This new Audi A4, it looks classier than before...
Audi has moved its game on, as indeed it had to. With squarer proportions than the ubiquitous 3-series, this forthcoming A4 looks decidedly more imposing on the road. There’s a considerably longer wheelbase – look at that BMW-esque front-wheel-in-the-front-corner stance. In turn, that pushes the engines further behind the front axle line to increase the balance. But it’s the R8-style daylight driving lights that really make the A4 stand out in an instant, even if you need to opt for the £775 xenon light pack to get them. Is Audi chasing the pushy BMW image? It makes us wonder...
Longer wheelbase? Isn’t a cramped interior a given in compact execs?
It’s increasingly less the case. But while each new iteration of any car inevitably involves an increase in size these days, the A4 gains an extra 54mm in the wheelbase, most of which appears to have gone into increasing rear legroom. That, according to Audi’s figures, makes it the roomiest of the three German contenders. The A4 is long, too, an eye-catching 200mm longer than the BMW and Mercedes. But while that puts the latest A4 on a par with earlier versions of the A6, it’s still a long way short of the layabout space you get in a new Mondeo.
Does the interior measure up in other respects?
Audi has moved its game even further away from rivals with a result that drivers moving down from an A6 or even an A8 won’t feel short-changed. It's that good. There is a lightness of touch here, a calculated use of aluminium, cloth and leather there. It really lifts the interior. The usual Audi tactile switchgear helps, too. The A4 gets the MMI control interface from the A6, which is arguably either slightly easier or slightly fiddlier to operate than BMW’s iDrive, as well as an electro-mechanical parking brake with hill start assist. There’s a deeply impressive optional B&O sound system too.
But mechanically, this is just another no-surprises VW Group package, right?
Far from it. The longer wheelbase changes the chassis balance, and in the 3.2 V6 the quattro drive now channels 60 percent of the torque available to the rear wheels. That V6 now has 262bhp, which provides sufficiently involving performance, although it lacks the low-end thump of the diesel alternative, the 3.0 TDI quattro. All the diesel engine options are now common rail, with the 138bhp TDI Audi’s predicted A4 best-seller; it’s now as good as the 2.7 TDI V6 in many circumstances. Biggest changes are reserved for the four-cylinder petrol engines, though. They're completely redesigned, going all-turbo helping Audi achieve some impressive CO2 and mpg figures. The 160bhp 1.8 T is a sweet-sounding, enthusiastic machine that, economy and CO2 aside, is more fun than the diesel. The 2.0 T will arrive later and is promised to have undetectable turbo lag.
Can Audi Drive Select overcome Audi’s reputation for slightly turgid handling?
This is the big question for Audi. ADS gives push-button control of the accelerator pedal response, power steering weight and ratio, shock absorber stiffness and, in cars with Multitronic CVT transmission, the shift points. You simple pick Comfort, Auto or Dynamic mode and the electronics do the rest. The suspension settings are changed by variable valves rather than via the charged magnetic particles that work so effectively in the R8 and TT. Audi says this method is more suited to comfort-oriented cars. It’s cheaper, too, but the results are nothing like as impressive over the whole driving spectrum. The chassis is undoubtedly a step up from the previous A4 - but that’s hardly any surprise. If you choose to select-and-forget with the Audi Drive Select, there’s an entertaining time to be had in this V6 quattro, with a handling balance less front-biased and thus sharper on the turn-in. It’s – and this really will have to wait for UK evaluation to be definitive – just that in any setting the suspension doesn’t deal with bumps terribly well. It seems slightly bizarre that the lowly 1.8 T without the £1700 ADS seems the better developed package.
How does the new Audi A4 measure up with the BMW 3-series and Merc C-class?
For its home market it’s essential for Audi to big-up the technical prowess of its new A4, but in the UK things are slightly different. With turbodiesels now the best sellers it will be ownership costs and personal taxation that hit home harder. Plus style and what your friends think. The A4 will do well in all these areas, sitting comfortably alongside the 3-series and Mercedes C-class, and making Jaguar’s X-type look even more dated. The A4 3.2 SE quattro has performance that, on paper, is virtually identical to BMW’s 330i SE and there’s only a few pounds in the price. Mercedes can’t really provide a decent match to this particular model. The C280 is cheaper but significantly slower, while the C350, with its unappealing CO2 figures, is £34k, compared to the A4’s £29,680.
So the A4 looks like the best value?
One thing you can never do with cars in this class is make any rational judgments about value. That’s because Audi (and BMW, and Mercedes) has this whole book of options that you know you need to dip into. A decent wheel and tyre package, metallic paint, leather, sat-nav, Audi Drive Select, those driving lights and the B&O, will add another £8k, and there’s plenty of room left for further amusement. But that’s par for the course with compact execs. On a more positive note, the residual values are predicted to be much better than the BMW and Mercedes. But then the A4 is the new kid on the block, and the future RVs do wax and wane depending on the state of the market.
The A4 doesn’t quite deliver the killer blow we might have hoped for. There’s still some ingrained Audi stubbornness that prevents it from accepting that others who do things rather differently with their chassis might have something valuable to offer. But it’s not a serious weakness and in other areas the 2008 A4 is a much more enticing proposition than the outgoing model, with the visual presence to tackle rivals with one hand tied behind its back. Make no mistake, the A4 has moved on a long way from Audi's first efforts at a compact executive...