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.
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)
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.
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 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.