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.