Is it just us, or does the Audi A4 suffer from snobbery in certain enthusiast circles? Audi’s sleeper hit rarely gets a look in on compact executive group tests, overlooked by more recent, more dynamic rivals from BMW, Mercedes, Lexus and - soon, we’d guess - the new 2015 Jaguar XE.
Yet the Audi A4 sells in huge volumes, globally and especially in the UK. Here sales are up 3% so far in 2014, despite a new A4 lurking in the wings for launch in 2015. It’s Audi’s third best-seller here (trailing the A3 and A1).
A good time, then, to test the fleet drivers’ favourite, the 2.0-litre turbodiesel saloon.
Audi A4 2.0 TDI S Line review
The A4 has been around so long we’ve almost become blind to its ubiquity. Audi top brass, from CEO Rupert Stadler to new design chief Marc Lichte, recognise the need for change and we suspect that the new 2015 A4 will move the game on with a refreshed wardrobe.
Still, our saloon in Glacier White looks smart, inoffensive, premium. And that’s the key: the macro trend in recent years has been for punters to desert their mainstream Mondeos and Insignias in preference for something with a smart German badge and some bling to show it off.
The A4 is one of the main culprits. Nearing the end of its life, our S-Line trim and optional 19in five-spoke alloys add a further degree of lustre to our model.
Doesn’t S Line trim ruin the A4 though?
Time to find out. First impressions are of the A4’s cabin being solidly built, but showing signs of ageing. Audi effectively came in and reset the premium quality benchmark for interiors a decade ago, but we’d say the older models in the range are now showing their age.
There’s nothing inherently wrong: it’s just that more recent Audis have better materials, slicker multimedia screens, easier-to-use MMI multi-controllers. The A4’s cockpit works well, but it can’t hold a candle to that in the class youngster, the Mercedes C-class.
Start up the A4 2.0 TDI and the diesel is quiet enough and refined. This isn’t a group test, remember. There’s no C-class, 3-series or IS to benchmark against here.
Talk us through the Audi A4 spec
The A4 might be ageing but its engine spec is on-the-pace. The 2.0-litre TDI is equipped with stop-start to quell the engine at a standstill and it develops a fulsome 175bhp and 280lb ft of twist in this spec. You can also choose a lower-power 148bhp or 161bhp 2.0 TDI in the penny-pinching Ultra model.
It’s acceptably brisk on the road, and never too loud or clattery. The six-speed manual ’box is more accurate than we remember it. In fact, the A4 is generally better than the memory serves. Is this an example of a model being honed throughout its life to an improved twilight wilderness?
Handling and ride are one area where the A4 does betray its age somewhat. The ride is reasonable, especially considering the 19in rims on our test car, but the front-drive A4 struggles to replicate the purer steering of its RWD rivals for those who like to hustle their cars along a favourite back road.
But here lies the rub. Don’t professional road testers and hardcore petrolheads obsess over the last nuance of handling and dynamics? I’d argue the A4 is perfectly judged for its target market, who won’t give a stuff about telepathic steering feel and care far more about cool day-running lights than scalpel-sharp turn-in. These are the people who buy A4s (excusing, perhaps, the go-faster RS4 models).
What’s the A4 not so good at then?
Audi’s mid-sized saloon is feeling quite cramped in the back row; it certainly feels tight to sit behind a six-footer like myself. And the A4 looks anonymously identikit alongside its brethren. Can you honestly tell an A3 saloon from an A4/A5/A6/A7 in your rear-view mirror?
We’ve already identified a gently ageing interior, but of more concern is the question of finances. Wouldn’t buying an about-to-be-replaced model wreak havoc with residual values? CAP predicts this car will be worth 33% of its new list price in three years’/60,000 miles time. That’s actually 1% better than its equivalent 3-series, though lagging the 38% C-class.
It’s a surprising thumbs-up from us. The soon-to-depart Audi A4 saloon has been honed and polished into quite an accomplished compact exec for its target market. It’s still not the class leader; we’d point you in the direction of the Mercedes C-class, or indeed recommend you buy a secondhand car from the class above. But it’s still a reminder that those legions of A4 buyers haven’t made a duff choice, after all. Just a rather obvious one.