The gentleman's agreement separating the three German marques' entry-luxury lines has all but come undone. BMW used to be a synonym for sportiness, Mercedes-Benz ranked comfort above all other values, and Audi was known for special engineering attributes such as Quattro all-wheel drive. Not so anymore. As the 2008 model year dawns, all three German premium brands want to be everybody's darling. We have yet to conduct the ultimate three-car showdown starring the BMW 335i, the Mercedes-Benz C350, and the new Audi A4 3.2 FSI, but subjectively at least, that battle looks as if it could be a dead heat. Depending on engine, transmission, number of driven wheels, and detail specification, the outcome could easily swing in any of the three directions.
The new A4 sedan will go on sale in the United States in September 2008, followed by the A4 Avant wagon. The final verdict is still out on the other two body styles that will be offered in Europe, the A4 Allroad and the A4 Sportback, but if Audi wants to double its U.S. sales--and Volkswagen/ Audi's new North American supremo, Stefan Jacoby, recently expressed just such a goal--then it can't be stingy in sending over additional body styles.
Although the A4's base engine is again a 2.0-liter four-cylinder, the 211-hp TFSI unit has nothing in common with the outgoing car's heavier and thirstier 200-hp edition. The engine is paired with either a six-speed manual or a six-speed automatic in Quattro models; the front-wheel-drive cars will be available with the continuously variable Multitronic transmission. The most potent engine at launch will be a 3.2-liter FSI V-6 that delivers 265 hp and is mated to a six-speed automatic. In 2009, the next S4 will abandon V-8 power in favor of a more frugal and lighter twin-turbo 3.0-liter V-6 rated at 333 hp and matched with Audi's dual-clutch automatic transmission. A 240-hp, 3.0-liter TDI V-6 is also due to go on sale here in early 2011.
Significantly longer and wider than the 3-series and the C-class, the A4 also provides a more expansive stretch between the axles, with a 110.6-inch wheelbase versus 108.7 inches for its closest competitors. This translates into a roomy interior, to which Audi adds a generous trunk. The cockpit of the new A4 is definitely more high-end than middle-class, and we're not just talking about materials and finish. There's also more space for long legs, broad shoulders, and tall heads than before, and the overall layout--with the navigation monitor mounted high--is much more practical. But these are fringe factors compared with truly decisive qualities such as ride, handling, and roadholding. In these disciplines, the A5 has delivered a promise that the A4 must keep. And it does, although with some variation in style, substance, and sharpness.
The 3.2 FSI Quattro automatic is the priciest, most potent, and most sophisticated version of the new model range at launch--especially when it is fitted, as was our test car, with high-tech options such as Drive Select, dynamic steering, switchable dampers, lane assist (departure warning), side assist (rearview blind spot detection), adaptive cruise control, adaptive headlights (swiveling xenons), and eighteen-inch wheels shod with 245/40YR-18 Michelin Pilot Sport tires.
Drive Select is a kind of personal onboard tuning service that allows the driver to dial in personal preferences by changing the calibration of the steering, chassis, throttle response, and automatic transmission. In addition to the three basic modes--comfort, auto, and dynamic--it's possible to mix and match individual parameters via the optional MMI system, for example quick steering plus soft dampers plus normal throttle action. For cost reasons, Audi opted for adaptive conventional dampers and not for magnetic ride management, as in the TT.
Depending on vehicle speed and Drive Select orders, the dynamic steering varies its ratio by up to 100 percent. In town, it's light and direct but not quite as extreme as its lightning-fast counterpart from Munich. Through switchbacks, it feels meatier but still doesn't require a change of grip on the steering wheel. On the highway, it's relaxed, thanks to a languid four turns lock-to-lock. What makes this system special is the dialogue between the steering and the stability control. Lift-off oversteer, for instance, is automatically corrected by a small dose of momentary opposite lock. Understeer is mellowed by a brief modulation of steering angle that reinstates grip--and confidence. In most situations, supplementary brake and throttle intervention isn't even necessary.
The chassis DNA of the new A4 follows that established for the A5. The redesigned multilink front suspension makes room for a more precise steering rack, which is mounted low and close to the wheels. By having the clutch and the differential (or the torque converter and the differential, in cars equipped with an automatic transmission) swap positions, there was a gain of a precious six inches in length, which was devoted to pedestrian protection, crash performance, and wheelbase extension.
The four-link independent rear suspension was largely derived from components fitted to the A6 and the A8. Front and rear subframes ensure optimum rigidity and precision. Quattro all-wheel drive splits the torque between the axles unevenly at 40/60 percent front to rear, but if need be, up to 90 percent can be directed to the front wheels. Even power oversteer is no longer a foreign concept, thanks to a revised center differential that can also dispatch 90 percent of momentum to the rear wheels. Switch off ASR (traction control) but keep ESP (stability control) on duty for the best mix of slides, smiles, and safety.
The new V-6 consumes ten percent less fuel than the outgoing version, and it clips 0.5 second off the 0-to-62-mph acceleration time (which is now 6.2 seconds, according to Audi). High-tech innovations include a dual-stage intake valve-lift system, a substantial reduction of frictional losses, and a lightweight, low-noise chain drive. The diesels boast common-rail injection for reduced noise and AdBlue (similar to Mercedes-Benz's Bluetec) cleansing for reduced emissions. The 3.0-liter V-6 rated at 240 hp and 369 lb-ft of torque is heralded by Audi "as the cleanest diesel in the world," since it even meets tough California emissions standards. Also in the works are two extra-frugal A4 TDI/TFSI models featuring aerodynamic modifications, a longer-legged transmission, and special low-rolling-resistance tires, but don't look for these models to come to the States.
We drove the new A4 on the Italian island of Sardinia, which is famous for its beaches and mega-expensive resorts but sadly not for the quality of its second-gear back roads. On predominantly washboard tarmac, the difference in ride between the comfort and the dynamic settings was as stark as the difference in visibility between a lunar eclipse and a power failure in a coal mine. The standard sixteen-inch wheels might have been a little more spine-friendly, but for maximum cushiness you definitely don't want to specify the lowered and tightened sport suspension fitted to our test car. At least our A4's continuous damper control offers a wider range of damping settings than the TT's magnetic ride control.
The biggest single surprise was the new dynamic steering, which works much better than the black-and-white active steering offered by BMW. Audi chose a totally homogenous calibration, and it's neither too quick in town nor too heavy and slow on the autostrada. More to the point, the transition between two-finger easy and two-hands firm is progressive and unobtrusive.
Thanks to Quattro and those wide eighteen-inch tires, traction and grip are phenomenal. Body roll is rarely an issue, nor are pitch and yaw. The handling balance feels a lot more neutral than in the outgoing model, which was nose-heavy and a little stodgy by comparison. Turn-in is brisk, but the A4 no longer tends to overshoot the limit of adhesion, leaving you to struggle with ever-changing front-tire slip angles. Instead, improved weight distribution and a redesigned front axle support a pleasantly unbiased cornering attitude that is clean and quick yet nicely communicative. Unfortunately, it takes the freedom of a test track to distill the special talents of the new steering system. On the road, all you notice is near-total composure and very little electronic interference. Instead of merely modulating understeer, the throttle now plays a bigger part in the action, which is generally more transparent and more three-dimensional.
The new A4 is a coherent car to drive, neither excessively sharp nor unduly relaxed. We need to put in a few more miles and sample a greater engine-and-chassis variety to form a definitive verdict, but if those two days on the Costa Smeralda were anything to go by, the new A4 has accomplished its mission. It's a passionately pragmatic and stylish choice for those clients who find the 3-series too cramped and boisterous and the C-class too conservative in appearance and ability.