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 S4, 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.
The A4 shows detailed 3D maps in urban centers, but lacks the Google Earth integration of the Audi A7.
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 A7. But the A4's tech, with 3D maps in the navigation system and the addition of HD Radio, is far from outdated.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.
The LCD shows complete music library information.
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.
Four turbocharged cylinders
There's no doubt that Audi's 2-liter turbocharged direct-injection four-cylinder is an excellent engine, and that is good, because the TFSI 2.0 is the only engine available. Previously, the A4 could be had with a 3.2 V-6 and a torque-vectoring differential. However, the A4 still gets Quattro all-wheel drive and Audi's Drive Select feature as an option, which changes the suspension between comfort and sport modes.
The gauges use a simple design, white on black, but the small LCD in the middle shows car and infotainment data in color.
Put the A4 in drive, release the electronic parking brake, and the little car feels eager to go. The engine, producing 211 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, rarely betrays turbo lag, most likely due to some masking by the transmission. The engine easily propels the A4 up to speed, and gives it a good amount of zip for quick lane changes and passing.
With the automatic transmission's eight gears, the A4 can be humming down the freeway at 70 mph, the tachometer needle pointing to a leisurely 1,800rpm. Small engines usually have to work harder at high speeds. The result is 21 mpg city and 29 mpg highway by EPA testing. CNET's car averaged right around 25 mpg through a mix of city, freeway, and mountain driving.
In the city the A4 is an easy driver, comfortable and maneuverable. The transmission never got confused about which gear it should be in and the power steering made for easy turning. And the rearview camera, which comes with the navigation system, proved a nice help when parking. Audi's camera shows trajectory lines and distance markers, making bumper tapping unnecessary.
The transmission has sport and manual shift modes, which led to some fast cornering high jinks on our favorite mountain roads. When we dropped into sport mode, the transmission kept the engine speed high, favoring 3,000rpm to 4,000rpm, but it was not overly aggressive. Manual shifting was not particularly tight, showing typical torque converter softness.
Audi upgraded the automatic transmission to 8 speeds for 2011.
The suspension felt tuned more for comfort, letting the car lean quite a bit in turns, but smoothing over the odd bumps in the road nicely. Although the suspension was not screwed down tightly, the Quattro system helped the cornering performance. The A4 feels very light and nimble, with good balance and a responsive steering rig.
With the advanced technology of the A7, Audi raised our expectations so much that the 3D maps in the 2011 A4's navigation system seemed run-of-the-mill. And we did notice some limitations with the POI database. But it is still a very good navigation system. Add in the Bang & Olufsen audio and Bluetooth phone integration, and you have almost all you could want when it comes to cabin tech.
Audi didn't shoot for the stars with the A4's fuel economy. Other cars of its size push well into the 30 mpg range. But it gets reasonable fuel economy for a premium midsize sedan. The new eight-speed transmission is a nice addition. The Drive Select option would give the car better handling.
|Model||2011 Audi A4|
|Trim||2.0 TFSI Quattro|
|Power train||Turbocharged direct injection 2-liter 4-cylinder, 8-speed automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||21 mpg city/29 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||25.1 mpg|
|Navigation||Hard-drive-based with traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Disc player||MP3-compatible single-CD/DVD|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||Onboard hard drive, SD card, USB drive, auxiliary input, satellite radio, HD Radio|
|Audio system||Bang & Olufsen 14-speaker 505-watt system|
|Driver aids||Rearview camera|
|Price as tested||$42,745|