Over the last few years, the last generation Audi A4 was growing increasingly stale. Updated offerings from BMW, Lexus, Infiniti, everyone but Volvo have overtaken Ingolstadt’s brot und butter model. To keep the faith– or at least the faithful– Audi’s engineers initiated a massive redesign of the A4. Obviously, it’s a better car. Vorsprung and all that. But can the new A4 leapfrog the luxury brat pack? Or is it more of the same? Yes.
If the new A4’s front end looks vaguely familiar, it’s because you’ve already seen it (essentially) on the A5. I’ve never been a fan of the A4’s slightly bulbous looks (too much like a fancy-schmancy Passat). The new version is a cheeky twist on the old one, like a sci-fi cinematic remake that acknowledges its predecessor even as it blows it away. The new car’s wider track gives the A4 a more menacing look than before, and the rest of the design returns Audi to its recent understated aggression remit. Now, if they only modified Billy the Big Mouth Bass for U.S. license plates…
Inside, the A4’s impresses at one of the most important touch points: the steering wheel. Granted, the fat helm isn’t as ergasmic as the GTI’s tiller, but I’ll have what she’s having. Unfortunately, the rest of the Audi driver’s zone has been afflicted with the same button-itis infecting Acura’s offerings (paging Steve Jobs). Learning to master the farrago of functions puts drivers on a learning curve on par with differential equations. Fortunately, the A4’s fit and finish maintain Audi’s unique selling point. And thanks to a longer wheelbase, the A4’s rear compartment finally offers what Americans call “legroom.”
As before, the A4’s engine bay packs either a 2.0T four or a 3.2 V6. Despite making a class trailing 265 horsepower, the six-pot’s been tuned to deliver more of what pistonheads like at lower rpms. Combined with direct injection, both fuel efficiency and driveability are improved; there’s none of that nasty lag commonly associated with drive-by-wire throttles. Not even when you’re trying to recreate the official zero to sixty sprint of six point nothing seconds.
The A4’s automatic transmission is a very fine thing indeed. The six-speeds come and go with such ease that you’d be forgiven for thinking the A4 was packing a DSG instead of ye olde Tiptronic. Better yet, the slushbox rev-matches downshifts so smoothly they’re literally imperceptible. So, wafting.
The A4 sits on the model’s first new platform since the Manic Street Preacher’s singer walked away from his Vauxhall Cavalier (1995). There’s a better balanced body and a new Quattro all-wheel-drive system. The latter now splits torque 40 percent front/60 percent rear, making the A4 feel more like a rear wheel-drive car. While understeer isn’t banished entirely, it’s no longer the A4’s defining dynamic response.
And then there’s “Audi Drive Select.” At the touch of a button you can modify the vehicle’s throttle response, shift points, suspension, power steering boost and steering ratio. Switching between ‘comfort’ and ‘dynamic/sport’ changes the A4 from comfortable cruiser to corner carver. No really. You can also let the car decide: automatic mode reads your inputs and tightens or loosens all those variables as the car sees fit. Or, you can customize all your settings (good luck with that).
Audi brags that they adapted the A4’s steering system from the NASA moon rover program. On the dark side, you’re good to go. At speed, the ECU reduces the steering ratio such that barely a half turn of the wheel is required to follow even the tightest of hairpins. In “dumb down mode,” on long straight stretches of road, the A4’s steering wil leave you craving the slightest hint of gravity. Yes, the system eliminates the over-correction some sports-oriented sedans experience during an ‘OHSHIT’ situation. But Quattro or no Quattro, on-center feel is something Audi should, finally, fix.
It’s really too bad that you can’t buy/lease a BMW 335xi for the same amount of money as the A4 3.2 and have the fist of an angry God under-hood. But you can’t, so there. Besides, who needs all that power (other than you and me)? And the Lexus, Infiniti and the Caddy equivalents lack Audi’s Germanic, uh, stolidity. Anyway, the Audi A4 still has a big question mark over its reliability, but it’s a fine steer. And it no longer carries the stigma of offering less for more. It is, once again, a sensible choice for sensible people who want to appear slightly sporty in a sensible way and might, on the rare occasion, in bad weather, be late for a dentist appointment.