IS there a greater motivation to complete an extensive mid-life update on your most important model range than the introduction of an all-new vehicle from your main rival?
The arrival of the new BMW 3 Series was always going to be a big event in the compact-saloon playground, but the fact that it coincides with the scheduled mid-life update of the Audi A4 range provides that much more intrigue in this highly competitive segment.
Few will be surprised at the design direction that the A4 has taken; the revised, tauter nose, with its updated company grille and headlamp design, gifts this range (including saloon, Avant, and S variants) with the most up-to-date Audi brand identity. Detractors label this design language safe and predictable, yet few can argue that there is a sense of sophistication and natural evolution to the finished products. Those optional LED daytime-running lamps (now solid in their latest incarnation) may seem gimmicky to some, but they are striking and add a sense of presence to the design.
An important introduction to the updated A4 range is the company’s new third-generation 1,8T FSI engine. This unit is not only slightly lighter than the engine it replaces, but also close to 20 per cent more fuel efficient. Incorporating Audi’s intelligent valve-lift system, combined with a combination of direct and indirect injection (adopting the latter during part-load), this engine features a new fully electronic coolant-regulation system that is designed to optimise the running temperature of the engine, especially after cold starts. A stop/start system is also standard fitment and, although this slightly intrusive function takes a little getting used to, it does play a role in helping achieve an impressive combined fuel-consumption figure of just 6,84 litres/100 km when mated with the six-speed manual transmission. A continuously variable (CVT) Multitronic transmission is also available with this engine.
In its most powerful state of tune (an 88 kW/230 N.m version is also available), the new 1 798 cm3 powertrain delivers a healthy 125 kW, with 320 N.m of torque available from 1 400 r/min. Suitably refined, this engine offers smooth power delivery and, should the mood take you, revs freely towards its 6 000 r/min red line. At the risk of foregoing an extra few kilometres per 63 litre tank of fuel, we chose to switch off the onboard gear-selection indicator (read: nanny) and enjoy the addictive turbo surge above 2 500 r/min, prior to each gearshift. A slick and precise shift action also adds to the enjoyment.
We’ve grown quite accustomed to the high levels of perceived interior build quality in the current Audi line-up and, as would be expected in one of this company’s most important models, a sense of familiarity prevails in the latest A4. While there’s no obvious indication that the actual quality of materials has been improved, it is clear that attention has been paid to simplifying and neatening up the functionality of the cabin. There are fewer buttons and switches for the climate control and MMI infotainment systems, as well as a standard-fitment multifunction steering wheel.
With the introduction of the latest A4 range come new specification and trim levels. Gone are the Attraction, Ambition, and Ambiente models of the previous generation and in their place are S, SE and Quattro options. With all-wheel-drive models obviously having a sportier edge (S4 models being the top-of-the-range for now), SE specification, as featured on our test unit, adds larger wheels (17-inch), cruise control and a full-colour, more comprehensive infotainment system (including upgraded audio) to what is already offered on entry-level S units.
While some testers actually prefer the (extensive) manual adjustment available on the driver and front passenger seats, most felt that it was a tad stingy of Audi not to include a 60:40 split rear seat backrest as standard fitment.
Another optional extra that we would gladly sign over R650 for upon purchase is hill-hold assist. A feature that we so appreciated in the 3 Series range (tested in our May issue) is the inclusion of an old-fashioned manual handbrake lever, which is the complete antithesis of the annoying electronic example (with no auto-engage function) fitted to the new Audi A4 range that proves both clumsy and slow to react.
There’s a solid, substantial feel to the A4 and, although this means the Ingolstadt contender doesn’t feel as light on its feet as the 3 Series or C-Class, there is something to be said for it feeling more planted (if only subconsciously) on the road. Like the BMW, the latest A4 features electromechanical power steering and, similar to the 3, this system does an admirable job of offering – if slightly overly assisted at times – precise and comfortable everyday usability.
We were pleasantly surprised by how compliant and accomplished the standard suspension setup (sans the optional adaptive drive select system) on the A4 is. This default system is sufficient for most driving conditions and, although our test unit was fitted with optional 18-inch rubber, the gap between the A4 and the class-leading (in terms of ride) C-Class has never been smaller.
If the impressive new 3 Series and stalwart C-Class thought they were going to have things their own way in this segment, the revised A4 presents a reality check. While its neatly altered looks are welcome and the class-leading levels of perceived build quality remain intact, it’s the refined and extremely frugal 1,8T FSI engine that adds a touch of class and effortless momentum to this impressive package. What’s also refreshing to note is that, aside from the hill-hold function, our test unit felt more than accomplished even without the fitment of extravagant optional extras that bump up the purchase price.