Audi has been on a heck of a roll over the last decade, giving BMW heavy competition through new model launches, satisfying sport performance, and an extensive embrace of technology. But the 2011 Audi A4 represents Ingolstadt narrowing the automotive floodgates, making a more strategic decision as to how its various models fit their demographics.
When the current generation of the A4 launched in 2008, Audi offered it with a variety of advanced sport technology. But, with the availability of the very excellent, Audi toned down the A4, limiting the options to keep it more of an entry-level executive car, a small, premium sedan useful for commutes and, with its Quattro all-wheel drive, ski weekends.
In fact, the big change for the 2011 model year is a new eight-speed automatic transmission, bumping up the number of cogs by two. This advance, aimed at improving fuel economy, enhances the A4's commuter credentials.
Although it is Audi's smallest sedan, the A4 feels reasonably roomy. From the outside, it looks midsized, about the length of a Camry. But the big grille and LED strips in the headlight casings mark it clearly as an Audi. The cabin materials and fit deliver a light luxury feel appropriate for the A4's price. The various knobs have real metal surrounds and the front seats are power-adjustable.
Audi did not upgrade the cabin tech much for the 2011 model year, so don't expect the sort of Google Earth integration found in the. But the A4's tech, with 3D maps in the navigation system and the addition of HD Radio, is far from outdated. During our testing, the most enjoyable element of the A4 was its Bang & Olufsen audio system.
Putting together an audiophile-grade system for the home is an expensive endeavor, running from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands of dollars, but the Bang & Olufsen system in the A4 is a mere $850 option. And it pays off well; the 14 speakers and 505-watt amp deliver crisp and lively sound, well-balanced through all the frequencies.
The system includes surround processing, but Audi lets you dial the surround level up or down. Bass from the system is strong and well-controlled, never rattling door panels but coming through with enough oomph that you can feel it. The highs are detailed enough that you can hear the scrape of a nylon guitar string, and vocals are reproduced with nice clarity. The system made a wide variety of music extremely pleasant.
As in all current Audis, the A4 can be had with the music interface, a proprietary plug that handles a variety of adapter cables for iPod, USB, auxiliary input, and Mini-USB. The port is inconveniently placed in the glove box, and the only place you will find replacement cables is an Audi dealership, but the system works well enough. Other sources include the new HD Radio, satellite radio, and the odd SD card slots that Audi still installs in its vehicles.
With the navigation option, which puts a high-resolution LCD in the dash, browsing through a music library is easy. Audi's integrated multimedia interface (MMI) also works great with the Bluetooth phone and the navigation systems. The controls for the MMI consist of a dial with a sort of button joystick on top, and a number of fixed buttons for quick access to the various infotainment features. Audi even color-codes them, putting navigation in blue, the phone in green, and audio in red.
Much more limited is the voice command system. Although it recognizes speech well enough, such as when understanding a name from the phone book, it gives no control over music and offers limited navigation.
The navigation system also has its highlights and low points. Driving through an urban center, its 3D maps with rendered buildings are a wonder to see. But there is no search function for its points-of-interest database, which merely lists every location within a category by distance. That is a far cry from the A7's Google voice search.