RHINEBECK, N.Y. — It was a motorized celebration of the lightness of being, driving U.S. Route 9 through New Jersey and New York, stopping long enough in this pretty Duchess County village by the Hudson River to enjoy burgers and great cookies prepared by Sam and Joann Cohen, proprietors of the aptly named Matchbox Cafe.
It is a tiny stone building along Route 9, “no bigger than a matchbox,” said Joann, who was working double duty as cook and server on the Sunday of our arrival. But the place had a big heart, manifested in the excellent quality of its comfort foods and the care and treatment of its customers.
It seemed appropriate that we, by complete chance, discovered the Matchbox Cafe in the car we were driving, the 2013 Audi S4 Quattro sedan, Premium edition.
It is a car with an excellent blend of performance and size — powerful enough with its supercharged aluminum 3-liter gasoline-direct-injection engine (333 horsepower, 325 foot-pounds of torque) to outrun or keep pace with all other performance cars on the highway, assuming that is an important concern of its would-be owners.
Yet our chosen S4 Quattro, with the optional seven-speed auto-manual transmission, with its liberal use of aluminum in engineering and overall body construction, was reasonably light — factory weight, weight minus passengers and cargo, of 3,935 pounds. Compared with recent experience in heavier high-horsepower competitors (fun but fuel-consumptive) such as the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 and the 60th Anniversary Chevrolet Corvette, the S4 Quattro was a blessing in hand.
I make no attempt here to offer a direct pairing between cars such as the Camaro ZL1 and the Audi S4 Quattro. They are completely different beasts — one, the Camaro ZL1 with its gargantuan 6.2-liter, 580-horsepower V-8, considerably more beastly than others. They are two cars aimed at two different demographic groups and driving mind-sets.
But the experience of driving several traditional American muscle cars first before settling behind the pleasantly contoured flat-bottom steering wheel of the Audi S4 Quattro Premium sedan did offer some lessons in the uses and expressions of power.
From the S4 Quattro, we learned that power need not be boisterous, signaled in the Camaro ZL1 by an exhaust note so loud and raucous it announces to all within hearing distance that you are in the vicinity. Power, instead, can be quiet and efficient — almost shy in exercise. The all-wheel-drive S4 Quattro sedan, for example, can move from 0 to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds — acceleration achieved so smoothly and quietly, it is frightening in realization.
For example, on a certain stretch of Route 9 near the New York Thruway, I found myself driving at a quite arrest-worthy 87 mph — thinking, truly honestly believing that I was moving under 70 mph. That was signal enough that it was time for me to shut the S4 Quattro down, grab a burger, eat a cookie, drink a cold root beer in pleasant surroundings and, generally, take a break.
My reward was learning later that the S4 Quattro behaves and handles as well at legal highway speeds, without enormous safety and legal downside potentials, as it does at speeds considerably above posted limits.
Power need not show off to be effective. Nor does it have to consume more than its share of resources.
True story: Before taking off for our Route 9 adventure, I parked the harrumphing 6.2-liter V-8 Camaro ZL1 — determined that I would not spend another penny on the premium gasoline needed to fill its 19-gallon tank. At barely 14 miles per gallon in the city and 19 miles per gallon on the highway, with a loudly bellowing exhaust note announcing to all that I was throwing away money, the Camaro ZL1 was driving me closer to bankruptcy than I ever want to be.
Fun is one thing. But at that price, I wasn’t about to fund a senior-citizen fantasy, not even for a relatively short road trip.
The Audi S4 Quattro sedan also required premium gasoline. But it offered a much better deal — super-smooth acceleration and handling, exceptionally agile steering, comfortable seats for four people accessible via four side doors, enough cargo space for their luggage, exceptional overall safety, and 19 miles per gallon in the city and 28 on the highway.
In short, the Audi S4 Quattro and the Matchbox Cafe we discovered here offer something that becomes more important to me with each passing year — elegance in balance, enough power to do what needs to be done, enough comfort to grant an ease and enjoyment in doing, all blessed with safety, good looks and, at least, a daily operating price somewhere in the range of “affordable.”