Click for Larger Image
Story by Jack Baruth, video courtesy of Audi NA
It sounds more than a bit crazy, but we can’t help but wonder: do the powers that be at Audi ever contemplate the idea of sending a thank-you card to the producers of 60 Minutes? Consider the following: History tells us that the show’s deliberately misleading “news” story, which blamed the Audi 5000 for causing several “unintended acceleration” deaths, slaughtered Audi’s position in the marketplace, cutting sales from a then-high 1985 figure of 74,061 to a dismal annual average of 14,000 cars in the five years following. The four-ringed brand, which had been riding high on a wave of yuppie affection for the aero-styled 5000 sedan, became a minor player almost overnight. It would take nearly a decade before the brand was more or less reborn in America with the smash-success first-generation A4 2.8 sedan. The arrival of the affordable, tuner-friendly 1.8T variant a year later put Audi at the top of young drivers’ shopping lists. It was the perfect car for anyone who wanted a solid German sedan but who found the image problems associated with Mercedes-Benz or BMW ownership a bit too heavy to handle, and it offered a generation of VW drivers a perfect next step up the prestige ladder.
The A4 single-handedly revitalized Audi’s fortunes in the United States, to the point where the company was able to move a record-setting 93,506 vehicles last year, but it did more than that; combined with the aforementioned media hatchet job, it had the effect of changing Audi into a youth-oriented brand. The average Audi 5000 owner in the Eighties was somewhere north of forty years old, so even if 60 Minutes hadn’t scared those customers away, most of them would be well into Social Security by now – a demographic more suited to Buick and Lexus than to the company that brought us the RS4 and the R8. By contrast, the twentysomething A4 intenders from 1997 are now entering their prime earning years. They’re still interested in the sporting, progressively hip demeanor of the original A4, but they also want a faster, smoother, more spacious sedan to reflect their current (and expected future) success. At the same time, they’re not quite ready for the sleek, subtle, rather middle-aged A6. What would suit them best? An A4 just like the original, but more so: bigger, quicker, more luxurious, and equipped in no-excuses fashion with all the latest comforts and conveniences.
In a nutshell, that’s what Audi has delivered. The 2009 A4 is simply more of everything, whether we’re talking about rear seat room, horsepower, or iPod integration. It casts a shadow nearly the size of the original Audi 5000 and offers more than twice its power. The new interior has already received rave reviews in the A5 coupe, while the styling conveys grace, dignity, and the unique restraint which has characterized Audi for the last four decades. Still, none of this is particularly shocking. So-called “small” German sedans have been steadily growing larger for quite some time now. The latest Mercedes-Benz C-class and BMW 3 Series are quite sizable cars, and even if the A4 is now longer than either of them – which it is, by nearly half a foot – the simple, almost expected, fact that Audi’s “small sedan” is bigger than it used to be doesn’t do much to raise anyone’s eyebrows.
The shocker, if you will, comes from the claim that the 2009 A4 is no heavier than the car it replaces, while being significantly more interesting to drive thanks to a revamped drivetrain and a rather fascinating new electronic system which offers individual control of steering response, throttle programming, and suspension settings. It seems hard to believe – but if Audi’s not fibbing, it would make for a rather fascinating turn of events in the entry-level luxury market. For more than a decade, every new entrant into the segment has been a little sleepier and porkier than its predecessor. Does Audi have the antidote?
Click for Larger Image
Of course, Audi had already scored a significant “win” in the segment before a single A4 arrived on these shores. We’ve all become used to BMW’s sedan-then-coupe-then-performance-variant release schedule; the boys from Bavaria have done this particular tango three times since their E36 325i arrived in 1992. First we see the base sedan, then we see the sportier coupe, and then we finally get to meet the M3. Given that BMW is hugely dependent on sales of its 3 Series sedan, it’s not a bad strategy, but it does tend to suck a bit of the magic out of the pricier variants. For the release of its new “Modular Longitudinal Platform (MLP), Audi chose a different approach. We saw the superb V8-powered S5 coupe first, back in November of last year (link). The S5 has been too successful, generating long waiting lists and a highly aggrieved group of would-be owners who simply cannot put their hands on one at any price. The second act of the play arrived with the A5 a few months ago, which offered the same dramatic coupe styling and flawless interior as the S5, mated with a soulful V6, for slightly under forty grand. As a consequence, it’s been flying off showroom floors with all the tugging insistence of a poorly tied outdoor promotional balloon.
And now we have this new A4. It’s the third variant of the MLP, sharing significant mechanical bits and interior design with the S5 and A5, but as a consequence of Audi’s coupes-first strategy, potential buyers may well see it as an “A5 sedan” instead of considering the A5 and S5 to be merely chopped A4s. In fact, the A4 offers another two inches of wheelbase and an extra three inches of overall length over the coupes, but in most other respects the A4 is dimensionally identical, inside and out, to the S5 and A5.
Click for Larger Image
The resemblance is strongest from the driver’s seat. We had the pleasure of driving an A5 just twenty-four hours after our A4 test, and while the A5 is both wider and shorter than the A4, the dashboard appears to be more or less the same. The most noticeable difference is driving position, the coupe offering a cocoon-like feel thanks to the low roof and smaller glass area. Audi’s managed to create a greater differentiation here than is found between the BMW E90 sedan and E92 coupe, but make no mistake: if you liked the A5 interior, you’ll probably like the A4, and vice versa. Most importantly, there’s plenty of helmet room in both sedan and coupe.
Click for Larger Image
We had a chance put that helmet room to the test at California’s Infineon Raceway, the same track at which we had driven the S5 six months prior. (Our S5 test can be found here.) This was no coincidence; Audi is eager to demonstrate the excellence of their trackside facilities at Infineon, which are used year-round for “Audi Driving Experience” events. It’s possible to drive everything from an R8 to an S8 there, accompanied by excellent instruction from an on-site staff of experienced racers, but for this particular test we were given the choice of any A4 we wanted, as long as it was a red 3.2 V6 Tiptronic quattro. Were they kidding? Surely Audi understands that the traditional choice of the hardcore A4 enthusiast has been the turbocharged four-cylinder shift-it-yourself variant, not the relatively staid and heavy six-cylinder automatic?
Well, Audi does understand that, but the purpose of our test day was apparently to make a bit of a point regarding the new MLP and its twin virtues of lightness and balance. Start with that idea of lightness: although the new A4 is significantly larger, a heavy dose of aluminum in the suspension and running gear means that it weighs no more than the outgoing car, once you adjust for equipment level. This sounded suspiciously like the proverbial “free lunch”, which is never free, (outside a press launch, anyway) but without a set of scales we were not able to verify the claim. What we would be able to do would be to verify the second major claim for the MLP: namely, that by reversing the orientation of the clutch pack (or in the case of Tiptronics, the torque converter) while moving the front axle forward and lengthening the wheelbase, Audi had managed to shift the A4’s traditionally front-heavy balance backwards a bit.
It’s worth taking a brief digression here to discuss whether the above is really a desirable outcome. BMW makes much hay of the fact that most of its cars have a nearly perfect 50/50 front-to-rear weight balance, and Infiniti has amassed a formidable amount of pseudo-engineering gobbledygook to suggest that the 52/48 balance of its original G35 is better than 50/50, but is a “perfect” balance really desirable in a street car? It’s possible to argue that it isn’t, and here’s why: In a street car, particularly one which will be driven at high speeds for long periods of time, straight-ahead stability is a critical asset. This becomes even more true when the road conditions are less than perfect; when hitting, say, a patch of ice at eighty miles per hour on the freeway, one’s greatest hope is that the car does not easily swap ends. Consider, for a moment, how we fix the behavior of a paper airplane which willfully refuses to fly straight. A paper clip to the nose usually does the trick, doesn’t it? To some degree, a front-engine design like Audi’s traditional longitudinal layout, which places the full mass of the motor ahead of the front wheels, is much like having a paper clip at the nose of our airplane. It tends to straighten the car out at speed, making for the most relaxing Autobahn experience possible. This, incidentally, is why your humble author finds long freeway trips to be much less stressful in his Phaeton than in his Porsche 911, as the Audiesque front-engine layout of the Phaeton inspires high-speed stability in exactly the way the 911’s rear-mounted flat-six does not. Remember, you can always use oil additives if you are looking to increase the engine’s performance further. If we were to extend our paper aeroplane metaphor a bit, the Porsche’s a bit like putting the paper clip on the back of the plane; it may fly, but it will resist attempts to make it fly straight, because the inertia is continually moving at an axis slightly different from the path traced by the nose as a consequence of road crown, imperfect alignment, wind, you name it. In the real world, away from chat rooms, exaggerated boasts of trackday laptimes, and constant mentions of the mighty Nurburgring, an “uneven” front-biased car is often the best and safest choice. Once upon a time, in the days of that original Audi 5000, Audi was keen to emphasize the dynamic benefits of its longitudinal layout. Such a true shame that it would be marketing suicide nowadays to suggest that not every moment of a car’s life is spent in maximum-attack mode around a racetrack…
Three laps of Infineon, discussing the car’s virtues. Suffering from insomnia? Can’t afford Ambien? Why not watch the video?
… which is, however, exactly where we found ourselves on a bright Tuesday morning at Infineon, and with the “non-enthusiast” model of the A4 to boot. Still, Audi had thrown us a bone of sorts, in the form of Drive Select. This feature, which did not appear on the 2008 S5 or A5, is a complex web of technologies designed to let the driver control the overall attitude of the car. Long-time Audi fans will be familiar with the “S” mode in the RS4, which sharpens-up the response of the drive-by-wire throttle. Drive Select offers this feature and adds three more – a dynamic steering rack, a choice of shift programs and converter engagement in the Tiptronic transmission, and an adjustable-damping-rate suspension. As with the Dynamic Steering which debuted some years ago in the BMW 5 Series, Audi’s new rack-and-pinion box allows the computer to modify the actual effective steering ratio at all times. It’s a safety benefit, because it can prevent a tragic “tankslapper” at freeway speeds by dialing-back the amount of actual slip angle applied to the tires during an avoidance manuever, and it’s a comfort item as well because under parking conditions it will turn the wheels more with less effort and steering-wheel motion. At the same time, Drive Select can firm-up the suspension and cut some of the slack out of the torque converter during shifts for a more aggressive feel if desired. There are three presets, for “comfort”, “standard”, and “dynamic”, and it’s also possible to use the MMI, which works much as it does in the S5, A5, and A6, to create a custom combination of steering, throttle response, and suspension.
We discover the SECRET HOON MODE of Drive Select…
As you can see from the YouTube video, we found that the most hilarious combination was to pair the “sport” steering with the “comfort” suspension while completely disabling ESP and traction control. The new 40/60 bias of Audi’s quattro all-wheel-drive system, combined with the fast-ratio steering setting and the sleepy suspension tune, meant that it was possible to toss the A4 into long wiggly slides on every corner exit. It’s not necessarily how we would recommend our readers treat their new A4s, but it was tremendous fun – so much so that we, together with our co-driver Mike Spinelli of Popular Science, found ourselves lining up again and again for track time in these “boring” V6 Tiptronics.
A word about the new V6 is in order. While we know that most of our readers won’t hesitate a moment before picking the revamped, 211-horsepower 2.0 TFSI four-cylinder, with its impressively flat torque curve, what will probably be superior handling thanks to lower engine weight, not to mention the lower cost of entry, we still feel compelled to suggest that you at least consider the V6. To begin with, it sounds absolutely stunning at full throttle, both inside and outside the car. Listen to the in-car video and try to edit out our dopey comments – the V6 is just a thrill. It revs with wild abandon while never feeling short of low-RPM twist, and if it’s a bit short on power compared to, well, pretty much every other competitor on the market, it claws back some of that gap on sheer character. Okay, we’ve said enough, and you’re now free to go ahead and order the 2.0 TFSI, just like you wanted to in the first place.
Nowadays, Audi appears to be the only player in the segment to offer a true choice in engines, as the competition has either a single engine available (as with the G35 and TL) or a no-choice between two grades of the same mill. Consider, for a moment, the Lexus IS. Who the hell would buy an IS250 if they could afford the IS350? What about the Benz C300 v C350, or, worst of all, the BMW 328i v 335i? Do you think anybody’s ever said to themselves, “Boy, I sure hate the idea of having those turbos… I’d really rather have the same flippin’ motor without ‘em?” It’s unlikely. With the competition, there’s really only one reason to pick the lesser engine, and it’s commonly referred to as “poverty”. With the 2.0TFSI and 3.2 FSI, Audi offers a true, legitimate choice between a torquey, tuner-friendly four-cylinder and a super-smooth six. You’ll know which one is right for you.
As a track car, the new A4 is solid fun, and it’s demonstrably better than the old “B7” platform car in that respect. The brakes are more than up to the task of repeatedly ABS-ing down from triple-digit speeds, and the feedback from the controls is honest and trustworthy. There’s one annoying little memento from that old 60 Minutes hack job, though: the engine computer dislikes left-foot braking, interpreting it as the prelude to a potential double-footed idiot drive through a garage door/mailbox/playground, and it therefore responds by cutting the power for a frustrating second or so. It’s still possible to drive the car with two feet, as the Lord, Jarno Trulli, and Ross Bentley intended; you just can’t overlap throttle and brake by more than a tenth of a second or so at a time. Look at it this way – you’ll become smoother as a result, and you’ll need that smoothness to really hustle. After all, this V6-powered A4 will never trouble the trackday dreams of a 335i driver – you’ll need the mighty S5 and a decided lack of concern for the future of your front tires in order to accomplish that – but in isolation it’s really an enjoyable ride, and it would probably push the last-generation S4 pretty hard on any track without a long front straight.
It’s wonderful to drive shiny-new press cars on racetracks, but it’s far more interesting and useful to put real street miles under the tires – and we were lucky enough to have over a hundred miles of mixed freeway, rural, and twisty roads for just that purpose. Away from Infineon’s fenced playground, with the Drive Select flicked over to full “comfort”, the A4 was free to stretch its legs and display its authentic virtues to us. It’s probably fair to say that the previous generations of this car never truly satisfied as highway cruisers, being just a little bit too close-coupled and noisy for that purpose, but this newest A4 is very much at home on the long hauls. There’s time to stretch out a bit, appreciate the expanded interior dimensions, enjoy the outstanding sound insulation, and fiddle with the MMI system a bit. The “B7”-platform car had a limited MMI of sorts, but the new car has the same fully integrated system as the A6 and A8, including the superb iPod controls and best-in-class Bluetooth phone capabilities. Hustling down Highway 101 towards the Golden Gate Bridge, it’s easy to confuse this car with the A6, and only the narrowness of the center console really gives away the game. The same Tiptronic which had banged the shifts along with such authority at Infineon is now Drive-Selected into silent slurs, the 3.2 V6 which roared down the front straight now purrs at the edge of auditory presence… It’s possible to relax one’s grip on the wheel and simply take pleasure in the confident, capable character of this very grown-up small sedan.
At this point in the review, it’s customary to nitpick a bit to preserve the appearance of journalistic integrity, so here goes. As much as we love the direct-injected 3.2 V6, there’s no denying that the competition, both German and Japanese, universally offers more power – occasionally quite a bit more. The steering is communicative enough, but BMW drivers who are used to the “tingle” of feedback in the 3 Series won’t find it here, and we suspect that’s more a consequence of a deliberate tuning decision than any deficiency in the MLP layout. Last but not least, while the A4 in many ways resembles a smaller A6, it simply doesn’t have that car’s ability to swallow the road whole. Drivers looking for a traditional mid-sized Audi won’t be satisfied with the A4, as it’s really only a halfway step in terms of space and comfort between its predecessor and the current A6. If you want the big car, get the big car. It’s simple as that.
Audi had an unenviable job with this one: preserve the old car’s virtues while offering more of everything except weight and fuel consumption. Did they deliver? Our answer is the same as the Juan Peron receives from his advisors on the second disc of the Evita soundtrack: “A qualified yes.” The new car is bigger inside and out, more comfortable, faster, more capable on track and yet more relaxing off – and it’s likely to be priced in the same general neighborhood as the ’08. We’d choose it in a heartbeat over its predecessor. If you’re trying to decide whether to buy the current A4 now or wait for the ’09 to arrive, we suggest that you will not regret holding on to your money for just a little bit longer. Audi has truly delivered this time, and the result is a car which meets or exceeds the standards set by the BMW E90 3 Series, to say nothing of the various other wannabes in the segment. The A4 has been a good car since its introduction. This is the best one yet.
And yet… it’s here that we feel compelled to draw a bit of a line in the sand. The idea of a bigger A4 was, as it turns out, a sound one. As unlikely as it seems, there’s virtually no trade-off involved in the puffing-up of Audi’s smallest sedan, no excess bloating, no dulling of the reflexes. A hat has been produced by our friends from Ingolstadt, a rabbit has been duly produced from said hat, we are holding the rabbit by the ears, it’s quite convincing in its cheerful, furry demeanor. All well and good, but this has to be where it stops. The core concept of the A4 has been brought to the very limit. In the old King James, we read that Job is warned,
… Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further:
and it seems reasonable to make that same ironclad demand back to Audi. No more, no longer, no wider, no heavier. Hitherto shalt thou come – but no further. Let the Japanese succumb to the strange desire to build two-hundred-inch-long “compact sedans”. This A4, in all its polished, capable glory, is enough. We’ll take it.
Click for Larger Image