2017 Audi A4 First Drive

2017 Audi A4

The arrival of an all-new Audi A4 is no small occasion. It’s the profit powerhouse, the “center of gravity” for Audi of America, as product manager Filip Brabec puts it. Cars like the A4 represent the biggest slice of the luxury-car market in the U.S., and the most competitive.

The lineup in the compact to mid-size class practically oozes credibility, aggregating everything from the perennial best-selling BMW 3-Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class, to the arrivistes, the Cadillac ATS and Infiniti Q50, not to mention the Jaguar XE and Alfa Romeo Giulia waiting in the wings.

To stay in that “perennial” class, and to push higher a run of 12 million A4s sold worldwide, the ninth-generation (“B9”) A4 has to stretch in new and more inventive ways. It does so, but not in the obvious directions.

The new A4 is arguably less distinctive to look at than previous models. Its aero-clean shape draws on elements from its recent concept cars and the 2017 Q7 SUV, but the brightest touches have been toned down. There are more sharply creased lines at the grille, which juts out just below its four-ring emblem, for a three-dimensional effect. Elsewhere, the A4 looks very much like the current model–with lots of front-end overhang, a bullet-smooth front end, and relatively large glass areas. On the new car, the decklid sits higher, as does the nose; the rear quarter view is its best, where the appealingly curved fenders and tumblehome (the inward curve of the cabin toward the roofline). It’s a handsome car, but the proportions and details may have reached their ultimate iteration here.

Inside the cabin, there’s a spare look that has the effect–intended or not–of fondly recalling the pre-A4 era. There’s a horizontal theme that suggests the Audi 4000’s spartan looks: it brings the cowl lower and opens up the field of vision over the dash. The stitching that runs down the seats is a subtle nod to a classic German pattern from the Eighties, too.

Audi’s forte in the past generation of cars has been in interior detailing, and the new A4 is more composed and better-integrated than the prior car. The steering-wheel hub is smaller, but the Audi ringed logo is larger, leaving more room for thumb controls on the dished spokes. A strip of vents divides the dash horizontally, but the wide middle swath is there for continuity–it’s not a functioning air vent.  A big TFT screen is fixed on the dash, a little more deeply integrated than before. And on our test car, a rich-looking open-pore wood was paired with caramel-colored seats and a black cloth headliner–it’s a handsome combination that Audi does particularly well.

One way the A4 stretches inventively is in the driving controls. The A4 adopts a “virtual cockpit” like the TT coupe and convertible. It’s a wide TFT screen that replaces conventional gauges on upper-trim levels, while base cars sport conventional gauges and a 5-inch display screen. When fitted, the virtual cockpit can toggle through a series of screens showing large gauges, a wider array of information from the infotainment system, or a full-screen display of navigation, including a Google Earth-generated map view. That display’s limited by the form factor of the screen–navigation wants a portrait-style layout, and the screen’s of the landscape variety–but it’s attractive, quick to refresh, if a little distracting through the learning curve.

Elsewhere, there’s also a new set of toggles for climate controls with their own fluid graphics: flick the switch for the fan speed and its icon grows in size on the LCD panel through the modern magic of capacitive switches. They’re no better or worse for legibility that other digital readouts, and the toggles do a fine job of replacing the tactile rightness of a big, round knob.

2017 Audi A4

2017 Audi A4

2017 Audi A4

2017 Audi A4

Performance

Careful styling changes meet more meaningful changes to the A4’s running gear. Two new turbocharged four-cylinders are set to go on sale in the U.S. when the A4 launches early next year, and with them comes a new seven-speed dual-clutch transmission and a choice of front- or all-wheel drive.

On the just-announced S4 sport sedan, there’s a turbocharged V-6 coupled to an eight-speed automatic transmission.

The version you’ll find in showrooms at launch will be a 2.0-liter, turbocharged, gasoline-powered four-cylinder, offered in either front- or all-wheel drive. It’s rated at 249 horsepower (adjusted and rounded up from the 252 hp PS figure quoted in early previews) and 272 pound-feet of torque. It’s a new design, and comes in a variety of output levels for different markets. The American-spec version is the strongest, and compared with the outgoing engine, it’s 29 hp and 14 lb-ft stronger. It’s paired at launch with the dual-clutch, though there’s every indication a six-speed manual transmission will eventually make its way into some A4 variant.

The new turbo four feels like a natural complement to the A4’s size and weight–down about a hundred pounds from the prior car. The engine sounds balanced and smooth, and it’s a natural note–there’s no active noise cancellation in the A4, unlike some rivals, just selective sound deadening applied to wheel housings and the firewall. Combined with the added gear of the dual-clutch, the turbo four can launch with gusto, seems to have better shift quality in urban cycles where dual-clutches typically can feel less smooth, and rifles quickly through paddle-controlled shifts. Audi estimates this combination will accelerate from 0-60 mph in 5.6 seconds.

There’s also a 2.0-liter turbodiesel four-cylinder in the A4 plan–but the discovery and admission that Volkswagen has tried to defeat emissions controls on its smaller-displacement turbodiesels in the U.S. has put the A4’s diesel into doubt, at least until Volkswagen AG determines how to handle the massive and likely protracted legal battle over past and future American-market diesels. (Read the latest on the EPA and VW diesels at Green Car Reports.)

The A4’s steering, suspension, and brakes have been redesigned, but the lighter-weight, five-link front and rear setups are similar to those in the outgoing car. Electric power steering incorporates a new mode that steps up boost at lower speeds and higher steering angles–better for parking and city driving. And Audi’s Drive Select system returns, this time with the ability to cycle from economy to sport-plus modes to adopt new profiles for the steering, throttle progression, transmission shift speed and quality, and ride quality delivered by adaptive air dampers when specified. In the U.S. the most expensive A4s will come with the air dampers, and they’ll be an option on middle trim levels. Four-piston, fixed-caliper front brakes and two-piston rear brakes are standard.

Unfortunately our time in the A4 with a U.S.-spec drivetrain was quite limited, and the car we drove came with the adaptive dampers and wore 19-inch Ventis summer tires, while U.S.-spec cars will ride on all-season treads. In general terms, the A4 seems at least as responsive and composed as last year’s mid-line cars, but we’ll have to reserve comments on ride and handling until we’ve cycled through the range of configurations–from standard tires and suspension, through the S-line’s more sporty treads and wheels.

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