The top three German carmakers have long battled it out for the biggest piece of the lucrative U.S. entry-level luxury sedan market. And historically, Audi's had the dubious honor of coming in last place. Although competitive in design, price and functionality (and even a forerunner when it comes to certain technologies), Audi's A4 has failed to see North American sales figures that meet those of competing models from BMW and Mercedes. Now, Audi is upping the ante in the hopes that its completely new A4 sedan will be the not-so-secret weapon that will help obliterate that gap.
Audi's strategy? More. The 2009 Audi A4 is nearly 5 inches longer and 2 inches wider than the previous model. That size increase makes way for more headroom, more shoulder room and an additional 1.4 inches of rear knee room. Audi also claims the A4 has the biggest trunk in its class.
But don't consider this merely a super-sized version of the old A4. Responding to criticism that the outgoing model wasn't as sharp-handling as other sport sedans, Audi has utilized the new model's longer wheelbase to repackage the drivetrain. The engine is now farther behind the front wheels, which means slightly improved weight distribution from Audi's traditionally front-heavy 60/40 split to about 55/45.
One important note: Our 2009 Audi A4 3.2 Quattro was a German-spec car; therefore, there were some cosmetic and option differences between our model and the ones available in U.S. showrooms. Still, the powertrain and most options remain unchanged. And while we can't give you the exact price of our test car, a similarly equipped A4 will run you upwards of $38,000, which includes just about every package and option.
Although our 2009 Audi A4 was powered by a direct-injection, 3.2-liter V6 engine that makes 265 horsepower and 243 pound-feet of torque, the car's speed and handling didn't quite live up to our expectations. We laid down a 0-60-mph time of 6.9 seconds from a standing start — 0.3 second slower than the time listed on the A4's spec sheet, and a full 1.3 seconds slower than BMW's estimated 0-60-mph time for the 335i sedan with automatic transmission. But what the A4 lacked in the way of time during testing, it made up for in smoothness, thanks in part to the six-speed Tiptronic transmission, which made gearchanges almost seamlessly.
Ride and handling vary from soft and comfortable to stiff and responsive thanks to Audi's Drive Select. Three preconfigured settings adjust the suspension, throttle response, steering and engine and transmission mapping with the push of a button: Comfort, which provides a smooth ride on long trips or over bumpy roads; Dynamic, which is tight and firm for spirited cornering; and Auto, which continuously and reactively adjusts the A4's settings depending on the terrain and driving style. Settings can be further customized in Audi's Multi Media Interface (MMI) menu.
We don't have fuel economy ratings yet for the 2009 A4, but Audi claims its new 3.2-liter V6 is 10 percent more fuel-efficient than the 3.1-liter six-cylinder used in the outgoing model. We didn't see much of a difference with the new model, however, as our test car got a combined fuel economy rating of 19.5 miles per gallon — pretty close to the EPA fuel economy rating of 17/25 mpg for the 2008 A4's 3.1-liter Quattro drivetrain.
Our A4 particularly excelled under braking. The pedal had an impressive feel and every stop was short and consistent, thanks in part to brake pads that are 20 percent larger than the previous model's. But although the brakes performed extremely well under track and testing conditions, they took some getting used to on the street. Under gradual braking, the pedal seems to travel at first, then bite down hard, which, without practice, doesn't make for the smoothest stop-and-go driving around town.
The cabin of the 2009 Audi A4 successfully combines both sporty and luxurious attributes. The meaty steering wheel is easy to handle and adds to the sporty feel, yet it isn't too bulky. The front sport seats offer plenty of support, and extra bolsters help during cornering. The range of adjustability of the driver seat, however, leaves something to be desired — it goes just far enough forward for a 5-foot-4 female to comfortably reach the pedals. Tall folks didn't find much to complain about, though. Legroom is plentiful in both front and rear seats, and there is ample headroom.
On the comfort side, the dual-zone climate control system adjusts quickly and efficiently, and the premium 505-watt Bang & Olufsen sound system with 14 speakers and a six-CD changer offers near-pristine audio quality. The result is a pretty solid road-trip car — even after a six-hour drive, both driver and passenger felt comfortable and content, even if a little numb on the backside.
It's easy to believe Audi's claim that the A4 cockpit was designed to be driver-oriented. The center console is well laid out, and most of the A4's buttons are easily within reach. A navigation screen set high in the dash makes for excellent visibility, and an additional color display set between the speedometer and tachometer in the instrument cluster allows the driver to toggle through entertainment, phone and car information without even looking over at the nav screen.
The command center for most of the A4's controls is still Audi's MMI system, which is relatively user-friendly (and consequently, doesn't inspire quite as much hatred as BMW's iDrive). For 2009, the MMI knob and neighboring buttons were moved aft of the gearshift, which allows for even easier access.
Two cupholders in the center console, one larger than the other, do a nice job holding bottles of various sizes. And a small slot next to them is just right for holding a cell phone. An electrically operated parking brake switch saves precious space on the console normally taken up by a traditional e-brake handle.
Myriad sensors on the new A4 made so many beeps and boops while we were driving, we sometimes felt like we were in a video game. This was especially true with the parking system. Our car came equipped with a rear back-up camera that made parallel parking quite easy, so we found the 1980s Atari-style guiding sounds unnecessary. Another feature we found more annoying than helpful was Audi's Side Assist. Although designed to help prevent "dangerous" lane changes, it would ding and turn on a light in the dash when we maneuvered in heavy traffic. Fortunately, this system can be turned off.
The new A4 offers plenty of cargo space. With a trunk capacity of 16.9 cubic feet, we fit a large suitcase, a set of golf clubs and various smaller bags and backpacks without a problem. With the 60/40-split-folding seats down, we had a full 34 cubes available, which means we could have stuffed in a second set of golf clubs and another couple of bags.
Design/Fit and Finish
The longer and wider stance of the 2009 Audi A4 instantly telegraphs that the car means business. Unique-shaped LED daytime running lamps, a cue borrowed from the R8, give the car an aggressive, almost futuristic look. The design of the 18-inch wheels leaves the calipers and much of the rotor surface exposed, which looks cool — provided they stay clean and rust-free.
The build quality of the new A4 is consistent with Audi's good reputation, especially on the inside. Smooth leather surfaces, along with durable-looking plastic and soft-touch materials, make for a nice combination of colors and textures. Small touches, like ambient lighting underneath the driver seat, add to the premium feel.
Who should consider this vehicle
Executive types who want a good combination of luxury and performance; commuters who like to rely on techno-gadgets to get where they're going safely.
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