When a buyer first dips their toes into luxury sedans, they tend to start small. As a result, the compact-lux segment requires automakers to put forth a solid effort in order to keep those first-time buyers coming back for more. To that end, the 2021 Audi A4 brings a ton of kit to the table in an effort to stand out from the crowd.
- Comfortable and fun to drive
- Solid consumer tech
- Limited storage in both cabin and trunk
- Negligible fuel-economy change over 2020 model
The most notable update for the 2021 Audi A4 is the addition of a 12-volt mild-hybrid system, as well as replacing the base front-wheel-drive setup in favor of AWD across the board. Both the base 40 and the higher-output 45 variants receive this upgrade, as well as a small power bump -- not that either version necessarily needed it. My tester packs the beefier version of Audi's 2.0-liter turbocharged I4, which now produces 261 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque.
The A4 45 might not be a proper sports sedan like the peppier S4, but holy heck, it can still scoot. Between the mild-hybrid system and the engine's own low-down torque, this four-door will jump off the line like a dog that just heard the word "outside," especially if I swap out of the standard Comfort mode, which softens throttle response in order to highlight smooth, efficient driving. The mild-hybrid system does a great job in the background, helping cut the engine earlier in deceleration while starting it back up smoothly. The seven-speed automatic transmission is a little slow to respond in certain situations, but otherwise it's content to hang out behind the scenes. Light steering and easy-to-modulate pedals further enhance the experience.
The EPA rates the 2021 A4 45 at 24 miles per gallon city and 31 mpg highway, numbers that I have no problem achieving, even in gross, wintry conditions. The confounding thing is, though, the EPA rates the outgoing 2020 A4 with all-wheel drive at 32 mpg highway, so… where's the gains from the mild hybrid? Sure, the slight electrification adds benefits like extending stop-start operating, but according to the feds, that extra bit of mechanical complexity is a wash.
The ride in my tester is a little on the harsh side, but that's by design. Not only does this car include 19-inch alloy wheels ($800), which limits tire sidewall size and inhibits bad-road mitigation, it also rocks a $250 sport suspension that makes sprightly driving a bit more engaging by flattening out the handling. Those looking for a more comfort-oriented ride will want to skip over these packages, but it doesn't go too far in one direction; the experience is still sufficiently damped on good roads.
Even if you don't spec the larger wheels, there are still ways to gussy up the 2021 Audi A4. This car also carries the $500 Black Optic package, an affordably priced upgrade that ditches the exterior chrome in favor of gloss-black trim. The 2020 refresh did wonders for the A4, giving it a much fresher face that better matches larger offerings like the A6 and A8. It's still on the anonymous side, but low-key isn't a bad thing; besides, there are still fun flourishes here and there, like the miniature light show that takes place in the matrix-style LED headlights (part of the top Prestige trim) every time I lock or unlock the car.
The interior doesn't escape the upcharge potential, either. For $500, Audi will throw in a flat-bottomed steering wheel, aluminum trim and sportier seats wrapped in leather and Alcantara suede. It's a sharp little combination that adds a surprising amount of visual oomph for not that much money. The seats are supportive without being tight, and heated suede or cloth always feels better to me in the winter than chilly leather. There's plenty of space for my six-foot Gumby frame up front, and the lack of a "sporty" cut roofline means the back seats aren't too shabby, either, although legroom is a little tight.
My biggest complaint about the interior involves storage space, or a lack thereof. The 12 cubic-foot trunk is more than enough for one or two people, but it lags behind competitors from Mercedes-Benz and BMW, even if it's only by a bit. The interior's stowage options are limited, too; my tall-but-not-wide thermos has trouble fitting in the small cup holders without smacking dashboard controls, and the door pockets aren't wide enough to handle it, either. The armrest folds up to reveal a small tray that's good for little more than a mask and a phone, with the wireless charger taking up most of that space.
If the interior is good, the 2021 Audi A4's cabin tech makes it great. All trims come standard with a 10.1-inch touchscreen running the latest single-screen iteration of Audi's MMI infotainment system, which includes wirelessand . I had high praise for the dual-screen version of this getup when it first debuted, and the pared-back version here doesn't scrimp on features, responsiveness or aesthetics. It boots up quickly, and it takes very little time to get used to. My Prestige-trim tester also sports USB ports for the rear seats, in addition to the two up front. Audi's Virtual Cockpit, which replaces the gauge cluster with a 12.3-inch screen, arrives in the midtrim Premium Plus model, and as always, it reduces distraction by offering up navigation, audio and other information just below my usual eye level.
Audi made sure to load up the A4 with plenty of its latest and greatest safety systems, too. Standard kit includes forward-collision warning and automatic emergency braking, while moving up to the Prestige trim throws most modern conveniences into the fray, such as adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist, a bird's-eye camera and parking sensors. While it's plenty easy to keep this compact sedan between the lines, whether on the highway or in your local CVS parking lot, a little extra piece of mind goes a long way. Props to Audi for having an impressive resolution on its backup camera, to boot.
The 2021 Audi A4 starts out pretty affordable, with a base price of $40,145, which isn't bad considering all that standard tech and now-standard all-wheel drive. However, piling on the options can make the window sticker silly in a hurry. In range-topping Prestige trim with a few extra add-ons, my evaluation model has lifted its out-the-door price to $53,840, which is about a grand away from the price of a base-model A6. But with two engine options and three trims, there's bound to be a middle ground that should suit most buyers.
Keeping up with the Joneses is not easy in the compact-luxury-sedan segment, but the 2021 A4 is doing a great job of it. The BMW 3 Series was recently refreshed, and it strikes a proper balance between soft and sporty, but I find the corporate interior uninspired and lacking the quality and refinement of the A4. The Mercedes-Benz C-Class is a damn fine luxury car, but its current iteration feels a little behind the times; still, that won't be a problem in the near future as an all-new generation is slated to debut for the 2022 model year. The 2021 Audi A4 is in the right place at the right time with the right equipment, resulting in a small luxury sedan that doesn't skip out on the important stuff.