IN THAT highly competitive arena of premium compact saloons, the quest for supremacy continues unabated. The car that started it all – BMW’s 3 Series – is about to be represented by an all-new model that will, without much doubt, continue to set the standard by which others are judged. Of those others, Audi has just emerged at the forefront with a new generation A4, codenamed B7. It is not an all-new car, but a major facelifted one with enough changes to make it appear as such. And what an entrance: in the local launch line-up there are no less than 15 saloons and 13 Avant wagons, seven different engines, four transmissions and, of course, frontwheel and quattro drivetrains. One of the more interesting front-drive saloons – the 2,0T FSI – was supplied to CAR for first test…

Starting with the the looks, Audiphiles will notice that the only body panel B7 shares with its predecessor is the roof. The crease line that gently rises from front to rear gives the profile a tauter, slightly more wedgy appearance. Clear glass headlamps are more slanted than previously, and part of the tail-light clusters are contained in the bootlid. The single frame grille, Audi’s new family face developed from the Nuvolari concept car, is not really as bulbous as some photographs may suggest. You get used to it, and we were amazed at the number of passers-by who did a positive double take when seeing the test car, clearly mouthing “Look, the new Audi”. Suddenly, the A4 has gone from handsome to, er, strikingly handsome.

There is little exterior ornamentation. The side glass area – with blacked-out B-pillar and rear quarter-light – is contained within a bright surround, the whole blending- in with the A4’s established coupé/saloon profile. Another trademark styling cue is the tight wheelarches, which give all modern Audis that muscular, hunkered down stance.

Inside, amongst the upholstery options are cloth, leather and (when sports seats are fitted) a no-extra-cost leather/Alcantara combination. There is a new fully adjustable, multi-function steering wheel common to all models (audio controls are in the spokes), with the trapezoidal grille design recreated on its boss, and it comes wrapped in hide if the optional (R10 600) Sports Pack is specified. Also included in the Sports Pack are well-bolstered front sports seats with all-electric adjustment, including full lumbar support, which contribute significantly towards driving comfort.

Sadly, in some tester’s eyes at least, the cabin’s environment colour is – yes, you guessed it – black. Almost overbearingly so, with only a strip of aluminium inlays running along the door panels and across the facia to break it up. One thing the makeover has not resolved is the relatively cramped rear compartment, and with the optional (R7 600) tilt and slide sunroof fitted, headroom is lessened, so the dark headliner can create a claustrophobic feeling. Come on Ingolstadt, lighten up a little!

The fit, finish and general ambience of the cabin maintains Audi’s commendably high standard. It is all just so – right. Dual zone climate control, with auto mode, is fitted together with other comfort and convenience items including powered mirrors and windows (all with one-touch up and down), self-dimming interior mirror, light sensing headlamps, cruise control, lights-off delay, rain sensing wipers, and the obligatory trip computer. The absence of a central armrest is perhaps a little odd, and there is only one drinkholder: a pop-out item that holds the container right in front of one of the centre air vents.

Thankfully, Audi has resisted messing around with its MMI multimedia interface system, which is probably the most user-friendly of such systems currently available. A 6-CD shuttle is contained in the large facia cubby, and there are two MP3 SD memory card slots located behind a neatly revolving full-colour LCD screen in the hangdown section. The test car featured an optional (R5 500) Bose surround sound system. Another of the options fitted (R19 000) was Navigation Plus, which includes full DVD navigation with map feature (available from June). The system is Bluetooth compatible, and a TV tuner can be added.

Changes have been made under the skin, too. Beneath the bonnet of the test car was one of three new engines in the A4 line-up, a high compression (10,5:1) turbocharged and intercooled 2,0-litre FSI petrol unit, featuring direct injection, twin cams, four valves per cylinder, variable length intake manifold and variable inlet valve timing. Actuated by drive-by-wire throttle, the longitudinally mounted four-cylinder motor delivers 147 kW between 5 100 and 6 000 r/min, and 280 N.m of torque from 1 800 through to 5 000 r/min. The same motor, transversely mounted, powers the VW Golf GTI.

Optimising this superbly flexible powerplant is a slick-shifting six-speed manual gearbox (a Multitronic CVT is also available), and the combination whipped the A4 from standstill to 100 km/h in 7,79 seconds, past the kilometre marker in 28,47 seconds at 189 km/h, and on to a top speed of 240 km/h. Top is a cruising gear – maximum speed is achieved in fifth – but dropping down a couple of cogs realises similarly impressive overtaking acceleration for this 1 610 kg saloon. What the figures do not show is the ease with which the car answers the call of the right foot. This is one very refined powertrain. Fuel economy in the region of 9,47 litres/100 km is respectable, too.

Dynamics were not a major highlight of previous fwd A4s, but the new model is significantly better, especially with the Sports Pack that drops the ride height by 33 mm and stiffens the suspension settings. It includes different style but same size wheels (17x7,5J) and tyres (235/45 ZR). The four-link front and self-tracking trapezoidal rear suspension systems have been reworked, including the use of some components from the S4 and A6 models. More mass has been centred between the front and rear axle lines, improving overall weight distribution. Steering – Audi’s Servotronic on this model – is better than before, too, offering more feel (though not a lot) and response. The result is a ride that is compliant – nothing jars through – yet firm, one of the bestbalanced set-ups you will find anywhere, and (at last) handling befitting Audi’s sporting heritage. A4’s guardian angel is in the form of ESP8 electronic stabilisation programme.

With wheelarches squared-off, the boot offers 400 dm3 of luggage space, increasing to 1 072 when the split backrest is folded down onto the fixed cushion. However, the boot opening is restrictive: loading height is 720 mm, and there is an aluminium scuff plate decorating the boot lip.

Safety features include improved ABS brakes with EBD and BAS, six airbags, and active head restraints. The test car had optional (R10 000) xenon-plus adaptive headlamps, which is an expensive but worthwhile feature.

Test summary

It has taken a while, but Audi is now right at the front of the premium compact saloon market, and it has arrived there not with an allnew car, but a cleverly reworked existing one. Sure, the new BMW 3 Series might widen the gap a little again, but judging by the A4 2,0T FSI, the Bavarians need to look carefully over their shoulder. Audi’s vorsprung is springing…