Audi's new A4 saloon makes headlines for the right reasons
First Drive: Audi A4 Saloon in Venice
It is fair to say the Audi A4 has never got too many headlines. Maybe in the current furore surrounding the Volkswagen Group, to which Audi belongs, that's no bad thing.
But this new one deserves at least a re-assessment of our perceptions. You wouldn't think that by looking at it, as its styling, which although smart and sharp, doesn't represent a leap forward in design - a-la the Mercedes C-Class. I was disappointed they didn't go a bit more radical. It looks bigger because it is lower and a mere 25mm longer and 16mm wider. It is the sort of car that won't date too quickly, I think.
You start to get a sense of more profound change in the cabin. Layout and design still hold sway in this compact executive division, though it is run close by the Merc now. I liked the slim dash and the ease of using instruments and switches.
But the cabin is low slung and mightn't suit everyone. It was grand for me but my more tidily-framed driving partner found he had to ratchet up the seat adjustment to its limit to get the position and visibility he wanted.
Rear seat space is improved a bit (23mm more knee room, 70mm more internal space) but it's still not wonderful, though it felt better than the Jaguar XE. Taller passengers may have to crouch a little to get in the back.
The Avant (estate), which doesn't get here until January, is much better looking, and more versatile, I think. We only drove the saloon.
However, the main reason I feel the A4 deserves a headline or two is how much they've improved the handling and ride. Its new platform makes a difference as does the 120kg (two small adults) weight loss (Avant).
It is now a more pliant, sporty drive; never the outstanding trait of the old one. In our drive it excelled at keeping level and taut on bends.
Apart from the mind-boggling array of infotainment stuff, this is the biggest single advance. Not quite BMW 3-series or Jaguar XE but a definite new string to the bow.
The other thing I noticed was the quietness. Often quieter engines can mean you hear more road/tyre noise, but even over rougher, scarred roads this kept such intrusions to a minimum.
I drove the 2-litre 190bhp diesel. Loads of grunt and flexibility with the new 6spd manual gearbox. In a way I expected all that, but with the steering and suspension so well tuned they got a nice bit of sport into the A4 drive.
Audi say the 2.0 TDI 150bhp Ultra version sips only 3.7litres/100km (95g/km = €180 road tax).
At a time when diesel is under such scrutiny it was refreshing to take the 1.4-litre 150bhp TFSi petrol for a test. I think this is an alternative for some. Loads of pep, great pulling power and decently economical. If you are doing under 15,000km a year, take a look.
I'd also advocate thinking about the estate (from €38,200) - preferably in red. I'd buy it over the saloon.
The petrol saloon starts at €35,800 on-the-road with the 2-litre 150bhp entry-level diesel at €39,600. That's nearly €4,000 of a difference.
Audi say price overall is down €330 - before new equipment is factored in.
There are four diesels and two petrols with the 2-litre 150bhp diesel (which we didn't get to drive) the likely big seller. There is also a 3-litre V6 diesel (218bhp, 272bhp) as well as the 1.4-TFSI and 2-litre TFSI petrols.
There are three trim levels: Attraction; SE (starting at €37,750) and S Line (€41,250).
It's important to report that Audi say each engine meets all EU6 regulations. Performance is up 25pc but fuel consumption down by a claimed 21pc in some cases, so emissions are cut too. Standard equipment includes speed limiter, xenon headlights, electric lumbar support, 17ins 10-spoke alloys.
SE trim adds sat nav, LED headlights, aluminium inlays, driver info system, 17ins 5-spoke alloys, leather upholstery. And S-Line adds its own detailing, 18ins wheels etc.
Moving from entry-level to SE - the anticipated most popular trim - will cost you €1,950 extra. From SE to S line will cost another €3,500.
SE and S Line trims have an optional €2,500 Technology Pack (MMI Navigation Plus, virtual cockpit and Audi Connect which lets you go online thanks to the on-board Wi-Fi hotspot. The 'phone box' also allows you to connect smart phones to the on-board antenna and wirelessly charge up.
And there is an optional Business Package (from €2,100) with adaptive cruise control.
It may not have been in too many headlines but the A4 racks up more sales than the BMW 3-series or Mercedes C-Class in Ireland most years.
Just goes to show how some good stories stay under the radar.