Audi's fourth generation A4 has been continually improved to better face up to newer rivals like BMW's latest 3 Series and Mercedes' improved C-Class in the tightly-fought compact executive sector. Jonathan Crouch drives it.
Ten Second Review
Audi's A4 needed to up its game in the face of tough competition from BMW's 3 Series and Mercedes' C-Class in the image-conscious compact executive sector. It has. We may have first seen this car's basic design back in 2008, but the changes made to the much improved version on test here have fully rejuvenated its appeal. In terms of quality, running costs and hi-tech appeal, it's a car that's hard to overlook.
BackgroundAudi knows a thing or two about mid-sized family cars with a prestigious feel, compact executive models like this A4. The Ingolstadt company has sold ten million such vehicles over the last four decades, half of those badged 'A4', a car that's vanquished the Mercedes C-Class in the sales charts and proved to be a huge thorn in the side of the previously segment-ruling BMW 3 Series. Most successful of all the A4 generations on sale here since the model line was first launched in 1994 has been the fourth generation version we first saw in 2008, codenamed 'B8' in Audi-speak, a car significantly bigger and more sophisticated than any the brand had previously had in this segment.
It was a big success and was revised for the 2012 model year to better combat newer rivals from BMW and Mercedes. Since then, Audi has never stopped trying to further improve it, most recently by adding a super-frugal 2.0 TDI 163PS ultra variant to the line-up.
Driving ExperienceUnder the bonnet, if you're an enthusiastic driver, less is probably more. With less weight to carry around, lower-order 2WD petrol and diesel models feel more agile and more responsive than their pokier 3.0-litre stablemates and we prefer the 6-speed manual transmission to the auto-only set-up you're limited to on pricier models. In the TFSI petrol line-up, its best to ignore the entry-level 120PS 1.8-litre unit and begin your search with the engine Audi has spent most time on in this revised range, the 170PS 1.8 TFSI. Now lighter, more efficient, pokier and torquier, it powers this car to sixty in 8.1s on the way to 143mph.
Beyond that, there's the venerable 225PS 2.0-litre unit from the Golf GTI, this offered with s tronic auto transmission and quattro four wheel drive. For me, a 2.0 TFSI A4 capable of 62mph in just 6.5s on the way to 149mph is pretty much the perfect package. The 2.0-litre TDI diesels also offer plenty of performance: lower-powered 136 and 150PS versions make 62mph in around 9s on the way to around 125mph. Pokier variants with 177PS manage the 62mph sprint in 8.4s on the way to around 138mph. Best of the bunch though, is the new 2.0 TDI 163PS unit that's plumbed into the most efficient model in the range, the A4 ultra.
In the mainstream range, that only leaves the 3.0-litre TDI quattro s tronic model, a car that's really very quick indeed, sixty from rest occupying just 6.1s on the way to an artificially limited 155mph maximum. Or at least you'll think it is until you try the flagship S4 quattro model, powered by a 333PS supercharged 3.0TFSI six cylinder petrol unit as quick as any V8. Here, sixty is just 5.0s away from rest.
Design and Build
If your experience of this A4 is limited to early versions of this fourth generation model, then you'll notice the mild cosmetic updates applied to the front end of this improved version. These days, it features a set of wedgy A6-style headlamps positioned either side of a smarter single-frame grille and above a re-styled bumper and revised air intakes.
But, as ever, it's the cabin that'll really sell this car, as beautifully finished as ever, everything clear and elegant. The 2012 improvements brought revised steering wheel designs, beefier column stalks, clearer white-illuminated instrumentation displays, neat chrome detailing, updated buttons, smarter upholstery and some fresh interior finish choices.
In the rear, as ever with this class of car, it's comfortable for two, but something of a squash for three adults, with the unfortunate occupant in the middle having to splay his or her legs either side of a large transmission tunnel, despite the fact that this car is front wheel drive. It'll be fine for three children though. Out back, there's a 490-litre boot that's bigger than that of a BMW 3 Series or a Mercedes C-Class. And, unlike those two cars, Audi isn't so mean as to ask extra money for the split-folding rear seats that will extend it, in the case of this saloon to 962-litres. Of course, if you are going to be carry bulkier stuff on a regular basis, you'll want to consider the Avant estate bodystyle, which offers a 490-litre boot extendable to as much as 1430-litres if you flatten the rear bench.
Market and ModelOver 93% of compact executive models of this type are sold from Audi, BMW and Mercedes dealerships, with this A4 following its 3 Series and C-Class rivals in adopting a pricing span that sees most models selling in the usual £25,000 to £40,000 bracket. Look a little more closely though and you'll find that in most cases, with most variants, Audi has built in a price saving of around £500-£800 on direct model-for-model comparisons, in order to give this car a showroom advantage. Of course, the first thing you'll need to do is to decide between the saloon and Avant estate bodystyles: as ever, the Avant will command a price premium of about £1,300 on top of the cost of your chosen variant. And if you want that Avant to come in the allroad spec that'll give it more of a rugged SUV look, you'll need to pay another £1,000 or so on top of that. And talking of 4WD, if you want to specify the quattro option on either a 2.0-litre petrol or a 2.0-litre diesel A4, allow an extra £1,500 and you should find that you've covered the necessary premium.
All the A4's engines are torquey turbocharged direct injection units and whichever you choose - 1.8 or 2.0TFSI petrol models, the 3.0 TFSI of the potent S4 or any of the 2.0 or 3.0-litre TDI diesels - you should find your car to be decently equipped. It's a bit surprising that base level variants do without things like rear LED lights and a DAB digital radio, but all models do get 17-inch alloys, cruise control, rear parking sensors, front foglamps, auto headlamps and wipers, 3-Zone climate control, a category 1 alarm and a 10-speaker 180-watt MP3-compatible CD stereo with a 6.5-inch colour screen display, an aux-in point, a Bluetooth interface for your mobile 'phone and controls on the leather-covered multi-function steering wheel.
Cost of Ownership
If you don't care about the bonnet badge, it's tempting to think that you could save £4,000 or so on a mechanically very similar Volkswagen Passat but before you do, make sure to take residual values into account. Add all the figures up at the end of the day and you may well find that there's less in it than you thought.
Insurance costs are very little changed (expect to find your model of choice pitched somewhere between groups 19 to 34) but fuel consumption figures are much improved. The best performer is the 163PS A4 2.0 TDI ultra variant that manages a creditable 67.3mpg on the combined cycle and 109g/km of CO2, while even the petrol-powered 1.8 TFSI is good for 43mpg mark. Expect to see a little more in terms of change when it comes to residuals than you would with many rivals.
SummaryThere are plenty of reasons behind this A4 model's success. It's a spacious, classy car that's very composed to drive and is fully conversant with the kind of hi-tech design and faultless cabin quality that its target junior executive market likes to expect. So it stacks up in the showroom just as well as it does on the balance sheet, with running cost returns that with most engines will make it your company accountant's go-to choice.
These virtues haven't changed in this current version of what was already a fearsomely competent fourth generation design. But they have been embellished, with the result that even more than before, this A4 feels like a car that's been lovingly and very carefully considered. The depth of engineering and the thought that's gone into the tiniest details combine to further enhance the warm fuzzy feeling that's charmed Audi customers for years. If you're one of those people, then you'll like this car very much. And even if you're not, you'll find it hard not to be impressed by way it systematically ticks almost every box on the compact executive market wish list. It's very thorough. And very Audi.