Generally acknowledged as the
benchmark (and instigator) of the genre is BMW's 3-Series, which first came
under attack from Audi's A4 before Mercedes-Benz shook off its conservative
image and gave us a new, more sporting, C-Class. The latest Threes have been
around for a while now, and the C-Class is becoming a more common sight, but
the second-generation A4 has only just arrived with an, initially, limited line-up.
The first one we received for testing gave us a double whammy: the new model
powered by Audi/VW's state of the art (pump jet
injection to you) 1,9-litre turbodiesel.
Turbodiesel: start getting used to the idea of including one - or more - when
next drawing up your short-list for another car. Despite the reservations of
some local manufacturers and importers about the quality and consistency of
diesel fuel available throughout the country, the German big three - Audi, BMW
and Mercedes-Benz - have all got turbodiesel models included in their popular
model line-ups, which is a comforting show of faith. Far from being "smelly
old oil burners", diesels are fast emerging as the engines of the future as
the technology appears to be moving if not faster than, then certainly apace
with, that of petrol engines. Economy, torque and longevity have long been givens
for a diesel but, with the aid of turbocharging and advanced fuel injection,
we are now getting performance and acceptable emissions control as well. So,
new car, new engine - but do they set new standards?
Logically, let us start with the car, and if you took the heading picture to
be of an A6 then do not feel foolish. The similarity between the two is surprisingly
close - far more so than, say, a 3- and 5-Series Beemer. Although the A4 is
physically slightly smaller than the A6 (but longer, wider and taller than the
previous A4), from half a field away you need to look for details to identify
which is which. Having a "family look" is commonplace with premium motor makers,
but it is unusual - and, it has to be said, disappointing - to find oneself
opting for a styling critique against a stablemate rather than a rival. The
A6 has been around for a while and opinions on its appearance are still polarised,
so the new A4 does not make an entrance on a wave of universal accolades. One
of our team maintains the general profile is "dumpy", while another reckons the A4's looks are "classy and better-balanced
than the A6". A third was suitably impressed yet underwhelmed. Techno-buffs
will be pleased with the car's drag coefficient of 0,28, and impressed with
the smooth low-drag underbody, but unless you are a devotee of the marque, the
new A4 is not likely to excite the senses.
There is an Audi-ness and conservatism about the interior, too, albeit in the
nicest possible way. Audi cabins have long been a rewarding place to be, offering
comfort, quality and enough controls technology to make the driver feel part
of the modern world but without having sacrificed some old-fashioned elegance.
There is nothing flashy about the new A4's interior, but bright edging surrounds
the instruments and highlights the steering wheel boss and the facia's control
panels. Patterned satin-aluminium inserts run across the facia and along the
doors just below window level, and the leather upholstery is lightly textured.
Thankfully, grey (or blue) environment colours are available as options to the
usual Teutonic favourite, black. At night, the familiar display of red-lit instruments
and controls creates a flight-commanding air, and contributes to an overall
effect of well-being.
Creature comforts include side-to-side climate control air-conditioning with
a dust and pollen filter, and regulated according to the position of the sun.
However, only by selecting the lowest temperature setting could we get cold
air from the test car's system. Other features include a superb Audi Concert
150W radio/CD sound system with 10 Bose speakers, one touch up and down electric
operation of all windows, courtesy/maplights front and rear, courtesy lights
in all of the footwells, a cellphone mounting attached to the passenger side
of the hangdown console, and an illuminated vanity mirror behind each visor.
Driver aids include a rake-and reach-adjustable leather covered steering wheel,
electrically operated and heated exterior mirrors, three-position headlamp beam
height adjustment, trip computer, left-foot rest, and call-up buttons for the
vehicle service indicator with an auto-check of important components and functions.
There is a centre foldaway armrest/cubby in the floor console, but it gets in
the way of both the handbrake and (for many people) operation of the gearshift
- an annoying design flaw.
The seats are comfortable and both front chairs have an excellent range of electric
adjustment: fore/aft, cushion height/angle, and lumbar in/out plus up/down.
Front head restraints are height and tilt adjustable, and the upper seatbelt
mounting point can be raised or lowered. The new A4's bigger body suggests that
interior space has been improved, which it has, in all dimensions. But somehow
the on-paper liberation of space has not created the visual impact of spaciousness
one would expect.
A 41 mm gain in kneeroom in the back has overcome a major complaint of the previous
model, but the increase is lost if the front seat's generous travel is taken
up. One journey with four-up left one tester feeling a bit cramped, so while
A4 may not be a paragon of space utilisation, it is better than before and,
as we have said, the furnishings and fittings are of the highest order.
The rear seat backrest is asymmetrically split and can be folded down to increase
the car's huge 400 dm3 of boot capacity into 1 072 dm3 of utility space through
a large and unrestrictive bulkhead opening. Loading height is 730 mm. In the
upright position, the backrests can be key-locked for security. The foldaway
centre armrest contains a first aid kit. There was a time when the prospect
of powering a 1,5-ton premium saloon with a sub two-litre diesel engine would
have been considered the height of folly, but the distinctly undersquare 1 896
cm3 turbocharged and intercooled four-pot under the A4's bonnet is something
else. We experienced the basic motor in the VW Golf TDI tested in December 1999,
and reckon it is probably the engine of choice in the Golf range. But the German
engineers have breathed some pumpe-düse technology into its workings to raise
peak power output from 81 to 96 kW at 4 000 r/min, and increase maximum torque
from 235 to a steady 285 N.m from 1 750 to 2 500 r/min. These are dramatic increases
- the max torque is claimed to be a record for a four-cylinder - that transform
what is already a capable powerplant into something of a barn-stormer.
Rather like BMW's two-litre turbodiesel, the A4's motor can stumble at low revs,
even stall, if the driver is not concentrating fully on throttle/clutch coordination,
but once past 1 400 r/min it delivers like a rocket. It will spin past the red
line at 4 500 on to a soft-limited 5 000 revs, but using 4 000 as a max change
point (where there is around 225 N.m on tap) keeps the engine right on song.
The boy-racer benchmark 0-100 km/h time of nigh on 10 seconds is no mean achievement,
and the A4 will sprint past the kilometre marker in 31,64 seconds at 164,7 km/h
before running on to a top speed of 207 km/h. Look through the CAR Guide at
the back of this magazine and you will see those figures are up with the best
in the class, diesel or petrol.
The fuel injection system's extremely high pressure (up to 2 050 bar) prevented
us from hooking up our test equipment, but based on consumption achieved during
the test period, we have calculated a fuel index (ie overall consumption) of
6,05 litres/100 km. From a 70-litre tank, that suggests a range in excess of
1 100 km from a single fill-up.
Dynamically, the new A4 also impresses. Aluminium has been used extensively
in the suspension components with the benefit of light weight and consequent
low unsprung mass. A four-link set-up is used at the front, with a self-tracking
trapezoidal link arrangement (developed from that used on Audi's quattro 4wd
models) at the back. The result is a ride that is firm but without jarring over
most road surfaces, and handling that is reassuringly composed. Cornering quickly,
the body does tend to lean a little before settling down and allowing the front
wheels to pull the car through the bend without any sign of the pitching that
afflicted some of the previous generation A4s. In adverse conditions, ESP (Electronic
Stability Programme) traction control acts as a guardian angel.
Some of the credit for the benign handling can be attributed to the grip of
the chunky 205/55 ZR-rated tyres, which are wrapped around attractive 16-inch
alloy wheels (there is a full-sized spare under the boot board). Steering is
power-assisted rack and pinion with a comfortable 2,8 turns lock to lock, and
the turning circle is 11,1 metres. All disc brakes, ventilated at front, with
ABS and EBD plus brake assist provide powerful stopping ability in all conditions.
A4's safety and security features include selective central locking, an immobiliser
and an alarm, front passenger airbags complemented with Sideguard, Audi's own
head and neck protection airbag system that covers almost the entire side window
area. The pedal box automatically decouples in the event of a frontal crash.
A4 achieved a high four-star rating in Europe's NCAP crash test.