2006 Audi S4 Expert Review:Autoblog
To borrow a phrase, Smurfin' ain't easy-- at least not for those hoping to maintain a low profile. Case in point: Our Audi S4 tester, resplendent in Gargamel-goading Sprint Blue Pearl Effect ($750). The cop-baiting color readily illustrates that cartoon blue is the new 'Arrest Me Red' -- as if the S4 lacks sufficient visual and aural drama to begin with. Given the S4's throaty 340-horse, eight-cylinder urge, drivers quickly learn that striking a wallflower pose is near-as-dammit impossible... but we'll get to that later. In the meantime, prospective owners are advised to invest in a quality radar detector, pick an understated hue from the order books, and pray for understanding magistrates.
It isn't as if the S4 wants for a sense of occasion-- at least up front. As seen here, Audi's new corporate face centers around the large chrome-lipped horsecollar grille has quickly spread throughout the lineup to divisive reviews. While it undoubtedly fails to deliver the elegant proportions of previous iterations, it certainly doesn't lack presence. This is particularly true in light of S4's broad stance and wide footprints. Given the massive shove underhood, candlepower of similar urgency for safe nighttime travel is comforting, necessary stuff. To that end, piercing tri-element high intensity discharge headlights cast their gaze down the road, augmented by bumper-resident round auxiliary lamps. With the Premium Package mentioned earlier, adaptive lighting is also part of the picture. Critically, our evaluator was registered in Michigan, saving it the indignity of a front license plate-- something that has a way of really blemishing the face of automobiles whose grilles appear to run below the bumper line.
In profile, the S4 is remarkably similar to garden-variety A4s-- no lurid fender extensions or rude cutlines, just some subtle doorsill extensions and side mirrors mittened in chrome. Audi's lilting arc of a roofline continues to age as gracefully as you like, with windows edged delicately in brightwork. On the S4, the brand's now-iconic 18" Avus wheels come as standard-fit, but as part of a $2,900 Premium Package, ours arrived shod with somewhat timid-looking 18" 14-spoke alloys and summer tires. With just a pair of small dedicated turn-signal lenses hiding in the bumpers and a fender-punctuating repeater (adjacent a diminutive 'V8' badge), the S4's profile borders on Q-ship innocuous.
Out back, the rump plays the same restrained tune. Eagles-head taillamps (subtly echoing the fixtures up front) and a flash of chrome garnish mark out the trunklid, and a blacked-out lower valance bookended by the business-end of a pair of double-tipped cans add visual aggression. But without the modest S4 emblems front and rear, one could be forgiven for mistaking Audi's bahn-burner for a bog-standard A4 flexing upgraded wheels and tires.
The net-net is a split-decision. For some, the S4's visual enhancements will likely not speak loudly enough to the substantial price and performance increase over more common A4s. For others seeking a clandestine mod-rod, the reigned-in aesthetics (our tester's color aside) and lack of boy-racer aerodynamic addenda speak of the sort of quiet dignity and restraint best suited to high-speed, ticket-free running. Besides, for those with the financial wherewithal, a hotter RS4 arrives in Audi dealerships shortly and promises to ratchet up the visceral wattage another notch.
Stay tuned as we crack the door, peer underhood, and row through our S4's six-speed gearbox with great vengeance and furious anger in search of its Quattro-abetted, V8-motivated mettle and soul.
Can't stand the suspense? Here's a hint.
Recaro has long been synonymous with some of the world’s best driver-centric interiors... but as the seatmaker has expanded its influence as a original-equipment supplier, some might argue that the company’s racy edge has been lost. Happily, that isn't the case with the S4. Simply put, this Audi boasts some of the best sporting chairs going. Featuring 8-way power adjustability, a driver's side extendable lower cushion for those long-of-leg, 4-way power lumbar support and brilliant bolstering, ours arrived draped in Silk Nappa leather, a hue that does a nice job of lightening the interior, quite literally setting the tone. Great for hauls long and short, butts large and small, we're contemplating having a set made into rolling chairs for Autoblog's offices.... they're that good. They've even got little storage drawers underneath, perfect for storing valuables away from prying eyes.
Lest anyone forget, Audi has long enjoyed a reputation for standard-bearing interiors, particularly when it comes to finely crafted instrument panels and switchgear. Fortunately, the S4 will do little to sully that hard won reputation. Oh, it has its faults and its proclivities (as you‘re about to read), but make no mistake-- this is a focused machine with an interior to match.
Our Sprint Blue S4 came fitted with a dark gray dashboard and door cards of commendable fit and finish. Though most examples come spec'd with brushed aluminum trim, ours was outfitted with $300 of attractive carbon-fiber trim. Had it been paired with black hides, we'd probably recommend staying with the standard silver trim to avoid an overtly stark appearance.
As might reasonably be expected of a true sporting piece, a look at the gauge cowl tells drivers all they need to know. Dominated by the large silver-rimmed analog tachometer and 170-mph speedometer, a central rectangular screen also unobtrusively displays core information right in the driver’s line of sight-- including basic navigation directions, distance to empty, outside temp, rudimentary radio data, etc. Better still, most of the settings are easily manipulated via the clever little click wheels on the beautifully-proportioned leather-wrapped three spoker. Operating in a fashion similar to that of a PC mouse’s scroll button, they allow drivers to focus on the road ahead. Smaller auxiliary gauges monitor engine temp and fuel, and a trio of buttons on either side of the bottom of the binnacle adjust the usual -- clock, trip meter, and so on. Simple, intuitive stuff.
The same can't be entirely said of Audi's Multi-Media interface (MMi). While leaps and bounds better than, say, BMW's insipid iDrive and Mercedes' troublesome COMAND system, things are hardly 100-percent instinctual. MMi governs everything from inputting sat-nav data to the radio (AM/FM/XM), cd-changer and telephony functions. Drivers can pour through menus via the large twist knob adjacent the lower-right corner of the screen, and the four buttons surrounding it correspond to options offered on the four quadrants whatever menu is on-screen. For those willing to do without the sat-nav ($1950), a simpler layout can be had. As is the way with most media test vehicles, our S4 arrived loaded to the sills featuring everything from the aforementioned navigation system to a Bose Premium Audio system with Bluetooth capability and satellite radio ($1,500). The $2,900 premium package mentioned in the first installment brings to the party a slew of features including a moonroof, memory-enabled driver's seat and mirrors, rain-sensing wipers, Homelink and auto-dimming mirrors, among other features.
Audi's navigation software itself is fairly easy-to-use and boasts a high degree of configurability, enabling drivers to choose how they view their turn-by-turn directions, etc. Of note, a now industry-standard warning admonishes drivers of the dangers of operating the system while moving, requiring drivers to push the knob to "accept" responsibility. But critically, the system does not lock out those looking to adjust their destinations while on the move-- it simply repeats the distraction warning and lets one get on with the business of finding a destination. This strikes as a better solution to the liability issue, which has scared many automakers into disabling certain features when vehicles are in motion. Done this way, co-drivers can operate the system without stopping, particularly useful on long trips. In an amusing gesture, the 'points of interest' function on the GPS doesn't just find standard destinations like ATMs, restaurants and gas stations... it has icons for theme parks, golf courses, and... wait for it... casinos. Priorities, people.
As mentioned, our S4’s Premium Audio Package treats audiophiles not only to enhanced sound, but improved media options, as well. All S4s come with a glovebox-mounted six-disc changer, but the optional Bose system affords MP3 capability with two memory card slots hidden beneath the motorized 6.5” screen. iPod integration? Sadly, not so much.
Fortunately for all those involved, Audi has seen fit to keep the HVAC controls distinct from that of the MMI. Supervision for the dual-zone climate controls, defroster and weapons-grade seat heaters are via brace of buttons below the screen. They work well enough, but we still prefer the simpler three-knob variety, as all of the controls can feel alike and occasionally require a glance or more to decipher.
The center console's tall sides look to afford solid bracing during enthusiastic driving, and without turning the key, rowing through the slick six-speed gearbox topped by a pleasantly contoured leather knob is enough to give S4-intenders wannabe rally-driver fantasies. Shame about the anonymous-looking pedals, then. No slick aluminum pieces here, just mass-market rubber-padded items placed close together in standard European fashion. At least there’s an adjustable armrest for long-distance runarounds-- it integrates storage and cell phone accommodations.
While it's admittedly hard to give up the driver's seat, a quick look in back is in order. Rear seat occupants are likewise treated to Recaro seats, though obviously bolstering is a significantly less aggressive. A large, flat center armrest secrets a pair of retractable cupholders-- but for whatever reason, we couldn't get ours to budge. In keeping with the all-weather capability of our Quattro-aided S4, our example's Cold Weather Package ($400), included rear-seat heaters and a nifty ski-sack that extends into the cabin like a K2-sized prophylactic. The 60/40 split seats offer plenty of support, but the S4's major problem is its lack of legroom. Given a driver of standard size (say, 5'9"), rear seat passengers will find that there's barely adequate room behind the seats for longer drives. Head and shoulder room are acceptable, but those who ferry about a lot of adult guests would do well to note that this is a platform that would really benefit from 2"-3" more leg and knee room.
The abbreviated rear quarters means that the large trunk comes as something of a surprise. A tradeoff between the available 13.4 cubic feet of stowage and rear seat passengers obviously favors the former (that, or great effort has been made to preserve the vehicle's roofline and proportions). Regardless, the trunk's wide aperture and flat load floor are most appreciated, as is the cargo netting, a feature that should keep all and sundry intact when the driver summons the 4.2-liter V8's substantial reserves. With the seats folded (nearly) flat, it had no trouble swallowing a new 18" Diamondback mountain bike, though admittedly we took off the front wheel first. Should the occasion arise where one needs to remove a wheel on the S4, there's a full-size spare tire underneath the load floor.
Given the S4's decidedly lofty performance capabilities, a full complement of safety features are wisely in the mix, including a full compliment of airbags (front, side and curtain), seatbelts with pretensioners and force limiters, active front head restraints, LATCH points for child seats, and so on. Defeatable Electronic Skid Protection (ESP) is also standard-issue stuff, as are anti-lock four-wheel discs with brake-assist.
All-in, the S4's interior is a suitably sporting environment, with peerless seats, excellent built quality and a wide range of standard features and optional extras. Given a knack for electronic wizardry (MMI) and understanding friends and/or offspring (tight rear seat), Audi's uber-A4 makes for a compelling package.
Stick with us for the S4's final days in the Autoblog Garage, when we grab it by the scruff and see what Ingolstadt's four-ringed wonder is capable of.
Prod the S4's loud pedal, and chicks and geese and ducks better scurry. With apologies to Messieurs Rogers and Hammerstein, Audi's 4.2-liter V8-motivated surrey offers a soundtrack that borders on automotive pornography. Fortunately, with 340-horsepower and 302 lb-ft of twist routed to the ground via Quattro all-wheel-drive, it possesses the drivetrain bite to match its soulful bark.
While not apoplectically quick (0-60 mph in around 5.5 seconds), the S4 revealed itself as a prodigiously talented all-rounder over the course of our weeklong test. Many cars in its class impress with vulgar displays of power but struggle to put their gumption to the ground consistently and efficiently (Cadillac's CTS-V and Benz’s C55 AMG come to mind). Not so with the S4, which is the equivalent of a four-wheeled Sanford Sharpie pen, adhering faithfully to whatever surface passes 'neath its 18" Dunlop Sport SP Maxx tires. Whether the S4 is scribbling its signature on the interstate or autographing a set of undulating twisties in black silica, it leaves with a sound and fury signifying everything.
What's more, we're happy to report that Audi has finally figured out how to assemble a precise manual transmission. In the past, the four-ringed brand has been dogged by substandard DIY gearboxes. And while the short-throw six-speed unit in our Sprint Blue tester won't reorder the transmission universe, it makes for a pleasing tool by which to extract the best out of the Wards 10-Best Engine.
The clutch is similarly cooperative. Relatively light and commendably progressive, its linkage is easy to modulate. The fluidity of the S4's driveline and the heady racket of its 40-valver found us seeking out long tunnels with our windows down, if only to drop a cog and keep the engine within spitting distance of its 7,000 rpm redline. It's a sound that never gets old, even on mind-numbing straight-shot freeways. Critically, Audi has improved the S4's performance joneses for 2006 by employing a new Torsen center differential with a 60/40 rear-biased torque split on manual models. Tiptronic pilots will have to make do with a less sporting 50/50 setup, so consider this another reason to go for the self-swapper. Audi's subtle year-over-year change imbues the S4 with a more sporting character and allows for the occasional tail-out antic.
The Recaros we raved about in Day 3-4 reassuringly come good regardless of the task at hand-- be it a back-breaking interstate slog, or sine-wave of a b-road flog. Having an array of major controls at fingers' reach on the leather-wrapped wheel is a major plus, as is the multi-function information display nestled between the tach and speedo. With the exception of the occasionally cumbersome MMi, the S4's interior does right by the enthusiast, allowing drivers to concentrate on the task at hand-- righteously fast travel.
As one would suspect, Audi's reworked the suspension to cope with the S4's augmented drivetrain and sporting intentions. Ride height is abbreviated by 30 mm over the standard A4, with uprated shocks and anti-roll bars uprated front and rear. The amended quad-link front and trapezoidal-link rear setup works well, though matters can get a bit rough over pothole-strewn roads. Still, its rough-surface harshness is in-line/superior-to everything we've driven in class. Besides, the ride tradeoff quickly proves its worth when the tarmac gets interesting.
Brakes? Given the S4's top whack of 155 mph and tidal midrange torque that unwittingly invites extralegal speeds with frightening frequency, they'd better be good. And they are. The S4's anti-lock supervised ventilated discs are likewise governed by electronic brakeforce distribution (EBD) and traction control (TC). But given the inherently sticky nature of our S4's summer-biased Dunlops, we didn't regularly trigger Audi's electronic nanny state. When it did come into the picture, the (defeatable) Electronic Stability Control was reasonably progressive and didn't rudely cut engine output the way many systems often do.
All of which makes the S4's marshmallow-light helm such a tragedy. Audi's Servotronic speed-sensitive rack-and-pinion unit is over-boosted, plain and simple. In light of the S4's not-inconsiderable 3,800-pound heft, that the Audi's steering fails to adequately convey the gravity of the situation when thrown into a series of bends is problematic. It's a disconcerting omission for a vehicle otherwise supernaturally predisposed towards serpentine roads. Granted, all-wheel-drive is a recipe for traction, not necessarily for uncorrupted steering responses. Even still, we've had better. Audi engineers: "Once more... with feeling," please.
Obviously, the S4's a pedigreed back-road partner, but we couldn't help but wonder how Audi's compact sports sedan would measure up on a closed course. Fortunately, our new friends at Nelson Ledges were happy to indulge us. Almost by sheer happenstance, a drive around rural Northeastern Ohio took us to the door of the 2-mile roadcourse in Garrettsville. The well-respected racetrack plays host to everything from Spec Miata racing and Porsche Club functions to a number of motorcycle events and a 12-hour USERA enduro (the facility takes pride in being the birthplace of American 24-hour showroom stock races). With the racing season about three weeks away, we came upon a locked-up gate, but a quick conversation with the kind track custodian had us on the course in short order. As we hope to return soon to NL, we had to promise not to ball up the S4 into a decidedly unsmurfy paperweight.
Nelson Ledges' surface could use some work, but the track remains very fast and makes for a fine test environment, particularly for an all-wheel-drive vehicle not easily unsettled (as proved the case with our S4). We hammered away at her for the bulk of the afternoon, coming away impressed. The S4's brakes are commendably fade-resistant, and the suspension and driveline worked to iron out irregularities without punishing our spinal cords. Better still, the clutch and gearbox combine with the big V8 to reward quick shifts with cosmic shove in short order, providing plenty of thrust around the course.
With the ESP's safety-net switched off, the S4's handling limits remained confidently benign, even where the previously-discussed over-assisted steering threatened to cloud the issue. Despite the fact that we'd never taken a lap on the track (okay, so we've timed a One Lap of America event or two here), the S4's behavior never truly veered towards the land of sweaty palms and four-letter words, despite speeds well into the triple-digits. After a long afternoon turning the 14-spoke alloys gunmetal black with brake dust, our throats (and the S4's gas tank) were parched.
One thing that did take a serious hit, naturally, is fuel economy. The S4 exhibits a positively Dionysian thirst both on-track and off. During a mix of admittedly spirited city and highway driving, we struggled mightily to crack the teens. We don't even want to discuss the V8's single-digit thirst at Nelson Ledges, lest Greenpeace televise a protest at the foot of our driveway. And never mind those soft-pedaling saps over at the EPA who quote 15/21 mpg city/highway. If you drive the S4 in a fashion even remotely consistent with its purpose and potential, expect all-highway mileage in the 13-16 mpg range, and perhaps 11-13 mpg when urban. As the S4 drinks exclusively from the high-octane pump, enthusiastic motoring comes at a high price.
Not least of which is the going rate on the S4 itself. Our evaluator was loaded with nearly $8k worth of options - everything from the oft-cited Premium package to the cold weather provisions, nav-system and carbon fiber trim. Oh, and $750 dollars worth of that Smurftastic paint. Figuring in gas-guzzler tax ($1,700) and destination ($720), would-be buyers will need to muster $56,620 in order to secure the services of this particular example (base S4s trade for a significantly more palatable $46,400). In truth, there are a handful of other all-wheel-drive four-doors that are just as quick for less coin (Subaru’s WRX STi and Dodge's Magnum R/T AWD come to mind), but we can’t think of one that incorporates the S4’s dynamic and sybaritic refinement. For those with thick bankbooks, Audi’s Surrey With a Fringe on Top might just be the slickest gig they’ll ever see.
[Sources: Audi, NelsonLedges.com, NA-Motorsports.com, Stlyrics.com]
New Car Test Drive
Newly redesigned high-quality sedans and wagons.
Officially launched as a 2005.5 model, the Audi A4 line is all new from the ground up, and the 2006 lineup features new engines and new equipment packages. The A4 is a near-luxury, premium-grade car similar in size to the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes C-Class, smaller than midsize sedans like the Infiniti G35, larger than compacts like the Honda Civic.
The all-new Audi A4 is fun to drive and comes with all the sporty bits and pieces. It feels like it's on rails going around corners. High-quality construction is evident inside and out. Quattro all-wheel drive and the latest in active safety features helps keep the driver on the road no matter the conditions or situation.
The 2006 A4 comes in a range of models. Drivers who need to carry gear or cargo will appreciate the Avant wagon, which offers the cargo bay of a wagon while maintaining the A4's sporty driving character. Enthusiasts who just can't get enough power and want race track handling may prefer the S4, which features a powerful V8 engine and high-performance underpinnings.
The A4 has state of the art powertrains, with intercooled turbochargers, multi-stage intake manifolds, variable valve timing and the latest technological advance: direct injection, the cleanest and most efficient means yet devised of blending fuel and air in an engine's cylinders. Audi's progress hasn't stopped with the engines. Each of three transmission choices is a good one. The standard gearbox is a six-speed manual, while options include a six-speed automatic transmission with Tiptronic and a continuously variable transmission, which uses a steel belt and a pair of infinitely adjustable pulleys replace gears and hydraulic pumps to deliver a truly seamless shifting experience. Four-wheel independent suspension with geometry that keeps tires on the true track throughout the compression range is augmented with standard electronic stability assistance that keeps the car going where the driver wants it to when the driver can't. And, of course, there's Audi's quattro all-wheel drive.
State-of-the-art safety is included, for the most part, at no added charge. Besides the electronic stability program, there are antilock brakes with brake assist and electronic brake-force distribution. Airbags abound, with the only extra-cost set a pair protecting rear-seat occupants against side impacts.
The 2006 Audi A4 comes in sedan and Avant (wagon) body styles. Two engines are available for the A4. The 2.0T models use a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine rated at 200 horsepower. The 3.2 models have a 255-hp 3.2-liter V6. The S4 features a 340-hp 4.2-liter V8. Sedans are available with front-wheel drive, which Audi calls FrontTrak, or Quattro all-wheel drive. Avants come exclusively with Quattro. (A new convertible is expected within the next year or so.)
The 2.0T FrontTrak sedan offers a choice of six-speed manual ($27,640) or a CVT continuously variable automatic transmission ($28,550). The 2.0T Avant Quattro comes with a choice of six-speed manual ($30,450) or six-speed Tiptronic automatic ($31,650).
The A4 3.2 FrontTrak sedan is fitted exclusively with the CVT ($33,940), while the 3.2 Quattro sedan offers a choice of six-speed manual ($34,840) or the Tiptronic automatic ($36,040). The 3.2 Avant Quattro offers a choice of manual ($35,840) or automatic ($37,040).
Standard upholstery in the A4 2.0T is cloth. The A4 3.2 comes standard with leather. The A4 comes with a luxurious list of standard equipment: dual-zone air conditioning; cruise control; tilt and telescoping steering wheel; power 12-way driver's seat, power auto-heated outside mirrors, power central locking; driver-selected, auto-on running lights; multi-speaker stereo with six-disc CD changer, wired for satellite radio; and carpeted floor mats.
Options include Bose premium audio with Sirius or XM satellite radio ($1,000) and a DVD Navigation System ($1,950). Option packages add myriad features. Among them: The Premium Package ($1,850) comprises Homelink, power front passenger seat, rain sensor, heated front seats, auto-dimming interior mirror with compass, auto-dimming and electrically folding exterior mirrors, and 17-inch wheels and all-season tires. A Sunroof Package ($1,400) also includes leather seating surfaces. Technology Package 1 ($1,275) offers bi-xenon headlamps, adaptive front lighting, memory for the driver's seat adjustment and exterior mirror positions and a color trip computer. Technology Package 2 ($1,775) adds Bluetooth and voice control to Package 1. A Cold Weather Package ($400) includes heated rear seats and a ski sack. Also available: dark walnut wood trim ($400), and polished Vavona light wood trim ($400). New for 2006, customers who place an order with the dealer and are prepared to wait can select from a broader selection of options and colors. These include a multi-function four-spoke wood and leather steering wheel ($500), rear Parktronic ($350), power rear and manual side sunshades ($400), headlight washers ($150), and special paint colors.
New for 2006 is the S-Line package ($3,000), which features firmer suspension components, 18-inch cast alloy wheels and performance tires, special bumpers, special badging, S-Line steering wheel and brushed aluminum trim. The Sport Suspension ($250) and 17-inch cast alloy wheels with all-season tires ($150) can be ordered.
Safety features include a comprehensive array of airbags and full-coverage side air curtains as standard equipment. Rear-seat side airbags ($350) are optional. Front-seat active head restraints are standard, and all seating positions have adjustable head restraints and three-point seatbelts. Antilock brakes with brake assist and electronic brake-force distribution are standard. An electronic stability system designed to keep the car going where it's supposed to when the road goes bad or the driver pushes it too far also comes standard. A tire pressure monitor system ($250) is optional.
The most recent variant on the A4 platform is the S4, available as a sedan ($46,400), wagon or cabriolet. The S4 comes with a V8 making 340 horsepower and 302 pound-feet of torque and, according to Audi, is capable of 0-60 mph runs in the low five seconds through its standard quattro drivetrain. All three models come with a 6-speed manual or 6-speed Tiptron.
The Audi A4 is essentially all-new for 2006, though officially it was launched as a 2005.5 model. It's a tidy, cohesive design and the closer you look, the more its quality construction becomes evident.
The new A4 presents a more muscular and more visually planted frontal view than the previous model, this somehow despite the new A4's track being fractionally narrower than the previous-generation model's track (the distance between right and left wheels).
Opinions vary on the big grille. On one point, there's agreement: It's different. Whether this is a plus is subjective, but expect the look to appear in clearly recognizable and evolving form on all Audis as each model comes up for a redesign. We've already seen this on the new A6 and A8. The enlarged, trapezoidal grille opening increases air flow coveted by the turbocharger's intercooler in the four cylinder and the radiator cooling the larger, more powerful V6.
The headlamp give the fascia a more assertive look, with lenses that angle upward as they wrap around the fenders. Laterally split intakes below the body-colored bumper and outboard of the grille do dual duty, housing fog lamps and channeling air toward the front disc brakes. A modest hood bulge, a styling cue designers call a power bulge by way of hinting at the latent energy lurking beneath, carries the grille's vertical outlines back to the roof's A-pillars.
The side view shows a sharply creased shoulder line running the length of the car, from the trailing corner of the headlamp housings to the leading edge of the tail lamp lenses. Side window glass atop a relatively high beltline is nicely proportioned with the body mass. A bump strip breaks up the expanse of the lower door panels. The front and rear lower-quarter panels dip slightly fore and aft of the round wheel housings, pulling the body closer to the ground.
Good-sized tail lamps tie together the three elements of the new A4's rear fascia, positioned for the most part in the panels framing the trunk lid and license plate surround, but overlapping those two pieces to break up what might otherwise be an overwhelming expanse of metal. Single-tip dual exhausts exit beneath the monochromatic bumper at each end of an inset panel painted a contrasting color to the body's scheme.
One nitpick: The door handles are a hard to grab and can snap away from your fingers when you're in a hurry.
The Audi A4 interior was redesigned as part of the all-new generation launched as a 2005.5 model. It's a nice, high-quality cabin, as we've come to expect from Audi. Colors and finishes are muted. A choice of wood trim is available that nicely complements the interior. At certain angles the sun reflected off of the silver trim surrounding the shifter on our 2.0T sedan, however.
Seats are well bolstered and have plenty of lumbar support. We found them comfortable and supportive. The standard cloth upholstery feels durable and provides a bit of grip. The optional leather surfaces are elegantly stitched and fit our posteriors well. The seats, mirrors, steering column and other features adjust in every conceivable direction, helping drivers find a comfortable seating position.
Interior space in the new A4 matches that of the previous-generation model. It's generally adequate in front but somewhat limited in rear leg room. This is not a car for the full-figured or for people much taller than six feet.
All controls are focused on the driver and with few exceptions are ergonomically configured and intuitively located. The steering wheel hub repeats the grille's trapezoidal outline. A minimalist set of secondary controls on the steering wheel spokes manages audio and other functions. Steering column-mounted stalks operate the usual array of features and are clearly marked except the rear window wiper and washer on the Avant, which is controlled by the right-hand lever. A proper handbrake lever resides in the center console with a pair of cup holders alongside.
Round gauges shaded by a hooded instrument panel look out through the top half of the three-spoke steering wheel. The information display, reporting such data as radio frequency, trip mileage, service interval warning and such, separates the tachometer and speedometer, with fuel and coolant gauges tucked away down in the corners.
The center stack features knobs and buttons for the audio and climate controls, and all easily deciphered and within easy reach. The climate control is easy to operate, but the air conditioning struggled to keep up on a 95-degree day driving through the desert.
When DVD navigation is ordered, the stereo panel gives way to the map display, which then doubles as a stereo panel. The navigation display is one of the best of the current generation of such systems. Readily understood controls orient the cursor and shift the map scale, with on-screen telltales stealing very little real estate from the map. The map offers both a flat, two-dimensional and a bird's-eye perspective, the latter with a distant horizon visible running across the upper area of the screen.
The premium stereo has MP3 capability and a pair of slots for Secure Digital memory cards. Still, only stereo volume and pre-set radio stations can be changed without first pressing Accept on the opening display panel each and every time the car is started. We find it annoying to have to perform the electronic version of signing a legal agreement just to turn on the radio. Also, the stereo is on all the time the navigational system is active; you don't turn it off, you turn it down, another minor annoyance, but that's the way Mercedes does it, too.
We like the lane-change signal feature, where a tap of the turn indicator lever delivers three blinks. We wish the beep confirming the remote lock would sound more promptly, as we constantly found ourselves pausing for a moment to be sure the doors had in fact locked. We like the one-piece wiper blades for their sleek looks, slicker aerodynamics and solid seating against the glass at autobahn speeds. And we're thankful for the red Stop button on the driver's memory settings panel for those times when we pressed the wrong memory setting button. While we are strong believers in seat belts, we found the warning chime annoying because it would urgently sound after starting the car before we started d.
The Audi A4 offers terrific handling, making it a lot of fun on winding roads, and it's outstanding at high speeds, stable, responsive, like it's on rails.
The A4 is Audi's counterpoint to the BMW 3 Series, and it's clearly competitive in the quantifiable, objective measures. Much of the subjective and visceral is present and accountable, too. Even where it follows a different track, it doesn't stray too far. But in one, hugely significant measure, it's far ahead. Audi's Quattro system is almost legendary. The BMW 3 Series and Mercedes C-Class offer all-wheel drive, but Audi remains the benchmark in sporty sedan all-wheel drive. Meanwhile, the Acura TL and many of the other cars that compete in the sporty, near-luxury class only come with front-wheel drive.
The Audi engines employ the latest technology in engine management, phased intake runners and variable valve timing, to boost horsepower and flatten the torque curve, making the power more usable over a wide range of speeds and the engine more responsive to the driver's right foot. The 2.0T and 3.2 engines use a new type of fuel injection called direct injection, which pumps the fuel directly into the cylinder, instead of into the intake runner where it would haphazardly mix with the air on the way to the engine cylinders. This new system allows more precise metering of the fuel and the timing of its introduction as well as a better blending of the fuel and air, all of which combines to yield more efficient combustion. With this system, both engines not only make more horsepower and more torque than the smaller engines they replace, but also get the same or better fuel economy.
The 2.0T four-cylinder engine works best with the six-speed manual gearbox. The 2.0T suffers some turbo lag, and this is exacerbated by the Tiptronic automatic. Likewise, the Multitronic CVT continuously variable transmission with the four-cylinder and front-wheel drive is a competent package, but it's a combination that doesn't deliver what we look for in an A4. There's not a lot of power down at the very bottom of the rev range. Even with the manual, passing a train of cars on a two-lane road can be a challenge. It's just not that good for squirting at a moment's notice. It's great for winding roads, however, and we had a blast with it on a winding hillclimb out of California's Carmel Valley on the way to Laguna Seca Raceway. The 2.0T also does very well on the highway and feels comfortable cruising at high speeds all day. We did this and got 27 miles per gallon. An A4 2.0T Quattro is EPA-rated to get 22/31 City/Highway mpg. The shift throws in the manual could be shorter, and one tester found the path from second gear to third gear a bit notchy.
The 3.2-liter V6 is smoother and more refined than the 2.0T and it works much better with an automatic transmission.
The six-speed Tiptronic automatic is almost as responsive as the six-speed manual and by far the more accommodating in day-to-day traffic. It works especially well with the 3.2-liter V6. We prefer to just put it in Drive and go. Most people will do that and never have anything but good things to say about this transmission. The Tiptronic falls a bit short in the sporty, manumatic game, though. An algorithm in the powertrain management computer shifts up a gear when that will put the engine at the optimum point in the torque curve, and a button beneath the gas pedal shifts down a gear when mashed, say, when passing on a grade. This is all fine and good as far as an impressive application of computerization is concerned, but it mocks the Tiptronic's promise of a manual-override automatic. In practice, the downshift is occasionally helpful, but the upshift is disconcerting when it occurs in the middle of a corner. On the other hand, we're nitpicking here, and the Tiptronic's manual feature works great for holding a lower gear on a grade.
The Audi A4 is fun and spirited. It's a bit pricey, but competitive within this class. It delivers plenty of power, respectable gas mileage for its class, state-of-the-art sound and, above all, Quattro all-wheel drive. That makes it hard to beat.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from Tucson, Arizona; with Mitch McCullough in Monterey and Greg Brown in Los Angeles.
Audi A4 2.0T FrontTrak MT6 ($27,640); 2.0T FrontTrak CVT ($28,840); 2.0T quattro MT6 ($29,740); 2.0T quattro Tiptronic ($30,940); 2.0T Avant quattro MT6 ($30,740); 2.0T Avant quattro Tiptronic ($31,940); 3.2 FrontTrak CVT ($33,940); 3.2 quattro MT6 ($34,840); 3.2 quattro Tiptronic ($36,040); 3.2 Avant MT6 ($35,840); A4 3.2 Avant Tiptronic ($37,040); S4 MT6 ($46,400); S4 Tiptronic ($47,600); S4 Avant MT6 ($47,400); S4 Avant Tiptronic ($48,600); S4 Cabriolet MT6 ($54,640); S4 Cabriolet AT6 ($55,840).
Options As Tested
Premium Package ($1,850) includes Homelink remote transmitter, power front passenger seat, rain sensor, heated front seats, auto-dimming inside mirror with compass, auto-dimming and power folding outside mirrors, 17-inch wheels and all-season tires; Audio Package ($1,000) with Bose and XM Satellite Radio; Cold Weather Package ($400) includes heated rear seats, ski sack; S-Line Package ($3,000) includes 18-inch cast alloy wheels, performance tires, sport suspension, S-Line badges, front and rear bumpers and steering wheel, and brushed aluminum trim; headlight washers ($150); California emissions ($150).
Audi A4 2.0T quattro ($30,940).
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