There has always been a dichotomy of approaches to the seemingly simple problem of creating the consummate premium compact saloon, particularly as the competition has heated up between the German trio - Mercedes-Benz’s C-Class, the BMW 3 Series, and yes, Audi with their A4.
In their most recent of evolutions, they have managed to carve out their own particular micro-niche with buyers who favour certain things over others that gravitate to either three of these class-defining rivals.
Say what you will of the Bimmer and Merc and where they fit in, the Audi A4 has always been the more conservative, and thereby attracting a more conservative set of owners. It’s handsomely styled, to be sure, but isn’t ostentatious in the least.
Coincidentally, ‘conservative’ is a term that could quite accurately sum up the newest A4 (B9) as it has evolved from its previous B8 generation - at least visually. In its defence, Audi already had gotten a lot of the core ingredients spot on with the still-older B7, arguably becoming the more rounded of the bunch in that time, including the mechanicals and that unflappable sense of build solidity.
But in the intervening period, the A4 faces more competition than ever. BMW’s 3 Series, always known for being the sportier, more dynamic choice, has managed to catch up in overall refinement and interior space while the C-Class’s inimitable luxury is now squared off with inherently sharper handling.
Add to that Jaguar’s hard charge into the fray with the XE to wildly contradicting reviews, and the A4’s once-solid foundation has been eroded somewhat by a competitive landscape that’s more challenging than ever.
Can Audi’s persistent reliance on evolutionary steps and continual refinement over arguably more daring iterations keep it at the forefront in of one of the most hotly contested areas of the automotive market?
“It’s about what’s going on beneath the skin of the A4 that’s the real headline grabbing news, because the outside, despite being a little bigger than the old model, looks pretty much the same.” - Practical Motoring
It’s quite a challenge for most people to distinguish whether a particular A4 is the most current or whether it’s from a few years ago. So much so that instead of examining the body for some visual cues, it’d be easier to check how new the number plate is.
This generation of A4, referred to by Audi as the B9, has its genetics (only insofar as looks are concerned) traceable to the model launched in 2004, the B7, which back then was commended for its subtle sophistication. Seems Audi is particularly proud of that original design and has hesitated over the proceeding two generations to let go.
Thankfully, the design has stood the test of time, and our familiarity with it is the root of its skin-deep criticism. Ask someone who’s been stuck under a rock for the past decade and he’d probably conclude that it’s a great looking car, if a bit staid in its base form.
Step up to the S line sport package, available for all variants, with its comprehensive exterior and interior enhancements including 19-inch wheels, stainless steel pedals, and Alcantara leather upholstery, and the A4 starts to look like a proper menace, in a good way.
It’s altogether more angular than the outgoing B8, and is now made lighter through an improved platform (MLB Evo) and smarter use of aluminium as core materials. Yet even with the strong foundation Audi laid in versions prior, and considering the impressive advancements made to its construction and engineering, it’s hard to ignore it’s wearing more or less the same outfit.
Engines and Drivetrain
“Audi has used innovative combustion technology with shorter compression and longer expansion phases, as well as higher compression, designed specifically for partial load – conditions that favour daily driving conditions.” - CarAdvice
In Australia, the selection of impressive engines can be boiled down to three motors, two petrol motors (one with varying states of tune) and a sole diesel option, all of which are mated to Audi’s accomplished 7-speed S tronic dual-clutch transmission. We kick off with the base A4 sedan whose bonnet houses a 1.4-litre TFSI turbocharged four-cylinder engine that produces 110kW and 250Nm.
Power is sent to the front wheels and needs 8.5 seconds for the speedometer to climb to 100km/h from rest. That’s a respectable amount of performance from such modest displacement and would likely suit most buyers. It’s very efficient too, claimed to consume as little as 5.5-litres/100km and employs cylinder deactivation to save fuel in low-load driving situations.
A step up in the A4 range brings a 2.0-litre engine, an evolved version of Audi’s turbocharged TFSI unit that delivers 140kW and 320Nm. This version of the A4 is also available as a wagon (or Avant, as Audi calls it). Again, it’s front driven, but with more power trims the century sprint to 7.3 seconds. Amazingly, this larger engine, in this tune, somehow delivers better fuel economy that the 1.4 TFSI at 5.3-litres/100km by Audi’s estimates.
Next is a 140kW four-cylinder turbodiesel displacing 2.0-litres, and at this point in the range commences the start of the all-wheel driven ‘quattro’ versions of the A4, which it might need with 400Nm being sent its way for those effortless overtaking manoeuvres. That added traction improves acceleration too, dispatching 100km/h in 7.2 seconds while also being the fuel efficiency champ, sipping as little as 4.5-litres of fuel to propel the 1,650kg sedan beyond 100km/h.
Finally, the most powerful petrol engine in the A4 line (until we reach the S4 and RS4) needs just 5.8 seconds to shove the A4 past 100km/h with its quattro all-wheel drive and 185kW/370Nm power and torque figures.
Audi’s engines, no matter which are chosen, are known to be quiet and smooth, with the only real choice buyers have to make is how much performance they’d prefer versus their budget.
“The A4 has an inviting and elegant cabin, one characterised by excellent fit and finish and superb attention to detail. High quality materials cement it as an upmarket space..” - Drive.com.au
If the outside of the A4 was underwhelming, it’s interior might be enough to make up for it. Audi interiors have always been one of the marque’s strongest attributes, previous B8 already being very impressive in this regard.
Now with the B9, it has been given a very modern and minimal but stylish layout, the dashboard being a mostly devoid of buttons due to a majority of the functions being handled by the centrally-mounted infotainment screen that now sits atop the centre stack.
The basics get handled very well, with generous amounts of head and leg room for all occupants. The sedan gets a 480-litre boot that can be expanded to 965-litres with the rear seats folded while the Avant offers 505-litres and 1,510-litres, respectively.
Audi has integrated a novel approach to air conditioning, where the unmissable strip that runs the length of the dashboard is part of the Air Shower system, which uses the 3-zone climate control to bathe the cabin with the same large volume of cool (or warm) air but without needing to blast up the fan speed to regulate temperature quickly on a hot (or cold) day.
The B9 also advances the interior arms face even further with a beautifully finished cabin that looks good no matter which grade or trim package is chosen. Materials feel top notch and are superbly integrated to the accent areas. Everything else has a solidity that feels a grade higher than even other leading compact executive saloons.
There are some ergonomic oddities that weren’t considered when the A4 underwent the right hand drive conversion such as the Drive Select button clearly being suited for countries that drive on the wrong side.
Behind The Wheel
"The softer ride means the A4 is a lot easier to live with than the previous model, as main criticisms of that car mainly focused on the ride quality." - AutoExpress
Among all the German exec saloons - the A4’s most immediate rivals - it’s the only one among the three that doesn’t send drive rearward by default. Only versions outfitted with the quattro all-wheel drive system get that privilege, but even then there’s a bias toward the front.
The A4 drives in a very sedate and refined manner. It all feels very safe, comfortable, and sure footed if a little vague, with grip rarely dipping past concerning levels unless you go recklessly looking for it.
There’s clearly less of an inherent excitement to the A4’s chassis setup when compared to a 3 Series or Jaguar XE. The Drive Select options do have an effect on steering and throttle response but the optional Adaptive Sports Suspension would need to be selected to have a more tangible effect around bends.
But for what the A4 excels at, the B9 does it excellently. The ride is pliant and cosseting, and the sound dampening means outside very few outside disturbances penetrate this ‘cone of silence’ on wheels. For some, though, a point of contention is the sense of lightness this newest A4 has over its predecessor.
For many owners, it will be imperceptible, but those migrating from an older model might notice that the car doesn’t feel as substantial on the road as it used to. Depending on preference, that sense of heft endowed it with a reassuring feeling of added solidity and safety, even though objectively the new A4 has improved in those respects too.
In normal use, the 7-speed S tronic dual-clutch is the same smooth performer with lightning quick up and down shifts that we’ve some to know, offering convenience and fuel economy in one of the most technically advanced transmission in the game. The updated quattro system will naturally aid in less than ideal traction levels and overall provide a more planted feel on roads, but this time it arrives with added fuel saving measures, decoupling the rear wheels altogether when the extra grip isn’t needed (such as a bone dry, arrow straight highway).
Safety and Technology
“Audi was busy investing all its pennies in less obvious places. 90 per cent of the A4’s components are new, up to 100kg has been lopped off the kerb weight, and the focus isn’t on the driving, but the technology.” - Top Gear
There’s a lot of technology packed into the A4, the most impressive of which is the Audi Virtual Cockpit which is basically a high resolution display that replaces the analogue instruments through the binnacle with a bevy of selectable navigation, media or vehicle info. Though, it needs to be optioned with the Technik Package which will also bag you a heads up display.
ANCAP gives the B9 A4 a 5-star safety rating. Unsurprising but a fine metric to have measured. A total of 8 airbags are standard, as is Audi pre-sense Autonomous Emergency Braking with pedestrian detection, blind-spot monitoring, reversing camera with 360-degree coverage, active bonnet, and Attention assist to that keeps an eye on driver alertness levels. Radar-based Adaptive Cruise Control, however, is part of the Assistance Package which also includes Turn Assist and Avoidance Assist.
Audi’s MMI infotainment and navigation system is standard with a 7-inch centrally mounted ‘floating’ tablet-style touchscreen, which can be upgraded to a higher-resolution 8.3-inch panel with the MMI navigation plus option. The lower variants get another 7-inch display LCD in between the tachometer and speedometer, a nice midpoint between the full Virtual Cockpit and normal instruments. Audio is piped through an 8-speaker 100 Watt array while the more expensive tiers get 180 Watt 10-speaker system as standard, upgradable to a 19-speaker Bang & Olufsen 3D Sound system.
The Audi A4, judged on its merits, is an undeniably strong contender, and in some areas leads the pack. Some might prefer the Mercedes-Benz C-Class for a more luxurious feel or the sporty edge of the BMW 3 Series.
But in terms of sheer quality, attention to detail, technology, and packaging, the Audi can trade blows at an even clip with the best of them. The design might only be evolutionary, but it is still contemporary and classy, with an interior that trounces its rivals for build and finish as well as for ergonomics. Paired with the Virtual Cockpit, it does feel like you’re in the future. You’d have to pay extra for many of those ‘wow-factor’ features, though, and those are usually expensive.
The competition the A4 now has to face is stronger than ever, with more and more buyers looking for a more exciting or luxurious proposition that the strength of Audi’s down-the-middle approach seems to be lost in a marketplace that can be distracted by ostentation. But for those who do resonate with the Four Rings, the A4 - as an A4 - is a more complete package now than ever.
Practical Motoring - 3.5/5 - The Audi A4 2.0 TDI quattro S is a consumate cruiser that feels more expensive than it is. The cost options list can push the price up but there are some worthwhile additions. There's room inside for a family, it's fun to drive and good on diesel.”
Drive - 7/10 - “It's a shame the new A4 doesn't visually scream "new model" as much as it could from the outside, because once you're nestled into the driver's seat it's an impressive device.”
CarAdvice 9/10 - With potent new engines, class-leading refinement and materials and a host of advanced on-board technology, Audi has hit the ball out of the park with its 2016 A4.
Top Gear - 8/10 - “Your eyes are deceiving you: the new A4 is a big improvement on before.”
AutoExpress - 4/5 - Audi’s concentrated on producing the car with the best interior, and its tactic has worked. The top-of-the-range A4 offers stunning performance, but keen drivers should still be swayed by the A4’s main rivals.