Egads — Look at what we can do!

Egads, it’s been a little bit since I’ve posted here. I’m quite sorry about that (or maybe you should be thanking me?).

Anyway, not too thrilled about that. As I’m sure you all know, life gets in the way. But oh, what a life it is. See, much like how I spent my June I’ve been biding my time doing interesting activities (OK, with the exception of moving). But I’ve started a wonderful lineup of classes, finished some good classes, worked more on cars, and generally have been having a great time.

At my last Solo event (autocross, as you’ll recall) I was very pleased with my performance. Not as pleased as I have been, but I made nearly 10 seconds of improvement from my first run to my last of four. I’m proud of that. But there’s still work to be done.

And then, as Rob can attest to, you have a moment where you realize that you can do that work. See, I spent the other day in the CU Math/Physics/Engineering Library reading Society of Automotive Engineer’s books. And other assorted books on cars handling. My S2000 was understeering a bit in corners when I felt that it shouldn’t have been. I know that I need a more aggressive suspension setup. No matter — Honda UK came up with an insanely well-recommended one. It’s roughly -1/-2 camber, front and rear respectively, with 0/.2in toe (also, respectively front and rear) and maximum caster on the front.

Great.  But suddenly I wanted to know why. I wanted to know everything about how to make a car handle. I’d just picked up some new tires in an amazing feat that can only be described as “Insanely meaningful”. I want to make the most use of them.

 

So I made a strategic acquision. See above. Race Car Vehicle Dynamics. I’d thought about it for a while. But suddenly it was time. One of Those Moments. If you know what I mean. If I had bought it earlier it wouldn’t be useful. But now I understand what it says. It’s over 700 pages of amazing. Suspension setups. Aerodynamics. Drivetrain setups. This is what winning is made of. And as much as no one likes to admit it, everyone wants to be the best at something. Maybe that isn’t winning themselves. But that could be the best damn suspension setup on the face of the earth. 

So we’ll see. I’m ever-amazed at what someone can do with a wrench, and if you haven’t found out what you can do with a wrench and some persistence, I invite you to find out.

 

 

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Quick Spin: 2013 Ford Focus ST

This weekend saw me driving a very special automobile for our Quick Spin series: the Focus ST, the only car ever to de-throne the GTI in one of Car and Driver‘s comparison tests–and as we all know, I am over the moon for the VW GTI.  So, the question on my mind is, is the Focus ST really better than the GTI, or have C&D‘s venerable staff collectively lost their minds?  I went to a Ford dealership in Broomfield to find out.

This is the car I test-drove.  I think the ST actually looks marvelous in black--it really hides that giant, blacked-out radiator.

This is the car I test-drove. I think the ST actually looks marvelous in black–it really hides that giant, blacked-out radiator.

Exterior: 7/10

The Focus ST is, in essence, a regular Focus with some added testosterone.  The grille is blacked-out, there’s a tasteful rear diffuser, a gorgeous center-exit exhaust, and some rakish, exciting alloy wheels.  There’s a very nice continuity in the shapes presented by the wheels and the exhaust–which is good, considering that they are probably the features that are most obviously unique to the ST.  However, they don’t really blend with any of the other shapes on the ST, which is a bit of an aesthetic problem for this car.  It looks busy inside and out, and this is especially noticeable in any of the brash, bright colors in which this car is offered (“Tangerine Scream,” anyone?).

Ford Focus ST at NAIAS 2012

The center-exit exhaust is a really gorgeous, slick dual-hexagon.  It’s one of my favorite design touches on this car. (Photo credit: Autoviva.com)

Love these alloy wheels--interesting without being immature.  The fluid, geometrical shapes in these wheels are echoed ever so slightly in the design of the exhaust.

Love these alloy wheels–interesting without being immature. The fluid, geometrical shapes in these wheels are echoed ever so slightly in the design of the exhaust.

Ford Focus ST at NAIAS 2012

The bright colors offered for this car really accentuate that gopping “mouth”. (Photo credit: Autoviva.com)

In short, you’ve simply got to have it in black.  Black hides the wide-open “mouth” on this car, and black allows the shapes of the alloy wheels and the aluminum center-exit exhaust to really stand out and draw the eye.  If you have it in any other color, then the noise of the car’s other creases really starts to become an eyesore if you look at it for too long.

See?  It's MUCH better in black.

See? It’s MUCH better in black.

One particularly cool feature of the exterior design is the gas-cap (wow, I never thought I would type those words).  It’s integrated extraordinarily well into the body, and you probably wouldn’t notice it unless you were looking for it.  It’s shaped like just another panel on the car, and in this way it really “hides” in the car’s lines.  This is indicative of a level of detailed thought given to this car’s design which was surprising and very pleasing–and which is also to be found in the interior.

The gas cap is hidden just under this taillight--a masterfully conceived and brilliantly executed detail.  You would notice and appreciate this every time you needed a fill-up.

The gas-cap is hidden just under this taillight–a masterfully conceived and brilliantly executed detail. You would notice and appreciate this every time you needed a fill-up.

Overall, if you get this car in black, it can be a rather pleasing, and–dare I say it?–special thing to look at.  That said, I don’t think that the current-gen Focus is much of a looker in the first place, and the ST’s designers could only tweak it within the bounds of reason.  Bearing that in mind, I think most of the ST-specific design elements are for the better (with the exception of the grille; I really don’t know what they were thinking with that).  The exterior wouldn’t sell me on this car, but in black, it wouldn’t scare me off, either–on the contrary, actually.  In the right color, it’s a properly solid piece of automotive design.

Interior: 7/10

The ST’s interior is very upscale–and very sporty–for this class of car.  There are a variety of interesting shapes available to the driver’s eyes and fingers, and that makes the cockpit a very stimulating place to sit.  The IP’s gauge pods are crazy pentagons with exaggerated corners; the knob for adjusting how much air comes out of the vents is a chunky, conical (rather than cylindrical!) piece; the vents themselves jut out at the driver at something like a 127-degree angle.  Even the handbrake looks like an alien artifact (and comes out of the dash differently than you might expect–it doesn’t hinge up like a lever; rather, the entire, peculiarly-curved apparatus rises up out of the transmission tunnel).

Notice how the handbrake lever comes out of the transmission tunnel; this is disorienting at first, but I suspect you would get used to the way it rises almost straight up.

Notice how the handbrake lever comes out of the transmission tunnel; this is disorienting at first, but I suspect you would get used to the way it rises almost straight up.

I was expecting to hate a lot of this car’s interior, based simply on the press photographs I had seen of it; let me say, definitively, that I was wrong to doubt Ford here.  First, and most prominently, the Recaro seats are fantastic.  I understand that, because these seats are tailored towards the slender, they may not be everyone’s cup of tea; for my 150-lb., 6′ self, however, they were absolutely marvelous.  The Recaros are absolutely worth the nominal fee you’ll pay to upgrade to them.

Notice how the air vent is perched atop this odd, angular protrusion.

Notice how the air vent is perched atop this odd, angular protrusion.

The shift knob is something else I was concerned about.  Given that this car is only offered with a six-speed manual, I was especially worried that the shift knob looked like it came out of an early ’00s Honda Civic Si.  Thankfully, once I actually touched this shifter, I was quite relieved.  It’s made of aluminum (rather than shiny plastic, as I’d feared), and the back of it (which no photographer would ever bother to show you) is made of a spectacularly grippy leather (or leather-like substance).  It actually felt like a very premium thing to hold, even if it didn’t look the part (to my eyes).

(Photo Credit: stblogs.automotive.com)

(Photo credit: stblogs.automotive.com)

The steering wheel is a gem; it’s noticeably small in diameter, and wrapped in a fine, slightly cushy, perforated leather.  While the GTI and the Toyobaru each have a solid-feeling, sculpted, grippy wheel, the ST’s feels more like it’s got a millimeter or two of tempur-pedic material just beneath the leather.  I was initially concerned that this would soften up the feel of the whole experience, but mere seconds into the drive, I noticed that it actually felt more sporty than the GTI’s steering wheel(!).  Overall, though, I’m not sure I prefer it over the GTI’s tiller, particularly given that there are far too many buttons on the ST’s wheel for my taste.  I don’t even know what most of them do.  And there are paddles behind the wheel, where shift paddles might go in an automatic: one paddle operates the cruise control, while the other activates voice-command mode.  This made no sense to me.  Perhaps the best illustration of this problem comes from the fact that there are two separate four-way switches on either side of the wheel.  That’s fairly annoying to me on general principle, as I like a steering wheel to have as few buttons as possible.  I like a car to have as few buttons as possible, actually, and this is the opposite of that.  In total, the ST’s steering wheel has nineteen buttons on it.  Ford: knock it off with this, already.  Just because I’m part of the “smartphone generation” or whatever doesn’t mean I want my car to be a smartphone.  I want my car to be a car.

2013-08-11T15-46-40_0

Speaking of electronics, Ford’s voice-control technology (SYNC) is universally detested by consumers and journalists alike, and it is, sadly, a mandatory “feature” on every trim level of the Focus ST.  Blissfully, though, there are physical buttons for stereo and HVAC controls, and these were quite straightforward to operate.  This is a nice change of pace from some other Ford-family vehicles (Lincoln, I’m looking at you), which make you control HVAC and audio from the touchscreen.  This is the most dangerous thing you can possibly do to a car, especially if your touchscreen interface is as slow and un-intuitive as SYNC.  So even though the ST’s implementation of SYNC is relatively harmless, I don’t understand why Ford bothered with putting SYNC in there in the first place.  This would have been a better car without it.

There are some other gripes, to be sure: I think the driver sits too low and too far back in this car, and as a result it can be hard to use all of the visibility which the windows afford.  This also makes the driving position (initially, at least) fairly awkward; it feels like you’re looking up and out at all of the controls, like they’re farther away from you than they should be–which is very weird.  I can’t say whether this is something one would get used to, but it was a noticeable (though not insurmountable) issue I noticed for the duration of my test drive.  I’m also not impressed by the amount of space in the rear.  With the Recaros taking up all of the rear knee-space, your rear-seat passengers won’t be getting too comfortable.  It would probably be fine for kids, or adults on a (very) short trip, but there’s no one I hate enough to make them spend a road trip back there.  The lovely Recaros in front are absolutely worth the tradeoff for the driver and front-seat passenger, but if your backseat is going to be rendered useless anyway, then why not just get a V6 Mustang instead for the same price?  And while we’re on the subject of compromised utility, allow me to report that the trunk space is noticeably less than what you’d get in a GTI, and the rear seats don’t fold all the way down–they just sort of lie at an angle.

Kind of an appalling amount of rear seat space for a hatchback, really.  Those front Recaros totally make up for it, though--anyone big enough to be uncomfortable in the backseat of this car should stop complaining and buy their own car instead of bumming rides off of you.

Kind of an appalling amount of rear seat space for a hatchback, really. Those front Recaros totally make up for it, though–anyone big enough to be uncomfortable in the backseat of this car should stop complaining and buy their own car instead of bumming rides off of you.

The SYNC Console.  Redundant stereo controls also pictured.

The SYNC Console. Some of the redundant stereo controls are also pictured here.

Overall, the interior is very well put-together, and it uses some marvelous materials.  Panel gap, build quality, and general fit and finish are absolutely up there with the Mk 6 GTI.  Everything you touch is either premium or close to it.  My only gripe is with how busy all of the lines are.  It’s exciting, to be sure–it’s a downright visual feast–but there are lines coming out of nowhere and ending nowhere; hard angles and swooping, gradual angles; pentagons and parallelograms and hexagons and squares and circles and squircles.  It’s almost exhausting to look at it all.  In short, then, while the ST’s interior may feel quite premium, it does so with too much drama for my taste.  Because all of the shapes and lines in the cockpit are all screaming at you, it can be hard to relax.  if that sort of thing doesn’t bother you, though, then you’ll be more than satisfied with this cockpit–and it does feel like a cockpit; more like the inside of a stealth bomber than a car, really.  Ford has made a worthy competitor to the GTI in terms of build quality here (if not in terms of design harmony; the ST’s feng shui is WAY off).  Now, if only they would ditch SYNC…

Ride: 7/10

The previous-generation Focus chassis underpinned my old Mazdaspeed3.  As such, I was anticipating punishment from this car, what with its lowered ride height, sporty suspension, and minimal tire sidewalls.  I was actually taken aback by how comfortable the ST was over bumps.  Rough tarmac will definitely upset the car’s zen mojo–you wouldn’t call it “comfortable.”  But neither is it painful, or even uncomfortable, and it’s certainly not nearly as bad as the Mazdaspeed3’s suspension (the ‘speed3 rode on specially designed pain-coils).

The ST doesn’t shield the driver from unwanted noise as well as the GTI’s suspension does, but the ST is a lot more comfortable than I was expecting it to be.  I cannot say for sure how the ride would hold up over time (considering tire wear in particular), but the suspension was obviously given considerable tuning so that human beings, with spines, would be able to comfortably sit in the vehicle as it goes along the road.  I think it’s a smashing compromise, though a part of me would probably still yearn for the GTI’s Teutonic chassis tuning if I ran into a particularly bad pothole.

Handling: 8/10

This thing can absolutely handle.  We took it on a twisty road, with a few esses, and the salesman told me I could put my foot in it, “because cops don’t usually hang out on this road.”  What a guy.  Wanting only to oblige, I downshifted and gave it a bootful through the esses.  I didn’t exactly have the opportunity to explore the limits of grip, but I could sense through the steering wheel that the car was capable of a lot more than the backroad curves could throw at it.  It was magnificent, and the steering response was informative without being punishing–it really was tuned very, very well.  I don’t think anyone will be disappointed by this car’s handling.  One more notable feature–the absence of torque steer.  A couple of times, I put myself in second and floored it, thinking, “THIS will generate some torque steer!” and, as I sat there, waiting for the car to jump leftward into oncoming traffic without provocation….it did nothing.  It just kept going straight.  Whatever wonders Ford has worked with eliminating the torque steer from this 252hp, 270 lb.-ft., FWD monster, it is simply brilliant to drive.

When we turned around to head back to the dealership, I did notice that the turning circle on this car is absolutely hilarious.  It needed a K-turn to handle a curve that would have been a simple U-turn for most cars.  This is not a deal-breaker for me by any stretch of the imagination, but it is worth mentioning.

Brakes: 9/10

The brakes are almost flawless.  There’s quite a lot of initial bite, but in this car, that bite just inspires confidence in the stoppers from the second you touch the pedal.  They are progressive and natural-feeling, while also being very effective at scrubbing speed.  This is especially gratifying given that Ford’s brakes are usually about 75% too spongy for me; I’m glad to see that they’ve taken a different tack here.

Gearbox: 10/10

This is one of the all-time great modern manual transmissions.  The shifter moves very fluidly from gate to gate, but it also has a very short throw, and when you put it into a gear, it locks into the gate with a lovely, mechanical-feeling snick.  It is a work of art, and even despite the fact that the shift knob looks a bit bargain-bin, it fits the hand very well and is an utter joy to row.  My only complaint is that, in order to unlock the Reverse gate, you have to lift the collar on the shift boot, which seems very counter-intuitive to me; it seems to me that the best method for separating Reverse from the other gears is to push down on the shift knob in order to access it.  I’m also fine with shifters that require you to add extra elbow-grease to get to the Reverse gate.  But lifting the little metal ring that connects the shift boot to the knob?  That’s just a weird, awkward motion for your hand to perform.

Thankfully, the clutch is every inch as beautifully engineered as the gearbox itself.  It’s light–not so light as to feel numb, but just light enough that operating it isn’t a chore.  Clutch-flywheel engagement is very progressive, and you can feel it through the pedal just enough so that you know what’s going on.  The friction point is wide enough that it doesn’t feel like a switch, but not so wide that you might accidentally drop out of a gear before it’s all the way engaged.

Simply put: it’s a fantastic gearbox.  It might be one of the best transmissions I’ve ever used; it’s certainly in the top five.  As a manual junkie, I was floored by how much fun it was to row this thing.  It strikes the perfect balance between notchiness and smoothness, a feat that few other gearboxes I’ve encountered have been able to match: for instance, the GTI’s ‘box is a marvel of smoothness with not enough notchiness, while the Mazdaspeed3’s is so notchy that it’s hard to shift it without a major application of violence and force.  On the test drive, I even found myself changing gears even when I didn’t have to, just because it was such great fun to operate this transmission.

Acceleration: 9/10

This car has 270 lb.-ft. of torque, and you can absolutely tell that from the driver’s seat.  A generous helping of that torque is available from about 2000 RPM, and so it’s quite easy to have fun in almost any gear at almost any time.  It’s really shocking how favorably this compares to the Mazdaspeed3, which has more bhp (263) and more torque (280); it just feels like the ST makes that power a lot earlier and a lot more consistently.  (Don’t tell Mazda, but I also feel like more of The ST’s 252bhp are making it to the wheels).

The moral of the story is that, with an ocean of torque consistently available throughout the rev-band, the ST flies.  It just absolutely flies.  The ST gets 9/10 points in this category–not because it could objectively out-accelerate 90% of the cars on the road (although that may be true), but rather because the sensation of acceleration you get in this car is more exhilarating than the experience of accelerating in a great many other cars, including ones that cost much more.

Sound: 9/10

You can definitely tell that the ST’s sound is being piped through an active sound symposer (or “snorkus”).  In this car, that isn’t even close to a bad thing.  You can feel the deep basso profundo thrum of the engine’s exhaust note in your kidneys, and this would be true even without the symposer’s help; it’s there to add the treble notes of induction noise to this composition, and it does so with the precision of a 1st-chair violinist from the London Symphony Orchestra.  When you get on the throttle, the symposer snarls at you.  It chucks out this positively lupine growl that sends shivers down your spine.  It’s marvelous technology.

The thing is, apart from the engine noise (and the sound coming from the excellent stereo), there isn’t much to hear with this car.  Sound-deadening has been applied here to great effect, and road noise is effectively a non-issue.  I can’t speak to the presence or absence of engine drone at cruising speeds, but I can tell you that the cabin is a very sonically comfortable place, and that the engine note is positively demonic.  For me, this is just about a perfect combination.

Toys: 4/10

This is really the ST’s weak spot.  The thing is, it does have the toys you’d expect a hot hatch with options to possess: heated seats, nav, touchscreen…things, bluetooth for your phone, hookups for your MP3 player, and so on.  My only issue with these toys is that many of them are connected with Ford’s truly horrible SYNC interface, which is unendingly frustrating to use.  It’s such a distracting piece of technology to operate that I honestly believe it’s unsafe to use SYNC while you’re driving.  If that condemnation isn’t enough to frighten you, then consider the following anecdote, which should give you chills: when I was talking to the salesman about SYNC, he said that Ford’s plan was to phase out physical buttons and eventually have the entire car be operated with voice commands.  This is a bad idea.

Value: 8/10

This car’s base price is $24,115.  For what you’re getting, that is incredible INSANE value.  Admittedly, given that you will want some of the options for this car (do yourself a favor and get the Recaros, rear legroom be damned), the price of the model you actually buy would probably be closer to the model I tested, which was fully-loaded at about $29,000 (MSRP).  Now, if you were to go with an ST specced somewhere in between those two prices?  At about $27,000, this car would be a very, very sweet deal.  I would even say that it’s a serious rival for the current-generation GTI.  The busy design of the ST, inside and out, might keep me from buying one, especially considering the wonderfully simple, clean design of a GTI, but if a salesman made me a particularly good offer on a day when I was feeling particularly rakish?  …..I might just end up in this fast Ford.

At least, until the Mk. 7 GTI comes to America next summer.

Aggregate Score: 78/100

A brief introduction.

Recently I was invited to be an author here, so I figured I would give a brief, to-the-point introduction of myself.  My name is Eric, and, like the others writing here, cars are my thing.  Currently I drive a 1989 BMW 325is with an extremely loud exhaust.  I am hoping to bring a new viewpoint to the reviews on this blog, and that is the viewpoint from the race track.  I am well versed in high-performance driving, and am an instructor for the BMW Car Club of America.  I am also an avid autocrosser, I used to do quite a bit of drag racing, and am getting my wheel-to-wheel racing license this October.  I’m hoping that I can bring an analysis less of practicality and real-life uses, and more of how they perform on the edge.  I will, however, still be dabbling in a few normal reviews as well.  At this point I am also building a Lotus 7 kit car from scratch, and will be posting that as well.  Good reading!

Quick Spin: 2013 Audi A4

This weekend I drove a new Audi A4.  This was something of a momentous occasion for me, for multiple reasons:  firstly, because this is my girlfriend’s dream car (particularly in S4 trim), and so there is a reasonably high chance that one of these will sit in my garage one day.  Secondly, I think this is the best-looking sedan you can buy right now, both inside and out, and I really wanted to see whether it drove half as well as it looked.

Quick Spin is a new segment on PRNDLoser in which I go to dealerships and test drive the cars there.  I really am in the market for a new car, though in the interest of total honesty, some of the cars I test drive–like this A4–are not, strictly speaking, in my price range.

This is the actual car I drove, courtesy of the lovely people at Stammler Audi in Boulder.

This is the actual car I drove, courtesy of the lovely, lovely, trusting people at Stammler Audi in Boulder.

Exterior: 9/10

This is the best-looking sedan I have ever laid eyes on, bar none.  VW/Audi/Porsche A.G. is very good at bending sheetmetal to their will, and this car is a marvelous example of that.   Bygone is the weird, geometric, bauhaus-y roundness of older Audis.  Today, Audi’s design language is all about subtly chiseled aluminum and a marvelous combination of pleasing angles that seem to flow all around the exterior.  The exterior is a rounded shape, in a very general sense, but it’s creased along the hood and shoulder-line so that the whole shape looks sharper along the edges, and the end result is a car that manages to look both aggressive and yet somehow also friendly–a bit like a big, smiling German Shepherd.

The head and tail lights contribute to this overall look of cool aggression in spectacular fashion.  Audi has long been ahead of the game with its LED lights, and the A4 is no exception in this respect.

photo credit: Automobile Magazine

photo credit: Automobile Magazine

The “track” of LED light running around the perimeter and into the depth of of the headlight housing performs two very important visual functions.  On the outer edge (and on the top-side, which slopes inward and downward), it accentuates the “sharpness” of the body’s creases and contributes to the subtle aggression of the styling.  On the inner edge, it mirrors the angle of the trapezoidal grill’s corner, which contributes to a feeling of symmetry that makes the headlight design feel cohesive with the design language on the rest of the car’s face.  In this way, the trademark “swooping” (or, if you prefer, “drooping”) LED line which constitutes the Audi “corporate look” for headlight design is eschewed for a more eye-catching (and, to my eye, vastly more attractive) set of visual cues.

This is a second photo of the car I actually drove.

This is a second photo of the car I actually drove.

The rear end is slightly less focused than the front, and displays more rounding and more of that characteristic Audi swoop/droop, but is nevertheless attractive to look at, especially in person (photos don’t really do justice to the sheer presence this car has, both on the street and in a parking lot).  Overall, the exterior leaves one with the impression of superb luxury build quality, and–particularly when viewed from the front–a considerable amount of well-executed swagger.  I think that if the rear lights were as sharp-looking as the front lights, this would be an unassailable sedan design.  As it stands, however, it is peerless (in my opinion): it is interesting without being busy, and understated without being boring.  Well done, Audi.

Interior: 9/10

photo credit: Audi

photo credit: Audi

The interior is the A4’s party piece.  Even in this relatively lofty price bracket, it is leagues ahead of its main rivals from BMW and Mercedes-Benz.  I don’t even know where to begin with my outpouring of praise.  The standard seats are better than any BMW seats I’ve ever been in. BMW seats used to be my benchmark, but Audi has taken that benchmark and knocked it straight out of the stadium with these thrones.  The seats that come with the Sport package (a $750 extra which you should definitely tick) are exponentially better still, and after careful consideration, I am prepared to say that Audi’s sport seats are the most comfortable things, movable or stationary, that I have ever sat in.  They are deep, sculpted leather buckets with adjustable side and leg bolsters, and they manage to be both astonishingly plush and yet very supportive.  They are masterpieces.

photo credit: Audi

photo credit: Audi

The steering wheel also manages to be a cut above my benchmark car for steering wheels, the GTI.  I did not think this was possible, but somehow, the material feels even more upscale than the perforated leather on a GTI’s steering wheel, while still retaining more than a whiff of sporting pretension.  It is thick-rimmed, small-diameter, grippy, and contoured in such a way as one’s fingers cannot help but delight to hold it.  Steering wheel controls are well-placed and they certainly seem easy enough to understand.

The rest of the cockpit is furnished with some really lovely details, and it’s nearly impossible to enumerate them all, but here’s a sampling of some of my favorite things:

-The knobs in the car were all finished with a textured edge, which makes them feel expensive and makes operating them feel genuinely special.  Any switch you might have occasion to touch clicks into place with a very satisfying weight; this includes the turn signal stalk, which is a deliciously tactile thing to flick into place.  A lot of thought was obviously invested in the selection of materials used in this interior, because they are all stellar.

-While the large infotainment display is a dominating point of contact for the car, it integrates seamlessly into the lines of the Instrument Panel.  This is something few automakers are ever able to get right, but the display in this car doesn’t protrude sharply from the dash at unexpected angles–rather, it looks as though the instrument panel and the center display were hewn from a single chunk of leather, and the meeting of display and IP represents a very pleasing convergence of shapes.

-I wouldn’t call the center stack “intuitive,” as there are a lot of buttons and it isn’t immediately clear what many of them do.  However–much to my surprise and delight–the center stack has physical buttons to perform tasks on the display, which is a very nice departure from systems like MyFord touch or CUE, which use touchscreen input only.  Physical buttons make it a lot easier to operate the Audi’s infotainment system on the road, as does the addition of a small display between the tach and the speedometer which allows you to perform some basic tasks using the steering wheel controls.  Overall, button placement is something that, with a little time, you could easily get used to.

-The quality, fit and finish, and even color scheme of the interior is unrivaled in this class.  It makes the 3-series look positively low-rent.  I particularly like the matte-finish wood trim on the car I drove, which manages to look very upscale in that it really does look like wood, from a tree, rather than some kind of glossy laminate insert.

-Outward visibility is average for a sedan.  Trunk space is above average, and with the rear seats folded down, there is an astounding amount of storage space..

-I was also especially impressed by the amount of space in the backseat.  The rear seats are better than most cars’ front seats, and there is ample leg room.  It’s a truly nice place to be.  It almost makes me wonder why anyone would buy an A6.

photo credit: Audi

photo credit: Audi

I could go on and on about this car’s interior, and though it is not flawless, it is truly excellent, particularly for a car in this segment.

Ride: 5/5

This is another area in which this car really shines.  I drove over several bumps and potholes on some very familiar roads, and I mentally prepare myself for the impact these bumps cause whenever I approach them.  In the A4, they just didn’t happen.  They were imperceptible through both the steering wheel and the suspension, and they were totally inaudible.  This suspension is incredible in that respect, and frankly it makes the ’07 3-series I’m daily driving at the moment look downright harsh by comparison.  Drive one, and you’ll see what I mean.  it’s deeply impressive.

Handling: 4/5

This is where you might expect me to chide the A4 for losing its sporty roots in favor of that sweet, sweet ride quality I just described.  This is not entirely false, but neither is it entirely true.

The enduring characteristic of this car’s steering is lightness.  It doesn’t feel floaty, and I would hesitate to call it numb, but the rack is extremely light.  The variable-ratio steering rack adjusts the quickness of the steering depending on your speed, so lightness in a parking lot doesn’t equate to nervousness on a freeway.  Steering this car is a marvelous task, actually–it’s extremely comfortable, and yet you can definitely put it where you want it in a corner with a high degree of confidence.

I have driven cars with depressing, numb, detached steering feel, and this isn’t any of those things. It’s just comfortable, and if you’re the sort of person who would buy an A4, then rest assured: Audi has taken a luxury car, kept all of the luxury car comfort in the steering, and then gone a step further, endowing it with the ability to handle shockingly well.

I took a 90-degree increasing-elevation corner at, shall we say, inadvisable speeds, half expecting the I4 hanging over the front axle (in true Audi tradition) to understeer me into a nearby tree.  But not only did that not happen, the car tracked perfectly.  The steering wheel managed to tell me what was going on (if somewhat vaguely), and I am still astonished by that fact.  The all-wheel-drive system works wonders with this car’s handling, and the suspension is certainly no slouch, either.

So, the verdict on this car’s handling: it is very, very good at being comfortable, which is what most A4 buyers want.  It is also unexpectedly good at being sporty if you push it.  If it has one notable flaw, I would say it’s not quite informative enough–the GTI probably strikes a better balance for my personal taste–but the A4’s handling is very, very good.

Brakes: 5/5

The first time I stabbed at the brakes in this car, it felt like quite a high-effort pedal; that will probably be your first impression as well.  But then I started braking a little bit more as we got out onto the road, and my revised opinion of these brakes is that, once you feel how the bite works, they are incredibly easy to modulate.  Pedal travel is on the firmer side, but once you get used to that, the brakes on this car do exactly what your foot tells them.  I’m hugely impressed, and though of course I didn’t have the chance to scrutinize them under extreme stopping conditions, I am confident that they would hold up well based on my experience with them.

Gearbox: 8/10

There was no manual-transmission A4 on the lot at all.  I therefore drove one outfitted with an 8-speed automatic gearbox–the same ZF 8-speed that /DRIVE’s Chris Harris is so very keen on.  This is the 8-speed transmission that everyone is talking about right now, and I had never understood the hype around this transmission until I drove a car that had one.

I am a die-hard Save The Manuals kind of guy, but this 8-speed is fantastic.  It’s incredibly smooth; if I weren’t watching the tach, I might have a hard time figuring out when the car is shifting by sound or feel.  It also puts the power down very, very well, actively shifting around during spirited acceleration to stay in the power band, but keeping the revs low on the highway.  It’s not perfect, of course–automatics will always add a layer of abstraction between the driver and the car, and that’s especially noticeable in sport mode.  On the A4, sport mode doesn’t seem to do much to the car’s shift points.  I think sport mode should mean higher-RPM shifts, at the very least, but I honestly couldn’t tell the difference between “D” and “S” in this car.  That’s fine, considering how refined and quick this car feels in “D,” but it was still something of a disappointment.

On the whole, though, this is one of the most intelligent, refined, and capable automatic transmissions I’ve ever used.  Would I have it instead of the manual?  No.  Not unless the manual version of this car comes with a tiger in the backseat (and that’s not in the promotional materials).  But if you commute a lot, or if you don’t know how to drive stick, or if you just prefer automatics in general, then this transmission won’t disappoint.  This ZF ‘box represents a huge leap forward for automatic transmissions.  As it is utilized in the A4, specifically, it feels as silky-smooth as the rest of the car, and it responds willingly when you hotshoe it.  In short, it doesn’t merely work; rather, it feels like a harmonious part of the machine.  Rather than standing out from the rest of the car like a dimwitted electronic au pair for the driver, this automatic gearbox fades into the background and makes driving the car easier.  In that way, it really does exactly what most Audi buyers will want, and so, to my eye, it is an exceptional component in this car.

But do yourself a favor and get the manual.  Please.

Acceleration: 8/10

Thanks in no small part to that excellent gearbox, this car really flies.  It builds velocity with a feeling of uncompromising smoothness and relentless vigor.  Acceleration is quiet (more on this in the “Sound” section), and so sometimes you can be caught by surprise when the engine takes you from 50 to 60 mph in the blink of an eye.  This variant of the VW A.G.’s EA888 turbo-4 is extremely torquey (256 ft.-lbs!), but because the suspension is tuned for total isolation (in true Teutonic fashion), the sensation of acceleration is quite subtle, and you can get up to illegal speeds easily if you’re not paying too much attention.

On paper, the A4’s engine is the equal of BMW’s 328i’s engine (also a turbocharged inline-4, which is new as of last year).  The key difference is that Audi has been powering the A4 with a four-cylinder engine for ages now, while BMW’s 3-series is quite new to this configuration.   You can absolutely feel that in the cabin.  This engine is a gem, showing nary a hint of a four-cylinder’s characteristic imbalance, and if smooth, effortless acceleration is your preference, then look no further than this car.

The flip-side of that equation is, of course, that acceleration does feel a bit remote (much like the handling), but (also much like the handling) I hesitate to complain of numbness, because that’s not the whole story of what’s going on.  The acceleration in this car isn’t visceral, but it is remarkably quick, and exquisitely, astoundingly smooth.  I take a lot of pleasure from feeling like, as a driver, I’m “down in the engine-room,” and deeply connected with the vehicle.  That isn’t what the A4 is about, but it is nonetheless an excellent car to drive.  It feels like driving a Swiss watch, and there’s something very rewarding about that, too, because, as a driver, I also take great pleasure in things that simply work.  As a driving machine, the A4 is one of those things.

Sound: 7/10

Mostly the thing you notice about the A4 is that it is incredibly quiet.  Noise, Vibration, and Harshness (NVH) never seem able to penetrate into this car’s well-insulated interior.  When you give the throttle a little nudge, the engine doesn’t snort and rear or deliver a throaty rasp like the BMW 3-series; instead, it growls, sort of like a perturbed tiger which you’ve just woken up with your right foot.  It’s a bit surprising to hear this sort of rumble coming out of an inline-4, but it very nearly sent shivers up my spine the first time I heard it.  It makes quite a good noise, when it does make a noise, but you really have to coax it to get to that point.

The very quiet cabin makes it quite easy to hear the speakers, which are nicer than standard BMW 3-series speakers, but not mind-blowing.

Toys: 4/5

The cabin has everything you expect of a luxury sport sedan: Bluetooth phone and MP3 support, heated seats, and all manner of creature comforts.  The toys in the A4 are perfectly in step with everything offered by BMW and Mercedes at this price point, but there’s no “killer app” that sets it apart from those two manufacturers’ competitors.  What I will say for this interior’s selection of gadgets and goodies is that they are well-thought-out and well-executed, and that there’s nothing gimmicky in their execution, despite the massive amount of buttons on the console demanding your attention.

Value: 7/10

One the one hand, you’ve probably noticed that I keep saying things like “this car has exceptional ________ for a car at this price point,” and given that, you may be surprised that this score is so low, but hear me out.  This car starts at $32,500 for a bare-bones, Front Wheel Drive(!) car with a rather unfortunate automatic Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT).  You read that right–hilariously, somehow, the 6-speed manual costs more than the base automatic option.  The car I actually drove has an MSRP of about $40,995, and that’s without either navigation ($3050) or the Sport package ($750).  Optioned as I would want it, with Nav, the Sport Package, a six-speed manual, and some of that lovely matte wood trim, this car sits at a lofty MSRP of $42,650.  Yikes.

You can, of course, easily spec a BMW 3-series or a Mercedes C-class to a similar cost (or even a higher cost), and each option you add for any of these cars is truly highway robbery, but–but, in the A4, the extra expense is very nearly worth it.  The base car, even with its sad CVT, is still a much nicer place to be than the equivalent base-trim BMW or Mercedes, not by inches, but by miles.  And each option–Nav, Sport package, six-speed manual or 8-speed automatic, matte wood trim–is a marked improvement over the stock package.  When you step into an optioned-out 3-series, sometimes it can be hard to tell that it has options, because BMW’s options don’t really add many features or much comfort.  On the contrary, when you step from a base A4 into a seriously up-model one, you can immediately see where the money has gone.

So, for a car, in general?  The A4 you want is probably too expensive to be considered particularly “good value.”  But, for a luxury sport sedan, especially as compared with its German rivals?  Any A4 is a relatively high-value proposition, because you are getting a lot more for your money with this car than you would from a Bimmer or a Merc.

In summary: this is a very refined driving machine with impeccable creature comforts, and to boot, it glides down the road silently, looking like a cross between a disapproving centurion and a TIE fighter.  It is the best-looking, best-appointed car in its class, and every part of it–both mechanical and electronic–works with the ruthless, harmonious efficiency of the German postal system.  Don’t take that simile as disparaging, however: this is one of the most precise and smoothest machines you may ever have the pleasure to operate, and if precision excites you, then the A4 can amount to a seriously satisfying drive.

Aggregate Score: 66/75 (=88/100)