Like nearly every other automotive outlet on the planet, we've become increasingly enamored with Audi's recent product portfolio. From the A3 to the S8, the Q7 to the R8, with all the accolades Audi's received you'd think the crew from Ingolstadt simultaneously cured cancer, rid the world of nuclear weapons and deflected a meteor destined to bring about the next ice-age.
But as the praise flowed, Audi's volume model – the A4 – grew tusks that would rival a walrus. The original A4 (B5) debuted when Boys II Men was near the top of the charts and its duo of follow-ups (the Audi B6 and B7, not the trio from Philly) were more technical reworks than thorough overhauls. But a funny thing happened in the process. As the sheet-metal evolved and the interior became a benchmark, underneath, the A4 turned into a credible sports sedan. With the engine migrating closer to the firewall, the all-wheel drive system nearing perfection and the available drivetrains offering a combination of tractability and fuel efficiency, the A4 could be all things to all people – enthusiasts included. So when developing the "all-new" A4, Audi knew it had to hit every note in pitch-perfect harmony. Our First Drive proved that many of the A4's foibles had been left in the past, but until we lived with one for a week, the jury was still sequestered in a hotel, living off an $11 per diem. Now, deliberations are over and we're prepared to deem the 2009 Audi A4 one of the best sports sedans on the market. In fact, the A4 is so good, it's almost boring. Almost...
Photos copyright ©2009 Brad Wood / Weblogs, Inc.
Say what you will about the massive grille affixed to modern Audis, its rare that a singular design element has been employed so seamlessly and effectively on such a wide range of vehicles. The gaping maw looks pleasant on the A3, imposing on the Q7 and absolutely sinister on the R8. Matched with the new angular headlamps, LED eyeliner and the subtle protrusion of the front diffuser, the new A4's fascia is both aggressive and elegant. And it needs to be. The profile is as bland as unsalted butter and the rear, particularly when viewed dead-on, is a frumpy rump that contradicts an otherwise taut design.
Inside, everything we've come to expect from Audi is available in spades, beginning with the seats. Our tester's thrones, both fore and aft, are comfortable places to spend endless hours on the road, and the biggest complaint levied on the outgoing sedan – it's absolutely abysmal rear leg-room – has finally been addressed. Boasting a 6.6-inch longer wheelbase, a stretch of 4.6-inches in overall length and an additional 2.1-inches in width, there's no bad place to sit in the B8 A4.
Manning the helm, we secretly wished Audi would have equipped the A4's tiller with a three-spoke design rather than the four-spoke unit, but otherwise, the steering wheel sports a perfect balance between diameter and heft. The redundant controls for the stereo and phone are as easy to read as they are to manipulate, while the four-dial gauge cluster and the information display nestled between the tach and speedo manage to deliver a host of at-a-glance information without threatening to overload the driver with navigation, audio, temperature and gear displays.
Audi's MMI infotainment system remains one of our favorite multi-command controllers, seamlessly integrating with the dash-mounted display and offering a perfect ratio of real, honest buttons to compliment the central dial controller. If there was one gripe, it's the initial need to remind yourself that twisting to the right sends the cursor upwards, while rotating to the left sends it spiraling down – the direct opposite of a volume knob. But after a few miles of manipulation, MMI becomes almost second-nature, allowing the operator to watch the screen and essentially "touch-type" their way through the system's sub-structure.
The interior is awash with all the standard luxury car amenities, from the back-up camera to the start-stop button, and while we're not totally enamored with the park-brake switch on the center console – we'd prefer a traditional lever because we're weird like that – considering the outgoing A4 (and A3) had an issue with the handle butting into the center armrest, we figured this is Audi's solution to an inelegant problem.
Although most of the switchgear is self-explanatory (dual-zone climate control, seat heaters, etc.), there are a couple of stand-outs. At the base of the driver's side A-pillar is a switch that toggles the blind-spot warning system and as you work your way down the center console you'll find two buttons flanking the words "Comfort," "Auto," "Dynamic" and "Individual."
To our surprise, Audi's Drive Select system stands in stark contrast to the majority of dynamic suspension setups on the market. Toggle between the three modes and you'll actually feel the difference through the steering wheel, accelerator and suspension. Thankfully, Audi had the foresight to make a custom setting that allows you to pick and choose what specific features you prefer (although it doesn't default to your chosen setup when re-starting) and we found ourselves gravitating towards a sports setting for the steering and throttle/transmission, with the suspension set to comfort. Our custom map seemed to combine the best the A4 had to offer, both around town and on the open road, and when we finally got down to business, the full-on Sport mode delivered... to a point.
Audi's made huge strides in the steering department, and the new A4 is no exception. But the uber-tactility of some of the A4's Germanic competition is lost on Audi's newest entry-level sedan. Although the active steering blends bends with ease, on-center feel and initial turn still fails to elicit the directness we've come to expect in the segment. But where the steering falls short, the 3.2-liter V6, six-speed tiptronic gearbox and Quattro all-wheel drive system steps up to prove Audi's been doing its homework.
While the 3.2-liter bent-six is gone for 2010, buyers shouldn't feel slighted. We've driven a host of Audis equipped with the turbocharged 2.0-liter four, and while it might not be the sexiest option to some, it offers most of the bang for a fraction of the bucks. Regardless, the V6 is a competent performer on par with the BMW 328i, and with 265-hp on tap at 6,500 rpm and 243 lb-ft of torque at 3,000 rpm, it's more than adequate for daily-duty. But given the choice, we'd take the 2.0-liter turbo nine-times-out-of-ten. It's the perfect powerplant for the sedan and we think Audi's decision to nix the six was an intelligent choice given both the take rate and the current market conditions.
Transmission options on the A4 are limited to either the Multitronic (CVT) on the FWD model or the six-speed Tiptronic on the Quattro variant. Regardless of your engine choice, an S-tronic dual-clutch gearbox or six-speed manual are notable in their absence. Needless to say, that's a disappointment, but the Tiptronic fitted to our tester performed its duties without complaint, delivering quick shifts and suffering endless abuse as we banged the console-mounted stalk fore and aft while attending to the bends (paddle shifters are available, but weren't equipped on our evaluation model).
The A4's additional length and girth were welcomed on the motorway, but the added weight becomes increasingly apparent when taking corners at speed. While body-roll is almost non-existent and the all-wheel drive system offers more grip than Fixodent, there's something about chucking the A4 through a series of high-speed switchbacks that fails to trigger your inner-hoon. Even with the traction control fully defeated and understeer rarely rearing its head, the A4's grip-and-go nature feels more like cheating physics than mastering the dark-arts of car control. It's brilliant – don't get us wrong – but it's akin to channeling Madoff over Mozart.
That impression lasted throughout our week and we found ourselves sometimes smitten and others unenthused. We went so far as to spec-up an A4 wagon, only to convince ourselves later that our money might be better spent on a Quattro-equipped, 2.0-liter A3 with the six-speed S-tronic. As tested, our 2009 A4 sedan came in at a decidedly pricey $49,975 (including destination), easily in range of the segment stalwart, BMW 335i. We'd be lying if we said the A4 was just as entertaining as the Bimmer, but the security of all-wheel drive, the top-notch interior and the choice of a four-cylinder could easily put the Audi at the top of the list. And given the choice between the two we'd almost be compelled to pick the A4... almost.
Photos copyright ©2009 Brad Wood / Weblogs, Inc.