Audi’s longtime marketing slogan, Vorsprung durch Technik,”makes absolutely zero sense to most Americans, but the fifth-generation A4 should make things clear—the car is the virtual embodiment of the slogan, which means “Advancement through Technology.” The car is packed to the brim with technology, so there’s some Wahrheit in der Werbung (Truth in Advertising) here.
The 2017 A4 is an exceedingly intellectual automobile, blowing the academic curve in many respects both for the Audi brand and for the premium-sedan segment in general.
Take, for example, the claimed 0.23 coefficient of drag, which not only is Audi’s best ever but places it just 0.01 off the industry-leading claim made for the Mercedes-Benz CLA-class. Audi says it achieved this by moving the mirrors lower on the door panels, smoothing the underbody, and making other minor tweaks learned through comprehensive wind-tunnel testing.
The A4 also brings Audi’s cool Virtual Cockpit instrument cluster, inductive phone charging, 30-hue ambient lighting, and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto functionality. Its laundry list of driving aids includes Traffic Jam Assist (radar-based semiautonomous driving up to 40 mph, including steering) and Exit Warning, which audibly and visually warns occupants exiting the car when an approaching motorist or bicyclist might strike an open door.
Style Stands Still
Progress has not been made in every respect, however. Styling has at best stood still, despite the subtle reconstitution of each body component to impart a longer, wider, more precision-crafted look. The clamshell hood, for example, features four elegant creases, and the shut-lines were moved to the car’s “tornado” line.
The headlamps are at once more slitlike and brighter, with standard bixenon or optional all-LED bulbs, while the wider taillamps contain nifty sequential turn-signal strips. The grille is broader, and the car as a whole appears more planted on account of a lower-body “light catcher.” Overall, though, the A4 looks merely refreshed, not redesigned, which is to say it’s as stoic, elegant, and unerringly correct as always.
That’s a shame, since so much was improved elsewhere. Despite having grown 0.5 inch in wheelbase, 1.0 inch in length, and 0.6 inch in width, the 2017 A4 has dropped some 70 to 100 pounds, says Audi, due to extensive use of lightweight materials in key areas, including brake components, suspension parts, and stampings.
In the cabin, front head- and shoulder room have increased, as has rear legroom. A horizontally arranged dashboard dominated by a full-width decorative band that also contains the air vents helps the cabin feel quite spacious if not terribly intimate.
Our test car came kitted out with gorgeous open-pore wood and buttery nappa leather that would be at home in the A8, and we can also vouch for the stylishness of the A4’s available patterned aluminum trim. The MMI infotainment system now offers a fixed, 8.3-inch dashtop screen; pinch-and-zoom functionality via a touchpad; and an octet of preset buttons for common functions.But the biggest news inside is the Virtual Cockpit gauge cluster that we have quickly come to admire.
Here, as in the new Q7, it supplements the center screen so as to allow passengers to fiddle with the infotainment system, too. (Audi sports cars with the digital cluster, such as the new TT and R8, do not offer a central screen at all.)
A pair of 2.0-liter four-cylinder engines is scheduled to be offered when the car hits U.S. dealerships early next year. One is a turbocharged TFSI gasoline unit pumping out 252 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of torque, while the other is a diesel unit rated for now at 190 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque. (The diesel output might—or might not—change pending an update to VW’s TDI engines in the wake of the emissions scandal involving the engine.
Availability may also be delayed.) Both mate to an all-new, seven-speed dual-clutch automatic. Unconfirmed at this point but very likely to appear within a year of launch is a less-powerful, Miller-cycle version of the 2.0-liter gas engine, paired with a six-speed manual transmission and likely to top 40 mpg in highway fuel economy.
The A4’s media drive took place near Venice, Italy, immediately following the car’s Frankfurt auto-show debut; the only version available for us to drive was the TFSI Quattro with the DSG automatic. On the back roads between the Venice airport and the scenic Dolomites, the TFSI engine proved impressively torquey and willing to rev to its power peak, and while turbo lag is minimal, midrange throttle response is fabulous.
Meanwhile, the DSG’s shifts felt more akin to a conventional automatic’s than, say, the Volkswagen GTI’s DSG, although we’re told that the gearbox will be tuned further for U.S. duty to deliver more responsive takeoff from a stop.
After sampling some early A4 prototypes earlier this year, we said the car “combines control, finesse, and precision into a versatile, distinctly Audi sort of driving character.” All of that still applies, but after our experience with production versions, we’re unable to add words like “nuance,” “engagement,” or “passion” to the car’s lexicon. Even with our test car’s optional adjustable dampers in their most aggressive Dynamic mode, the handling felt rather disembodied.
The chief culprit was the quick, precise, but utterly dead steering. Turn-in is surprisingly sharp, and the redesigned multilink front suspension yields very high levels of grip, but a lack of at-the-limit feedback makes it feel as if you’ve programmed in some handling commands and left them to a robot to execute. At a moderate clip, however, when ride comfort and straight-line stability are of higher importance, the A4 is sublime.
Something that the A4 does very, very well is stop. With four-piston front and two-piston rear calipers, the A4’s brakes bite crisply and offer brilliant feel. Much of the braking force is summoned near the top of the pedal travel, like many clampers of Teutonic origin, yet the pedal doesn’t feel like a rock on a stick; it actually travels and gives heaps of feedback along the way.
Heading back toward Venice on the autostrada, we explored the A4’s demeanor at speeds up to 140 mph—some 15 mph shy of its top speed—and found it to remain wholly unfazed. The steering remained generally comatose and the ride stayed pleasant. The lack of wind noise at those speeds bordered on eerie, however, another indication of its general goodness as a luxury car.
Quick, sophisticated, and pretty, the 2017 A4 is technically proficient but short on charisma. But we expect fewer folks will be dissuaded by this lack of character than will be wooed by its Vorsprung durch Technik, so even if Audi raises prices when the A4 arrives next spring, the company shouldn’t have much of a problem selling them in vast quantities.