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Story by Jack Baruth – Photo by Zerin Dube

It’s an old joke, non-hilariously updated for the purposes of this review: A Buddhist monk walks into an Audi showroom and is greeted by an Audi salesman. The salesman says, “How may I help you today?” The monk replies,

“I would like to have a truly Zen A4.”

“A truly Zen A4?” repeats the salesman, somewhat confused. Smiling serenely, the monk whispers,

“Make me one with everything.

Time has run out for the Audi A4 we have come to know, and love, over the past few years. The next generation “B8-platform” model made its first US-market public appearance last month at the 2008 Detroit Auto Show, meeting with almost universal approval. An early comparison test held by a German magazine has already crowned it king of the “entry luxury class”, and there is little reason to suspect that it will be anything but a home run here in the United States. It’s larger, more sensuous, and more luxurious than the outgoing car, will provide a wide array of outstanding powerplants, and with its new flip-flopped clutch/differential package, is likely to be a more engaging drive as well.

Still, it will be some time before the new A4 is available on this side of the Atlantic, so we decided to take a final look at the “B7” car during the week of the aforementioned Detroit show. Audi provided us an Ibis White 3.2 Quattro S-Line Titanium with an options payload that soared past the cliched “nicely equipped” into “all the marbles”. This was the Zen A4 – the one with everything.

Wait a minute. Isn’t the RS4 Cabriolet, which we reviewed earlier, really the “A4 with everything”? Tough question, and the answer is – no. We would suggest that the S4 and RS4, wonderful as they are, simply deviate too far from the original A4 blueprint to earn the title. The four-and-six-cylinder A4s are locked in Mortal Marketplace Kombat with 3-Series Bimmers, various chrome-nosed Japanese sedans, and the Cadillac CTS; the customers for the V8 cars are more likely to have a Boxster or 911 on their shopping list. When the original A4 made its debut, the formula was simple: combine a smooth, satisfying six-cylinder with elegant, minimalistic design, all-weather traction, and an upscale interior, all in a package which was neither too small to use nor too big to enjoy. Twelve years later, Audi is still adhering to that recipe – and the results continue to impress.

We won’t get into the “2.0T v 3.2FSI” debate here, except to note that Audi is really the only German manufacturer to offer a true choice of engines in the class. Mercedes and BMW do offer a pair of engines in their small sedans, true – but is there anybody out there who would really rather have a C300 than a C350? Would you take a 328i over the 335i, were the price the same? By contrast, Audi offers two very different approaches. Here at Speed:Sport:Life, we’re split on the issue; some of us prefer the tunability and punch of the turbo four-cylinder, while others like the cultured growl and light-flywheel response of the V6. In our S-Line test car, the 3.2 is a superstar, encouraging the driver to hold the throttle in just a fraction of a second longer at the entrance to every corner.

With that extra little pinch of entry speed, the suspension is still up to the task. At the limit of the tires, it’s possible to adjust the tail with a sharp lift of the throttle, but the fundamental cornering attitude is serene and secure. The interior feels narrow in comparison to the new A4; however, some drivers may continue to prefer the “old” car for its lower beltline and better sightlines, even if they have to admit that the navigation, audio, and climate controls are located much more conveniently in the B8 model.

The combination of S-Line trim, gleaming Ibis White paint, and the “Titanium” color scheme makes for perhaps the best-looking A4 yet. According to the color-counters at DuPont, white is now the most popular color for new cars, and when it’s combined with aggressive aero, dark grey wheels and trim, and Audi’s new in-your-face deep-trapezoid grille, the results are spectacular. The 2009 A4 has a lot of visual appeal, but it will take some doing for it to match the plain-spoken statement of purpose evident in the S-Line Titanium. The bodykit and color package is so effective that it’s easy to imagine the S-Line Titanium being the “must-have” model of this A4 at the Barrett-Jackson auctions of the year 2045. Fakes and “re-pops” built from humble 2.0T FronTrak Tiptronics will flood the market as everybody claims to have matching-number S-Lines. Fathers will fib to their children: “Oh, yes, I remember the summer of 2008 very well. I had an ’08 S-Line Titanium ‘whip’ – we called them ‘whips’ back then – and I used to drive it at speeds as high as one hundred and fifty-five miles per hour! That was before President-for-Life Chelsea Clinton wrote the Motor Laws and prohibited all cars except for the Toyota Prius.”

Surely, the question at hand for the A4 “intender” is simply this: Which to buy? Should you wait for the new A4 to arrive, or should you order one of the last B7-gen cars? The answer will boil down to priorities. The new car is larger, more obviously “styled”, features much better integration for the electronics, and will swing around your favorite racetrack a little more quickly courtesy of the tricky new packaging. It seems like the obvious choice – until you consider that the new A4 is almost as large as an A6, and if our S5 drives are anything to go by, there’s a strong flavor of A6 in the driving experience as well. The hardcore A4 fans, the ones for whom the original A4 was perfection, the ones who revel in the narrowness and intimacy of a truly small Audi – those fellows might find this outgoing model to be truly the Zen A4. For that small but fervent clique, this 3.2 Quattro S-Line Titanium truly is the one with everything.

Editor’s Note: I really wanted to take more pictures of this car, but it was bloody cold outside! – Zerin

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Jack Baruth

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