COSTA MESA, California — If you’re one of the ten or so people looking for a compact luxury sedan who still wants to row his or her own gears, your options are pretty limited these days. You can choose the BMW 3 Series, the Cadillac ATS, the Audi A4, and that’s about it. Three choices are better than none, however, and we spent some time with a three-pedal 2018 Audi A4 to find out what one of those is like.
Let’s start with the transmission, as that’s the important detail here. It’s not a special gearbox. In fact, much like the A4 as a whole, its perfectly adequate. The shifter is smooth if not particularly quick and the clutch is light and easy to modulate, not unlike the manuals found in the Audi’s Volkswagen-branded cousins like the Golf and Jetta.
Don’t interpret that as damnation by faint praise, however. A manual comparable to that of, say, the Civic Type R, would be decidedly out of place in a stock A4. The existing unit instead complements the A4’s technophile personality without feeling like an anachronism.
Better, the manual is not relegated to the base model A4. In fact, it’s not even offered on the front-drive base model, but rather exclusively on A4s equipped with quattro—regardless of trim. Want a stick with your fully loaded A4 Prestige that rings in at over $50,000? Audi will happily sell you one. You don’t even have to give up adaptive cruise control or any of the other modern tech the A4 comes replete with.
The rest of the A4 is exactly what you’d expect of a modern Audi: comfortable, quiet, well-built, and slightly sporty. The 2.0-liter turbo-four is good for 252 hp and 273 lb-ft of torque, which won’t wow anyone, but is still plenty quick for everyday duty. The suspension is geared toward freeway cruising, but is compliant enough to be enjoyable in the canyons—especially since you’ll be rowing your own gears. That understeer Audi is famous for? Largely banished and replaced with balanced handling.
If there’s one strike against the A4 that can’t be overlooked in the name of the stickshift, it’s the anonymity. Picking out your gunmetal A4 from the parking lot at South Coast Plaza could result in a “dude, where’s my car?” experience as you go from row to row, only to come across very similar-looking A6s, A5s, or A3s. Should that not be an issue, well, its time to get to the numbers.
Our tester was the mid-level “Premium Plus” variant, which starts at $44,675 in AWD form (the base Premium trim starts at $41,475). Spiced up with the $3,400 Sport plus package (it adds 18-inch wheels with summer tires, adaptive suspension, dynamic steering, and several cosmetic changes), $3,000 Navigation and Telematics Package, and $575 Daytona Gray paint, it rang in at a healthy $51,650.
For comparison, a manual BMW 320i can be had for $35,895, but that rear-drive Bimmer’s 2.0-liter turbo-four makes a mere 180 hp and 200 lb-ft of torque, significantly less than the Audi—and with fewer amenities, at that. The more-comparable 330i starts at $41,245 and offers 248 hp along with 258 lb-ft of torque, but its rear-drive-only as well. You’ll need to step up to the $51,945 340i xDrive if you want all-wheel drive with a stick in your BMW.
A manual Cadillac ATS 2.0T, meanwhile, starts at $36,490. It offers 272 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque, besting the A4 as well as the 330i—but there’s no all-wheel drive variant that can be had with the stick.
While the AWD vs. RWD battle is one that will rage as long as both exist, the Audi easily comes out ahead of both the BMW and the Cadillac when it comes to style—inside and out. If you’re not hungry for power or attention and aren’t looking for the most stimulating driving experience in the world, the stick shift-equipped 2018 Audi A4 is a solid choice of luxury sport sedan, or at least sporty luxury sedan for those who feel like you have to step up to the S4 to hit “sport sedan” status.
2018 Audi A4 2.0T Premium Plus quattro Manual Specifications
|ENGINE||2.0L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4/252 hp @ 5,600-6,000 rpm, 273 lb-ft @ 1,600-4,500 rpm|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD sedan|
|EPA MILEAGE||25/33 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||186.1 x 72.5 x 56.2 in|
|0-60 MPH||5.7 sec|
|TOP SPEED||130 mph|