► CAR drives the prototype 2016 Audi A4
► We join final validation sign-off tests
► Testing 2.0 TFSI, 2.0 TDI, 3.0 V6 TDI
The Schauinsland hillclimb near Freiburg is a storied German race venue, made famous in the 1960s when fearless heroes in fragile but fast open-top single-seater sports cars drew large crowds to watch the annual European Championship event. It's a tough choice of venue, then, for Audi to let us loose in its new 2016 A4. At our disposal are five undisguised pre-production specimen, overseen by R&D bigwig Ulrich Hackenberg: one 2.0-litre TDI Avant, two 3.0 V6 TDIs and a pair of 2.0 TFSI saloons.
It's a grey Saturday morning and we're about to find out if the new A4 can hope to compete with the class-leading Jaguar XE, BMW 3-series and Mercedes C-class. At the word 'Go!', the lead car, dubbed 'hare' by the Audians, storms up the winding mountain road, checking this special stage for slow-moving traffic and mobile radar traps. Exactly three minutes later, the fleet of A4s follows in 30sec intervals. Talk about German efficiency...
The Audi A4 3.0 V6 TDI on test
We start the day in the 272bhp diesel and it takes some time to get it set up to our choices. The supportive and comfortable new sports seat needs further adjusting. Drive Select needs to be in the Individual position: for now, we lock engine and transmission in automatic, steering and dampers in Comfort, ACC in Dynamic for late intervention, air-con in auto (it’s already too hot for Efficiency mode). We said it before, and we must say it again: dialling in your favourite settings is too complicated and distracting. It requires the driver to deal with three different widely scattered controls, and the single steering-wheel button that would allow you to store the priority composition disappears when a heated steering wheel has been ordered... At the end of the 70km/h zone that seems to snake forever along the base of the majestic mountain, the vehicle’s DNA is finally tuned to taste. The last move before the visor falls and the passengers stop chatting is to nudge the redesigned square drive-by-wire gear selector of the eight-speed automatic to the manual position.
Although the 3.0-litre V6 spreads 443lb ft of torque all the way from 1500 to 3000rpm, flooring the accelerator does not have quite the explosive effect we had hoped for. Like the more powerful 313bhp 3.0 TDI, it helps to keep a bit of weight on the throttle pedal to maintain boost pressure. Once the torque feed has started, however, the lower-powered 272bhp unit feels more progressive and less peaky than its predecessor. Since the bottom two gears are spaced for maximum urge, the 5000rpm redline comes and goes and reappears in rapid succession. Thanks to Quattro 4wd, which is standard on the V6 models, there is zero upshift squat and ample wet weather traction.
Ride and handling
Mental note number one: the new 2016 A4 is very quiet in absolute terms and tremendously quiet for a diesel. It also rides notably better than the A4 it replaces. Proof is provided by the effortless low-speed bump absorption, the cushy response to traditional enemies such as drainage grids or manhole covers, and the ease with which the new Audi masters transverse irritations. Most of the corners up to the mid-way point of the first section are fast sweepers. That’s fast as in 80mph, fourth-gear fast. Maintain the flow, and the silver saloon will zoom up one of Germany’s finest mountain roads with maximum precision and minimum deflection: quite flat, totally balanced, growling angrily and super-cool. Whenever you lift off briefly, the weight transfer is more lateral than longitudinal, but the tilt effect is not bad enough to make the back-benchers breathe harder.
Instead of changing down early, you want to surf the 3.0 TDI's broad torque wave all the way to the entry of the next slowish corner. Now it’s hard on the brakes, down a gear or two, a flick at the wheel, and as soon as the front end bites you’re back on the oomph pump. Mental note number two: this is a proper Hackenberg-era Audi. The brake is on the heavy side, yes, but the modulation could hardly be better; there are no more dents in the perfectly progressive steering action, even though Comfort mode is quite light and thus calibrated more to American than to European tastes; the handling is almost eerily neutral and smooth-edged.
The final six miles to the summit are a stomach-turning in-fight with second-gear kinks, blind crests, hidden brake points and a random mix of still-moist and already-dry surfaces. The A4 zig-zags up the hill like a ground-effects arrow, a commendably sharp core in an unexpectedly soft wrapper. As the going gets tougher, I want more weight between my palms, so the steering action needs to move from Comfort to Dynamic (Audispeak for meaty). We tried the same trick for the dampers, but even on such a super-smooth turf you instantly miss the gracious initial response and the impressive compliance. In this particular situation, climbing with a knife between the teeth, engine and transmission also want to be in Sport so that pedal action, gear selection and torque delivery form a more aggressive threesome. Just before the very last hairpin, a tap on the shoulder from behind shouts please have mercy on us. No more A-B-S-olutely on the limit braking, no more E-S-P-ecially hard cornering, no more chip-controlled torque vectoring along the demarcation line between mere paleness and being sick. We slow down and turn to waft mode.
Audi A4 prices, model line-up
In Germany, the 3.0 TDI retails at €50,150 (UK prices have not yet been confirmed). Irrespective of the engine size, Avants cost €1850 extra. At the other end of the scale sits the boggo, manual transmission 150bhp 1.4 TFSI which can be had for €30,650. Positioned between these two extremes are the potential best-sellers, the 2.0 TDI and 2.0 TFSI both of which are rated at 190bhp. The strongest of three available 2.0-litre diesels (the others muster 122 and 150bhp) delivers 295lb ft, sports two counter-rotating balancer shafts and selective catalytic reduction which, thanks to Adblue exhaust after-treatment, checks out of the CO2 chamber at 107g/km.
Mental note number three: the most interesting engine of them all may well be the 218bhp 3.0-litre V6 TDI which is more frugal as well as much more refined than the coarse four-bangers installed in the rivalling 325d and the C250d. On the debit side, we must wait until 2016/17 model year for the Audi A4’s mild hybrid (two variants good for 8kW and 15kW) and the four-cylinder plug-in hybrid (same 80kW e-unit as in the next Q5 PHEV).
Behind the wheel of the A4 2.0 TFSI
For the longest leg of the day which takes us across the Rhine valley and through the picture-book vineyards of the Pfalz area, we’re in the 190bhp A4 2.0 TFSI - again front-wheel drive, again S-tronic, but this time equipped with the extra-cost variable-rate dynamic steering. Is it worth the money? I don’t think so. When you drive the two versions back to back, the high-tech rack does make the car feel a little more agile around town. In a straight line and through wide-radius curves, however, it is saddled with a strongly self-centering artificiality which won’t go away completely even as you apply more lock. Other options which belong in the ‘less is more’ category are the expensive Sport Differential (only for Quattro models), the pretty but compromised 19in wheels, and just about every second available assistance system. The predictive efficiency feature (Vorsprung through gibberish) and the newly introduced coasting mode help to save fuel, but why does the automatic de-clutch mechanism not work in manual and Sport mode?
On paper, the 190bhp petrol engine is hardly worth a special mention. But since the press kit dwells on the innovative combustion process and the best-in-class fuel efficiency of 109g CO2/km, we started asking questions - and found out that this is actually a four-cylinder Miller Cycle powerplant which produces 236lb ft between 1450-4200rpm for strong mid-range acceleration and a remarkably low high-speed consumption. How does it work? At part load, the intake valves close early, thereby increasing the pressure inside the manifold, which does in combination with the higher compression ratio improve the overall efficiency. Also part of the lean combustion process is the Audi valve lift system (AVS) which modulates the breathing apparatus for ample power and low-end torque as well as for low fuel consumption. Although it does not rely on high revs, Mr Miller's version of the 2.0-litre Audi engine deserves full marks for plenty of punch, prompt throttle response and unmistakable acoustics. More numbers? Acceleration from 0-62mph in 7.3sec, 150mph top speed and a deeply impressive claimed 58.9mpg combined economy figure.
Should you pick a FWD or Quattro 4wd A4?
The front wheel-drive A4 can be coaxed into mild understeer, it can be pushed beyond the limit of adhesion on winding and slippery uphill turf, and its dynamic equilibrium can be upset more easily than that of the A4 Quattro. But you know what? The two-wheel drive car is actually more fun through ess bends, it is harder work at ten-tenths and a little bit twitchier during abrupt changes of direction. In contrast to the 3.0 TDI, that homogenous blend of carver and glider, the 2.0 TFSI is a more interactive and involving piece of kit. It becomes an even better car when shod with narrower (read more comfortable) 17in tyres, with ESP set in Sport and with the transmission in Dynamic for late upshifts and early downshifts.
While the Quattro variant is a somewhat stoic master of stability and control, the lesser model feels more accessible and, ultimately more entertaining. Foibles? Vibrations on certain types of blacktop and when holding the car on the brake at traffic lights, and the usual ill-matched blend of fast throttle response and unnecessarily low gear in dynamic mode. Nothing that could not be fixed by the next software update.
The new 2016 Audi A4 drives well, rides well and performs well. It is built to the high standards Audi is known for, and it is lighter (by 120 kilos) and quantifiably more space efficient (by cabin length and cargo volume) than its predecessor. But even after the 13th design freeze - a sad record even by VW group standards - the 2016 model does not turn as many heads as it should. It’s a very evolutionary shape, aerodynamically highly efficient and true to the brand, but at least visually not the breakthrough car it could have been.
More to the point, it lacks the Audi-typical sheet metal quality - sharp edges, daring creases, super-narrow cutlines - a trademark forte BMW and Mercedes regularly fail to match. Once again, the interior is impeccable in terms of fit and finish, but like the new Q7 the latest A4 appears less user-friendly than earlier MMI-equipped cars. Never mind the crowded centre console - one look at the multi-functional steering-wheel and the three stalks that sprout from it is all it takes to start romancing about push-button radios and manual window winders. The 2016 A4 is a typical modern Audi: long on ability, short of emotion.