Audi's A4 has sharpened up its act a little in the face of tough competition from BMW's 3 Series, Mercedes' C-Class and the Jaguar XE in the image-conscious compact executive sector. Jonathan Crouch takes a look.
Audi knows a thing or two about mid-sized family cars with a prestigious feel, compact executive contenders like this A4. This model, along with BMW's 3 Series, has driven huge growth in that compact executive segment, vanquishing Mercedes' C-Class in the process. Today though, things are different. The C-Class has been rejuvenated into a much stronger proposition, the 3 Series range has been rejuvenated and very accomplished class rivals have arrived in the form of Jaguar's XE and Alfa Romeo's Giulia. This improved version of the MK5 model A4 is Audi's response. What we have here is a car that's sleeker and cleverer than it's ever been - and it makes increasing use of the brand's sophisticated mild hybrid engine technology. As a result, this Audi is inevitably more efficient too, with tax-beating CO2 WLTP-rated figures now promised on the most frugal diesel models. Inside, we're promised the classiest cabin in the segment - and one of the most technologically advanced. Plus, as usual, there's the option of quattro 4WD and either saloon or Avant estate bodystyles.
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 continuing to include a couple of TDI units in its line-up, the 35 TDI with 163PS and the 40 TDI with 204PS. 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
The external changes made to this fifth generation A4 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. As ever, there's a choice of either saloon or Avant estate bodystyles, the latter offering 505-litre boot - or 1,510-litres with the rear seats folded. 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.
Market and Model
Prices have inevitably risen slightly, but still occupy much the same bracket as before, so expect to be paying somewhere between £33,000 and £42,000 for most models, with a premium of £1,400 for the Avant estate bodystyle. At the base of the range, a six-speed manual gearbox is offered but most variants feature a seven-speed dual-clutch S tronic set-up. Standard equipment is pretty complete across the line-up. All trim levels include alloy wheels of at least 17-inches in size, full-LED headlights with LED daytime running lights, the 'Audi smartphone' interface, the 'Audi drive select' driving dynamics system, three-zone climate control, the 'Virtual Cockpit' instrument screen and a 10.1-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
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 65.7mpg on the combined cycle and CO2 emissions of 114g/km. Opt for the pokier 2.0 TDI 190PS '40 TDI' variant and the figures become up to 62.8mpg and 118g/km, so there's no huge penalty for the extra performance. The 1.4-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.
Audi has spent nearly a quarter of a century perfecting its A4 - and that really shows in the improved version of this fifth generation model. It's a spacious, classy car that's very composed to drive and is fully conversant with the kind of hi-tech design and faultless cabin quality that its target junior executive market likes to expect. So it stacks up in the showroom just as well as it does on the balance sheet, with running cost returns that with most engines will make it your company accountant's go-to choice. Even more than before, this A4 feels like a car that's been lovingly and very carefully considered. The depth of engineering and the thought that's gone into the tiniest details combine to further enhance the warm fuzzy feeling that's charmed Audi customers for years. If you're one of those people, then you'll like this car very much. And even if you're not, you'll find it hard not to be impressed by way it systematically ticks almost every box on the compact executive market wish list. It's very thorough. And very Audi.