Owning a Legend: The truth about living with the Audi B5 S4

There’s something about the B5 S4 that gets auto enthusiast’s nether regions all warm and tingly. At the same time, the B5 S4 frightens the begeezus out of them. So which is it? Is it a wonderful delight of a car to possess or is it a curse that ends up possessing you. The answer to that is ...yes. I’m here to tell you what it’s really like, to be a member of the B5 S4 club.

Many years ago when I was a massage therapist (trust me, this will make sense), the only car I could really afford was a black 1995 VW Jetta. It had a cloth grey interior, a roll up sunroof and a flat face only a euro enthusiast could love. Luckily I was one and I thought it was quite good.

Fast forward a couple of years and the economy recovered. It was 2011 and I was back in the tech industry and what better way to celebrate than to buy another black VW. But not just any VW. An Audi A4. This was the B5 chassis with the 2.8 liter V6. Sure they’d stop making them a good 8 or 9 years prior, but ever since I’d seen my first one back in 01 I knew it was something I had to try out. And so I did. And I loved it. There was something about the ride quality, how the buttons felt and how it really felt like the engineers cared about what it was like to shift the gears. I loved the red dashboard lights that are soothing to drive with at night and remind me of some sort of cool old tactical vehicle. I even loved the radio and its perfectly weighted knobs. How do they do that? The A4 also handled well and there was enough get up and go that I never even cared to know how much horsepower it was putting out. Come to find out it was only 190. Quite simply put, it was one of the best put together vehicles I’d ever owned.

Not the flashiest or quickest, but one of my favorites of all time to drive.  Fast forward a couple of years and I’d moved on through a Land Rover Discovery and a pair of BMW Z4s. But I still couldn’t stop thinking about the one that got away. The B5 chassis Audi. Eventually, the Land Rover was dying (which one isn’t?) and living in hilly, rainy and sometimes snowy Seattle, I needed another, more practical winter car.  And if you've ever driven a Quattro equipped vehicle, you know they are like mountain goats.

What’s my idea of practical? A car with an already nefarious reliability reputation and... 225,000 miles on the clock. This was my logic. Yes, I had already read as many forum conversations as I could regarding the risks of buying one of these cars, but figured I was handy enough to dive into one without driving myself too crazy. My criteria was that the body had to be straight, the paint couldn’t be too far out of whack, the engine couldn’t knock, the turbos couldn’t whine and all of the electronics had to work. A bonus would be a recently changed timing belt and water pump. I’d found a car that fit and the fact that it was pushing a quarter of a million miles didn’t really bother me. I figured outside of the items I’d named, I’d have nothing but a bunch of weekend jobs to tackle every now and again. I was mostly right.

We’ll talk repairs in a minute, but first, I want to chat quickly about what it was like to drive the B5 S4 after having owned a pair of Z4s and after having such a long separation from when I’d driven the A4.  In short, it was everybit as good as I remember, but quite a  it faster. The interior was the same rich leather and wood grain that only a late 90s European luxury car can offer. It maintained the radio receiver with the perfectly weighted analog knobs and something new. Turbos. At about 2,500 there’s a touch of sweet sweet intake noise a split second of silence and thrust of turbo to push you through to the redline. If there was ever any performance prowess the A4 was lacking, the S4 more than makes up for it. And I must say, I love a little old school turbo lag. If there’s no lag, you may as well not have turbos.

And then, the the timing belt went out. I will say, that this was about a year or so into ownership and this timing belt malfunction was the only time the S4 has left me stranded on the road.

It took the garage twice to completely fix the timing belt. The tech who’d fixed it the first time around apparently didn’t have the exacting attention to detail it took to button the old beast up properly and it thusly snapped within two weeks of me having gotten it back. If I’m honest, the dealership I bought it from also said they’d replaced the timing belt but something tells me they didn’t have a senior enough tech doing the job the job either. A year or two post repair and the engine is still running strong. That is a huge lesson I would offer to anyone interested in one of these cars. For critical engine repairs, you’ll want to spare no expense. If you try to, your B5 will find a way to get the money you thought you'd saved out of you at a later date anyway.

The other thing that shocked me from a maintenance perspective was the sheer number of control arms this vehicle had. It’s pretty much an octopus of German engineering in the front end. But... The handling is superb considering the fact that the engine layout is basically Porsche 911 in reverse. That’s right, most of the engine hangs over the front wheels. The front suspension is another system I had professionally rebuilt with stronger than OEM components. I’m not trying to have another rebuild for quite a while.

The rest I must say has been a a bit of an every other weekend chore. Owning this car hasn’t been about catastrophic failures and being stranded. It’s been about a constantly on check engine light and buying expensive VW auto group parts in an attempt to get the CEL to turn off.  Some parts are in difficult to reach places and some will cost 3 times as much as you're used to paying.

Every time you think you’ve spent your last "must do" dollar and get to move onto "want to do" mods... another must take care of issue comes up. I did once have a long enough reprieve between gremlins to get an APR stage 1 tune done and in an instant, I understood the addiction to tuning these cars. They take to power like a drunk authoritarian. They live for it. The turbo lag didn’t go away. It just kicked harder which I actually liked a lot. In my opinion, if it doesn't lag, why buy a tuner with a turbo anyway? This car represents the apex of what cars were when their analog mechanisms were only enhanced, not governed by electronics and nannies. Driving it, the B5 S4 feels every bit as capable as a newer car but there is more connection to the machine. It comes from an era where luxury was judged by the quality of build not the number of features. This difference is palpable and it’s something that’s missed even in the new S3. The B5 S4 is simply a more entertaining place to be. 

What all did I have to fix? I’ll leave the list below. At the end of the day, most of these cars are well beyond 100,000 miles. So, yes there is going to be maintenance. Are they less reliable than other cars I’ve owned? Not exactly. What they are, is more particular about the parts they can use and the quality of repair. You just can't throw junk at them and expect them to like it. The engines turbos and transmissions I’m happy to say, are tanks. 

My grocery list of replaced parts isa below. It’s been a journey, but one I’m fairly sure I’ll carry in for a little while longer. That is until it’s time to make another questionable car decision.

 If you’re not handy, The B5 S4 will clear out your bank account in seconds. If you are handy, just be sure your significant other is ok spending a few Saturdays without you. Is it worth owning?  Yes. Just make sure it's a second car.

 Professionally installed
-All new tires
- Timing Belt
- Tensioners
- Water Pump
- Complete front suspension rebuild (all control arms, bushings and tie rod ends)
- Front brake lines
- Upper radiator hoses
I installed
- Cam speed sensors
- ABS Control Unit
- Spark plugs
- Ignition coils
- Valve cover gaskets
- Left rear caliper
- Battery
- Radio Fuse (located behind receiver in dashboard)
- ICM Unit for bank 2
- New oil pan and gasket
- Carpets are all there and 100% clean
- Original Floor Rubber Matts

- Front sway bar linkage

 - Ignition switch

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