$1 Billion Time Machine
The 2009 Audi A4 has to turn back time, take us back to a moment when this German sedan was timely rather than just timeless.
Things move quickly in this particular segment of the market, and the A4 is now feeling the pinch of time some six years after its introduction. Its styling has an enduring appeal, but it is no longer at the forefront of automotive design, while the interior lacks many of the gadgets that buyers now expect. Quality remains a key strength for the A4, but its dynamics are now also embarrassed by newer versions of the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class.
But with the unveiling of the 2009 Audi A4 at the Frankfurt auto show, the executives in Ingolstadt, Germany, believe the A4 sedan is once again back in the reckoning. Although the new car isn't likely to go on sale in North America until next May, we traveled to the Italian island of Sardinia to drive the 2009 Audi A4.
A New Look
From the outset, it is clear that pictures are a poor indicator of the new A4's styling, making it appear similar to the model it replaces from certain angles and remarkably close to the new A5. But to call it derivative is to do it an injustice.
The austere Bauhaus-inspired lines of the former A4 remain, but tauter surfacing and edgy detailing give the new car a fresh, new appeal. The 2009 Audi A4 also looks expensive, with taut shut lines and neat details like LED running lights. The seriously sexy S-Line styling package adds optional 19-inch wheels, different new bumpers, a more aggressive-looking grille and a unique range of colors.
Bigger Is Better
Nowhere is Audi's effort to match the German luxury-car competition more clearly evident than in the A4's shift in size. At 185.2 inches in length and 71.9 inches in width, it has become larger and more respectable by 4.6 inches and 2.2 inches, respectively. Its overall height of 56.1 inches is fractionally lower than before by 0.2 inch.
The eighth-generation Audi A4 also rides on a wheelbase that has increased 6.6 inches in length to 110.6 inches, just 1.5 inches shorter than the wheelbase of the larger and more expensive A6 (itself due to be revised extensively next year).
Looks Big but Steers Small
While the previous model eventually blossomed into a car of true desirability for keen drivers, this new one manages to up the ante again with newfound levels of response, body control and fluency. Audi Drive Select, which allows the driver to choose between comfort and sport modes, makes a big contribution here.
The newfound response begins with the steering, which features a rack that is now mounted low in the front of the engine bay close to the front wheels, providing more direct steering action. The steering wheel goes from lock to lock in just 2.2 turns, so it responds to inputs quickly and relays information back from the blacktop with added clarity.
The narrow roads of Sardinia are a test even for rally cars, so it was surprising to discover that the A4 turns in briskly, and the steering wheel loads up with cornering effort progressively, with a nice linear feel away from dead center. It all helps inspire real driver confidence. The front-wheel-drive version of the A4 also proves free of any corruptive torque steer.
It all comes from the A4's first truly new platform since 1995. The new platform is called MLP, denoting a modular longitudinal platform. First used by the A5, the new platform shifts the engine 5.9 inches rearward. This has been achieved by mounting the differential forward of the gearbox, allowing the center line of the front wheels to be relocated closer to the nose. More balanced weight distribution means there's less mass leading the A4 through the corners by the nose.
Further changes include a new all-wheel-drive system that splits torque 40 percent front/60 percent rear, delivering driving dynamics more like a rear-wheel-drive car that even includes a little tail happiness.
Down the Road
There's nothing but steel in the new 2009 Audi A4, yet there's still a useful 10 percent reduction in the weight of the unit body. This 3.2-liter V6 with all-wheel drive weighed in at 3,483 pounds, 88.2 pounds more than before. The base-model A4 with its turbocharged four-cylinder engine weighs 3,109 pounds, 44 pounds more than its predecessor.
Extra rigidity within the body shell also provides the new A4 with the basis for improved body control. Over all types of roads, there is an inherent tautness to the way the new A4 handles. Characteristically firm damping helps suppress squat and dive, while body movements are kept well in check.
Sadly, though, the ride remains a weak link. The A4 fidgets and fails to settle in the same efficient manner as the 3 Series or C-Class on less-than-smooth roads, and the tires have a tendency to kick back quite markedly. Note to prospective buyers: The optional 18-inch wheels might look great, but the low-profile tires produce a marked increase in tire noise. The standard 17-inch tires are probably what you want if you're looking for a ride that lives up to your ideal of a fine sedan.
Payoff From the Power?
North American buyers will get to choose between two gasoline engines when the A4 goes on sale here next spring. Kicking off proceedings will be a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder. It's based on Audi's new EA888 power plant and will feature Audi's latest direct fuel injection and variable valve timing/lift systems.
Not to be confused with the existing EA113 designated turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder found in various Audi models, the new engine is claimed to provide similar power and torque outputs to the unit it replaces, so expect around 200 horsepower and 221 pound-feet of torque with as yet unspecified improvements in fuel consumption and tailpipe emissions.
Most of us will be considering the 265-hp, 3.2-liter V6 with its standard six-speed automatic transmission. It propels the new A4 with competitive if not startling levels of performance. The delivery is extraordinarily smooth and linear all the way to the 7,000-rpm redline thanks to the combined effects of direct injection and Audi's new valve lift system that operates in a much more efficient manner than before. But since peak torque doesn't arrive until 3,000 rpm, the V6 has to be worked fairly hard before you feel you have tapped into its reserves with any great effect.
The engine's smoothness is deceptive, though, because the new A4 3.2 Quattro's acceleration time to 100 kph (62 mph) of 6.2 seconds makes it almost as fast as the BMW 330i (6.1 seconds). Top speed is limited to 155 mph. By way of comparison, the outgoing A4 3.2 Quattro gets to 60 mph in 6.4 seconds. Still, we can't help but wonder how much more alluring the new car would be with the S5's 4.2-liter V8, which pumps out 350 hp, something worth waiting for.
An Interior That Sets the Class Standard
In creating the interior, Audi has not overlooked what was arguably one of the outgoing A4's key selling points — supreme quality that makes more expensive cars look cheap by comparison. Few interiors (including the 3 Series and C-Class) seem as well conceived and constructed.
The detailing is highly impressive, especially the controls for Audi's optional MMI (Multi Media Interface), which has a wide range of functions, including the satellite navigation and sound system. The A4 also is available with an optional 505-watt Bang & Olufsen audio arrangement that feeds 10 channels of sound through no fewer than 14 speakers.
Despite growing in every vital dimension, the A4's high shoulder line and high dashboard provide it with a cosseting feel from the driver seat that reinforces the sporting aura. At the same time, it gains added seat and steering wheel adjustment, allowing you to tailor the driving position perfectly. The high-mounted brake pedal that made the old A4 such a chore to drive at times has been replaced by a more sensibly positioned pedal that no longer requires you to set your foot at such an extreme angle.
Accommodation in the rear — for so long one of the A4's biggest weaknesses — has been significantly improved by the new car's longer wheelbase and more efficient packaging of the rear seat, with knee room increasing by 1.4 inches. The rear doors are larger, too.
Rupert Stadler, Audi's chairman, promises us that the company is embracing dynamics and performance as its core values. No doubt we'll all be talking about the A4 for months to come as we discuss whether the new car lives up to this promise.
Audi has spent three years and $1 billion to reinvent the platform of the 2009 Audi A4. We're not yet sure whether it will lift Audi to new heights in its market segment, but we certainly came away from our drive in Sardinia looking forward to a real opportunity to measure its goodness.
The A4's 3.2-liter V6 might lack serious punch, but the car's handling is a revelation. Thanks to those new underpinnings, it has taken a big step forward in overall dynamic competence. Nearly every element of its on-road repertoire has been transformed or substantially improved.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.