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The Audi A4 is an improvement over the previous version, but isn't good enough to topple the BMW 3 Series

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There is still only one winner in the battle for supremacy in the Audi A4's compact premium saloon class and that’s BMW, whose 3 Series outsells Audi’s A4 and the Mercedes-Benz’s C-Class. But the A4 has gradually made up ground on the 3 Series, and Audi believes this version codenamed B8, is good enough to take another bite out of BMW’s lead.

This time Audi has the increased firepower with a platform shared by the Audi A5 coupé, and whose running gear has been revised to improve the car’s dynamic performance – and there’s now an arsenal of optional features not previously seen on the A4.

There's now an arsenal of optional features not previously seen on the A4

These include adjustable settings for steering, throttle and suspension, lane assistance, a blind spot monitor, comfort-cooled front seats, active steering, Bang and Olufsen sound systems and three-zone climate control, as well as other Audi perennials such as quattro all-wheel drive.

This A4 saloon and estate models are also bigger, roomier, more aerodynamic and cleaner.

The AUdi A4's engine range's centre of gravity is the 2.0-litre TDI, nowadays with common-rail injection instead of the VW Group's old pumpe düse system, plus balancer shafts. It comes in several guises ranging from 134bhp up to 175. There are 1.8 and 2.0-litre TFSI petrol units, with 168 or 208bhp or, shorn of a turbo (but not the 'T'), 118bhp for the entry 1.8. The feisty 3.0-litre V6 for the S4 makes 328bhp, while 3.0-litre diesel V6s produce either 201 or 237bhp.

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Higher-spec engines either can or must be had with quattro four-wheel drive, while Multitronic CVT/eight-speed autos go with lower-power diesels of either capacity. Otherwise it's dual-clutchers or six-speed manuals.

DESIGN & STYLING

Audi A4 headlights

Virtually every component in the Audi A4 is new apart from the engines, although passers-by might struggle to notice this given the generic nature of mainstream Audis’ styling.

If you look solely at its silhouette and proportion, you can trace this car’s look directly to the 'aerodynamic' Audi 80 of 1986. Such evolutionary styling, and a mechanical confection whose advances in large part lie on the option list, leave this Audi feeling slightly less novel than an all-new platform implies it might.

Elegant new tail lights are neatly integrated into the boot's design

That said, it seems many buyers like the Audi look of one basic design in different sizes. It also has the back-handed advantage that an Audi A4 won't date too quickly.

The A4 seems to get more attractive which each generation, as the current generation testifies. It has a shorter front overhang than before, allowing Audi to extend the wheelbase without significant impact on the overall dimensions.

The positioning of the differential and the clutch (or torque converter) has been swapped around, allowing the front axle to be moved forwards so the engine can sit further behind the front wheels.

INTERIOR

Audi A4 interior

High standards are expected of Audi here, and in many areas the A4 delivers with its substantial, soft-feel, matt-plastic textures, brightwork flourishes and an aura of precision assembly. More than that, this is a roomy interior for a premium compact saloon; there is adequate leg and headroom in the rear and a generous boot that’s extendable via split folding rear seats.

But there are disappointments. The new dashboard design, which gently angles the instrument pack and centre console around the driver, looks curiously dated, and the mock aluminium finisher in certain models fails to butt up snugly at its meeting point with main fascia moulding. Centre-console storage is not ideal either, because the narrow slot to the left of the cupholders is too narrow to properly accommodate a phone, and the console itself is wide enough to rob space for the left leg.

The Audi A4 has an electro-mechanical parking brake as standard

But the cabin’s most serious failing is a corollary of the A4’s conversion to right-hand drive. The transmission tunnel’s bulk forces the pedals too far to the right, skewing the driver’s lower body slightly, and uncomfortably, to the offside. Packaging errors like this should not be present in a car of this calibre, particularly when so many right-hand drive A4s are sold globally. Some testers also found the seat cushion’s angle too horizontal, an issue that its manual height adjustment cannot counter.

Oddments storage is good, though, with four generous door bins, a big glovebox, a console cubby, cup-holders all round, netted seat backs and some excellent shopping bag hooks in the self-opening boot, although the optional lidded cubbies under the front seats are near useless.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Audi A4

The Volkswagen Group is on a high at the moment, and nowhere is this more true of its engine development. Audi's position within the group means it is usually the first recipient of the latest powertrains. The A4 is the latest benefactor of its common-rail diesel technology.

The 2.0 TDI is the biggest-selling A4, and its buyers should be broadly pleased with their purchases. In mid-range 141bhp form, this is a very smooth diesel, with an impressively revvy accelerator response, a wide power band that runs to 5400rpm (although the engine’s maximum effort lies between 1750 and 2500rpm), little extra noise from cold and general refinement sufficient to mask almost entirely its oil-burning diet.

The Audi's bodyshell is 10 per cent stiffer and 10 per cent lighter than before

It pulls vigorously enough in the mid range to feel sportingly brisk, and a well cushioned clutch, a light gearshift and six gears all ease exploitation of its capabilities.

A gear indicator in the dash display suggests early upshifts for lower fuel consumption, but performance in sixth is, as you’d expect, slothful. Use the ’box more fully and this Audi serves up more assertive performance, with 60mph coming up in 9.2sec from a standstill. 

Outside of this fleet favourite, the diesel line up becomes a little bewildering. The low-power TDIe version produces 134bhp and 236lb ft, and the only penalty for improved efficiency is 62mph arriving 0.1sec later. The other TDIe produces 160bhp and 280lb ft, cutting the 0-62mph time to 8.4secs. A non-TDIe version tops the 2.0-litre range, developing 175bhp and 280lb ft, slicing another 0.2sec from the dash to 62mph.

In all of its guises, you’ll only suspect this engine is an oil-burner when driving enthusiastically, and even then the distant thrum entering the cabin is actually quite pleasant. For genuinely punchy pace, however, you'd be better off with one of the more powerful versions.

The oil-burner of choice in this regard is the 3.0-litre TDI. With a two-wheel drive configuration, it develops 201bhp and 295lb ft, which makes it good for a 7.1sec 0-62mph. In Quattro models, performance is markedly more swift - 6.1 or 5.9sec for the six-speed manual and S Tronic auto respectively. That's thanks to 242bhp and a thumping 367lb ft arriving between 1400 and 3250rpm.

Petrol buyers have a more straightforward time of it. A 118bhp 1.8-litre TFSI is best left in favour of the 168bhp unit. That engine dispatches 62mph in around 8.0secs, compared to 10.5 for the low power model. Step up to the 2.0-litre TFSI and you'll receive the engine from the Golf GTI, which drops the 0-62 time into the high six second region.

The flagship S4 mates a 3.0-litre V6 to a supercharger, the fruit of which is 328bhp between 5500 and 7000rpm and 324lb ft from 2900 to 5300rpm. That means plenty of creamy performance. Audi claims a 0-62mph time of 5.1sec, 50-75mph in 4.4secs and a top speed of 155mph.

RIDE & HANDLING

Audi A4 cornering

The A4 rides on a new platform which not only has a longer wheelbase, but which also features revised running gear intended to improve its chassis balance and the precision of its steering. By placing the driveshafts ahead of the clutch instead of behind it, Audi has ensured the longitudinal engine/transmission unit can have its wheels a hefty 154mm further forward.

This reduces the front overhang and the total weight the front wheels have to bear, which should make this A4 more agile and better-riding than before. The steering rack's trackrods are shorter and more rigid, too, achieved by mounting the rack under the engine instead of high up behind it.

The A4 has 57 percent of its weight over the front wheels

The Audi’s bodyshell is 10 percent stiffer than before, 10 percent lighter and more aerodynamic, and its drag co-efficient matches the 3 Series’ excellent 0.27. Much engineering effort has gone on introducing new systems to the car, too, although most are optional.

They include dynamic electric steering, with gearing that allows automatic counter-steering at the edge of adhesion to prevent understeer and improve braking stability, and Audi Drive Select, which allows the driver to play with the settings of the dampers, throttle response, the automatic transmission’s shift points and the steering weight. The range of choices here widens from three to 24 if the car is specified with the MMI infotainment system, which allows each element to be programmed individually.

In contrast to many Audis, the A4 copes well with most short, sharp shocks – even on the optional, lower-profile 245/40 ZR18 tyres rather than the standard 225/50 ZR17 rubber. This A4’s ride is now more restful over pock-marked roads and more in keeping with its civilised demeanour. That said, bigger-amplitude bumps are absorbed less well, and if the camber changes frequently the A4’s body rocks from side to side a little uncomfortably. Road roar is sometimes intrusive too, although wind noise is well suppressed.

This is certainly a better-handling A4 than its predecessor. It turns into corners with greater enthusiasm (thanks to the reduced mass ahead of the front axle), it maintains decent body control and it resists understeer pretty effectively, making it quite a tidy car through twists. And you can trim its line with the throttle, something that previous models have barely allowed.

It’s a pity, then, that all of this is undermined by the optional Servotronic steering system whose weighting – and range of weights – underlines its artificiality. At very low speeds the wheel feels very light, but the loading increases swiftly as you build speed so that beyond 40mph it becomes almost too weighty. We'd avoid this Servotronic option and go for the standard power steering system, which is also electric but has more consistent weighting.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Audi A4

The latest versions of these Audi A4 engines have impressive official fuel and CO2 figures, as low as 112g/km for the most frugal of the TDIs and 119g/km for 141bhp 2.0-litre TDI - another reason why its the pick of the bunch. It's real-world test consumption proved less impressive, but an overall figure of 38mpg and a touring score of 48mpg are acceptable.

The low-power TDIe records an official average of 65.7mpg - about 3mpg more than the 141bhp motor. By our calculations, you should expect a real-world 50mpg when touring with this unit. No diesel has an official combined fuel consumption figure of less than 48mpg; even the big 3.0-litre.

A touring economy of 48mpg is acceptable

All of the petrol engines officially record 40-something-mpg figures, S4 aside. Frankly if you're expecting frugal running costs with this, you're looking at the wrong type of car entirely.

If you ignore the lure of so-called premium brands and consider the A4 against the excellent Ford Mondeo, its sticker price looks distinctly poor value against the Ford in top-of-the-range Titanium X trim. And the Audi is short of several toys at this level of comparison, including sat-nav.

It looks better value compared with its German-badged rivals, but as ever you are buying the brand experience as much as the car itself. Audi is forecasting slightly above-average residuals compared with its German rivals, which is consistent with recent history.

VERDICT

3.5 star Audi A4

We expected more from the A4 than it has delivered, especially as Audi has gone to the expense of developing a new platform for it.

It is also not good enough to topple the BMW 3 Series, and in many respects – such as its driving position, its handling and the weighting of its controls – it is inferior to the cheaper Ford Mondeo.

We expected more from the A4 than it delivered

That this A4 doesn’t look so different from the previous generation is perhaps appropriate, then. And the flawed driving position is a disappointment.

Yet despite all of these criticisms, the A4 is an agreeable car, more so because it is civilised and very well put together.

But Audi’s efforts might have been better directed at polishing the car itself, rather than offering a cornucopia of options that the majority of owners will never see.

Audi A4 2008-2014 First drives