The premium sports-sedan market is generating a lot of competition for the 2008 Audi A4. With a recently updated 3-Series from BMW, a totally revamped C-Class from Mercedes Benz, and respectable contenders from Infiniti, Acura, and Lexus, the current Audi A4 is beginning to look a little out of its depth. The bread-and-butter of Ingolstadt's model lineup is itself due for a complete overhaul later this year. From a technology perspective, we're expecting to see some of the goodies that so impressed us recently in the 2008 Audi A5. We are particularly eager to see the departure of the current-generation A4's ill-thought-out digital-audio interface, which had us pulling our hair out during our week with the car. On the performance front, the turbocharged 2-liter A4 still holds its own against much of the larger-displacement competition, while Audi's legendary Quattro gives it go-cart handling.
Test the tech: iPod track search
The audio options on the Audi A4 are a study in confusion. The standard model comes with a six-disc in-dash CD changer, activated by the CD button on the car's head unit. So far, so good. Sirius Satellite radio is also available on the non-navigation-equipped A4, but is activated by the "AM/FM" button on the head unit. Still with us? Good. If you opt for the navigation system, the CD changer moves to the glove compartment but loses the ability to play MP3-encoded discs. (Don't be confused by the disc slot behind the drop-down navigation screen--that's for the DVD-Rom disc holding map information.) Two SD card slots also sit behind the navigation screen, which are activated by pressing the "SD/MP3" button on the head unit. If you want iPod connectivity with navigation, the glove-box mounted CD changer gives way to a 30-pin iPod connector--often called an "intelligent" iPod connection--which is selected by pressing "CD" button on the head unit. In this configuration, the Audi A4 doesn't have any kind of CD player. If you can work all that out, the next challenge is selecting and playing songs from a connected iPod.
As we found in our review of the 2008 Audi TT, Audi's iPod connector works by reading a connected iPod as a huge CD changer. No information is given on the currently playing track, nor is there a means of selecting individual tracks, artists, or albums. To establish just how much of a challenge this could be, we decided to find a single, predetermined track on our connected 4GB iPod Nano. Before connecting the player, we set our iPod to shuffle and pressed play. The song selected was To the Stars by Vector Lovers. This was the song we would have to find with the player docked in the Audi.
With our iPod connected to the car, we pressed the CD button to select the music on the player as the audio source. The display showed that four out of a possible six CDs were available for music selection. We selected Disc 1 and searched through the tracks, realizing after a few minutes that this "disc" corresponded to a specific playlist on our iPod. Having manually searched through the playlists for our chosen song, we moved to the next available "disc." The second, third, and fourth "discs" also corresponded to individual playlists, although, as there was no labeling of individual songs, we had to scroll through one at a time to make selections of individual songs. Confusingly, each "disc" appeared to contain exactly 99 tracks, even though all of the playlists on our iPod had less than this number of songs. Rather than cutting off the number of available tracks, the Audi system repeats the track list until it gets to 99.
The option labeled Disc 6 was different. Rather than corresponding to a playlist, this category constituted the entire list of tracks on the iPod (on our 4GB player, this added up to about 1,000 songs) arranged in alphabetical order. However, Disc 6 also showed 99 tracks available. To get to tracks 100 and higher, we had to scroll through the entire list, select track 99, then come out of the track-list selection screen, press the CD control button to bring up a virtual track-skip interface, and skip forward one track. This had the effect of taking us through to the second set of 99 tracks when we reverted to the track-list view. To get to our chosen song, we needed to know not only the exact name of the track, but had to also navigate our way through seven lists of 99 tracks to get there. Having repeated the scroll-and-skip procedure three times, we gave up and tuned into FM radio.
In the cabin
Aside from the nightmare of iPod integration, the interior of the 2008 Audi A4 is generally a comfortable place from which to view the world. As we've come to expect from Audi, cabin materials on the A4 are of high quality. The black cowl cover and door coverings are accented neatly with a faux brushed-metal trim across the dash and the doors and the central stack. Our test car came equipped with the S-Line Sport Package, which added leather seating surfaces, an attractively stitched three-spoke leather-wrapped steering wheel, and some sporty-red "S-Line" logos. Other options on our loaded test car included the heftily priced Convenience Package ($2,100 for Homelink, auto-dimming interior and exterior mirrors, power passenger seat, bi-xenon headlights) as well as heated front seats ($450).
As mentioned above, our car came equipped with the navigation package (another $2,100), which gave us the same DVD-based GPS navigation system that we saw on both the 2007 A4 Cabriolet and the 2007 A4 Sedan. The navigation system is programmed using a stack-mounted version of Audi's MMI interface, which consists of a black plastic dial surrounded by four compass buttons corresponding to menu options on the in-dash LCD screen. We have been through our likes and dislikes of the system plenty of times before, but, in a nutshell, we are generally impressed with the quality of maps and direction graphics, but less enamored of the destination-input interface, which requires drivers to enter letters one at a time from a rotary letter dial. When under route guidance, the system provides accurate turn-by-turn directions and a very useful split-screen zoom view of intersections, to ensure you don't miss your turn. We are also impressed with the secondary display mounted in between the tachometer and the speedometer, which provides simple directional information through arrows and road names, and intersection overviews. On the downside, selecting destinations directly from a map requires an unintuitive procedure of clicking the dial multiple times to move the destination along X and Y axes.
While the mini-MMI interface is less than ideal for GPS navigation, it works well as a Bluetooth hands-free calling interface for those who splash out $500 for the A4 Cabriolet's phone preparation package. Pairing a Bluetooth-enabled phone to the car is a simple matter of searching for the "always on" Bluetooth signal using the phone handset and then entering a PIN code. Once paired, the system copies over the cell phone's address book and call records, including recently made calls, missed calls, and outgoing calls. To make an outgoing call, users can use either the rotary dial to select numbers or they can browse their cell phone's address book. One of our favorite features of the cell phone integration is the way in which address book entries can be called up on the driver information display in the instrument panel, using the buttons on the steering wheel. This feature gives drivers a very easy-to-use means of selecting, placing, and ending a call, without having to take their hands from the wheel or their eyes away from the road.
MMI also works as the interface for selecting digital audio sources. Our car was equipped with SD-card playback, thanks to the presence of two card slots located behind the drop-down LCD navigation display. With an MP3-loaded SD card inserted, music is playable via the SD/ CD button, which gives users the option of either iPod (select CD) or SD card (select MP3). In contrast to the nightmare of trying to navigate iPod tracks, the MMI interface provides a straightforward means of browsing and selecting MP3 folders and files by name. One minor gripe that we had with SD card playback in the A4 was the fact that the "close screen" button is hidden from the driver's view when the LCD is opened, meaning that you will have to grope your way around under the screen to put it back up again.
All audio sources on our test car played via an optional 10-speaker Bose branded audio system ($1,000), which included a subwoofer and AudioPilot noise compensation technology. The upgraded system sounded very good, with a rich, deep reproduction of bass, clear high and mid-range separation, and crisp vocals.
Under the hood
If the cabin tech in the 2008 Audi A4 left us a bit underwhelmed, the car made up for its shortcomings in the driving experience. There is a V-6 version of the A4 available, but we're not sure why anyone would need the larger displacement option as the turbo-charged four-cylinder power plant is more than adequate for spirited driving. The 200-horsepower, direct-injection 2-liter engine delivers extremely sprightly low-end pick-up, especially when conducted using the A4's steering-wheel mounted paddle shifters, which give drivers more control over the six-speed tiptronic automatic transmission (a five-speed manual is also available). The turbo is a conspicuous component of the A4's performance, and the car does suffer from a few heartbeats' worth of lag before the rush of the boost kicks in.
If there is one thing that really made our week with the A4, it was the presence of Quattro, Audi's all-wheel-drive system. Whether winding up the engine on the exit to a long sweeping turn, or squeezing the gas pedal into a hard 90-degree corner, the Quattro-equipped A4 grips the road with a delightful surefootedness. Quattro is so effective that it almost encourages drivers to attack turns with more vigor, just to see just how much traction the car can manage. Adding to the already consummate handling characteristics on our test car, the S Line Sport package provided a specially-tuned sports suspension, lowering the car by more than an inch and leading to stiffened damping and even more responsive handling.
To ensure that its superior performance characteristics did not go unnoticed, our test model's S Line Exterior Package endowed it with a set of 18-inch alloy wheels, modified bumpers and air inlets, and brushed aluminum belt-line trim. On a negative note, the 2008 A4 also drinks gasoline like a sports car. During our 200-miles of mixed city and freeway driving with the car, we observed an average fuel economy of just 17.3 mpg, just under its EPA-estimated city mileage of 19 mpg and nowhere near its highway estimate of 27 mpg. For emissions, the 2-liter A4 with Quattro gets a ULEV rating under California Air Resources Board regulations.
Our fully loaded 2008 Audi A4 came with a base price of $32,300, to which we added many of the options already stated (navigation system and convenience package for $2,100 apiece; S Line Sport package for $2,000; audio package for $1,000; Bluetooth phone preparation for $500; heated front seats for $450) as well as $475 for a silver metallic paint job and $775 for delivery, for an as-tested price tag of $41,700. At that kind of money, the current generation A4 is beginning to struggle to justify its sticker price, especially given the stiff competition from fellow German and improved Japanese competition. Performance-wise, the turbocharged A4 continues to punch above its weight; from the perspective of interior technology, forthcoming model upgrade can't come soon enough.