You gotta love Audi. Despite its rivals' explosive growth, The Boys from Ingolstadt have resisted the lure of sudden intended niche acceleration. While questions about reliability and resale value have shadowed the brand's progress like a pack of predatory wolves, Audi keeps on plugging away with a limited line of luxury limos, waiting for their turn to fill US owners' heated garages. As always, the A4 is both the point man and the mainstay of Audi's long march. Does the latest evolution finally signal the beginning of the end of the beginning?
From a sheet metal standpoint, the A4 is perfectly positioned to enjoy a rare window of unopposed conservatism. BMW's once-staid products have been turning Japanese (I really think so), Mercedes has renounced their discreet design heritage, Jaguar has overexploited theirs, Cadillac continues to live on the edge and the Asian brands are stuck in Pasticheland (save Infiniti). Aside from its inappropriately voracious snout– perfectly designed to make US license plates look ugly and stupid– the A4 is the ideal choice for drivers who believe discretion is the better part of showing off. It's old money on wheels.
The A4's rear lamp treatment is the only other concession to the vagaries of style. Audi's artisans added a pair of lenses resembling eagle heads to the tailgate/trunk. And? One suspects they were devised solely to help anally-retentive German corporate car buyers gauge their relative worth (with appropriate efficiency). No matter: the A4 is still as sensible as a bran flake breakfast. I reckon the Avant (that's "station wagon" to you and me) is the only machine that can make a Buick LaCrosse (that's "masturbation" to Quebecois) look like a hot rod.
Inside, welcome to the world's best interior. Not even brother Bentley can compete with the A4's superbly coordinated combination of shapes, textures, colors, materials and ergonomics. Did you know that every A4 switch, from the radio station buttons to the odometer's trip reset to the HomeLink transponder, responds with the exact same click? Or that the carmaker employs haptic and olfactory teams to make sure Audi interiors feel and smell like, um, Audi interiors? If you were wondering how the guys running Ingolstadt's four ring circus dare charge 40 large for a miniature station wagon, then you've never road tripped in an A4 Avant– or worn an Armani suit.
Yes, there is that. By American standards, the car is too small by half. I'm not sure if you could park an A4 Avant in the back of a Dodge Magnum, but I'd like to see you try. Meanwhile, the A4's rear chairs are less accommodating than a Turkmenistan Airlines economy class seat. Rear legroom is so scarce there are knee-shaped indentations on the back of the front seats. The obvious DVT danger restricts the A4 Avant's appeal to middle-aged Euro-snobs with small children. Works for me…
As does the dynamic payoff. While BMW's 3-Series is the better steer, there is nothing wrong with the way the A4 Avant drives. Cruising is the small Audi's default mode, but there's plenty of scope for speed-oriented shenanigans, what with seriously grippy brakes, Quattro four-wheel-drive and a supernatural handling Nanny keeping an eye on things. Unfortunately, the Servotronic speed-sensitive steering is lighter than an anorexic dust mite. In fact, all the Audi's major controls– helm, throttle, clutch and brakes– lack sufficient heft for small car drivers who enjoy regular bouts of contemptuous sniggering. Still, as the Audi product planning guy says, it's easy to park.
The Avant's two-liter four-cylinder turbo deserves special mention. The powerplant stumps-up enough low-end grunt to maintain smooth progress without dialing-up the revs. Once the turbos kick-in, the five-door Audi skeedaddales with the kind of free-flowing mechanical abandon that makes tuning shops very, very happy. Even without the inevitable used car bargain boy racer mods, the A4 Avant sprints to sixty in 7.4 seconds and tops out at a buck-thirty. That's not bad for a 3800lbs. vehicle that travels 25 miles to a gallon of dead dinoflagellates.
In fact, there's just one thing wrong with the A4 Avant: size. In the US market, "small" and "luxury" go together like "bling" and "Brooks Brothers". If this spatially-challenged luxury wagon had the word "Volks" in front of it and stickered for $10k less, it'd sell like heissekuchen. The A4 Avant and its sedan sibling are just not big enough to earn their crust for US drivers rooting around at this elevated price point. Aspiring Avantissimos are advised to buy used or plunk down $10k more for the A6 Avant and hold onto it for life. If the cost scares you, remember: it's what's inside that counts.