Sunday 25 February 2018

Don't look now but . . . there is a new Audi A4

Most understated car of the year

Understated premium: Audi A4
Understated premium: Audi A4
Eddie Cunningham

Eddie Cunningham

This is about as understated a premium car as I have driven in a long time. Even the old cliché of a car being an evolution rather than revolution seems strangely inadequate.

Colour, of course, plays its part and in this case my Manhattan Grey A4 saloon underplayed whatever subtlety of contour and design lines there are.

But that's how they do things sometimes at Audi. I remember criticising Mercedes for being too conservative at one stage too but look at the C-Class, a core A4 rival, now. Worlds apart.

All of which puts the onus on Audi to show that looks are far from being everything wit the A4.

Apart from a distinctly neat outline and the marque's strong front there is no outstanding visual feature. And, aside from a smartly-designed dash, cabin and central console - which are neck-and-neck with the C-Class - there isn't that much else to get madly excited about.

So it was down to concentrating on the comfort and the driving. And I did a fair bit of both. Indeed I became closely acquainted with the A4's workings across a variety of road, weather and driving conditions.

I was delighted to have the 150bhp version of the 2-litre diesel; it's more typical of what people will drive and was hugely frugal. I like that engine a lot. Apart from having plenty of pulling power - I don't think I changed gears more than three times in one drive back from Carlow - whatever noise it generated was most impressively repressed. The cabin was a quiet place overall. My test car was in the most popular SE trim which costs around €40,000. I'm happy enough with that considering the level of technological improvements (lots of stuff from the new Q7 SUV).

But they added a boot-full of extras which sent the price soaring to €57,000 - sports suspension, adaptive cruise control, the excellent virtual cockpit, head-up display and Lane Assist and much more.

You don't need a lot of that stuff but when you see/feel it working you get used to it and it becomes something you must have. Like the virtual cockpit (love it) which makes it so easy to find and see so much information in next-to-no time. Or the heads-up display which gives you the prime information right in the line of sight.

Ultimately, however, the question has to be asked: why would you buy the new A4?

There is a simplistic answer: because it habitually leads the compact executive sales league nearly every year - ahead of the higher-profile BMW 3-series or C-Class. A lot of people love their A4, unfussy and all as it has been.

And there is more to it than meets the eye. Driving it around a fair bit of Leinster, admittedly it never raised a hair on the back of my neck - but there was an ease of driving that took the work out of travelling. Maybe that's the secret.

They have also added, thanks to its new platform, verve to the chassis and the drive. It is a better handler, there is a greater sense of engagement.

But you know what? These elements are understated too. They come across in small ways: the light, but sure, touch of the steering, how the front-wheel-drive tucks it into corners better than before. The suspension is greatly improved. Admittedly I had a sports version but I've driven the basic abroad and it is much better.

And I shifted smoothly through the 6spd box in heavy town traffic or, on occasion, out along the Clontarf Road to Howth. The latter is always a great test of how dampers work and how road thuds are muffled. This was quiet all the way.

For a car that isn't much bigger than before (25mm longer, 16mm wider) there is more space (23mm more knee, 70mm+ internal room). Back-seat passengers are better looked after and there is a fine boot. Again, these are the little bits that add, quietly, to a car that's far better than it looks. Which is why it gets my award as the Understated Car of the Year.

Facts & figures

Audi A4 saloon 2.0TDI 150 SE diesel; 6spd manual, 150bhp, front-wheel drive, 99g/km, €180 road tax, 3.8 litres/100km/74.3 mpg (claimed).

My side of the road

My daughter got out to see if there was any damage. There wasn't. But the cyclist had passed so close our rear, kerb-side bumper that the Audi A4's hazard lights flashed and the seat belts tightened around us. In other words it sensed impact. And we weren't even moving. I tell you this because there is a prevalence of two-wheel reckless drivers on some roads. Be careful out there.

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