Despite the market swing away from orthodox sedans to crossovers and
For: Attractive design, improved content, good engines.
Against: S-tronic sometimes hesitant.
SHOCK result just in: When surveyed recently, some Audi owners had no idea about Quattro’s rallying origins and had never heard of Walter Rohrl and Michele Mouton.
Such the price of the normalization of the Ingolstadt’s four-wheel-drive trademark. Well, you can only hang your hat on the strength of some grainy film stock from the early 1980s for so long, I guess.
Don’t fear that all-grip all-of-the-time has done its dash. Assuredly, Quattro still has a solid grip as Audi’s point of difference. The brand continues to perfect its system; the next-generation kind is a fully intelligent setup, still under development so not yet ready for the A4 tested here, but assuredly set to install sometime during its development.
Actually, make that ‘an’ A4 tested here. There are two from the latest lineup, representing – until the S and RS models arrive – the extreme ends points of what is available.
The TFSI Design sedan is, at $71,900, the entry choice, front-drive, seven-speed direct shift gearbox and running a 140kW/320Nm four-cylinder direct injection petrol engine. With a 200kW/600Nm 3.0-litre V6 turbodiesel, eight-speed automatic and four-wheel-drive, the TDi Quattro Sport is at the high end of the family, as reflected by its $106,400 tag.
Two very different choices from the Ingolstadt chocolate box, then. And yet, when driven, they didn’t seem THAT far apart in every respect; even in dynamic terms – a reminder, perhaps, of the increasing quality of traction assists.
Suggestion that the true qualities of a prestige car are best judged by its entry spec presentation is on the money here; and it’s all good news.
The A4 body shape is one that has gradually lost its puppy fat over the years; while the general silhouette is not the most rakish in this family, compare this car not just with its predecessor but also the one before that and you’ll see how much leaner and more meaningful this key product has become over time.
Two aspects of its development become clear on close scrutiny - how much more cleverly shaped some of the panel work has become and, yes, also how much tighter and more uniform the shutlines. Audi has always achieved good assembly quality, but the latest are a true tribute not just to an exacting eye on the assembly line but also the merits of using high-grade equipment to create the components. The paintwork is also worthy of the same praise: Audi robots clearly have a steady hand and real talent for effecting blemish-free surfaces.
The model looks all the smarter for adopting the latest single-face grille, which also appears on several other models. It looks cleaner and more sophisticated than the previous styling. As much as the shape is bolder and more assertive, you’d expect in this age of efficiency, every aspect is expected to provide greater aerodynamic effect for the usual reason: The smoother and more slippery the shape, the less fuel the car will burn: That’s why, for instance, the side mirrors have been resited and reshaped. Audi cites a drag coefficient value of just 0.27 for these cars, but some European variants are as low as 0.23.
As good as the kerbside image is, the better news come from slipping inside. Given the money Audi NZ asks for it, you could be forgiven for expecting some sense of cost-cutting when entering the TFSI car’s cabin. But that exercise has been undertaken, the effects are very, very well hidden.
First impression, in fact, is that buyers at the top end of the spectrum might now feel short-changed, although the V6 gets different treatments for reasons that’ll be explained soon, overall it doesn’t otherwise feel 50 percent more expensive than the entry offer. Whereas the base car simply leaves a sense that it is batting above the average, and by some margin.
Its aluminium cabin inlays, knurled dials, damped switchgear, touch-sensitive ventilation controls and well-bolstered seats all present are of such a high standard. On top of that, it’s well-loaded, with city/rear pre-sense braking, cross-traffic assist, exit warning if you try to open a door into traffic, sat-nav, power/heated seats, keyless entry/start, the Audi 'phone box' with mobile signal booster and Qi wireless charging pad, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto and three-zone air conditioning.
It’s a much better-equipped car with a more modern ambience than you’ll find in the current Q3 and Q5. Though the crossovers will undoubtedly catch up in their next generation formats, that’s an important advantage for the A4 to hold at a time when SUVs and crossovers are achieving the public spotlight and sedans are increasingly being ignored.
Effecting a swing back is something Audi wants, hence why the entry car feels so good. It’s supposed to. While Audi has kept to a Sport configuration for the top-line cars such as this diesel, at entry level they’ve adopted a new specification called Design, which presents more ornate trim than previously and leaves it feeling a lot less watered-down.
It has Milano leather upholstery versus the softer Nappa of the Sport cars, but you won’t quibble about that: The hide comes from quality cows. Also implementing are triple-zone air conditioning, sat-nav and a host of other luxury features; even ambient lighting in the doors, across the fascia and even the cup-holders, which makes the cabin a proper event come nightfall.
The dashboard display differs from the dearer cars though it doesn’t have to: Audi asks just $1400 to update from the conventional dial set to its Virtual Cockpit digital dashboard. Don’t even hesitate to tick that box for what is essentially a television screen.
The rendering is incredibly realistic and it allows a huge span of display options; from a set of traditional dials to just one element, including sat nav. Audi is the first brand to have the tech to bring mapping up in this space; it seems a bit extreme to have a map spanning the entire 12.3 inch space, especially when you can simultaneously duplicate this on the centre console screen. It’s better to use the latter for that function and employ the dashboard for its more traditional use, while also – assuming you’ve set the nav to find an address - have the guidance prompts for turning and so on come up on the screen.
On the subject of design, ergonomics and design execution is excellent. It’s a driver-centric cabin that is really easy to settle into and operate. Fine-tuning the climate control is still a slight challenge, but overall it’s a logical, easy-to-like layout.
How much smarter can an A4 stand to be? The V6 shows how much more can be achieved by simply signing a bigger cheque. The Sport models apply a higher level of tech with active lane assist, adaptive cruise control, traffic jam assist and collision avoidance. Then there is the options list, with gear that can be added at almost all trim levels: Goodies span from matrix adaptive LED headlights, a premium Bang & Olufsen sound system and a rear-seat entertainment system featuring the Audi Tablet, basically a car-configured iPad.
Traditionally, the A4 sedan has always played second fiddle to the Avant (wagon) body style; in the past that has accounted for 60 percent of A4 volume, with the bulk being quattro. Clearly, then, there are those buyers who can see that format being the best of both worlds; more than a passenger car, less than an off-seal flavoured adventure machine.
I haven’t seen the Avant yet but would sense already that the past purchasing trend might well continue – as much as the sedan benefits from its enlarged interior, there’s still a sense that the version with an extra room on the back might be even more practical and also more attractive. Audi wagons almost always are. On top of that, the new load-all only costs $3500 more than the sedan.
Still, even though the rear seat shape suggests Germany was thinking of this being more of a four seater than a five, comfort and spaciousness are less of an issue with this generation. There’s reasonable head and legroom in the back and, if you are carting children, those ISOFIX mounts and anchors points will be appreciated.
The centre armrest offers two sturdy cupholders and a small storage spot. It also has its own 12-volt outlet but no USB point.
Boot capacity of 480-litres isn’t the biggest, but the 60:40 split folding seats alleviate that issue. You also get a luggage net and tensioning straps to safely secure items. The V6 has an electric boot close.
Safety? The Audi A4 was awarded a five-star crash rating from ANCAP.
This generation of A4 has landed in four different models with three different engines – actually, as one in two states of tune, you could argue there are four.
A lot is expected from the new 2.0-litre here. It’s the brand’s latest turbo 'ultra' unit with valve technology that intends to allow it to behave like a small capacity engine at low-to-middle speed, then become more big-hearted for higher performance under load, while also – and this is even more clever – returning virtually diesel-like economy.
It truly seems to acquit as advertised. A week of mixed speed and conditions driving elicited an economy of 6.3 litres per 100km from the test car – not on par with the 5.1L/100km but really good for something of this size, all the same.
It has sharp step-off (Audi claims 0-100kmh in 7.1 seconds) and the mid-range oomph is also decent. The throttle response is smart and there’s enough muscle on tap to encourage for high-speed overtakes, providing you keep your right foot into it.
That kind of behaviour will draw a bit of a snarl from the exhaust; driven with less brio and it retains a decent level of refinement and general quietness. Soft-pedalling isn’t a bad way to use this engine – it’s good for economy and the engine is pretty unstressed, with the rev counter needle sitting a sniff under 2000rpm. Ask for more and it’s not slow to respond, but alternately you can access a lot of torque from quite low in the rev band, which makes for pleasantly unstressed cruising ability.
This new S tronic dual-clutch transmission is more enjoyable than the continuously variable transmission used previously. The gearshifts are exactly that and it affects cog changes with a crispness. It’s possible to stir things along with the shift lever, or more convenient paddle-shifters, but there’s little need for human intervention. When left to its own devices, the car is quick to adapt to your driving style. The box isn’t always a friend. The test car sometimes effected an occasional hesitancy at low speeds, once or twice when we were departing a junction near my home that demands a quick getaway. That’s a place where even a momentarily delayed response can cause a palpitation.
What could be better? The eight-speed auto behind the V6, for one. With such a mountain of torque to muster, this has to be a stronger gearbox than the dual-clutch, but it’s also smoother in is shift action. Nothing seems to fluster it: Treat softly or bang the throttle to the floor; either way, it simply gets on with the job.
As does this engine. The top turbodiesel is not ultimately intended to present as some kind of performance bad boy, but in the absence of the models that will fulfil that role, it certainly seems to have the goods to please owners who are in a hurry to go places.
It’s all about the torque, of course: That 600Nm wall of wallop generates from very low in the revs and while it is not an especially revvy engine, the thrust occurring from virtually walking pace through to when the rev counter is reaching just over 5500rpm is very impressive. That it will hit 100kmh in 5.2 seconds makes it utterly understandable why this unit only harnesses to a four-wheel-drive system. Were it a front-drive car, you’d either be losing all that muscularity in wheelspin or spaghetti-ing the driveshafts.
Diesel road cars struggle to achieve penetration here because of the RUC issue, but that’s the only factor that restricts this car’s appeal. In terms of refinement and rortiness, it’s a stunningly effective thing. Even at full throttle you’ll be challenged to pick this for an oil-burner, but for the rev gauge. There is any turbo lag to speak of, either. It’s just everything you’d hope a big capacity six-pot diesel to be.
In addition to being impressively energetic, it maintains efficiency, of course, with 5.2L/100km claimed.
You’re probably sensing that the diesel has the bigger tick for its urge; it’s true that this engine is hard to give up on, though both are very driveable.
The difference between the front and four-wheel-drive cars also ultimately shows, of course, yet the quality of the A4’s latest chassis, based on the Volkswagen Group's large-car MLB platform, also acts as a very good moderator. Sometimes it is difficult to tell that the one that pulls through the same wheels as it steers isn’t providing less traction than the edition that lays down all of the urge, all of the time, via all four corners.
Enhanced stiffness is a big plus of this new platform but lightness is also a plus point. Despite the increased dimensions and longer wheelbase, this A4 is up to 65 kilograms lighter than its predecessor. The body itself is one of the lightest in class and weighs 15kg less than the previous model.
Evidence of weight-saving engineering in play is easily spotted. The mounts for the front MacPherson struts are beautiful aluminium castings. If rendered in sheet steel, they’d be 8kg heavier.
The car isn’t quite cloud-light because of all of this, but it does seem to have a new sense of spirit. It just feels more involving, more communicative now. The reason for change is easily understood; until now the A4 has invariably been considered the poor cousin in dynamic terms to the BMW 3-Series and it was further battered when the Mercedes C-Class lifted its game considerably in latest form.
Audi’s response doesn’t stop with a sharper, better-sorted chassis. Another highlight is the A4’s new electromechanical power steering. Until I drove this line, the only A4 with real driver feedback through the steering wheel was the RS – and not even the one just gone but its predecessor. Sharp turn-in is par for the course now, but it’s the coherent messages it is sending through the wheel that will be just as appreciated.
So where does it stand? Certainly a lot closer to its rivals that before. Yet even though the front-drive car benefits most, the four-wheel-drive car is still the most enjoyable overall: Both handle well, with good body control and nice steering, but you just cannot get by that all-paw adhesion and agility.
The Design models are set up as the cruisers while the Sport speak for itself. And the stories they each tell translates with the ride quality from the independent, five-link suspension.
The front-drive car is more compliant and composed over most surfaces, and has superior road noise suppression. It comes across as being a composed car whose favourite dish is urban streets and highways. The V6’s Sport setting is firmer and you trade that compliance, but the pay-off comes on challenging roads; it sits flatter and doesn’t dive or pitch as much as the front drive car on routes on which the main feature is a considerable corner count.
The V6 achieves an active suspension offering ability to scroll through the various settings (Comfort, Auto, Dynamic and Efficiency) and expect immediate changes to body control and ride comfort to match the driving conditions; it certainly feels sharper-edged and more reactive in the dynamic setting, but even when set to soft you can really lean on this car in the bends and it hangs on with inspired confidence. Even mid-corner bumps don’t seem to bother it.
The A4 is a massively improved car, not least in its entry format: That no-scrimping Design package is impressive and leaves this model looking a lot better placed against its rivals in respect to its content and presentation. For driving purity, the biggest capacity engine and all-wheel-drive are alluring, that’s for sure; the flagship also has the better transmission. The base model still runs behind the best-acquitted car, but it’s no longer eating dust.
The Design has much in its favour as a pseudo-luxury car. The engine is outstanding, flexible at the low end and crisp/smooth when extended. The move from the Multitronic (that's continuously variable to you and I) gearbox of the previous entry A4 to the dual-clutch S tronic (it's VW's DSG, really) is also a big plus.
Reservations? The same ones we've always had with any entry A4: it's front-drive and as such simply doesn't have the same chassis balance and driver involvement as rivals from BMW and Mercedes-Benz. Being pulled along rather than pushed just doesn't feel as posh and there's no escaping that.
Some of Audi's quattro models have felt a bit stodgy in the past as well, but the brand seems to be getting the hang of combining maximum traction with genuine driving pleasure. The sheer straight-line go of the TDI 200kW also created quite an impression of course, but there seems to be plenty of finesse in this A4 quattro chassis.