Buying an Audi sedan without Quattro all wheel-drive is like dating a Swedish brunette. That said, there’s nothing wrong with the right brunette, Bergman movies notwithstanding. And Audi makes and sells plenty of products where only the front wheels are driven, from economy cars to its aufwendig TT. In fact, Audi’s UK website proudly proclaims “a front-wheel-drive car is in principle more controllable and tracks better than conventional rear-wheel drive.” OK then, in advance of the all-new A4 headed our way in '09, let’s have a look at the Audi A4 2.0T and see if we can get past the FWD thing.
Under the guidance of northern Italian designer Walter de’Silva, Audi’s products preserve the straight, clean lines that BMW and Mercedes abandoned in pursuit of Picasso-esque titillations. The A4 maintains the simplicity of form and absence of affectation that has marked this marque’s models for decades. It’s proof positive that Audi understands understatement like Ferrari groks glamor.
Except for the A4’s chrome-lined Billy the Big Mouth Bass front grill. The grill takes up nearly the entire vertical span of the A4’s front fascia, interrupted by a slim piece of Euro-plate accommodating plastic (think local, screw America). The snout is Audi’s iDrive: a huge mistake its maker refuses to rectify. Like a tribal tattoo on a cheerleader’s bum, the grill is the one detail that almost ruins an otherwise clean image. Almost.
The A4’s interior has no such Achilles heel. The design is two steps forwards, one step back; the splendid red-on-red gauge read-outs are back, along with the square steering locus and the all-work-no-play center stack. The A4’s quality materials continue to defend and extend Audi’s rep for haptic happiness, with controls that snick with precisely measured sensual satisfaction.
Of course, no one’s perfect. A garish, silver piece of trim bisected my test A4’s interior; presumably inspired by a bath tub ring. Worse, the A4’s rear accommodations are still cramped enough to make an A4 owner covet a relatively measly Malibu. If your passengers are neither large or numerous, the A4’s handsome cabin remains the standard to which all other automobile manufacturers can– and do– aspire.
Crank-up the A4’s two-liter turbo-four, and its sonic signature is to a BMW six what a garage band is to Led Zeppelin. Once underway, Audi’s 200-horse powerplant displays minimal turbo-lag and stumps-up enough twist to keep on keeping on on the highway. Enough is enough, but no more; the 3428 pound A4 is no pocket rocket. That's partly because the front wheel-drive A4 I tested came with a CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission)– no "proper" autobox is available. In any case, the sprint from rest to sixty takes about eight seconds.
Savvy pistonheads will know this relative sloth indicates a struggle between maximizing mpgs and providing enough get-and-go to keep up with the luxury car-equipped Joneses– where fuel economy prevails. As a result, unless you’re a hypermiler, the A4’s force-fed four-pot feels a bit hyperactive underfoot; slightly out-of-synch with entirely understandable upmarket expectations of seamless and serene forward progress.
Bereft of the weight of the Quattro gubbins, the A4 should bring something of that “improved traction” to the game. Should, but doesn’t. While the A4 offers an excellent balance between law enforcement-compatible handling and premium price-compliant ride comfort, and the brakes are as dependable as a federal tax collector, even a sport-package equipped A4 lacks anything like a Golf GTI’s fluidity at speed.
With a wishbone upfront and independent suspension at the rear, a well and truly caned A4 dismisses surface imperfections to maintain its course. But it’s still very much an Audi: a nose-heavy beast with only slightly more steering feel than a radio controlled model car. One giant road dip in a tight right-hander reminds us that the Audi A4 remains the long distance commuter’s sports sedan.
Is this a problem? Truth be told, the majority of a non-Quattro A4’s 2.0T’s eventual owners will never push their upscale motor vehicle past three-tenths, never mind eight-tenths. They’ll never know– or care– how the A4’s handling can’t hold a corner to a BMW or a Cadillac CTS. They’re more interested in the inherent advantages of front wheel-drive during occasional bouts of inclement weather. As Audi’s excellent traction control program will take care of the daunting snow banks in the Costco parking lot, Quattro need not apply.
Well good for them. For such average Joes, the A4’s good looks and superior interior make it an entirely defensible choice. But that doesn’t change the fact that Quattro is Audi’s Unique Selling Point; the compensation for not buying a more dynamically engaging car. An A4 2.0T sans all wheel-drive is nothing more than a comfortable, boring sedan that gets reasonable mileage. Sure the A4 is a good car in and of its own accord, but I’d rather have an Accord.