Estate cars aren't meant to look as good as Audi's latest fifth generation A4 Avant. Jonathan Crouch checks out a car that continues to be a popular choice in the mid-sized executive estate sector.
Every now and then, the car industry seizes upon a concept and rival manufacturers will indulge in a feeding frenzy to saturate the market. With hindsight, some of these concepts aren't at all clever. In the late Eighties, virtually every manufacturer rushed a four-wheel drive saloon car, hatchback or coupe to market. The Nineties saw a sudden spike in sales of small SUVs that fell over when pointed at a corner, while in the early Noughties, premium manufacturers fell over themselves to launch estate versions of their compact executive models that often actually held less luggage than the saloon cars they were based on. Every one of them an evolutionary dead end. In contrast, the latest smartly-styled and more efficient Audi A4 Avant demonstrates that in the battle between fashion and functionality, there's only ever one long term victor.
Audi is gradually introducing its mild hybrid 48-volt technology across the four and six cylinder petrol and diesel engines in the A4 line-up. Their power outputs range from 150PS to 347PS - from the Audi A4 35 TFSI up to the Audi S4 TDI, that S4 now featuring diesel power for the first time. Audi obviously sees more of a future for diesel than some of its rivals; the brand is introducing two more affordable TDI units to the line-up, the 30 TDI with 136PS and the 35 TDI with 163PS. As before, the A4 differs from its BMW 3 Series rival in its use of front wheel drive for most models. Also as before though, quattro 4WD is optional - and standard on the top V6 variants. The A4 has always struck an appealing balance between handling and comfort and with this MK5 model, the Ingolstadt engineers sought to improve its credentials still further by developing a sophisticated five-link suspension system. Optional adjustable shock absorbers with 'sports' and 'comfort' modes will enable owners to get the most from this and a dynamic steering system is another extra cost feature that'll reward those who like their driving. Both features can be controlled through the standard Audi drive select driving-dynamics system, which alters throttle response and auto gearshift timings in its most basic form. Talking of auto gearshifts, most variants standardise the seven speed dual clutch 'S tronic' unit that claims to be able to improve both performance and fuel consumption.
Design and Build
Styling is a subjective matter, and it's probably not our place to tell you what looks good but let's just say that this MK5 model A4 Avant has dodged the ugly stick by quite some margin. The stylists have been very clever in that they have retained a fairly high roofline at the back for load volume purposes but have artfully used chrome finishing to draw the eye to the sleek window lines instead. The external changes made to this revised model are relatively slight. The full-LED headlamps have been re-designed and flank a broader, flatter Singeframe grille complemented by re-sculpted bumpers. Otherwise, it's as you were, which - to remind you - sees this MK5 model A4 riding on a light, stiff MLB platform and boasting the lowest drag coefficient in its class. The interior's been updated too and gains the brand's latest classy centre-dash 10.1-inch 'MMI touch' infotainment display, though unfortunately, that means you lose the previous lower-set rotary controller. The voice control system has been improved and, as before, you get access to the full suite of 'Audi connect' media features. They include online traffic sign and hazard information, an on-street parking search function and newly introduced traffic light information functionality. You view another screen through the steering wheel; Audi's 'Virtual Cockpit' TFT 12.3-inch monitor has now been standardised, so you have to have virtual dials. Overall, you wouldn't call the appearance of this A4's cabin exciting but it would certainly be a soothing environment for long journeys. As for practicality, well this estate variant offers a class-leading 505-litre boot, extendable to 1,510-litres if you wish.
Market and Model
Prices start at just over £30,000, which means a premium of around £1,400 over the saloon model. That means this A4 Avant is competitively priced against its premium rivals when trim levels and power outputs are taken into account. You get four trim levels - 'SE', 'Sport', 'S line' and 'Black Edition'. And there's a choice of three transmission options, a six-speed manual gearbox, plus two auto set-ups, a seven-speed dual-clutch S tronic and an older-tech eight-speed tiptronic. At least standard equipment is pretty complete across the line-up. All trim levels include alloy wheels of at least 17-inches in size, Xenon headlights with LED daytime running lights, the 'Audi smartphone' interface, the 'Audi drive select' driving dynamics system, three-zone climate control and a 7-inch colour MMI infotainment monitor. We'd want to look at a couple of key options. The 'Audi phone box' connects smartphones to the on-board antenna and charges them. Meanwhile, for discerning hi-fi fans, a Bang & Olufsen 3D Sound System with innovative 3D sound is available. As for safety, well along with the usual airbags and electronic safety nets such as ABS and stability control, there's optional active lane assist, a rear cross traffic alert, collision avoidance assist plus a cruise control system that assists with tiresome traffic-jams.
Cost of Ownership
If you don't care about the bonnet badge, it's tempting to think that you could save £4,000 or so and get a mechanically very similar Volkswagen Passat Estate but before you do, make sure to take residual values into account. Add all the figures up at the end of the day and you may well find that there's less in it than you thought. Running costs are of course a vital consideration in this segment and this A4 offers some impressive WLTP-rated numbers thanks to this generation model's weight reductions and that sleeker shape. The volume 2.0 TDI 150PS '35 TDI' diesel variant delivers best-in-class readings of up to 64.2mpg on the combined cycle and CO2 emissions of 115g/km. Opt for the pokier 2.0 TDI 190PS '40 TDI' variant and the figures become up to 62.8mpg and 120g/km, so there's no huge penalty for the extra performance. The 1.5-litre 150PS '35 TFSI' petrol engine manages up to 48.7mpg on the combined cycle and up to 133g/km of CO2. Also deserving of a special mention is the 2.0-litre '40 TFSI' petrol engine with 190PS. It manages up to 47.9mpg and slashes CO2 output to as little as 136g/km through the use of a smart combustion process developed using the familiar Miller cycle as its basis, and will be notable for its ability to deliver optimal response across the entire engine speed range. All A4s come with a three year 60,000 mile warranty which can be extended to four years/75,000 miles or five years/90,000 miles for a fee. Audi residuals are some of the best in the business, assuming you pick a desirable engine and trim combination. Some restraint on the all too tempting options list will help too.
Only very rarely does an excellent product fail. When this happens, it is usually down to poor promotion, but that's certainly not going to be the case with Audi's marketing machine at work. The truth is that this MK5 model A4 Avant is a very tough car to fault. It's superbly built, it's big enough to make a decent first of being a properly practical estate car, it rides on the exemplary A4 chassis so is a strong proposition for enthusiastic drivers and, when whole life costs are examined, it's surprisingly cost effective to run. No car is perfect though and the A4 Avant does raise a few questions. It could be even bigger at the back. And obviously, there are newer designs in the segment like BMW's 3 Series Touring with a bit more tech and showroom appeal. Other than that, it's hard to see this one continuing to sell strongly amongst the best mid-sized executive load luggers.