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.
Audi Drive Select lets you choose from Dynamic or Comfort handling modes.
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.
The Quattro system proved itself on this wet and winding road.
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's maps look good, but the system lacks advanced features.
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.
This Bang & Olufsen system is comprised of a 505-watt amplifier and digital signal processor pumping audio through 14 speakers in the car, which include a centerfill, subwoofer, and two surround-sound speakers. This might seem like overkill for a car of modest cabin size, but the results are spectacular.
When a car is in the lane next to you, these lights on the side mirror turn on.
The A4 also offers a number of driver aids. Our car was equipped with two of our favorite technologies, a blind-spot warning system and a rear-view camera with guidance overlays. The blind-spot warning system lights up yellow LEDs on the insides of the mirrors if a car is in the lane next to the A4. If you hit the turn signal for an occupied lane, the yellow LEDs will flash at you. This system is pretty smart, too, not turning on the lights if you are accelerating past a car. As for the rear-view camera, guidance overlays curve as you turn the wheel, showing the path of the car.
Our car came equipped with Audi's Xenon plus headlights, a new dynamic technology that lifts the headlight beam slightly above 74 mph. Audi also offers adaptive cruise control on the A4, although it wasn't present on our test model.
Under the hood
Although the engine choices for the 2009 Audi A4 sound similar to the previous generation, Audi retuned its 3.2-liter, naturally aspirated V-6 and turbocharged 2-liter four-cylinder for greater efficiency. The result for our V-6 model is an Audi-recorded time of 6.3 seconds to 60 mph. This engine uses direct injection and variable-valve timing to achieve 265 horsepower at 6,500 rpm and 243 pound-feet of torque at 3,000 rpm. Although direct injection can lead to a rough-sounding engine, our A4 spun up smoothly and quietly under acceleration.
Audi's 3.2-liter V-6 uses direct injection to maximize efficiency.
Audi reconfigured the driveline architecture a bit for 2009, moving the center differential between the engine and the automatic transmission's torque converter. This change let Audi move the front axle further forward for better balance.
Drive Select is an interesting new technology offered as an option. You can choose from Comfort and Dynamic modes with buttons on the instrument panel. There is also an Auto mode, which changes performance characteristics depending on how you are driving, and an Individual mode that can be set with the MMI. In Individual mode, you can set the steering, transmission, and suspension between Comfort, Dynamic, and Auto modes. We liked these different settings, although felt the transmission control made the biggest difference, but didn't care for the buttons that let you choose between them. Instead of just being able to hit a Comfort, Dynamic, Auto, or Individual button, you have to use two back and forth buttons that let you scroll through the choices.
The 3.2-liter A4 can be had only with the six-speed automatic transmission--Audi hasn't made its Direct Shift Gearbox available. Manual-mode shifts happen reasonably fast, although there is some slush. Our car didn't have paddles, so all shifting was on the stick. In Comfort mode, the transmission makes shifts at under 2,000 rpm, while Dynamic holds them higher. It's not a particularly aggressive transmission, but we had fun with it, and the sixth gear helps fuel economy.
With Drive Select, you can customize different aspects of the car, using the Comfort, Dynamic, and Auto settings.
Audi equips the A4 with electric-power steering. At parking lot speeds it felt exceptionally light but was also a little too responsive, requiring a gentle hold. It didn't lose this light character until we got above 25 mph, or put it in Dynamic mode. In both Comfort and Dynamic modes, the steering felt almost too responsive, nice for sport driving, but a little hard to control when cruising. But in Dynamic mode, the car changes the steering wheel ratio depending on speed, and reduces power assist.
For the suspension, the A4 has gas-fill hydraulic shock absorbers. In Dynamic mode, the shock absorbers tighten up, helping prevent roll in corners. We were impressed with how the car stayed flat during our drive in the wet. Comfort mode makes the shock absorbers softer, giving the car a floaty feeling on the freeway.
The EPA rating for the 2009 A4's fuel economy is 17 mpg city and 26 mpg highway. We were impressed to find that, after some aggressive mounting driving with the transmission in Dynamic mode, we were at 21.2 mpg. For emission, the A4 meets California's minimum LEV II requirement.
With a base price of $40,000, the 2009 Audi A4 3.2 Quattro is squarely in the luxury class for a small sedan. Our car included some extras, such as the $3,300 Prestige package, which brings in tech features such as the Bang & Olufsen audio system, blind-spot warning system, rear-view camera, and the Audi Music Interface. Drive Select cost an additional $2,950, while the navigation system added $2,500. A cosmetic option and the $825 destination charge brought the total up to a whopping $49,975. The A4 is a very nice car and you would pay more for a slightly better equipped BMW 335i. Then again, the Mitsubishi Evo, also with all-wheel-drive but a less-comfortable cabin, can be had for thousands less.
Audi brings in enough interesting new driving tech for it to earn a high score in our performance category, although the transmission could have been more dynamic and we found the steering tuning a little weird at low speeds. Cabin tech earns points for the audio system, phone system, Audi Music Interface, and blind-spot warning, but takes a beating from the inferior navigation system. Overall design is good, with nice aesthetic touches thrown on the front of the car, but the MMI is only average--it's an intuitive enough system but can be tedious to use.