2017 Audi A4 is a smooth operator with an embarrassment of tech riches

Audi's new A4 will wade into the luxury auto industry's most competitive segment with a passel of advanced infotainment and driver-assist systems.

Chris Paukert
Chris Paukert Former executive editor / Cars
Following stints in TV news production and as a record company publicist, Chris spent most of his career in automotive publishing. Mentored by Automobile Magazine founder David E. Davis Jr., Paukert succeeded Davis as editor-in-chief of Winding Road, a pioneering e-mag, before serving as Autoblog's executive editor from 2008 to 2015. Chris is a Webby and Telly award-winning video producer and has served on the jury of the North American Car and Truck of the Year awards. He joined the CNET team in 2015, bringing a small cache of odd, underappreciated cars with him.
9 min read

Filip Brabec, Audi of America's director of project management, describes the A4 family as "the center of gravity of our business." That's not surprising, as the company's B-segment offerings have sold upwards of 12 million units globally over their nine generations, becoming both a major profit center and a point of pride for the men and women of Ingolstadt.

That's a weighty mantle to uphold, and considering the steady upward trajectory of the German automaker's fortunes (it's currently enjoying 56 consecutive months of record US sales), you wouldn't expect Audi designers to throw their multi-million-dollar baby out with the bathwater when developing the model's next chapter.

Indeed, one look at the new A4 confirms that Audi has largely hewed closely to the low-risk, incremental-improvement script for its compact sport sedan, but in this case, that doesn't appear to be a bad thing.

The 2017 A4 has all-new body panels, but its design heritage is obvious. Chris Paukert/CNET

2017 Audi A4 sharpens up (pictures)

See all photos

The new model looks an awful lot like its predecessor, although the A4's headlamps should win more stare-down contests and its sheet metal is more tightly creased, as if just back from the dry cleaner. Of course, starching out any slightly tattered edges on the last A4 didn't just necessitate some exterior tweaks, it also required overhauling the structure and powertrain under the hood. The A4's most dramatic and most obvious renewal, however, takes place inside, where the A4 positively bristles with cutting-edge features, from splashy advanced displays and infotainment features to new safety technologies. To put it in plainly, the amount and quality of tech available in the A4 should flat-out terrify rivals.

I'll get to the silicon chippery shortly, but let's get back to the 2016 A4's appearance for a moment. It has a sharper face this time through, owing to its less rounded six-point grille, better-integrated bumper strike face and smaller, more angular headlamps (LEDs are shown here, but xenons are standard). Along the bodyside, the A4's belt-line crease is more deeply defined, and this time, it neatly defines the edge of the hood, which is more clamshell-like than before. The other prominent profile change is that the sideview mirrors are now door-mounted for better aerodynamics -- another incremental but important development. Out back, the song remains the same, with new tail lamps that echo the more angular theme.

The overall look is quite handsome, but this conservative redo probably won't result in many double-takes. Even the wind won't pay the A4 no never mind -- the new design is extremely slippery, registering a coefficient of drag of just 0.23 in the wind tunnel, making it one of the most aerodynamic cars in the world.

The 2017 A4's rear aspect is clean, if a bit too predictable. Chris Paukert/CNET

You wouldn't know it by looking at it, but the new A4 is an inch longer and a half-inch wider to yield more interior space, yet it's actually lighter than before. Credit even more computational hours for removing unnecessary materials with scalpel-like precision, as well as an increased use of high-strength steel and aluminum. The A4's MLB-EVO platform body-in-white has dropped around 30 pounds, and engineers have extracted a further 35 pounds or so from the suspension, brake and steering systems. Overall, US-spec cars figure to be anywhere between 70 and 100 pounds lighter despite also offering more equipment. As weight reduction provides cascading benefits in virtually every area of performance, from better handling and quicker acceleration to improved fuel economy and even reduced tire wear, this crash diet is a big deal all around.

In terms of powertrain, the formula again sounds familiar, with a pair of turbocharged 2-liter engines on offer in either TFSI gasoline or TDI diesel flavors (the latter presuming there's no further fallout from VW's current emissions-cheating scandal). A revised version of Audi's seven-speed S Tronic dual-clutch gearbox will be the only transmission available at launch, but a six-speed manual is promised soon thereafter. A diesel test model was unavailable in North American spec, so I focused my drive time on a well-optioned 2.0T gas car fitted with Quattro all-wheel drive.

Despite a low take rate, Audi will also continue to offer a front-wheel-drive A4 -- the latter sells better in Sunbelt states and should continue to give Audi a lower base price and higher fuel economy rating to brag about (EPA estimates have yet to be released). Fortunately, last year's unimpressive continuously variable transmission has been dropped in favor of S Tronic, making it a better package, but I'd still recommend going for AWD.

LED headlamps are optional, bi-xenon units are standard equipment. Chris Paukert/CNET

The TFSI/Quattro combination, which will power the lion's share of North American A4s, is a capable partner, with a newly fortified 252 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque (increases of 32 and 15, respectively) thanks to a number of tweaks including a redesigned cylinder head, variable valve lift, dual-mode fuel injection and an electronic wastegate on the turbo. Speaking of forced induction, there's essentially no turbo lag to be found, and mid-range torque is properly meaty. The US model's 0-60 mph time hasn't been released yet, but officials tell me to expect "in the mid-fives," which is about a second snappier than today's car and on the quicker side of this class.

The A4's seven-speed DCT has been finessed for better noise, vibration and harshness this go-round. In my all-too-limited drive time, I found the new unit to be agreeable on both surface streets and responsive on mountain roads, with smartly chosen shift points in automatic mode and quick responses when using the paddle shifters. Low-speed stop-and-go-traffic, which traditionally reveals the refinement deficiencies common to DCTs, was well masked in the A4, and the fuel-saving stop/start feature was well-mannered enough, albeit not industry-leading in its smoothness.

These 19-inch alloys are an optional extra. Chris Paukert/CNET

The redesigned front- and rear- five-link suspension setup allows for flat cornering and good ride control over pavement imperfections, even with the optional adaptive dampers set to Sport using Audi Drive Select. (Incidentally, the latter is now adjustable using dedicated dashboard switchgear -- there's no need to fish through on-screen menus in order to tweak your suspension, throttle, transmission and steering settings.)

The brakes, which feature redesigned hardware including four-piston front calipers, were meaty yet easily modulated, and turn-in from the new electric power steering rack was quick and accurate, albeit light on feedback from my test car's 245/35/19 summer tires. What's most impressive is that much of the outgoing model's tendency to understeer when pitched into corners at speed has been exorcised.

Dynamic performance is all well and good, but given its (admittedly well-disguised) front-wheel drive roots, the A4's biggest performance advantage over rivals is less likely to be dynamic and more likely to be electronic. To that end, Audi has cultivated a hard-earned reputation for industry-leading interiors piled high with tech goodies, and this A4 is no different.

The A4's optional Virtual Cockpit digital instrumentation is deeply impressive. Chris Paukert/CNET

2017 Audi A4's Virtual Cockpit and MMI are sensational (pictures)

See all photos

Get in to a nicely equipped A4 like my test car, and your jaw may well drop. That's not just because of the mix of high-quality leather and trims in evidence. (My photo car featured aluminum accents, but the matte wood options are particularly fetching.) It's because not only will a crisp, tablet-like 8.3-inch center stack screen greet you, the instrument cluster will come to life as a giant 12.3-inch TFT display, part of what Audi calls Virtual Cockpit, a system first shown in its TT sports car .

By this time, using reconfigurable screens as a replacement for physical gauges is becoming commonplace in luxury vehicles, but few companies have executed them as wholly and as convincingly as this A4. The crispness and brightness of the 1,440x540-pixel display is startling, and the way it allows the driver to get turn-by-turn directions with Google Maps and Google Search while still keeping tabs on things like vehicle and engine speeds is inspired. This powerful system is understandably very complex, yet it's still quite intuitive to maneuver through the menus using the controls on the new magnesium steering wheel.

This somewhat drab color scheme doesn't show the A4's interior in its best light. Chris Paukert/CNET

As you'd expect, Audi's familiar MultiMedia Interface (MMI) is here in good form, on hand to handle many infotainment and vehicle setting adjustments through its multi-way controller. The A4 finally receives Audi's sensationally useful finger-swipe touchpad knob, as well as a set of new global user-defined preset buttons that can be used to access favorite functions, be it phoning a spouse, setting a specific navigation destination, or tuning in a particular satellite radio station on the optional 19-speaker, 755-watt Bang & Olufsen audio system. Naturally, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto is part of the program, as is an available 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot.

The rest of the A4's top-quality interior is no less well done, with unerringly hushed sound levels (Audi says this car is as quiet as its range-topping A8), comfortable and lighter-weight seats, 30-color selectable cabin illumination, and a wealth of options including a full-color head-up display and bird's-eye 360-degree camera.

The A4's new capacitive-touch HVAC switchgear is beautiful and simple to use. Chris Paukert/CNET

In particular, the A4's new climate control switchgear is worthy of praise. Its capacitive-touch hardware is easy to use, feels robust, and offers a "wow moment" when the iconography on the main TFT display unexpectedly switches enlarges for easier reading or changes to reveal additional settings.

New gearshift and MMI knob with swipe gestures. Chris Paukert/CNET

As far as the actual HVAC function itself goes, the new A4 dashboard features an unusual number of thin vents, particularly in front of the passenger, who has no fewer than four outlets, the center two of which can't be individually regulated. It's a strange setup reminiscent of the vents found in a late-Seventies Audi 100, and it will probably be a pain to keep dust free.

In Europe, Audi will offer an inductive charging pad in the armrest console as well as tablet-based rear-seat entertainment, but Audi officials tell me that those options won't be available in North America, at least not in the first year.

That's just the in-cabin technology -- the A4 will be available with more advanced driver assistance systems than were even available anywhere on the market just a couple of years ago.

Underneath the steering wheel's leather wrap is a magnesium core for light weight. Chris Paukert/CNET

Adaptive cruise control? Check. Automatic pre-collision braking? Check. Self parking? Check. Traffic-jam assist that looks at GPS topographic data and reads passing roadsigns to enable efficient autonomous stop-and-go city driving while keeping you between the white lines? Check. Heck, Turn Assist will even prevent you from pulling into oncoming traffic if you fail to see someone coming, and Exit Assist leverages the A4's blind-spot-detection system to beep and flash warnings if you're about to open a door into the path of a speeding motorist or cyclist when parked.

It's a wonder that this Audi doesn't automatically keep you from spilling your morning kombucha -- no doubt Beverage Assist Plus is still in beta.

The A4 has telematics covered, too. Audi Connect will be available, which includes emergency services (automatic crash notification and roadside assistance, for example) and a smartphone app that incorporates vehicle health reports, remote locking and unlocking, parking spot locator and other features. A smartwatch interface is coming soon, too.

The A4 boasts 17 cubic feet of trunk space, generous for its class. Chris Paukert/CNET

Of course, offering all of this content runs the risk of bloating the A4's price, and unfortunately, Audi hasn't released North American pricing for the car yet -- understandably, as the model won't be available in our market until late next year. However, the A4 is expected to be priced just north of today's model, which would mean pricing for a front-drive model should start at around $37,000, with a well-optioned model hitting the mid-to-upper $40,000s, if not higher.

Should you be extraordinarily patient and find more pocket change in the cushions of your Eames Lounge Chair, Audi will offer a higher-performance S4 variant for the 2018 model year, which includes a 354-horsepower turbocharged V-6 matched to an eight-speed automatic. An E-Tron plug-in hybrid model is also expected over the next few years.

The well-rounded A4 will do battle in the industry's biggest luxury segment. Chris Paukert/CNET

Frankly, I'll need more time driving under a broader array of circumstances to figure out how well this new A4 stacks up dynamically against key rivals such as the BMW 3 Series, Infiniti Q50 , Jaguar XE , Lexus IS and Mercedes-Benz C-Class . But what I've seen and driven so far is deeply impressive, particularly for technophiles.

If the new A4 is indeed Audi's "center of gravity," then the future of the Four Rings looks lustrous and properly grounded.

Editor's note:CNET accepts multi-day vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews. All fuel and vehicle insurance costs are covered by CNET. All scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms. However, for this feature, travel costs were covered by the manufacturer. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists. The judgements and opinions of CNET's editorial team are our own and we do not accept paid content.