’ve recently done some comparisons on the sport editions of the B6 and B7 chassis Avants, asking whether packages like the B6 Ultrasport or B7 S-Line Titanium Package justified the premium they commanded over similar non-sport models. There’s another Avant that commands a serious premium in either B5 or B6 form, but in this case it’s not anything to do with being more or less sporty. Mechanically and physically, these specimen are identical to the other models in the run, but it is the color that stops people in their tracks, generates clicks and opens wallets – Nogaro Blue Pearl Effect. The lineage started with the RS2 and its signature shade “RS Blue” which was then continued with the S6 Plus and the B5 S4. It was the color of speed for an entire generation of wagon lovers, so what does that equate to today?
Audi S4 Avants have a semi-mythological status amongst enthusiasts. Like the great Greek Titans, they were heroic, with greater than man attributes. However, as with the Greek Gods, they’re also inherently flawed, doomed to repeat the same failures over and over again. I can’t help but look at the S4 Avant and think it’s like Prometheus; a gift to inspire humanity, but one that you’ll pay for every day. Recently, a close family member bought a 2004 S4 Avant 6-speed – there will be an article coming on it soon. I was lucky enough to spend a few days behind the wheel; it had been a few years since I was able to drive a 6-speed V8 S4, and I had some interesting perspective. The previous opportunity I had was on track in a then-new 2004 6-speed sedan at Watkins Glen – the car felt heavy but capable, shifted nicely, had barely adequate brakes and was a freight train from hell on the straights. Fast forward a decade, and what does a used one feel like? Well, my instant thought was that it felt surprisingly like my old ’93 V8 quattro had; heavy and surprisingly slow to react to throttle inputs. The shifter felt clunky compared to my Passat, and the interior was positively claustrophobic compared to…well, even an A3, which itself feels far too small inside for it’s exterior size. There’s an immediate feeling of weight and girth that isn’t as noticeable in the B5/5.5 chassis. The dashboard isn’t as intuitive as it should be, visibility is remarkably poor, and for a 340 horsepower V8, below 5,000 RPMs it feels surprisingly slow. But then you get it moving, and on the fly it starts to make much more sense. Over bumps at speed that weight works to its advantage, smoothing out the ride and providing reassuring confidence that it’s planted. For such a low car riding on massive 18″ wheels, it’s amazingly comfortable. If the C4 and B5 S4/S6s felt a bit like slingshots with their turbo engagement, the B6 S4 feels like a battering ram, bullying everything out of the way. There’s no need to downshift on the highway in 6th gear; mat it at 80 m.p.h. and it won’t take you long to be over triple digits. And if you do downshift and that needle swings past the magical 5,000 RPM mark, the engine wakes up and comes alive, positively rocketing towards the redline. Of course, it comes with all-wheel drive and 5-door capability, so it’s no wonder that such a package has a magical feel to it; however, it’s still a flawed package – in my time with the S4 Avant (3 days), it failed to start twice – a still undiagnosed fault. I couldn’t help but think the entire time that I just wished it wouldn’t break (further) while in my stay. Still, like a freight train derailing, I can’t help but look when they’re presented in certain color combinations:
The term “Fully Loaded” is often overused by dealers, and sometimes – as our reader Brad is fond of pointing out – poorly used. He is correct that, when talking about a top of the range luxury executive car, saying that it has power windows, locks or steering seems really quite superfluous since you couldn’t opt out of those options. Earlier this week, another reader sent me a 2001 S8 and I started to tick off the options that were selected as I looked through the photos and over the description. Unfortunately, the pricing on that particular S8 John sent was so aggressively low that someone got a great deal and it disappeared almost immediately. What was really amazing was that the selected options were more costly than the second-hand asking price! But I found another heavily equipped 2001 S8 for sale – unsurprisingly, though, the dealer doesn’t list those rare options, rather relying on the tried and true “Fully Loaded” moniker. Let’s see if we can decode what the car was selected with – and what that would have cost:
An interesting thing is happening for me with the B5 Audi S4. Even when it launched, I considered the B5 too complicated, too heavy and a bit too boring in the design. Is it a handsome looking car? Sure, but to me it wasn’t quite as special looking as the wider fendered C4 and V8 quattro models had been. Performance was good but not outstanding, and I openly criticized the new S4 as barely being the match for the already out-of-production E36 M3. So when power was upped substantially in the new B6 V8, on paper it was a better car. It seemed less complicated, more of a muscle car that was practical. But recent events in the used B6/7 market – the fear of timing chain guides – have changed the discussion. On top of that, many of the issues that the B5 platform experienced are being worked on by an enthusiastic community with market support. It’s something that hasn’t really previously occurred in the Audi market, but getting these older cars to run better (and without check engine lights constantly ablaze) is suddenly of interest in light of the problems with the later V8s. On top of that, clean examples of the S4 are already starting to dry up, since many dropped in value so quickly or weren’t maintained properly. Has the time of the B5 S4 finally come again?
As I’ve talked about many times, the Audi/Volkswagen crowd is one of the most unique in the automotive enthusiast world. The home of polarizing taste, there are both VAG enthusiasts who do a great job modifying their cars and those who ruin them in the pursuit of the being unique. Today we seemingly have one of each; a questionably modified 2001 S4 and a slick looking 2003 S8. Which would be the ride you’d choose? Let’s start with the S4: