Straight Outta Ingolstadt: Audi Takes a Big Turn in the Right Direction
Audi has sold more than 12 million A4s worldwide going back to 1972 when the car was called the 80/Fox. That’s a remarkable number of cars. To give you some perspective, Toyota has “only” sold around 11 million Camrys in the U.S. Any way you slice it up, and despite the recent global SUV-buying trend, the A4 is the most important car Audi builds, the brand’s Brot und Butter if you will, so introducing a ninth-generation A4 is a major undertaking. The competition is of course stronger than ever. You have the ever-present and always potent BMW 3 Series, the resurgent Mercedes-Benz C-Class, the spectacular new Jaguar XE, and the incredibly great-driving Cadillac ATS, among others. Long story short, a new A4 had better be pretty dang exceptional. News flash: It is.
Before we dive into what makes the new A4 the best A4 yet, I want to discuss two major gripes that have both long upset me about Audis in general but that have been fixed. The first is—and I hope you’re sitting down—the MMI controller wheel finally spins the right way! After nearly a decade of spinning in the opposite direction of every other car on the market (left to scroll down), Audi has caved in, and at least for tuning the radio and scrolling through your music and contact list, the wheel works properly. However, it still works backward in terms of zooming in and out of navigation maps. One step at a time, I guess.
The second major A4 improvement is an apparent lack of typical Audi-style understeer. Yup, the engine is still suspended way out past the front half-shafts, but like Porsche with rear engines, Audi seems determined to take a fundamentally flawed design and keep on engineering and engineering it until it isn’t. How did I discover this key improvement over, well, all other Audis save for the mid-engine R8? By going as hard I sanely could on winding, curvaceous Italian roads. I also somewhat insanely hurled the A4 wildly around as many traffic circles as I could find. Hey, it’s a dirty job. Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, the new car didn’t push. Now, on a test track or racetrack, the 2017 A4 (chassis code: B9) may very well slip into unpleasant, unfortunate understeer. But on the road? Never detected any. How’d they do that?
Because fully 90 percent of the A4 is all-new, the suspension is as good a place as any to start. Especially as I believe the front suspension houses the secret to the A4’s neutral handling. If you take a quick glance at the componentry, you’ll plainly see the front end is made up of a good old multilink type suspension, just like the last A4. But Audi added a fifth link jointed from the steering knuckle and connected back to the subframe behind the front wheel. My hunch is that this extra link in conjunction with active damping—and along with what felt like a little bit of inside wheel brake intervention—prevented the A4 from understeering. Out back you’ll find a familiar five-link setup (think 3 Series). Audi claims that the new aluminum-intensive suspension helps the B9 shave 35 pounds (16 kg) off the B8’s weight. New aluminum brake calipers at all four corners contribute another 11 pounds (5 kg) of weight savings. They work pretty well, too.
The B9 launches globally with seven different engines, all the way from a 1.4-liter, turbocharged gas I-4 to a big 3.0-liter turbodiesel V-6. As Americans, we’re only getting two choices, either the 248-horsepower, 273 lb-ft of torque, 2.0-liter TFSI I-4 or a 188-hp, 295 lb-ft of torque TDI I-4. I only drove the gasoline-powered car, and the acceleration felt more than adequate. Audi’s claiming a 0-60 time of 5.6 seconds, and based on what I felt, I betcha it’s a bit quicker than that. One reason why is the crisp new seven-speed S Tronic (dual-clutch) transmission. I really enjoyed horsing around with this elegant and sharp-witted transmission. Let’s just go ahead and call it class-leading. The sticky Yokohama tires, which are 245mm wide at all four corners, no doubt contribute to the A4’s quickness, as well. Audi’s much ballyhooed Quattro all-wheel-drive system doesn’t hurt acceleration, either.
The A4’s exterior styling is a bit of a sticky wicket. Is the B9 clean, sculpted, and attractive? Oh yes. Fresh and exciting? Not even kinda. ber-nerds will notice plenty of subtle tweaks that differentiate the new car from the old one—for instance, because bi-xenon bulbs are now standard, the headlights are slimmer than on the B8—but man, it’s dj vu all over again. Speaking of dj vu, the wagon version (Avant in Audi-speak), which looks much better, isn’t coming to America, because you people can’t stop yourselves from buying crossovers. Also, although the A4 has also grown a little bit—an inch here, an inch there—overall weight for U.S.-spec cars is down by about 100 pounds (45 kg).
The A4’s interior is a big step forward. A decade ago, Audi ruled the roost when it came time to talk about overall cabin excellence. Since then other OEMs (and Mercedes in particular) have made huge strides. Can I say with certainty that the A4’s innards are once again best in its class? No, the new C-Class is just that stellar. However, the A4 is lovely inside and certainly could be more to some folks’ liking. I thought the white leather seats with dark contrast stitching were a particularly pretty highlight in the blue test car I drove. They feel nice, too.
The centerpiece is of course Audi’s incredible Virtual Cockpit that’s available on the new TT and Q7. The A4 was my first time experiencing VC on the road (I’d goofed around with it inside Audi’s innumerable concept Quattros at some auto show or another) and I loved it. Specifically, the ability to transform the entire dashboard into one big, easily zoomable (via a steering wheel-mounted spinning wheel) map is groundbreaking. And brilliant. This function makes following navigation instructions much easier. Plus, it frees up the normal 8.3-inch navigation screen to display whatever else you want to look at. What I preferred, however, was to have both screens set to map with the regular screen zoomed out and the VC screen zoomed way in. And of course, the MMI knob finally spins the right way.
There you have it, the 90 percent new 2017 Audi A4. Larger, lighter, more powerful, more efficient, more packed to the gills with technology than any of the 12 million A4s/80s/Foxes that preceded it. Safer, too. You know what? I haven’t even talked about the 30 different vehicle safety systems that run the gamut from traffic jam assist (which doesn’t seem to work so hot in Italy) to a novel new system that alerts you to traffic coming at you from behind while you’re opening the doors.
For me, though, the highlight of the ninth-generation A4 is that Audi addressed its Achilles’ heel. Understeer is essentially gone. This is huge. Especially if this holds true for the upcoming turbocharged, 350-horsepower S4. But it really does look like Audi’s learned the importance of spinning wheels going in the right direction.
|2017 Audi A4|
|BASE PRICE||$37,000 (est)|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, FWD/AWD, 5-pass, 4-door sedan|
|ENGINES||2.0L/248-hp/273-lb-ft turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4; 2.0L/188-hp/295-lb-ft turbodiesel DOHC 16-valve I-4|
|TRANSMISSION||7-speed twin-clutch automatic|
|CURB WEIGHT||3,500 lb (mfr est)|
|LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT||186.1 x 72.5 x 56.2 in|
|0-60 MPH||5.6-7.5 sec (MT est)|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON||Not yet rated|
|ON SALE IN U.S.||February 2016|