With sales more than double any of its brand siblings, the Audi A4 entry-luxury sedan is effectively Audi's ambassador in the U.S. The R8 supercar might grab more publicity, but the A4 is the car that average customers are most likely to encounter.
After driving the sporty A4 with its refined interior, it's clear that it's not entry-level: it's near the top of its class.
I tested an A4 sedan with Quattro all-wheel drive and the new-for-2011 eight-speed automatic transmission. This version starts at $34,500, but with options our as-tested price reached $43,220.
Audi has wrung quite a bit of performance from its turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder, which powers all versions of the A4. Whether accelerating from a stoplight or merging on the highway, the engine feels bigger than it is, bringing you up to speed more quickly than its specs suggest. There's even a little power in reserve on the highway when a burst is needed. All in all, it feels just as strong as the BMW 328i with its inline-six-cylinder engine. Credit the turbo four-cylinder's healthy 258 pounds-feet of torque at a low 1,500 rpm.
Our test car had the newly optional eight-speed automatic transmission. Despite the high gear count, the transmission doesn't seem overly busy, and that's partly because of its relatively seamless shifts. However, one editor noted that the transmission had a tendency to hesitate under light acceleration.
Downshifts come quickly enough with a jab of the gas pedal. If it needs to, the transmission will skip a few gears to get to the one it needs, rather than step down one at a time. A Sport mode holds the transmission in lower gears longer, and there's a clutchless-manual mode for driver-controlled shifts.
The A4 gets better gas mileage with the new transmission, which is especially welcome because the car requires premium gas. The all-wheel-drive A4 is rated at 21/29 mpg city/highway with the eight-speed automatic, which represents a 2 mpg improvement in highway fuel economy compared with the six-speed 2010 model. Meanwhile, the front-wheel-drive A4 with a continuously variable automatic transmission gets an EPA-estimated 22/30 mpg.
The A4's four-wheel disc brakes quickly shed speed, but the brake pedal doesn't offer the greatest feel. I thought the brakes were a little grabby, while another editor commented on the lack of pedal linearity when braking.
Ride and handling
The A4's regular suspension (a Sport suspension is optional) is stiff, which keeps body roll in check, but the tuning isn't so firm that driving on rough pavement is jarring. There's no question the emphasis is on sporty driving, but Audi wisely realizes that a car like the A4 also has to keep its occupants comfortable during daily commutes. With the regular suspension, it does.
It's worth noting that our test car had winter tires. While appropriate for the conditions, they likely affected the car's character compared with the all-season tires it normally wears. Winter tires have softer rubber compounds for better grip in cold weather -- along with more aggressive tread patterns -- which affects handling, acceleration and road-noise levels, among other things.
While the firm suspension tuning is common among German luxury cars, the steering feels like it's been sourced from Lexus. At low and midrange speeds, the wheel turns easily and with little effort. Unfortunately, there's also little feedback. However, a pronounced change occurs when you reach highway speeds, where the steering firms up and feels sharper.
The A4's Quattro all-wheel-drive system features rear-biased torque distribution for improved dynamics. Even though it powers out of corners without feeling nose-heavy, it's still not as engaging as a rear-wheel-drive BMW 3 Series or Infiniti G37.
A classy cabin
Audi cabin quality has long been among the best in the industry, and the A4's interior continues that trend. What distinguishes Audi interiors isn't just the use of high-quality materials, like real aluminum accents, but also the finish of the various trim pieces and the way they fit together well. Then you have the little touches, like a center armrest that not only slides forward and back, but also ratchets up and down.
In the past few years we've seen more attention to interior quality from brands like Cadillac (with its CTS) and Infiniti (with the G37), but the A4's cabin remains one of the nicest spaces in the class.
The front bucket seats are finished in standard leather upholstery. By comparison, many competitors like the 3 Series, Mercedes-Benz C-Class and CTS make do with simulated leather upholstery in base models. The A4's firm seat cushions provide good support and comfort, and the front of the cabin is big enough for my 6-foot-1 frame.
The backseat, though, is a little cramped. Just getting into it is difficult for taller adults, because the door opening isn't very large. Once seated, I didn't have much room to spare with the driver's seat adjusted for me, though indentations in the backs of the front seats provide some extra knee clearance. Taller people sit with their knees elevated some, which doesn't bode well for long-drive comfort. Still, it's more comfortable than the backseat of a 3 Series sedan.
The A4's trunk measures 12 cubic feet, which is similar to what competitors offer. The trunk has a nice rectangular shape for fitting luggage, and the split-folding backseat -- previously standard but now optional like it is on the 3 Series and C-Class -- creates a sizable opening for carrying longer items.
The A4 was recognized as a 2011 Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. It received the highest possible overall score from IIHS -- Good -- in frontal-offset, side-impact, roof-strength and rear-impact testing.
Standard safety features include antilock brakes, side-impact airbags for the front seats, side curtain airbags for both rows of seats, and an electronic stability system. Rear-seat side-impact airbags are optional.
A4 in the market
One of the A4's biggest strengths is that it appeals to luxury shoppers in a number of ways. If you're concerned about gas mileage, it's comparatively thrifty. If you like fine furnishings, the cabin will feel like home. Plus, there are a number of available high-end features to interest technophiles. It may not offer the pure driving experience of a 3 Series, but in the areas that matter most in this part of the luxury segment, the entry-level A4 stands tall.
$32,300 -- $36,300
EPA Fuel Economy:
City: 21 - 22
Highway: 29 - 31
211-hp, 2.0-liter I-4 (premium)
6-speed manual w/OD
8-speed CVT w/OD and auto-manual
8-speed automatic w/OD and auto-manual
New or Notable
* 211-hp, turbo four-cylinder
* Eight-speed automatic transmission
* Front- or all-wheel drive
* Available LED daytime running lamps
* Manual or automatic
* Sedan or wagon body styles
What We Like
* Ride quality
* Cabin materials
* Trunk space
* Well-executed folding backseat
* Superb premium stereo option
* Gas mileage
What We Don't
* Nose-heavy handling
* Not as quick as some competitors
* Some complicated controls
* Automatic could be more responsive
© 2011, Cars.com