Audi became an early car technology adopter, with interesting tricks like SD-card slots and adaptive headlights. With the 2009 Audi A4, the company kept the latter but dropped the former in favor of the much smarter Audi Music Interface, which handles USB drives and iPods. Audi's Multimedia Interface (MMI) is present on the updated A4, but now uses the much better console-mounted controls, rather than the cheap-feeling plastic knob on the instrument panel.
Rather than drastically revamp its small sedan, Audi chose strategic updates for the 2009 A4. The front-end gets the blade-styling and LED parking lights introduced in the Audi R8. Quattro all-wheel-drive came standard on our 3.2-liter V-6 model, and is also now standard on the 2-liter turbo-charged version. We also had the Audi Drive Select option, which gives the car a dual personality as a sport driver and commute car. Adding a little icing on the cake, we got a very nice Bang & Olufsen audio system as an option in our test car.
Test the tech: Quattro in the wet
In a lucky coincidence, we had our first rain of the season the week the 2009 Audi A4 arrived. Roads collecting dust and oil all summer and spring were suddenly turned into slick surfaces where even traveling at the speed limit could send you off to the shoulder. We viewed it as a perfect chance to put the A4's Quattro all-wheel-drive to the test.
But this Quattro system has evolved considerably from its launch in the original 1980 Audi Quattro, adding Audi Drive Select and a rear sport differential. In normal driving, Quattro puts 40 percent of torque to the front and 60 percent to the rear, with those percentages change depending on conditions. The new rear-differential throws 100 percent of the rear torque to either the left or right wheel, as needed, just like the SH-AWD system in the Acura RL. The Drive Select option has dynamic modes for transmission, steering, and suspension. It raises the shift points on the six-speed automatic, tightens steering response, and makes the sport differential give the car more agile handling.
To test this enhanced version of Quattro, we took the A4 out on the freshly wet and winding roads of the Santa Cruz mountains, made more slippery by plenty of dead pine needles and leaves. We put the automatic into manual mode and headed up into the turns. With the car in third gear, we kept the power up--only dropping down to second, where the engine whined in an uncomfortable fashion, for the sharpest turns. After a few twists we grew comfortable with the car, its steering providing the right amount of feedback and neutral steer to inspire confidence.
We came up a straightaway, hit the brakes before the turn, and steered through. We felt no understeer, and third gear proved right for our speed. At the apex of the turn, all four tires threatened to let loose, but the car shimmied as Quattro shifted power around to keep grip. A rear-wheel drive car would have puts its back-side out, possibly resulting in a spin that could not end well with a mountain on one side and drop-off on the other, but the A4 demonstrated that its Quattro could deal with this type of slippery surface. We put the power on to carry us out of the turn, not achieving dramatic acceleration, but enough to build up speed for the next turn.
With subsequent turns we grew even more confident with this system. The car didn't flinch from its line in the turns as the tires retained grip, but coming into one turn a little hot, we steered in too hard, and felt just a touch of front wheel drag as the car tried to go along its inertial line, rather than the way we pointed it. But this slip lasted for less than a second as the car got itself back together and carried us around the turn.
We noted that second gear pushed the tach needle over 6,000 rpm, even at modest speeds, and made the engine sound like it wanted to fall apart. Subsequently, we only dropped down to second for tight hairpins. With the transmission in automatic and dynamic mode, it tended to keep itself in third gear, without any particular aggressive shifts down to second.
In the cabin
We were impressed by the quality of our 2009 Audi A4's interior, with excellent leather seats and some nice wood trim. The dashboard material is a soft plastic, and silver bezels surround vents and speakers. The MMI knob has a solid feel, but most of the buttons on the instrument panel are your basic black plastic. Along with the driver-tilted LCD at the top of the instrument panel is a smaller LCD between the tachometer and speedometer. This smaller display shows navigation information when under route guidance, audio information, and the trip computer.
The navigation system is the biggest letdown in the cabin tech, as it remains DVD-based and doesn't offer external data sources such as traffic. Destination entry is also a little strained, with a rotary dial to input letters. Picking a destination from the map is particularly onerous, as you have to use the MMI controller to scroll along the X and Y axis. But the maps do offer good resolution and a high level of zoom, making it easy to navigate.
Audi's Bluetooth phone system remains one of the better available. It paired easily with our Samsung SGH-D807 phone and immediately downloaded the phone's contact list, making it available on the car's LCD. The A4 also has a voice-command system but, short of saying the number you want to call, you have to voice tag entries. Unlike the Sync system in the Lincoln MKS, you can't just say the name of a contact.
The audio sources have been greatly improved in the new A4. There is a six disc in-dash changer that can read MP3 CDs showing full ID3 information on the LCD, Sirius satellite radio, and the Audi Music Interface, a port in the glovebox with a multitude of cables for plugging in different music storage devices. There are cables for USB, iPod, and an auxiliary jack. Although using a USB merely lets you view music within a folder structure, iPod connectivity allows flexible music-browsing options, such as organizing tracks by artists, album, and genre. Our only complaint about this system is that it requires a variety of cables because it uses a custom port, unlike the aforementioned Sync system which relies on a USB port.
We had no complaint about the Bang & Olufsen audio system, which delivered impressive clarity and balanced audio across all frequencies. We played a variety of uncompressed music through the system, including symphonic works and electronic, and in all cases we heard every note distinctly. Bass notes were striking, but not overwhelming, and the system managed to keep particularly heavy bass from rattling the car.