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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)