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(Audi Photo)
BILL GRIFFITH

Attention grabber

Audi S4 is wonderful to behold and a thrill to drive

AMESBURY -- John Ring is a University of Massachusetts at Lowell computer science student who loves German cars -- the sportier the better. It's not a stretch to imagine him one day programming computer chips to power engines.

Ring drives a VW GTI and jumped at the chance to take a ride in today's test car, the 2007 Audi S4. Truth be told, he'd have rather traded his car for this one, and with good reason. The S4, the performance version of Audi's midsized A4, is wonderful to behold and even more of a thrill to drive.

On this evening, Ring proved both a font of local driving knowledge as well as a bowling expert.

As we took off briskly from the parking lot of Leo's Super Bowl on Route 110, where he works, the S4 displayed its wonderful exhaust growl, and we barely tapped the power in the 4.2-liter, 340 horsepower V8.

"That [Ford] Explorer, the one going the other way, is the local unmarked police car," he warned, even though we were behaving ourselves -- barely.

But there is no doubt that Audi wants the S4 to attract attention, if not from the authorities. It's available in colors such as Imola Yellow, Brilliant Red, and a variety of metallic and pearl-effect offerings that stand out from the crowd. Clearly, it's not a machine to fly under the radar.

In addition, it took but an instant for an aficionado like Ring to note the carbon-fiber trim on the rear spoiler and front dam, as well as the S8-inspired seven-spoke, 18-inch alloy wheels.

As we made short work of a few corners and long on-ramp to Route 495, it was obvious that Audi didn't compromise handling and balance when it used a shoehorn and several pots of grease to squeeze the V8 into a space originally designed for a four-cylinder engine.

The all-wheel-drive system, when coupled with the smooth six-speed manual, distributes 60 percent of the driving power to the rear wheels, giving a nice balance to the driving feel. The automatic (Tiptronic) version retains a 50/50 torque split.

Audi's redesigned rear suspension allows for a wide, deep, and long trunk. The S4's sport-tuned suspension also is lowered by 30 millimeters -- about 1.2 inches, if my high school math is correct -- which helps the handling and seems to accentuate the high window line of the deceptively simple styling that stretches from the aggressive black grille to the diffuser and side scoops behind the rear wheel openings.

Likewise, the interior is deceptively simple. Our test vehicle had a black leather interior with dark wood trim highlights and a wraparound style that proved to be more illusion than reality, leaving plenty of shoulder and elbow room for taller drivers instead of swaddling them in a tight cocoon. A nice touch is the hidden storage areas under the front seats. They're a small but accessible place to stash iPods, transponders, hands-free phone accessories, and the like.

As impressive as the S4's power and handling are its safety features. The A4/S4 achieved a double best pick from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which cited it for "good performance in front, side, and rear tests and standard electronic stability control."

The enhanced stability control system can detect extreme understeer, an example of which is those tire tracks you see on the grass off highway ramps. When the system detects such an event, all four brakes are applied to bring the car back to its original course.

Back on the highway, under their plastic covers, the front headlights swivel with the steering direction, illuminating the twists and turns of the road.

For us, the joyride came to an end back at Leo's Super Bowl. But we came home that night, thrilled with reaching 119 -- on the candlepin alleys, not the roadways -- as well as with the S4.

Given the $50,000-plus price, Audi appropriately offers a four-year, 50,000-mile new vehicle warranty on the S4. It doesn't place any limits on driving pleasure.

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