To be sure, Audi's A4/S4 line is more than sedans. For 2007, all-new convertibles augment the existing four-door models and wagons. Also new is the ultra-high performance (and at $66,000, expensive), 420-hp RS4. From the enthusiast driver's perspective, it's one of the best sedans ever.
The A4 line is complex, with 21 variants. The key is thinking according to priorities: body style, engine size, front- or all-wheel drive, transmission type. All are nicely balanced, enjoyable automobiles.
The A4 2.0T, still priced well below $30,000, is fun to drive. Its turbocharged, 200-hp four-cylinder is one of the better small engines going, with satisfying response and spry acceleration, particularly with the standard six-speed manual transmission. It corners like a sports sedan, and high-quality construction is evident inside and out. Audi's optional quattro all-wheel drive system can help keep the driver on the road regardless of the conditions or situation, and buyers don't have to choose a big engine or special model to get it.
Going up the line, there's a smooth V6 and two powerful V8s. Those who frequently carry gear, dogs or cargo will appreciate the A4 Avant, which offers the extra space of a wagon while maintaining the A4's sporty driving character. The new convertibles are stylish, sexy and reasonably practical, and they don't have to cost an arm and a leg. The S4 models will appeal to enthusiast drivers who crave their lusty power and sporty handling, for a lot less cash than the RS4.
Every A4 should appeal to techies. State-of-the-art engines feature direct fuel injection: the cleanest, most efficient means yet devised to blend gasoline and air in an engine's cylinders. Transmission choices include a six-speed automatic with Tiptronic manual-shift feature and an efficient continuously variable automatic (CVT) that delivers truly seamless shifting. Sophisticated suspension technology is augmented with electronic stability control, which can help the driver avoid a crash. The A4 is stuffed with safety features and offers rear side-impact airbags, while most cars in its class don't.
Unlike other tech-heavy cars, the gizmos blend nicely in the A4, enhancing comfort, convenience and safety, and improving the driving experience.
The A4 can be pricey and it's relatively small. On the other hand, you'll have to look long and hard to find a car that blends driving satisfaction, safety, convenience, practicality, great finish and reasonable ownership cost as well as the A4.
Audi A4 2.0T FrontTrak manual ($28,240); 2.0T FrontTrak CVT ($29,440); 2.0T quattro manual ($30,340); 2.0T quattro Tiptronic ($31,540); 2.0T Avant manual ($31,340); 2.0T Avant Tiptronic ($32,540); 2.0T Cabriolet CVT ($39,100); 2.0T Cabriolet quattro Tiptronic ($41,200); 3.2 FrontTrak CVT ($35,440); 3.2 quattro manual ($36,440); 3.2 quattro Tiptronic ($37,640); 3.2 Avant manual ($37,440); A4 3.2 Avant Tiptronic ($38,640); 3.2 Cabriolet Tiptronic ($46,950); S4 manual ($49,700); S4 Tiptronic ($48,700); S4 Avant manual ($48,500); S4 Avant Tiptronic ($49,700); S4 Cabriolet manual ($55,700); S4 Cabriolet Tiptronic ($56,900); RS4 ($66,000)
This is a relatively small car: considerably smaller than competitors like the Cadillac CTS or Infiniti G35, and very close in most measures to the compact Honda Civic.
The eye immediately settles on the A4's big, tall grille, of which opinions vary. The only consensus seems to be that it's different, and it immediately identifies the A4 as an Audi.
The headlights give the front-end an 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 double duty, housing fog lamps and channeling air toward the front disc brakes. A modest hood swell, which designers call a power bulge, carries the grille's vertical outlines back to the roof pillars. On the ultra-high performance RS4, the hood and fenders are fabricated from aluminum to reduce weight.
The A4's profile shows a sharply creased shoulder line running the length of the car, from the trailing corner of the headlights to the leading edge of the tail lights. The side windows are nicely proportioned to the body mass, atop a relatively high beltline. A bump strip breaks up the expanse of the lower door panels. The painted door handles look great, but they are hard to grab and can snap away from your fingers when you're in a hurry.
The A4 Cabriolets look good with the convertible top up and much better with it down, which is probably the way it should be. The fully automatic, electro-hydraulic roof will open or close at speeds up to 19 mph. That's handy if a rain squall sneaks up while profiling through town. The soft top is thickly insulated, with a glass rear window and defroster, so it shouldn't be too big a detriment in cold climates.
The standard A4 seats are well bolstered, with plenty of lumbar support. We found them comfortable. The sports seats in S and RS models have big side bolsters that are harder to slide over, but the payback is Velcro-like grip on a driver's backside and torso. The standard cloth upholstery feels durable and provides a bit of grip itself. 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, however, is not one of the A4's strengths, even compared to some sedans with similar exterior dimensions. To be sure, there is more than adequate space for average-sized adults to adjust, move and stretch in front, without pangs of claustrophobia. But the A4 may not be a car for the truly full-figured, or people who rise taller than six feet, two inches. On a regular basis, the smaller space in the back seat is best reserved for children and pre-teens.
All of the A4's controls are focused on the driver; with few exceptions, they're ergonomically configured and intuitively located. The steering wheel hub repeats the grille's trapezoidal outline. A minimalist set of secondary controls on the wheel spokes manages audio and other functions. Column-mounted stalks operate the usual array of features and are clearly marked, except for the rear wiper/washer switch on the Avant, which is controlled by the right-hand lever. We like Audi's lane-change signal feature, which delivers three turn-signal blinks with a tap on the lever. It works much better than some other manufacturers' efforts to re-invent the turn signal, most particularly BMW's.
The A4's gauges are shaded by a hooded panel and easily viewed through the top half of the steering wheel, regardless of how the wheel is adjusted. The TFT information display, reporting such data as radio frequency, trip mileage and service interval warning, separates the tachometer and speedometer, with fuel and coolant gauges tucked down in the corners.
Knobs and buttons for the audio and climate controls are clustered in the center stack, all easily deciphered and within easy reach. The climate system is easy to operate, but the air conditioning struggled to keep up on a 95-degree day driving through the desert. It was about then that we noticed that, at certain angles, the sun reflected up off of the silver trim surrounding the shifter on an A4 2.0T sedan.
When the navigation system is ordered, the stereo panel gives way to the map display, which then doubles as stereo controls. The display is one of the best available, and system controls are readily understood. It's easy to orient the cursor and shift the map scale, while on-screen telltales steal 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 across top of the screen.
The premium stereo has MP3 capability and a pair of slots for Secure Digital memory cards. Unfortunately, only volume and pre-set radio stations can be changed without first pressing Accept on the opening menu every time the car is started. We find it annoying to sign the electronic equivalent of a liability waiver just to turn on the radio. Also, the stereo is on all the time the navigational system is active, and it's annoying. You don't turn it off, you just turn it down.
There are other minor annoyances with the A4. We wish the beep confirming the remote lock would sound more promptly, as we constantly found ourselves pausing for a momen
The A4 is Audi's counterpoint to the BMW 3 Series, and we'd venture that each is the other's most obvious, direct competitor in the market place. The A4 is clearly competitive with the 3 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 measure, it's far ahead. Audi's quattro all-wheel drive system is almost legendary, and much better sorted than the all-wheel-drive systems offered in the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Meanwhile, the Acura TL and many other cars that compete in the sporty, near-luxury class only come with front-wheel drive.
The A4 lacks the quiet, almost Zen-like solitude afforded by some of its competitors, but those who appreciate its lively traits will find it more than quiet and smooth enough. Wind and road noise are nicely filtered in the sedan, less so in the Avant, where the large cargo space amplifies the hisses and rumbles. The same large volume of air works well with the stereo, however, giving the bass tones a nice, deep resonance in the Avant.
The 2.0T suffers from turbo lag, a trait that's amplified when paired with the Tiptronic automatic that comes with quattro. 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. The A4 2.0T's four-cylinder engine works best with the six-speed manual gearbox and that's the combination we'd order here, though we wish the shift throws on the manual were a little shorter.
With the 2.0T turbocharged engine, there's not a lot of power down at the very bottom of the rev range. The manual allows the operator to keep the engine running where the torque comes in greater quantity. Yet even with the manual, the turbo is not great for squirting at a moment's notice, so passing a train of cars on a two-lane road can be a challenge. It's fantastic for winding roads, however, and we had a blast with it on a winding hill climb out of California's Carmel Valley.
The 2.0T does very well on the highway, feeling comfortable cruising at high speeds all day. We did this and got 27 mpg. An A4 2.0T Quattro is EPA City/Highway-rated to get 22/31 mpg.
The 3.2-liter V6 is a much better choice when ordering an automatic transmission. The V6 is smoother and more refined than the 2.0T. With the V6, the six-speed Tiptronic automatic is almost as responsive as the six-speed manual, and by far more accommodating in day-to-day traffic. We prefer to put it in Drive and go, and we suspect most people will rarely, if ever use the Tiptronic manual shift feature.
Those who do will find the Tiptronic falls a bit short in the manumatic game, mostly because it will not allow full manual control of the shifts. An algorithm in the powertrain management computer shifts up a gear to put the engine at the optimum point in the torque curve, and a button beneath the gas pedal shifts down a gear when mashed, as when passing or accelerating up a grade. This is an impressive application of computerization, 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.
All the A4 models offer crisp steering response with comforting directional stability. All feel planted and confident at high speed. There's less pogo over undulating pavement on fast and narrow winding roads than in other cars. Quick left-right-left transitions are handled with finess
The Audi A4 is fun and spirited in any of its 21 variations. It delivers plenty of power, respectable gas mileage for its class, state-of-the-art sound and, above all, an integration of various systems that give it depth and a high level of driving satisfaction. Interior space is tighter than in many competitors, but Audi's quattro all-wheel drive system remains the benchmark. Prices range from the very-high $20,000 range to just past $70,000, when loaded with options. If you plan to look at entry-luxury sports sedans, we recommend that the A4 be one of them.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from Tucson, Arizona; with Mitch McCullough in Monterey, Greg Brown in Los Angeles, and J.P. Vettraino in Detroit.