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Car reviews - Audi - A4 - sedan range

Our Opinion

We like
Ride, steering and handling progress, roomier body, great four-cylinder petrol and diesel engines, high value for money, gorgeous cabin architecture
Room for improvement
V6 petrol quattro a little unexciting, exquisiteness in styling missing

Audi logo7 Apr 2008

FEW cars let us down harder (both literally and metaphorically) than the outgoing, B7-series Audi A4.

Launched in early 2005, it was a re-skin of the 2001 B6 offering palpably sharper handling, but with an appalling ride quality on some models (the supernaturally gifted RS4 excepted) and fussier styling after the timeless elegance of earlier A4s and their Audi 80 predecessors.

It seemed to us that Audi’s preoccupation with matching the BMW 3 Series caused the Volkswagen-owned luxury brand to drop the ball in areas that traditional A4 owners would consider sacrosanct – namely suppleness and style.

And it appears we were not alone in this judgement either. At the recent launch of the all-new, B8 series A4, a senior engineer admitted that fixing the ride was absolutely paramount – but more on that later.

Visually, the B8 sedan returns to the sleeker styling cues of the taut original (1995 B5 A4) model with an upswept silhouette featuring a long nose and a short boot.

This is no illusion either, since the front axle is pushed forward, the drivetrain mounted slightly more rearwards, the wheelbase extended and the tracks widened – all in the name of greater front/rear weight balance. That it all gels more harmoniously is great news for fans of the series.

But this is nothing compared to how much better the A4 sedan gels on the road.

In the front-wheel drive four-cylinder models (1.8 TFSI petrol turbo and 2.0 TDI turbo-diesel) that we drove, the light yet direct steering of the B7 is bettered by a revamped set-up with more feel, more weight and less unwanted feedback on bad roads.

There’s now more agility, more eagerness to tip into a corner rather than plough straight through, and a fluency that speaks a much more dynamic language than any previous A4 ever has.

We’ll need to do a back-to-back test, but the A4 can now be included in the same premier-league steering and handling ballpark as the BMW 3 Series, Mercedes C-class and Lexus IS.

And the news only gets better with the 1.8 TFSI and 2.0 TDI. The former is the entry-level petrol engine, and it is a beauty, revving strongly and sweetly to the redline while providing ample amounts of response.

We cannot believe how much better this new-age direct-injection unit is over previous base powerplants, and it allows for the ‘sports sedan’ tag to be applied to even the cheapest B8 A4 available in Australia. It should give Mercedes’ C200 Kompressor buyers something to think about, too.

Meanwhile, the 2.0 TDI – now with common-rail and Piezo injection technology – is likely to be the big hit with buyers, not only for the obvious fuel economy benefit on offer, but also because we simply could not tell that it was a diesel by the noises it made from inside the car. Only the telltale low-range wave of torque gave the game away for the driver. It’s marvellous.

What is even more impressive is the Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) gearbox that Audi calls Multitronic. Now with eight stepped gears, it works equally well with both four-pot engines, and adds another layer of silky-smooth refinement to the travelling progress, and without the laggy slipping-clutch feel of some CVTs.

We love a good slick six-speed manual, but the CVT would be our choice here. In fact, as drivers’ cars, both lower-end A4s impressed us slightly more than the $88,500 3.2 FSI V6 petrol quattro model.

Perhaps it was the feeling of having a larger engine slung over the nose, or the added grip of the four-wheel drive system (which now sends up to 60 per cent of torque rearwards for a more rear-wheel drive feel), but the top-line (for now) petrol version definitely seemed more set up for comfort and security.

Don’t get us wrong, the 3.2 FSI V6 petrol quattro certainly is far sharper than previous equivalent A4s, and still won us over with a deep veneer of capability wrapped in a layer of refinement it’s just that it isn’t as much fun as the cheaper models to drive.

But, as with all B8 A4s, the ride quality is improved out-of-sight – even on models with larger wheel combinations. There isn’t the jarring or the crashing motions on abrupt road surfaces that were all too prevalent previously. Now occupants are better cushioned from all manner of surface bumps and irregularities.

We think the Audi may even be a match for the superb Mercedes C-class in this respect, but only a back-to-back test will give us the answer for sure.

Before we move on to the B8’s beautiful interior, there is one more driver-related A4 story that must be told.

In no uncertain terms, we were blown away by how good the ‘Audi Drive Select Dynamic Driving System’ (or ADSDDS – a $3200 option that sharpens up the steering and dampers and increases throttle response for a sportier drive consider it as Audi’s take on BMW’s wonderful Dynamic Drive) is.

Sampled in a lowly front-wheel drive 1.8 TFSI CVT sedan, this is the A4 that fulfils Audi’s claims that it has a regular BMW E90 320i dynamically matched at the very least.

Like a flexing muscle, the car hunkers down with noticeably weightier steering, sprightlier engine performance and a firmer ride quality the moment the driver selects the sportiest of the three settings via a console-mounted switch.

We only acquainted ourselves with the ADSDDS set-up over a varied stretch of winding country road marked by potholes, tight curves and long narrow straights, but the way the A4 carved up the road, with excellent body control, linearity and regularity of steering responses, and adequate ride quality, astounded us.

Aiding progress was a 1.8 TFSI that is so on-song for this sort of driving when mated to the CVT, that we walked away from this A4 firmly convinced that it is the pick of the bunch (for now).

Unfortunately Audi did not have a 2.0 TDI CVT with ADSDDS on hand for us to see if it could achieve the same level of dynamic thrills, but we are excited about the sophistication and abilities of this piece of new A4 technology – and potential A4 customers should be too.

After this revelation, we found it difficult to get too excited about the interior, other than – yes – it is another fabulous Audi cabin execution in the areas of ambience, quality feel, dashboard architecture, driver ergonomics and overall function.

We shouldn’t be so blasé actually, because for a lot of buyers stepping into an Audi after visiting a 3, IS or C, it may well be the A4’s class-leading interior design and presentation that ultimately sways the sale into its favour.

Canny cross-shoppers will make the connection that even the base A4’s interior feels special and beyond the low-$50,000 price level that it is at.

Over the outgoing B7, the B8 is measurably roomier in the back, with enough space now for the A4 to be considered a viable conveyance for smaller families. Aiding this is the fact that it has the largest boot in its class, and that it split/folds.

But all this is icing on a cake that we expected to be very good – but not Mercedes C-class-great in its comfort, ride, presentation and accommodation, or its dynamics that are oh-so-close to a BMW.

Of course, the new A4 has its flaws. Subjectively, we found that the V6 petrol doesn’t have quite the amount of acceleration oomph that its 195kW specification promises that the six-speed manual feels a tad light and loose for this sort of application and that the A4’s nose design still lacks the charm and purity of pre-single-frame-grilled Audis.

Yet the A4 has now, suddenly, become hyper-competitive, in one of the hardest segments in the automotive universe to operate within.

The fact that we can’t wait to have more time in the B8 – especially in cars fitted with the ADSDDS device – is testimony to how high the A4 has risen in our estimations compared to before.

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