4CAR RATING: ****
Elegant and discreet styling, exceptional build quality, excellent diesels, much improved ride quality
Very conservative evolution, rear cabin space not improved, will struggle against BMW in fun-to-drive category
The A4 remains a very strong contender in the executive compact segment, with elegant good looks and a strong engine line up. But it misses the best-in-class target.INTRODUCTION
The original A4 has been the most successful Audi of all time, so this is not a formula that needed a radical change of direction. At a glance the new car, which is the seventh-generation A4, looks barely evolved from the previous model. In fact, every body panel apart from the roof is brand new, although the most noticeable changes are at the tail lights and the nose, which gains the companywide single-frame grille. Inside, the A4's interior architecture remains virtually unchanged, apart from a new seat design and a steering boss that wears an aluminium graphic that echoes the new grille. The new Avant version has also gone on Sale
There are four engines that are new to the A4, which include the 3.2 FSI V6, a 2.0TDI 'four and 3.0TDI V6, as well as the 2.0T FSI. And the monstrously quick S4 quattro also remains a feature of the range.
Audi is still chasing BMW and Mercedes, and much work has been done to improve the A4's dynamics to put it on a more level footing with BMW in particular. So the suspension has been revised in an attempt to improve ride and handling, and all V6 and 2.0T FSI A4s gain as standard the speed-sensitive power steering previously unique to the S4. And the brakes have been uprated.
for buyers, too, as prices haven't increased significantly over the outgoing model, ranging between £18,765 and £28,725, excluding the S4 which is launched spring 2005. RELIABILITY AND QUALITY RATING:****
The only significant blot on the A4's recent reliability record was the failure of a batch of ignition coils, which affected the 1.8 20v turbo engines built from about the summer of 2001 to the autumn of 2002. Otherwise, Audi continues to enjoy a reputation for reliability and quality. And the engines that are new to the A4 are already in use in other Volkswagen group cars, so these are well proven units. Our own experience with the launch cars also proved very positive, with first-rate fit and finish in evidence.
For many buyers in the compact executive sector, the strongest recommendation for the Audi is that it isn't a BMW. Indeed, BMW drivers are still regarded by many as overly aggressive, or worse, estate agents. However, the message projected by the Audi is clean, timeless design in a discreet and understated package. It also enjoys a slightly more youthful and stylish image than the Mercedes Benz C-class. DRIVING RATING: ***
The A4 has gained a revised suspension, as well as damper settings designed to deliver the best compromise between ride and handling. And all six-cylinder models, as well as the 2.0T FSI, gain the speed-sensitive variable power steering that was once the preserve of the storming S4 model.
On the road, the result of the steering upgrade, which is optional on other models of 130bhp or more, is noticeably better steering feel over fast, twisting roads. Otherwise, the A4 remains astonishingly well composed and uninclined to react unpredictably over undulating, challenging roads. Pushed harder still, the A4's default setting is understeer at the limit. For most drivers, this is the safe option, and with four-wheel drive quattro models in particular, you won't find a more stable platform in the class. For those who want a little more involvement in the driving experience, though, we suspect that the BMW remains the favourite. PERFORMANCE RATING: *****
It is the diesel engines that really impress here. The 204bhp 3.0TDI V6, which is offered only in four-wheel drive quattro guise, develops a massive 331lb ft of torque from an almost comically low 1400rpm. The result is great waves of acceleration, instantly available with a flex of the right foot - the official figures are 0-62mph in 7.2 seconds and a top speed of 146mph. That really is d**n quick, and in the 0-62mph run, only a shade slower than the storming 256bhp 3.2 FSI petrol A4.
We were equally impressed with the 2.0 TDI four cylinder turbo-diesel engine, which develops 140bhp and 236lb ft of torque from a low 1750rpm. We tried the A4 2.0TDI with a manual six-speed gearbox and found that the combination of sensible gear ratios and excellent torque characteristics delivered truly robust performance. Climbing out of the 3.0TDI, we worried we might feel shortchanged on the performance front, but that just isn't the case. And the 2.0TDI delivers a claimed overall fuel economy of 47.9mpg, which is a nice bonus.
The 2.0T FSI turbo-charged, direct-injection petrol A4 delivered strong performance - 0-60mph in 7.6 seconds and a top end of 146mph - and we were most impressed by its low-rev torque response. That meant strong acceleration was on tap without our having to shift down a gear, which is a near-diesel-like characteristic. For the record, the 2.0T FSI develops its maximum torque of 207lb ft from 1800rpm.
By comparison, we'd recommend you give the non-FSI 2.0-litre petrol engine a miss. Its maximum torque is developed at nearly twice the revs of the FSI engine, and swift progress is a thrashy and unrefined experience, especially when this engine is mated to the CVT constantly variable transmission.
We've not driven the 256bhp 3.2 FSI V6 quattro coupled to Audi's excellent DSG multi-plate clutch, but we expect it to be a real peach. And just as you'd expect, the S4 V8 delivers avalanche-style performance with a V8 soundtrack to die for. And it's a measure of just how composed and stable the A4's quattro chassis is that the S4 feels like it could handle a good deal more than its 344bhp. So roll on the RS4, we say.
Other engines in the range include 102bhp 1.6 and 163bhp 1.8T petrols and 115bhp 1.9 and 163bhp 2.5 turbo-diesels. As well as new five and six-speed manuals, there is also an excellent tiptronic automatic available. SAFETY AND SECURITY RATING: *****
In redesigning the body, Audi has claimed to have improved side impact protection by strengthening the body shell forward of the B-pillar. The company also claims that the efficacy of the changes have been put to the test in simulated side-on collisions with SUVs. Even the seats make a contribution here, with very rigid cross bracing which helps them maintain their shape during a side impact. Further passive measures include large, dual stage front airbags, side airbags and curtain airbags. On the active front, the latest generation electronic stability programme helps to haul the car back onto its intended cornering line in the event of a slide at the front or rear.
A Thatcham Category One approved anti-theft system is standard on all models. RUNNING COSTS RATING: ****
With the knowledge that executive compacts have become hugely more popular in the fleet sector, Audi has been keen for a high score in this category. To that end, the company is claiming that the pence-per-mile running costs of its 2.0 FSI SE (45.86p) and 1.9TDI (44.5p) are marginally superior to that of the equivalent BMW and Mercedes models. And Audi points to the respected CAP Monitor, which projects residual values and which also reckons that the A4 1.9TDI SE and 3.0TDI SE will outperform the equivalent BMW and Merc on 3-years residual values. Counting against the A4 is the limited mileage 3yr/60,000 mile warranty - rivals offer unlimited-mileage 3yr warranties. COMFORT AND EQUIPMENT RATING: ***
Even though every single body panel apart from the roof is new and there is slightly more front and rear overhang, the A4's cabin is dimensionally identical to the outgoing car. In fact, little is changed in terms of the cabin architecture, with the most noticeable items being the steering wheel with its grille-shaped graphic and the seats, which offer more support and new trim options.
One of the areas where the A4 is significantly improved concerns the ride comfort, a common complaint about the previous model. On the standard-fit 16-inch wheels, the ride is quiet and compliant, with little of the jittery nervousness of the previous car over patchily finished road surfaces.
Effectively, this means the front seat occupants benefit from very comfortable seats, first rate dashboard ergonomics and for the driver, an ideal position relative to pedals and gearshift. The News
is less good for those in the rear, with six-footers being a little tight on headroom and legroom if seated behind another tall adult. So it'll be interesting to see how the new 3-Series, due early 2005, will compare on this front.
Equipment levels are relatively generous, though. All models gain electronic climate control, electric windows, 16-inch alloys wheels, electronic stability control, traction control and front foglights.