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2017 Audi A4 Test Drive Review
For 2017, Audi continues the design, engineering, and technological shift ushered in by last year’s all-new TT sports car. This year, the A4 sedan, the Q7 SUV, and the R8 supercar receive complete redesigns, with the A5 coupe arriving soon. To date, though, it's the best-selling A4 model that clearly lights the path to Audi’s future, and while the illumination cast by the popular sedan is bright, there are a handful dark patches for the company to address.
Look and Feel
No car is perfect, and no car deserves complete condemnation. As an automotive critic, my job is to determine where upon the continuum stretching between perfection and condemnation a given vehicle ranks. To do that in a credible and authoritative way, I must suppress personal preferences, understand the vehicle’s competitive set, and empathize with the potential buyer, trying my best to evaluate a vehicle through his or her lens while incorporating my experience with and knowledge of the alternatives in the marketplace.
With that as preamble, and within the context of the entry-luxury sport sedan segment, the redesigned 2017 Audi A4 is an exceptionally good example of the breed. Before we get to specifics, though, it is helpful to understand this car’s story.
Arguably, it was the American arrival of the A4 for the 1996 model year that reversed Audi’s sagging fortunes in the U.S., placing the company on a 20-year journey to record sales and A-list luxury brand status. As the best-selling model in Audi’s history, the A4 is critically important to the company’s fortunes and image, in much the same way that the 3 Series serves that role for BMW. To say that the redesigned 2017 A4 carries the burden of proof for the future of the four-ringed marque is no understatement.
Good thing, then, that the A4 is an outstanding automobile.
Granted, I evaluated an expensive example of the car, decked out with Prestige trim ($46,850 including the $950 destination charge) and every option except the Sport Package, 19-inch wheels, wood dashboard inlays, and rear side-impact airbags, bringing the price to $54,275. Therefore, my test vehicle’s extra-cost Quattro all-wheel-drive system, adaptive damping suspension, Bang & Olufsen premium sound system, Audi Virtual Cockpit instrumentation, and summer performance tires certainly played key roles in delivering a significant “Wow!” factor. Still, much of what impresses most about the new A4 is baked right into the most basic versions.
Forego Quattro and any extras, and the A4 Premium will run $38,250. Standard equipment includes front-wheel drive, a 7-speed automated manual transmission, 17-inch aluminum wheels, HID headlights, leather seats, triple-zone automatic climate control, a 10-speaker sound system, and a forward-collision warning system with front and rear automatic emergency braking.
The A4 Premium Plus ($42,050) installs S-line exterior trim, larger 18-inch wheels, LED headlights, parking-assist sensors, a thundering Bang & Olufsen sound system, passive keyless entry, SOS emergency calling, and more. Premium Plus trim also serves as the gateway to several of the A4’s desirable instrumentation, infotainment, and driver-assistance technologies.
Prestige models ($46,850) come with Audi Virtual Cockpit instrumentation, a navigation system with a handwriting recognition pad, Audi Connect subscription services, and a blind-spot monitoring system with rear cross-traffic alert. Exclusives to this model include a standard heads-up display and a 360-degree top-view camera system. The A4 Prestige is the only version available with an adaptive cruise control system with traffic-jam assist, an active lane-departure warning and assist system, automatic high-beam headlights, an adaptive damping suspension, and a Warm Weather Package containing ventilated front seats and rear side window sunshades.
Painted Manhattan Gray, my test car did not have the 19-inch aluminum wheel upgrade, nor was it missed. While the new A4 looks quite similar to the car it replaces and is conservatively penned almost to a fault, the sharply creased and tailored design is likely to age gracefully.
Longer and wider than before, the new A4 boasts a lower 0.27 coefficient of drag, demonstrating that aerodynamic cars need not be ugly cars. Thanks to extensive use of aluminum in its underlying construction, the 2017 A4 has shed nearly 100 pounds of weight, despite its increased dimensions.
Inside, the A4 is larger than ever, and Audi carved out additional rear seat space to make passengers just as happy as the driver. Impeccably detailed, the cabin is a case study of sensibility and elegance, reflecting how form can uncompromisingly follow function. From the chiseled fabric-wrapped windshield pillars and a dashboard bisected by ventilation outlets to the perforation and stitching patterns of the seats and the textured pedal covers, everything about this Audi’s interior is purposeful and complementary, conveying an upscale conservatism directly aligned with the exterior design.
If you’re curious as to which car company builds the best turbocharged 4-cylinder engines, I have the answer: Volkswagen Group (Audi’s parent company).
It might not be the most powerful turbocharged 4-cylinder you can get in an entry-luxury sport sedan, but its exceptionally broad horsepower and torque curves combined with uncanny refinement levels make the direct-injected 2.0-liter engine used in the new A4 my favorite.
Making 252 horsepower from 5,600 to 6,000 rpm and 273 lb-ft of torque from 1,600 to 4,500 rpm, this engine delivers maximum levels of either measurement across the majority of its rev range. Translated, that means the A4 accelerates like it will never run out of power.
Imagine putting yourself into a 4-wheeled slingshot, and you’ll have a good idea of what it’s like to drive the new A4 when it is equipped with the optional torque-vectoring, Quattro all-wheel-drive system, which comes with a self-locking center differential. Audi says that up to 85 percent of the engine’s power will flow to the A4’s rear wheels, and when you accelerate, especially around a corner, you can feel how planted the rear end of the car is.
If you think you need more power than the 2.0-liter turbo supplies, consider that my test car accelerates to 60 mph in as little as 5.7 seconds, according to Audi. That’s plenty fast for just about everyone.
Audi also says that the new A4 Quattro will get 27 mpg in combined driving. I missed that mark by a significant amount, averaging 23.1 mpg on my test loop. But, in the car’s defense, I drove it much harder and faster than the EPA ever might.
That’s because the A4’s acceleration characteristics are utterly thrilling. The car feels like it will never give up, freely revving toward redline before the 7-speed dual-clutch automated manual gearbox crisply chooses the next cog. Paddle shifters provide manual control, and the transmission has a Sport driving mode.
A Drive Mode Select system also tailors engine response, the transmission, and the steering to Comfort, Automatic, and Dynamic settings, or the A4’s driver can create a unique recipe using the Individual setting. As a result of all of this programmatic goodness, the A4 can drive like a docile grocery getter one minute and then a spectacular sport sedan the next.
No matter the driving situation, you’re going to need to be very careful about monitoring your speed. Seriously, on an empty road you’ll check the speedometer or reference the head-up display and discover that you’re going twice as fast as you thought you were. Perfect steering, braking, and suspension tuning collaborate in the A4’s efforts to add points to your driver’s license.
When you’re really driving hard, the A4 transforms into a 4-wheeled guided missile. The driver is able to concentrate solely on the road ahead and maximizing the car’s velocity because the transmission does a good job of choosing gears on its own (and a better job when the driver is using the paddles); because it is unnecessary to feed the car minor steering corrections; because bumps and dips in the pavement don’t throw the optional adaptive damping suspension off its game; because the A4 takes a set in a corner and delivers a level of grip and control that can be counted upon every single time; and because the brakes, even on a hot testing day with summer temperatures near 90 degrees, never give up.
Soft, compliant, and soothing when you need it to be, hard-charging and surgically skillful at straightening a twisty road when you want it to be, always ready for rain or snow when equipped with Quattro and rolling on its standard all-season tires, and absolutely effortless to drive, the 2017 Audi A4 is an unmitigated sensory delight no matter the driving situation…with a single, glaring exception.
I’ll share more on that in the next section.
Form and Function
While a loaded A4 Prestige requires payment of a lofty sum, in almost every respect the interior’s design, the quality of its materials, and the lengthy list of technological upgrades easily justifies the price.
In fact, by the looks of the clean and sparingly disturbed dashboard you might never guess at the depth and breadth of the technology available for the A4. That’s because much of what the car has to offer is accessed through the infotainment screen, the instrumentation display, various controls located on the steering wheel, and the stalks on the steering column.
Admittedly, it takes awhile to acclimate to the A4’s control layout, but once you’ve got everything figured out, the car can be driven with a minimum of distractions. However, the electronic transmission gear selector is a travesty, employing a design that requires conscious thought when used and that makes it too easy to select Reverse gear rather than Park.
In my experience, both with this A4 and with the redesigned Q7, errors occur when the driver is in a hurry or is otherwise distracted. For example, once when driving the Q7 and while waiting for an important message to arrive, I pulled into a parking space, thought I had selected Park, whipped out my smartphone, looked down while checking e-mail, and did not notice the vehicle backing itself out of the space until the SUV had moved more than 10 feet.
The same thing happened in the A4, this time in my driveway at home. In another instance, I hurriedly brought the A4 to a halt in a shopping-center parking lot, got out to help my kid buckle the rear seat belt, and when I returned to the driver’s seat my wife said: “You put the car in Reverse again, not Park.” I can only assume that the A4 sensed that I had exited the car and then automatically set the parking brake.
This ergonomic fumble is the new A4’s single glaring flaw. Perhaps if I owned an A4 I would eventually get used to the design, but over the course of a week and about 600 miles of driving, using the shifter never became second nature to me. To be fair to Audi, it’s not like BMW’s joystick shifter or the Mercedes-Benz steering column stalk shifter are perfect solutions, either, but at least the latter automaker’s approach is so unusual that it forces faster reprogramming of the brain’s traditional “PRNDL” wiring for gear selection.
Otherwise, Audi provides little about which to complain with regard to the A4’s interior. While the car is larger inside, especially for people sitting in the rear seat, it still feels small and intimate, so don’t give up your plan to upgrade to the A6 just yet.
Up front, seat comfort is excellent. Unfortunately, the steering wheel has a sharp radius on its leading edge, one that I find uncomfortable on longer stints in the driver’s seat. The added rear seat space, combined with a seat cushion angled to provide excellent thigh support and the A4’s standard triple-zone climate control system, greatly enhances passenger comfort levels. Hard front seatback trim, however, is unkind to knees or shins with which it might come into contact.
Around back, the A4’s trunk holds 13 cubic feet of cargo. That’s on par with competitors, and the space is shaped to carry a couple of full-size suitcases along with several duffle bags or a small folding stroller. A hands-free trunk opener is new for 2017, and the lid rises high when this feature is used, a user-friendly detail that escapes some car companies.
Audi infuses the redesigned A4 with new technologies, ranging from increasingly common smartphone projection platforms to the company’s Audi Virtual Cockpit instrumentation. For a full explanation of everything, I’d recommend watching Audi’s demonstration video that covers all the technological advancements in detail. Here, I’m going to critique just a few of the car’s features.
Let’s start with the Multi-Media Information (MMI) infotainment display. My test car had the larger 8.3-inch screen, complete with Google Earth imagery, and it looked pretty slick. But the screen is not touch sensitive, forcing the driver to use the controls located on the center console or the steering wheel, or the voice recognition system, in order to operate it.
With time, you get used to the center console controls and can eventually navigate the car’s functions and features by touch. Furthermore, the pad on the top of the center MMI knob is designed to recognize handwriting inputs. During my testing, however, Apple’s Siri was better at understanding me than was Audi’s new natural voice-recognition technology.
One of the best things about the new A4 is that when you upgrade to Premium Plus or Prestige trim you’ll enjoy an astounding 19-speaker Bang & Olufsen Surround Sound audio system, which is to recorded music what the Hollywood Bowl is to live performances. You will fall back in love with music while driving this car.
Another cool feature is the A4’s new head-up display, which Audi says is designed to reduce eyestrain by placing the information on a visual plane that is roughly aligned with the end of the car’s hood. Unfortunately, if you wear polarized sunglasses, like I do, it is rendered nearly invisible.
My test car also had the optional Audi Virtual Cockpit instrumentation, an industry-leading integration of various information displays embedded into a 12.3-inch screen mounted where a traditional gauge cluster would go. Drivers can choose Classic or Infotainment display modes, and the MMI navigation system’s Google Earth images are portrayed in this location for easy reference while driving. Audi Virtual Cockpit represents the future, available today, and it is spectacular.
That Google Earth imagery is included with a subscription to Audi Connect services, which also provides a 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot, Twitter integration, speed and curfew alerts, geographic boundary settings, and remote access to various vehicle functions through your smartphone. Smartwatch apps are also available.
Finally, my test car had an available adaptive cruise control system with new traffic-jam assist technology, which works at speeds below 37 mph in order to make commuting more bearable.
I did not have occasion to use that function, but on the northbound Pacific Coast Highway near Malibu, California, the adaptive cruise control operated in subtle, refined fashion. Too bad it also regulated speed in curves to velocities typically kept by tourists rather than locals. The system might be taking the recommended curve speed into account when automatically slowing the car, but this Audi can easily cover all of the ground from Malibu to Port Hueneme at 55 mph or higher, leading to aggravation with the cruise control.
Just roomy enough to be used as a family car, the A4 makes a great kid hauler thanks to its Top Safety Pick+ rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. What’s better is that Audi has significantly upgraded the redesigned A4 in terms of collision-avoidance technologies.
As standard equipment, Audi Pre-Sense Basic can prepare the car and its occupants for a potential collision. Pre-Sense City is also standard, a forward collision warning system with front and rear automatic emergency braking and pedestrian detection capability. Audi Connect speed, curfew, and boundary alerts are also free for the first 6 months of ownership (Premium Plus and Prestige models) and are perfect for remotely monitoring the behavior of teenage drivers.
Upgrades include blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic assist, lane-departure warning and assist, and a turn assist technology that can prevent the car from turning left across traffic when vehicles are approaching. A Pre-Sense Rear enhancement makes the A4 even safer, and this car is also offered with automatic high-beam headlights.
My test car had all of these features, and while it is reassuring to know that so many cameras and sensors and lines of software code are standing sentinel to protect you should the need arise, they can also prove irritatingly intrusive.
Take, for example, the automatic emergency braking system. While driving the A4 at a blistering pace on Malibu’s Mulholland Highway, the forward collision warning system twice engaged the brakes as I approached tight corners, perhaps identifying the metal guardrails on the opposite side of the pavement as a rapidly approaching obstacle.
In a completely different situation, the system slammed the A4 to a complete halt as I reversed from a slanted parking space at my local shopping center. What provoked this action? Two slots down, another motorist on the same side of the row was also reversing from his space. There was no reason for the system to intervene, and it only succeeded in freaking my family out and making me look like an idiot driver. Which I hate.
I’d rather have automatic emergency braking than not, and perhaps I missed an opportunity to use the MMI to dial down sensitivity levels. Still, when your car incorrectly second-guesses your inputs on a regular basis, it quickly becomes tiring.
Any discussion of cost effectiveness relative to a car the size of a Volkswagen Jetta but priced at nearly $55,000 must be approached with a healthy sense of skepticism. Especially during an era in which car buyers can avail themselves of attractive design, impressive driving dynamics, useful conveniences, and the latest technologies in leather-lined mainstream products such as the Mazda 6 Grand Touring, it is right to ask what one might get by spending almost twice as much money.
In the case of the 2017 Audi A4, the reasons to pay more go beyond styling, image, creature comforts, and dealership customer service. One could justify the premium based on the A4’s groundbreaking Audi Virtual Cockpit technology, or its stellar Bang & Olufsen audio system, or its sophisticated Quattro all-wheel drive, or its unassailable driving dynamism. That Audi wraps all these traits into a single vehicle and then charges about the same as the competition represents value in and of itself.
While the new Audi A4 isn’t perfect, and some might even call the design boring, I eagerly recommend this car. Its beauty lies beneath its conservative skin, and it is an absolute delight to drive with the single exception of its transmission shifter. In fact, if I were in the market for an entry-level luxury car, and I was having trouble deciding between the Audi and one of its competitors, the unconventional shifter design could be the deciding factor against the A4.
Honestly, though, I think I’d just learn to live with it.
Christian Wardlaw has nearly two decades of experience reviewing cars, and has served in editorial leadership roles with Edmunds, Autobytel, and J.D. Power and Associates. Chris prefers to focus on the cars people actually buy rather than the cars about which people dream, and emphasizes the importance of fuel economy and safety as much as how much fun a car is to drive. Chris is married to an automotive journalist, is the father of four daughters, and lives in Southern California.
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