2017 Audi A4 first drive: A8 for the everyman

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Hardly had the lights flashed on the new 2017 Audi S4 at the Frankfurt Auto Show, when a handful of journalists were whisked off to Venice, Italy to test drive the next generation A4. Set to go on sale in Q1 of next year as a 2017 model, the new A4 is still some months out, but thanks to this early preview I got a chance to see just what’s going on with the subtle yet appreciable – not to mention critical – changes to both the exterior and interior design over the outgoing car. With 12 million A4 sold worldwide, there’s a lot riding on this ninth-generation (“B9”) model, especially as it faces down the likes of Cadillac’s ATS, BMW;s 3-Series and Mercedes-Benz’s C-Class.

2017 Audi A4 first drive: A8 for the everyman

I could forgive you for accusing me of hyperbole with the title of this article: after all, how’s an A4 ever going to compare to Audi’s flagship A8, right? I had the same sort of skepticism myself, but it’s quite the self-leveled challenge Audi has set itself. After all, if offered many of the luxury car’s features, but on an A8 budget, surely that would be enough to persuade luxe-chasers to pull the trigger.

New really does mean new with this car: everything you see, touch, feel, and do with the A4 is was specifically developed for it. Somewhat modestly, Audi admitted that technically only 90-percent is new, while the other 10-percent shares common parts with other product lines. We’re talking screws, nuts, and bolts, however, nothing bigger.

If you’ve flirted with the idea of the old A4, but wanted a more aggressive design that’s nonetheless more timeless than some more ostentatious rivals, the new car has it. It also comes equipped with two NVIDIA chipsets powering the driver-side Audi Virtual Cockpit, which we’ve covered extensively before, along with a brand new MMI system. I may sound like a broken record, rehashing how impressed I am with the Virtual Cockpit every chance I get, but frankly it’s the best-in-class nav system.

Next-gen 2.0-liter engine “downsized” for the new A4

The standard engine offering for the A4 stateside is a new 2.0 TFSI (Turbo fuel-stratified injection) putting out 252 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of torque (with a fairly broad 1,600 to 4,500 rpm power band). It’s paired with the next-generation 7-speed dual-clutch S ironic transmission; that’s been specifically tuned for the new A4, while the TFSI engine makes its debut in the car.

Two liters may not sound like a lot, but according to Audi it’s the best fit for the A4 they wanted to build. “We’re now taking a crucial step further with rightsizing,” Prof. Dr. Ulrich Hackenberg, Member of the Board of Management for Technical Development at Audi AG, told me.

The best of both worlds, so the argument goes, is when you have an engine with low fuel consumption through acting like a smaller powerplant when the load is low, but the advantages of a large-displacement engine when you need it. That’s predominantly down to the turbocharger, which kicks in when you plant your foot on a freeway onramp, for instance.

On the flip side, at the cost of a little power – so little, Audi insists, the average drive won’t notice the difference – the engine can flip into a Miller Cycle style mode, opening the door to higher energy output from each compression.

Driving experience

Given the European location, I can’t speak yet to the nuances of the US version, but already the A4 is highly promising. In fact, a lot of the time you’re able to drive it much as you might the 2016 Audi TT .

Whooshing down the Autostrade in Italy was effortless at mid- to high-speed, the A4 showing its luxury cruiser aspirations, while carving through small towns with twists and tight turns proved fun, though required a higher degree of confidence. That’s more about the roads themselves than the car, mind: tightly spaced, plenty of incoming traffic with hardly a divider between the left and right lanes, and bikers everywhere.

It certainly makes testing a new car challenging, but at the same time it was the perfect environment seeing how the brakes, gearbox, and engine handle quick stops, fast acceleration, and sudden lane changes.

While the front wheel drive will be standard in the US come launch, it’s hard not to fall for the quattro all-wheel drive for more spirited driving. There were several occasions where, looking back, I suspect I may have gravitated off the road on tight turns had it not been for quattro saving my behind; similarly, it made short order of understeer.

Unlike a sports car, though, engine noise is suitably placid. Even at 100mph, wind noise was all but non-existent, which Audi says is in part down to the redesigned rearview mirrors. No longer attached to the A-pillar, and instead free-standing, they still fold up to fit into tight parking spots easier. Impressively, Audi says it didn’t need to outfit the A4 with active noise cancellation systems, a splash of selective sound deadening applied to the wheel housings and the firewall proving sufficient instead.

Steering feel is good, and though old-school purists may bemoan the electric power steering, it delivered enough feel on the twister routes. In the city, however, the assistance boost is turned up, along with at greater steering angles, which makes easier work of tighter maneuvers. Behind the wheel are tucked the paddle shifters, though the 7-gear transmission handles things neatly on its own.

I cycled through as many of Audi’s Drive Select settings as possible during my time with the car, but my favorite is the Sport Plus mode. There, steering and suspension stiffen up at higher revs, suiting the sport sedan feel; if your goal is better fuel economy or comfort, mind, Economy mode might be preferable. The latter works particularly well with the adaptive air dampers which come as standard on the higher-spec A4 trims, and are optional on the mid-tier trims. No matter which you choose, all cars get get four-piston, fixed caliper front brakes and two-piston rear brakes.

A4 Exterior – details, details and more details

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of cars looking like they were designed by wind tunnels. Audi insists that the new A4 hasn’t sacrificed aerodynamic slipperiness for design – it achieves a low 0.23 drag coefficient, while the Avant station wagon is just 0.26 – but I’m still surprised the car looks so cohesive.

None of the changes from the old car were made for the sake of being different, but what’s new has been well thought-through. The radiator grill is lower and wider than the outgoing model, with each corner feeding back into the design of the headlamps and vents.

The distinctive four-ring logo is neatly integrated into the top three lines, and there’s no attention-stealing glint of radiator to distract from it. That was painted black, Barry Hoch, Audi GM Product Planner explained to me, in order to completely camouflage it. A standard aluminum radiator would be highly visible, and though “doing so cost Audi a few extra Euro a car to do that,” Hock says, “we feel in fitting with Audi quality, it’s something we do.”

The new signature headlights come as standard with Xenon bulbs, rather than halogen, which means Audi can cut out the reflector and keep the whole unit smaller. Daytime running lights are now narrower and longer, and they’ll be LED as standard in the US. Turn signals are ‘dynamic sweeping’ – basically they swoosh rather than just blink – which Audi says will make changes of direction more obvious, though they’ll be red in the US rather than the orange of Europe.

Audi has high hopes for the A4 S Line, too, figuring that it’s the model that American drivers will buy the most of. It not only looks more dynamic but should drive that way, too: some of the aero design has been tweaked, helping channel air flow more efficiently.

If anything, I suspect most of the design processes won’t register to the casual observer. The way the hood gap line continues with the line across the doors, and then through to the rear of the car, leaving a consistent shadow is one example. “Any misalignment at all will cause a break in the shadow,” Hoch explained. “This is something we don’t tolerate.”

The little detailing doesn’t stop there. Audi’s research suggested it was easier to open upward-tilting door handles than ones that pull outward in the event of an accident, and so the A4’s pull up. The reservoir for the windshield wash has now been moved to the passenger side, near the door, so that it’s easier to top up and you’re less likely to spill fruit all over the engine compartment.

Weight is down around 260 pounds compared to the outgoing car – Audi used 2-percent aluminum under the dashboard, lighter seats, and a lighter wiring loom – while the dimensions are roughly identical. Height remains the same, while the length grows around an inch, half of which is added to the wheelbase. In fact, Audi says the A4 leads its segment for interior cabin space.

A4 Interior

Usually, this is the point where I’d tell you what it feels like to sit in a sculpted seat and grip a leather-wrapped steering wheel. Breaking with tradition, though, I want to start off with what it’s like in the back seat, instead, where I spent the trip to the airport.

At 6’2 I expected a cramped, bumpy experience, but even with a tall front-seat passenger in front of me – taller than I am, in fact – the whole thing proved comfortable. 0-7-inches of growth may not sound much, but combined with the half-inch increase in width, inch more headroom, and 2.6 inches more front shoulder room, the whole interior is roomier. The new A4 also throws in rear-seat climate controls, and for the US there’ll be three-zone A/C as standard.

All the same, this is a driver’s car and, as such, that’s where the magic is. Available for your viewing pleasure is Audi’s Virtual Cockpit, while the steering wheel is almost entirely new for the A4, studded with the most commonly-needed controls. If you don’t use the paddles, the shift lever is positioned below the cupholders so that you can reach for it while resting your right arm on the center console’s armrest.

It has a classy feel inside, not to mention fairly timeless. The trick retractable display of the old A4 is gone, and the new center screen is fixed in place; the new A4 makes up for any loss in wow factor, though, with color-controllable ambient lighting.

Tech, tech, and more tech (oh, and safety tech too)

I’ve saved the best for last. There’s a new version of the MMI (Multi-Media Interface), cutting the four buttons of the old system down to two, with the rotary selection dial as standard. Opt for the Nav package and you get the handwriting touchpad on top of it, allowing you to sketch out letters, but Audi insists that American drivers love physical controls so the main features get dedicated switchgear. Smartphone connectivity and an LTE modem are both standard, while depending on which box you tick you get either a 7- or 8.3-inch center display.

Park Assist explanation and demo

Similar to the 2017 Q7, the A4 gets every single driver assistance system available from Audi; last I counted, that means 37 different things helping keep you on the road. To name just a few, there’s adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring with cross-traffic assist, lane-departure warnings and lane-keep assist, automatic parking assist, attention assist, and forward-collision warnings with automatic braking. You don’t get them all as standard, mind, but if you want a super-high-tech A4 then you can have one.

Parallel Park Assist | Exit Warning Assist

Safety features are one of those things you hope you won’t get to review on a drive, but I did have the chance to experience some of what the A4’s prescience can do. With my co-driver at the wheel, and approaching the car in front at speed, I braced myself for the worst. Instead, the A4 gave a big jolt, flagging up the need to slam on the brakes. Needless to say, without the forward collision safety feature the trip could have ended badly.

If you’re in the city, though, you can always leave the A4 to do much of the driving itself. We’re not quite at the point where full self-driving functionality is ready for the mass market, but Audi’s adaptive cruise with traffic-jam assist goes a long way toward it.

Available at up to 40mph, it takes control of not only the gas pedal but the brakes and the steering, following cars in the lane ahead. Though it takes a little getting used to, after a few miles I decided I can’t wait for it to hit stateside.

As for lane-departure warnings and lane-keeping assist, as with other systems they’re useful as long as the car’s onboard camera is able to read the lane markings. Without that, you need to take the wheel yourself. Even if the A4 does have a lock, you can’t let go of the wheel for more than around ten seconds before an alert sounds; in the event you’re out cold, the car will automatically come to a slow stop.

Where Audi’s lane-turn assist pulls ahead of rival systems is in how insistent it is. Rather than just buzzing at you, or even nudging the wheel, the A4 will literally prevent you from making a left or right turn should the car deem it unsafe. I got a chance to test this out on the Audi Q7 drive, and have to admit that it’s nerve-wracking: if turning into oncoming traffic is considered too risky, the wheel fights back.

Less dramatic is lane exit assist, where the A4 scans the road around you and sounds a warning if there are oncoming cars that present a risk.

Assuming you’re driving normally rather than pushing the safety kit, there’s an optional 755 watt, 19 speaker Bang & Olufsen 3D audio system. Not that the standard-fit audio is lacking, but the B&O version is a worthy upgrade. For Apple fans, I tested out CarPlay and it worked as you’d expect; Beats1 was even available to enjoy as the soundtrack to our journey.

Wrap-Up

The A4 is a big deal to Audi, its most successful car in sales since 1972. Buyers in the segment have a lot of choice, not only from the usual German trio but rivals like Japan’s Lexus and Acura, and America’s home-grown Cadillac. Yesterday’s premium features are today’s table-stakes.

Audi’s table is audibly groaning with the 2017 A4. Its handsome, hewn-from-solid-metal looks are timeless, but the roster of gadgetry, safety technology, and driver comfort are first-rate. Semi-autonomous driving in the city is a legitimate advantage over even the advanced smart cruise control systems other automakers offer, and gives a tantalizing glimpse of what truly self-driving cars will be like.

I’ll save my final judgement for when the US-spec models are available early in the new year, but already I’m more than impressed by the package Audi has put together.

(slashgear.com)

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