Audi A4: Suited for success?

The name of the gentleman standing in front of the blue A4 is Isaac, he heads corporate communications at Audi Malaysia. By most accounts, Isaac is a well-grounded, upstanding kind of guy. As a media outlet that strives for objective reporting against a sea of news and reviews generated to delight advertisers, we find Isaac to be a refreshingly fair and open-minded PR practitioner, an antithesis to some of his peers who expect the media to heel and roll over. So, when Isaac enquired if I was ready to trade in my three-year old BMW 3-Series for a new A4, I thought I’d offer my usual honest opinion.

That Armani analogy

This B9-generation A4 does summon memories on how I felt about the bland-looking B6 A4 some 10 years ago – in that it barely moved the game on from the handsome B5 on the styling front. In more mature markets where the expression of wealth or the need to brandish a new acquisition isn’t so critical, it’s probably business as usual for the new A4. But in growth markets where nouveau riche rules, I’m not so sure.

That the B9 isn’t easily distinguishable from its predecessor would’ve pleased the last generation A4 owners to no end, but if you want to put some new cars on the road, ‘new’ should look different from the old one to an untrained eye, especially when so much underneath is new. The single-frame Nuvolari grille is an Audi signature and I get that, but the execution of the shape and form is too similar to the old one, which itself isn’t that different from the one before that. An Armani suit is dapper, but donning it on every occasion isn’t going to cut it. Sooner or later, someone will notice.

Having said that, I can’t pinpoint anything about the new A4 that’s not unattractive; the proportions are spot on, the outer skin has tighter surface tension compared to the B8 while the traditionally slab-sided flanks is curvier around the sill area, though you’ll need to look for it. The illumination equipment fore and aft is cutting-edge stuff particularly with the ‘Dynamic’ indicators (on 2.0 TFSI and above only), as are the optional ‘Matrix’ adaptive LED headlamps if you opt for the Tech Pack.

So, is the A4 stylish enough? Yes, for the mature-minded and self-assured, but not if you crave validation and recognition through the ownership of a car.

High touch meets high tech

Audi has a knack of making interiors that are a cut above the rest, but you know that already. The A4’s clutter-free design probably comes across as more straight-laced compared to a C-Class’, while the 3-Series just about edges it out on driver’s ergonomics (taking into account the iDrive’s ease-of-use over MMI). But as a whole, Audi’s attention to detail really does come to the fore; you won’t find any glossy or cheap-feeling plastic anywhere in the A4, with the impression of quality further accentuated by the tactile and well weighted controls.

If you have the means, the S-Line trim option does up the ante with sportier touch points (e.g. sports seats, flat-bottom steering with perforated leather, etc.) but if I had to choose just one option, I’d go for the Tech Pack which brings with it the excellent 12.3-inch Virtual Cockpit LCD instrument panel (and other cool tech toys such as the adaptive Matrix LED headlamps), not that the standard part-analogue, part-digital panel driver’s display is wanting in any way, but Vorsprung durch Technik is much better served with the cool all-digital display.

To quattro or not?

For the modest numbers sold relative to its German rivals, Audi Malaysia offers a generous spread of powertrains with the A4. Life begins with the front-wheel driven 150hp/250Nm 1.4 TFSI, a surprisingly adequate performer with a 0-100km/h achievement of 8.5 seconds, this is then followed by the 190hp/320Nm 2.0 TFSI, also driving its front axle and is slightly faster to 100km/h from idle in 7.3 seconds. And of course, there’s the all-wheel drive 2.0 TFSI quattro with the same 2.0-litre four-pot but in a higher state of tune (252hp/370Nm), it does 0-100km/h in 5.8 seconds. Suffice to say, all these numbers are all class competitive.

I’m going to defer on debating the merits and demerits between FWD and AWD in the context of the A4 because the notion of one being tangibly superior/inferior over the other doesn’t really apply beyond members of car clubs, persons who report about cars and enthusiasts. The rise of clever electronic driving aids has further rendered the argument moot, unless you happen to live on a street that sees frequent mud and snow.

What the new A4 does rather well next to the corresponding 3-Series or C-Class is refinement, particularly in powertrain hush-ness and rolling NVH. Admittedly, this isn’t the most exciting of virtues to tout but owners will appreciate it over time. What’s apparent is that the A4 isn’t going to outsmart 3-Series in terms of driving dynamics or subjective feel anytime soon, instead the A4 goes about the business of covering ground in a very grown-up, accomplished manner. The ride quality is particularly supple in the 1.4 TFSI and firms up considerably (but not uncomfortably so) in the 2.0 TFSI variants and above, of which you can tailor through the Audi Drive Select.

Even in the sportiest quattro variant, a properly fast all-wheel drive saloon with a punchy performance, there’s a degree of disconnect (some call it numbness) between the steering and what the front tyres are doing, between your natural bum sensors and the Audi’s adaptive dampers. You can flog it into corners and the quattro will hang on and lay down power cleanly on exit, but there’s not a whole lot in the way of interaction and feel, even if it’s all very effective. And while Audi has made strides in this hard-to-quantify subjective gratification called driving pleasure, there’s room for improvement. Or maybe this is just Audi’s DNA.

Is progress intense enough?

I’d like to think that everyone’s first ever encounter with a durian constitutes an intense experience. Getting to know the Audi A4 is a somewhat familiar exercise. Having said that, just about every carmaker ‘struggles’ when it comes to replacing a popular volume model, it’s a delicate balance to manage and the end-product almost always lean towards defence rather than offence, as the B9 A4 turned out to be notwithstanding its optimistic tagline. It’s not as if Audi doesn’t have it in themselves, the current generation TT is a fine specimen of striking just the right balance. Maybe the A4 is but a few mid-cycle alterations away from something that’s truly progressive.

Audi A4
Price: RM218,900 (1.4 TFSI), RM248,900 (2.0 TFSI), RM314,900 (2.0 TFSI quattro)
Engine: 1.4L & 2.0L turbo, four-cyl, FWD (1.4 & 2.0 TFSI) | AWD (2.0 TFSI quattro)
Output: 150hp/250Nm (1.4); 190hp/320Nm (2.0); 252hp/370Nm (2.0 quattro)
Transmission: 7-sp dual-clutch automatic
Performance: 0-100km/h in 8.5s (1.4); 7.3s (2.0); 5.8s (2.0 quattro)
Fuel efficiency: 19.2km/l (1.4); 20km/l (2.0); 16.9km/l (2.0 quattro)
Wheels/tyres: 225/50 R17 (1.4 & 2.0); 245/40 R18 (2.0 quattro)
Safety: 6 airbags, Electronic Stability Control
Warranty: 5-year unlimited

(Prices for Tech pack option are RM25,000 for the 1.4 TFSI and 2.0 TFSI, and RM20,000 for the 2.0 quattro. For a limited time based on stocks availability, the 1.4 TFSI with Tech Pack is available at an intro price of RM224,900, the 2.0 TFSI w/ S-Line and Tech Pack at RM274,900 and 2.0 TFSI quattro with Tech Pack [S-Line is standard on quattro] at RM314,900.)