There are things in life you just don't think are possible. And then they happen. Things like the killing off of Oldsmobile, the Dukes of Hazzard on the big screen and Arnold the Governator. But the shocker of this young century has got to be Audi improving the A4.
Honestly, we didn't think it was possible. The last two generations of A4 saved the company and have been Audi's best sellers by a bunch. But the 2005 Audi A4 is better. A lot better. And almost in every way. It's more powerful, has new transmissions and its suspension has been retuned for a smoother ride and better handling. It even has a cool, new look.
Possum on a gum bush, what's next? The Red Sox winning the World Series? Halle Berry winning the Oscar? Man harnessing fire? Consider our minds blown.
Maybe we shouldn't be so surprised. Audi has been kickin' butt for about a decade now and has worked similar miracles with the recent redesigns of its A6 and A8 models.
This latest A4, however, isn't a total redo. Audi is calling it 60-percent new. Its platform, interior and overall dimensions basically remain as they have been since the previous generation (known internally as the B6) was introduced in 2002. That means things like the cargo space and rear-seat room on this new A4 Avant ("Avant" is station wagon in Audi-speak) are the same as they were on the previous version.
And just to make things more confusing, Audi is calling the new B7 a 2005 model even though the last of the B6 models were called the same. Repeat, this is not the 2006 Audi A4. According to Audi's national public relations manager, Jennifer Cortez, it has something to do with certification.
This year, like last, all A4 Avants get quattro all-wheel drive, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, but buyers can choose between two new engines and transmissions. Our test car had the new 255-horsepower, 3.2-liter V6 and new six-speed automatic with Tiptronic, which is the only transmission you can get with the V6 in the Avant. A new 200-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder is also available and it can be backed by the automatic or a six-speed manual. If you want the new Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT), which can only be matched with the 2.0-liter, you have to buy a front-wheel-drive sedan or cabriolet.
Our test car did not have the popular sport package, which Audi says 50 percent of its A4 buyers pay for, but it was loaded with other options and packages, including the $2,050 Premium Package, $1,950 Navigation System and $1,000 Audio Package. All of which inflated its $37,120 base price to an MSRP of, hold on to your hat, $44,670.
Bonzai: Tucson to L.A.
We began this test with a 507-mile run from Tucson, Arizona, to our office in Santa Monica, California. Although we didn't have to be anywhere, we left Tucson at 7 a.m. and leaned on the A4 right out of the gate.
Several hours of interstate later, it was clear that the 2005 A4 Avant is a fantastic long-distance machine with excellent stability, abundant power, a comfortable and quiet interior and, for the first time, decent cupholders. Even the A4's new bodywork, which adds a couple of inches to its overall length and controversy to its design, had its benefits from behind the wheel. Its intimidation of left-lane bandits was undeniable. Everyone moved over as soon as that bold new trapezoidal grille filled their rearview mirrors.
This car is so good that, after seven hours on the road, our only quibbles are its overcomplicated navigation/audio system, which seems to be the case on every German car of late, and the perforated leather on the steering wheel, which started to feel rough on our hands after 400 miles. Besides that, the Avant was an awesome traveling partner. We averaged 73 mph and 22.5 mpg, with one gas stop and considerable traffic in Downtown L.A. That's a good run.
The Avant's new double-overhead cam 3.2-liter V6, which it shares with the recently redesigned A6, features a variable intake manifold, continuous camshaft adjustment on both the intake and exhaust side and direct fuel injection, which Audi calls Fuel Straight Injection (FSI). Direct injection is just what it sounds like. Instead of the fuel injector squirting the shot of fuel into the intake port, it sprays it directly into the combustion chamber, which improves power and efficiency.
We believe it. This V6 makes 243 pound-feet of torque at 3,250 rpm, more than 90 percent of which is available between 1,900 and 5,900 rpm. For comparison, we dug up the specs on the slightly smaller 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder in the new 2006 BMW 330i. It also makes 255 hp but its torque peaks at only 220 lb-ft.
Audi says the new six-speed Tiptronic is 31 pounds lighter than the transmission it replaces. We say it's geared perfectly to take advantage of the V6's output. Out on the road the combination gets the Avant up to speed quickly, and supplies plenty of passing power. Full throttle won't snap your head from your neck, but the six-speed is always ready with a quick downshift to make the most of the V6's horsepower, which peaks at 6,500 rpm.
Audi says our wagon, which weighed a hefty 3,858 pounds, should have squirted from zero to 60 mph in 6.8 seconds, but the best run we recorded was a disappointing 7.9 seconds. And our best quarter-mile run was 16 seconds at 90 mph.
Better Suspension and Brakes
To improve high-speed stability and steering response, the A4 has adopted several mounts as well as the considerably stiffer track rods on the front suspension from the high-performance V8-powered S4 model. Audi also retuned the shock absorbers and mounted them with large rubber bushings to better isolate suspension noise from the cockpit.
The results are nothing but impressive. Our A4 Avant, which wore Pirelli P6 tires, was completely locked in at speed. The steering also feels less contaminated, like it would in a rear-wheel-drive car.
Around town the tweaked suspension gives the A4 a better ride and a sportier feel. It's also more responsive. The slight floatiness of the previous car is gone. Understeer is still the Avant's most common cornering attitude, but its limits are higher. And the Electronic Stabilization Program (ESP), which is standard, works its magic without eliminating all of the A4's sporting personality. Plus it can be shut down with the push of a button.
In our slalom test, the Avant weaved through the cones at 59.4 mph, which is slower than the last BMW 330i we tested, which had a sport package (remember, our Avant did not), but equals the performance of Infiniti's G35.
Audi has also increased the size of the A4's brakes, but with mixed results. Although they felt great on our road trip and around L.A., at the test track we measured an unexpectedly long stopping distance from 60 mph of 129 feet. The good news is that the Audi's brakes are seemingly impervious to heat. Their performance was consistent over four runs.
Feels Good Every Day
Everything that made the A4 terrific on our 500-mile interstate flog, also makes it a fantastic daily driver. It's hard to imagine this little wagon being more enjoyable on a day-to-day basis, or this car being better built. Its fit and finish inside and out is industry-leading. And by obsessively sweating every detail, Audi has turned its bread-and-butter model into one of the world's great cars.
"We are a company driven by engineers," Johan de Nysschen, Audi's executive vice president, told us during the car's press introduction in Tucson. "We have an obsession with building and creating great automobiles."
After a week of driving this beautiful Ocean Blue Pearl 2005 A4 Avant, we wish every car company had the same obsession.
Managing Editor Donna DeRosa says:
The first time I drove the Audi A4 Avant, I was stuck in rush-hour traffic and spent an hour traveling seven miles. I've never been more grateful for XM Satellite Radio and comfortable leather seats. I also fell in love with the roller-shaped audio controls on the steering wheel, which made switching between stations effortless. When you're listening to the '60s channel and the Mamas and the Papas fade into the theme from A Summer Place, you don't have to take your eyes off the road to switch to another decade.
I had better luck with traffic the next day on curvy Sunset Boulevard, where the Audi handled bends with plenty of confidence and kept bumps to a minimum. This wagon is a speedy little devil with a throaty voice box so I let it loose on the scenic Pacific Coast Highway and it loved every minute of it. It was so much fun that I continued north into farm country where we splashed through puddles and muddy patches with nary a slip.
Overall, this wagon was such a joy to drive I wouldn't mind having one myself.
Road Test Editor Dan Kahn says:
While BMW plays around with fugly styling and miserable iDrive variations, Audi just keeps getting better and better. The new A4 is, in my mind, the first Audi to surpass its Teutonic competition in every way.
Interior styling is stellar, materials are divine and the entertainment center puts my home theater to shame. The car feels as comfortable at 100 mph as it does slogging through L.A. gridlock, and the A4's seats are hands-down the best in its class. Reach into a storage compartment or cubby hole, and even the areas you can't see are smooth and soft to the touch. Now that's class.
I had an absolute ball throwing the A4 around corners in the driving rain. Normally such maneuvers would be risky at best, but the latest quattro all-wheel-drive system is downright confidence-inspiring. The combination of silky-smooth V6 power, a refined Tiptronic trans and asphalt-grabbing AWD make driving the A4 absolutely effortless.
Now that I've had a taste of Audi's latest creation, I'm craving more. Of course there's no such thing as too much horsepower, so the forthcoming S4 should be an absolute world-beater. I can't wait.
System Score: 7.0
Components: Our test car came with an optional Bose Premium sound system with the AudioPilot noise cancellation feature. Our car was also equipped with a six-disc CD changer mounted in the glovebox, an eight-channel amplifier and five-channel surround sound. An in-dash CD changer is offered in cars that don't have a navigation system. This Bose system uses 10 speakers including a subwoofer, and when combined with Audi's Navigation Plus system uses a Multi Media Interface (MMI) where many functions can be controlled through one interface. The system also provides two SD/MMC slots so you can play stored MP3s.
Performance: There are so many layers to this Bose audio system that sound quality almost takes a backseat. In many cases, the innovativeness of the head unit is undermined by confusing or illogical functions. Many of our editors found the overall system simply frustrating. And those who take an old school approach to car stereos will feel like Audi totally missed the boat. In fact, the complex controls for this stereo kept the overall score lower than if we were judging on sound quality alone.
Despite the steep learning curve, Audi's ambitious MMI does work wonders but requires precious time to master. One of the best features is a customizable memory list that can combine a driver's favorite "stations" from FM, AM and satellite radio. The ability to quickly switch between a local AM radio station for traffic updates, then back to commercial-free XM music without having to navigate submenus is wonderfully convenient.
The downside to the favorites list is that you do not get the benefit of seeing the song title and artist name on the screen the way you would if the display was set to just XM.
Another confusing element is that the button labeled "CD list" shows different information depending on how many times you press it. Also, the steering wheel-mounted controls for advancing CD tracks or radio stations are counterintuitive. You must roll the button down to move up one track and move the button up to go to a previous track.
Confusing controls aside, the sound quality is good. However, it's not as good as we expect for an extra-cost, optional system from Audi. The bass lacks punch and the mids seem overly boosted. And without midrange controls we could never get the exact sound we wanted. The system uses surround sound but there is no way to defeat that feature. The surround feature sometimes leaves you feeling disconnected — the volume and tone are fine, but the sound presence is lacking. Lexus' Mark Levinson system is much more expensive but reproduces sound so flawlessly you'd think the singer is sitting in the seat next to you. Plus, the Audi's stereo has a more mechanical sound than other high-end audio systems, we'd prefer a more natural tone.
Best Feature: Customizable memory list.
Worst Feature: Confusing controls.
Conclusion: A good-sounding stereo with an overly complex but ultimately groundbreaking interface. The Bose Premium is clearly better than many other systems but no one will be wowed by the sound quality — we're not. — Brian Moody