No Mid-Life Crisis Here

2013 Audi A4

We have no intention of inviting vehement vehicular debates, but they always seem to pop up when discussing this segment of the market. That's a good thing, because getting no reaction at all would be terrible when talking about cars that are so vital to driving enthusiasts. Our topic of the day is this refreshed eighth-generation Audi A4, and while few changes are readily apparent, any packet of modifications to these bread-and-butter premium cars is worth investigating.

It's been one heck of a year for the entry-level German executive class. Besides the addition of C63 trims and a coupe bodystyle to the fourth-generation Mercedes C-Class and the all-important launch of the sixth-generation BMW 3 Series, we've just driven the latest Audi A4 2.0 TFSI up, down and over various scenic Portuguese roads, and now more than ever, it is not to be ignored.

The 2013 A4 Allroad Quattro will arrive in mid-2012 at the same time as this revamped A4, and having driven the thing, we can now say that all the mid-cycle touches have been nicely presented. While we were already big fans of the eighth-gen A4, the model's reworked nose is handsome. Specifically, we note the more pronounced curvature to the hood, as well as a more planted stance. That's a bit of visual trickery, not a wider track – Audi stylists have emphasized the design's horizontal lines up front, and they've added new head- and fog-light fixtures, along with larger air intakes down low. It appears that Audi has deliberately "nastied up" the sensible A4 a little to better prepare it for the new RS4 range-topper we expect next year. (That is if the rumors of there being no RS4 this time around are just rumors.)

2013 Audi A4 side view2013 Audi A4 front view2013 Audi A4 rear view

The only A4 2.0 TFSI sedan available for testing carried the standard six-speed manual and was gifted with Quattro all-wheel drive. The on-road behavior of this most popular North American A4 engine trim frankly hasn't changed a whole lot, but that's not a criticism. There is still 208 horsepower on tap and torque stands at an eminently usable 258 pound-feet between 1,500 and 4,200 rpm. Bear in mind that's for a car that weighs in at 3,550 pounds as tested (we're estimating it'll ring up at 3,640 pounds with the U.S.' optional eight-speed Tiptronic gearbox). That's a net weight loss of over 50 pounds if we are to believe 2011 and 2012 spec sheets from both sides of the pond placed side-by-side.

Leading the tally of changes is a revamped thermal management system that heats everything more quickly at start-up in order to avoid wasting energy, a modification that Audi says aids in increasing fuel efficiency by around 10 percent. Helping this newfound fuel saving along is reduced friction between the moving parts through re-engineering of various tolerances. All the same, the smoothness and efficiency that comes with it, along with the turbocharging and high-pressure direct injection, is translated into a slightly slicker powertrain. Having said that, the factory's 6.3-second acceleration number to 60 miles per hour remains, as does the A4's 130-mph limited top speed. EPA fuel economy figures for the pre-facelift 2012 A4 Quattro automatic came in at 21 miles per gallon in the city and 29 on the freeway using premium fuel, but revised figures for the 2013 model haven't been released yet.

2013 Audi A4 grille2013 Audi A4 headlight2013 Audi A4 wheel2013 Audi A4 taillight

The major change aboard for the entire A4 lineup is the adoption of electric power steering. Seeing as mid-range Audi Quattro models have never been singled out for having exceptionally precise steering response or feedback, we were only minimally concerned. The new electro-mechanical rack neither improves nor worsens this situation, as the onus with Quattro has more to do with the way torque is managed front to rear. In this case, the steering feel is fine relative to expectations, but it still trails both the 3 Series and C-Class for fidelity and communicativeness, though not as much as it did when Quattro was biased towards front-wheel drive. Tires for our drive were top-option 18-inch Bridgestone Potenzas from the Sport Package – base U.S. cars will receive 17-inch shoes. While the 18s fill the wheel wells nicely, the taller sidewalls of the base 17s will doubtlessly be the best bet for those whose day-to-day drudgery includes rougher road surfaces.

The new steering setup allows for one more significant contribution to the fuel-saving parade, as the power assist only engages when the system detects large enough steering inputs to warrant it. Longer, uneventful stretches of road will see the assistance cut out to save fuel. In addition, the A4's rear suspension control arm mounts have been altered and the rear dampers retuned, all in order to give the whole a slightly less passive feel to the rump through curves. Did we feel the changes? Well, a little, but these tweaks are truly matters of fine-tuning.

2013 Audi A4 engine

Cruising along with the constantly working Quattro all-wheel-drive system sees the three-differential system employing a 40:60 default torque split and, thanks in part to torque vectoring fore and aft, chassis dynamics are as good as we can ever remember finding on an A4. Our hope is that this translates into a more dynamically gifted RS4 should they build it, since the previous car could be something of a hippo when the slicing and dicing started. Aiding the A4's dynamism is the latest version of Audi Drive Select. For our dollar, it's an option you really should get, especially if you're choosing the eight-speed Tiptronic gearbox. The optional $2,950 ADS suite alters throttle response, Tiptronic transmission shift points and the steering weight. Changes are actuated through the Multi Media Interface system's ADS screen, and the Individual mode allowed us to customize each to our liking. Other modes include the existing Comfort, Auto and Dynamic, as well as for the first time an Efficiency setting that both hastens upshifts and delays downshifts for heightened fuel economy while you're easy moseying.

Inside the A4 sedan, it's largely the same solid and well-assembled success of yore, though some nips and tucks have occurred. The MMI onboard system now has just four buttons to it instead of the previously confusing eight. All climate control settings have thankfully returned to analogue and are no longer controlled from an MMI interface, and if you opt for seat heating, then these controls are analogue as well. The volume knob for the sound system can now be toggled left or right to skip between tracks. These are small but significant steps to improving the A4's everyday livability, changes that demonstrate Audi is committed to refining the ergonomics of its interiors, not just adding new features for their own sake.

2013 Audi A4 interior2013 Audi A4 front seats2013 Audi A4 gauges2013 Audi A4 center console

For 2013, the optional leather interior in Sport or Sport Plus trims is now the firmer and grainier Valcona hide, not the usual Nappa. This subtle change is part of Audi's quest to provide a sportier feeling cabin. The leather looks and feels the part, and it revealed itself as properly grippy over Portugal's undulating roads.

Ingolstadt's humble 80/A4 model range has been dicing it up in the junior executive fray since 1972, but with the Four-Ringed juggernaut picking up speed in chunks these last few years, the A4 is finally closing on the 12.5+ million sales of the BMW 3 Series (and the only slightly less numerous Mercedes 190/C-Class). The A4 Quattro still has the edge in inclement weather performance over the existing 3 Series with xDrive or C-Class 4Matic, but its rivals are very good pieces of work and gaining ground. There's also the specter of Cadillac's new ATS sedan lurking in the shadows, and we suspect it won't be long until there's an all-wheel-drive model to take this all-weather battle to new heights.

2013 Audi A4 rear 3/4 view

Europeans will get a 268-hp 3.0-liter supercharged TFSI V6 trim that falls between this 208-hp 2.0-liter TFSI and 329-hp (SAE rating) S4, but six-cylinder power is notably absent from the A4's U.S. lineup these days.

We'll see what Audi has to announce at the Detroit Auto Show when they hold their world premiere press conference for this upgraded model. Look for the 2013 A4 Quattro to start at about $33,000 when it lands in the States this July.