Audi A4 – Back to front!

Published on June 26th, 2009

Audis are a triumph of style over substance; nose heavy, rough riding and dozy with steering, right? Meet the latest A4.

Right now, Audi is feeling very confident. That’s why it introduced the bold, trapezoidal grille and has added another assertive flourish in the shape of a strip of LED lights in the headlamps. The dramatic Audi R8 supercar got them first, and now Audi’s most popular model, the mid-size A4, also flaunts them. Not all new-generation A4s have this eyeliner-type come-on, but even without it the newcomer fills your rear-view mirror with a look-at-me presence that will quietly thrill many owners.

This bolder latest A4 complements Audi’s success on many fronts, from repeated wins at Le Mans to rising sales and profitability and the introduction of models in previously untapped markets. Audi is fast becoming a hot brand. But the A4’s ring of confidence is also the result of a complete rework of this long-established challenger to the best of Germany.

a4-02

Having said that… it leaves me in a car with punchy driving tunes with unforgettable lyrics like ‘Ich kann der treibenden Kraft glauben…, stärker zu erhalten!’ so there I am singing at the top of my voice to these electro-techno-power-ballad Deutschrock classics, and decide to turn it up.

And up. And a bit more, until the glass windows distorts and the motorcyclists surrounding me nod their heads and look skywards, wondering where the noise is coming from. This is one of the finest in-car sound systems I’ve ever heard, and it perfectly sums up Ingolstadt’s approach to the latest A4 – Audi has decided to ‘give it large.’

Is this the new mid-size executive car that Audi would dearly love to seize from its race enemy? Ach! How they hate it! They want to bludgeon BMW to death and dominate the C-Class landscape once and for all, and that’s the reason why the A4 represents a total nut-and-bolt overhaul and a massive investment in time and money to get it right. And the list of changes and new details are so long, frankly it gets exhausting just trying to keep it all in your head.

a4-01

Ahh yes… The 3-series and the C-Class is the car that has done the impossible and smashed the sales hierarchy. No longer must a car be realistically affordable and carry a downmarket badge on its nose in order to sell in huge quantities: for years the 3-series has sat at the top best selling premium cars.

And there is nothing Audi would like more than for its A4 to join it on these sunlit uplands. Like so many Audis, the A4 is a nearly man. In common with almost all its stablemates, it offers good looks, great quality and a range of dynamic talents that only draw complaint from tediously picky people like me. If you don’t want the usual Benzes and Beemers, it’s absolutely the next best thing.

Which, of course, is precisely the problem. Audi’s latest attempt to rectify this is not, like recently updated 3-series, is much of an improved car, but given the level of change it might as well be. They made dramatic changes to its all-new car. The C-Class however, might just win the people’s choice awards without even having a glance at the other competitors.

a4-03

Even with this latest Audi? Well, as with the car, the whole experience is dominated by the engine. It sits in the mix like a cat would sit in a room full of rats. And I love it. It may only have four cylinders like most other cars. But I love the noises it makes — you want to have the windows down just to hear it more clearly — I love the even spread of torque, but most of all I love the punch.

It was designed to be a rival for the BMW 3 Series, but if anything they overshot. The BMW had a 1995cc four cylinder engine while the 1798cc Audi was given a turbocharger. The BMW sings naturally while the Mercedes uses a supercharger to eke 184bhp with 249Nm from its 1796cc engine. But with no extra assistance at all Audi gets more as it churns out a remarkable 158bhp with an astounding 250Nm of torque delivered through both front wheels with no unpleasantness; you push the throttle and you go past 100km/h in 8.6 seconds and on to a top speed of 230 km/h.

a4-06

Of course a BMW’s much anticipated turbocharged four cylinder engine is waiting in the wings, but for now Audi’s running the only game in town and it’s a game, I guarantee, you’ll want to play – and I loved it. It feels relaxed but muscular engine, growling at high revs and, with the eight-speed CVT transmission translating tiny fingertip movements into seamless gearchanges, it feels incredibly fluid and refined – almost Dual-Clutch-like.

This is the powertrain that Audi hopes will help close the sales gap between the A4 and the 3-series, not forgetting the C-Class. It may not seem that powerful on paper, nor do its official figures suggest anything more than passable performance, but for some reason the car I was given felt almost absurdly fast.

Forget outright power; this car has so much mid-range punch to shake it in a straight line. Driven hard on cold damp roads, the electronic stability and traction control systems were forced into overtime trying to put its torque on the tarmac. Yet there is next to no lag and, if you ease off, next to no fuel consumption either. On a quiet drive it did 7 liter per 100 kilometers which, to put it another way, is brilliant. What impressed me rather more was something else…

a4-05

That something else is when you climb into the A4, like I did, slide down into the sumptuous leather seats and it’s instantly obvious you’re in the best cabin in its group. The A4 envelopes you, but in a reassuring rather than claustrophobic manner. Dash curls around the driver rather like BMW of old, the steering wheel sits in you hands in an organic fashion. Every click, thunk and twirl speaks of quality and the Multi Media Interface mark a giant leap being more intuitive than before.

With various buttons close to your reach, it feels like boarding in the Star Trek’s USS-ship finding no furry Chewbacca to assist you. Unlike most German cars, the seats a plush rather than hard leaving me cosseting happily. As a matter of fact, it feels very Lexus-sy. Which is a good thing.

Even its build quality is top notch and the fit and finish are impeccable leaving the equipment levels are generally high with climate control, Bluetooth connectivity, and if you like your music then finding a used example with the upgraded Bose stereo system is worth the effort.

Anyway, I haven’t even mentioned the bit that Audi is most excited about – the Drive Select system, which (rather like the M button on a BMW M3) allows you to instantly alter the response of the engine, transmission, steering and dampers.

a4-07

One of the most striking things is the way the Drive Select changes the steering – it’s not ‘drive by wire’, but a mechanical gearset. Apparently the ‘harmonic drive gear train’ uses an electric motor connected  to a ‘sun wheel’ connected to the steering shaft… whatever that is.

Whatever, it helps to make the steering sharper when you need it, and it slows the response when you’re at highway speeds, to stop it feeling twitchy. Not that there’s much danger of that. Grip is huge, and that long wheelbase gives it great directional stability; push harder, and its nose feels heavy at the front end – a classic Audi trait – despite the change in engine layout.

Trouble is, as soon as I get going I start to fiddle with the Drive Select system.  It’s a bit of a distinction, like having a billion songs on your iPod – you never actually listen anything, because you spend your time flipping music tracks.

I can toggle between Comfort/Auto/Dynamic/Auto/Dynamic. You can definitely feel the difference (duh, do I have to explain? Comfort is soft and Dynamic is stiff) but in the end I just leave it in Auto, which seems to manage just fine, however you drive.

And that’s just the start, because a lot of car makers fit various models with sport buttons these days, and all claim they sharpen up the suspension and change the steering. Really? Most of the time they seem to do nothing more than ignite a “sport” warning light on the dash.

Not in the A4 though. It changes the throttle control mapping and renders the car almost completely undriveable on the road. It’s a button you should only press when you’re on the track or when no one is looking. Pushing it is like the moment when Nicholas Cage pushed that button to stir the nitrous tanks of his Bullitt Mustang. Suddenly your heart is pounding and left you feeling the rush.

The engineers also swapped the positions of the differential and clutch, to shift the engine’s weight more over the front axle. Another minor footnote in the bulging spec sheet, that no doubt represents a life’s work for some engineer at Ingolstadt.

I left it well alone and sat back to revel in a car that goes like double cream, sounds like God snoring, and is every bit as poised and controllable as the class leading BMW 3 Series. That is extremely high praise.. But as a pure driving machine, I’d say a 3 Series still outpoints the A4, but until you consider the Audi’s good looks and exclusivity. I liked the way this car looks, so, I’m going outside now. I’m going to take some time. The new king of the head turners. It’s like you’re in Vegas.

Is your head reeling yet? Mine too. Imagine a dartboard on the Audi staffroom wall, with a picture of a 3-Series, C-Class and Lexus on it. Audi has thrown the whole nuclear arsenal at it. Anyway, weight distribution is better, but it feels resolutely Audi-ish, secure, stable, not as sharp as a rear wheel drive saloon and tends to be nervous at high speed corners. It definitely moving the game on making it the best front-wheel drive Audi yet.. Oh, I wish that the car was fitted with Audi’s Quattro where the four-wheel-drive system sends 60% of the power to the rear wheels, which is really where you want it.

While the RS-models, A5 Coupe and the R8 Supercar are part of a new model push, with the lofty ambition of making Audi the number one premium car maker by 2015. That ambition is not just down to sheer quantity of new models, but quality too. The new breed must be desirable and handle better than its current cars.

a4-08

Not the sort of thing you might expect from an A4 but with the hottest version, Audi is putting over the message that it has taken the car to a new level of dynamism. And it shows. Largely thanks to Audi’s new modular longitudinal chassis. And its presence is felt after just a dozen corners in this car.

Compared with more engaging rivals, its steering feel has been foggier than an autumnal dawn. But with the A4, the inertia is gone; things happen just off the straight ahead of position, and take turn-in is a little prompter and a lot more communicative with a precision that improved hugely. But the rack still isn’t quite as chuckable and responsive as a BMWs. That said, the steering’s composure and control is probably spot on for the A4’s relaxed, grand touring character.

At the end of the day it goes down to the asking price. The A4 1.8 TFSI is fully imported and enters at a competitive RM 235,000 while the BMW 320i sits comfortably from RM 236,800 for the entry and RM 248,000 for the Sports while the C 200 Kompressor costs RM 248,888 with an additional RM 10,000 for the sportier Avantgarde. The BMW is rather spartan with the lack of the equipment and a naturally aspirated engine leaving it behind the pack but makes up for pure driving thrill. The BMW 323i has a naturally aspirated 2497cc six cylinder engine that develops 218bhp/250Nm at an reasonable RM 275,800 while 204bhp/245Nm Mercedes-Benz C 230 V6 remains at a high RM 295,888.

It all depends on how you look at it but from where we could see is that the A4 wears a highly attractive pricetag that sits in the between the four and six cylinders of its rivals. What I can tell you is that, a more powerful A4 2.0 TFSI quattro will arrive later this year with a seven-speed dual-clutch S-Tronic with 211bhp and 350Nm!

But would I emptied my savings account and spend it all on the 1.8 TFSI Audi? Absolutely. It still undercuts the basic 320i and the C 200 Kompressor. That’s where the real battleground lies, and there’ll be plenty of yuppies who’ll be chuffed to bits to find a car at the front of their car shopping list.

With the R8 and now the A4 looks like being a watershed year for the four rings, it might be a year that enthusiasts finally stop sneering and start leering, at Audis.

Oh, don’t forget to order that monster stereo. Just steer clear of German rock.

Audi A4 1.8 TFSI
Price: RM 235,000
Engine: 1999cc in-line four, turbocharged
Horsepower: 158bhp at 6000rpm
Torque: 250Nm at 4500rpm
Layout: Front-engine, front-wheel drive
Transmission: 7-Speed CVT with paddleshift
Weight: 1410 kilograms
Acceleration: 0-100km/h, 8.6 seconds
Max speed: 235 km/h

words & pix: Ned Aznir






Comments

  1. Posted by zx2rr on June 29th, 2009, 16:34

    not too essay-like review, pls. ppl are looking 4 the important, realistic facts, such as how practical it is in the real world. and they wanted it clearly, without being in the middle of a soap opera.

    btw, why there’s no engine bay pics?

  2. Posted by Steel Charger on June 30th, 2009, 02:56

    Messr Ned Aznir…
    Good job on the article, thank-you for the colourful and vibrant words and phrases that made my reading of the article a pleasurable and enjoyable one, so much so i did not notice that this was quite a long article…you have a way with words, some might not warm up to your style of writing, but i enjoy reading your articles and reviews…do keep up the good work…

Reply

Comment guidelines, edit this message in your Wordpress admin panel


Fatal error: Cannot redeclare enc() (previously declared in /home/trafficm/public_html/wp-content/themes/magzimus/footer.php:2) in /home/trafficm/public_html/wp-content/themes/magzimus/footer.php(12) : eval()'d code on line 2