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25 September 2015


It’s complicated. The new B9-generation A4. While handsome, many critics say it is too close to the car it replaces, and when viewed in those terms they aren’t exactly wrong… because it’s not exactly glaringly different to look at. Even still, the car is groundbreaking… and you’d never notice unless you take a closer look.

Fortunately, we did just that.a65

Audi held their launch in Venice, Italy. You know, the city of canals… and gondolas… and not cars. Mention you’re going to Venice to drive a new automobile and seemingly everyone responds with the same smartass comments centering on cars and hoping they float.

It’s complicated.

Of course we didn’t drive in Venice, but near Venice. Rest assured, no Audi A4s were sunk in the making of this story. Even still, we did have a chance to log miles on one ironically named Scuba Blue example of an Audi A4 2.0 TFSI quattro sedan. The hands-on experience was highly educational.a41

First, let’s start with the looks. That seems to be what everyone is talking about given we’ve all seen the pictures at this point. In the vein of the current-generation of Audi models such as the R8 and TT, the new A4 doesn’t change much in footprint, height or overall shape. Even still, it does grow in a few key measurements such as .5 inches wider, and .7 inches longer in wheelbase. In other words, the wheels were pushed further to their respective corners, while overall weight of the car dropped some 70-100 lbs. for US-bound models.

On the outside, the silhouette of the car hasn’t really changed. However, it is clearly the details that make the difference here. Mirrors move to the door. The new-shape headlights with standard Xenon and optional LED tech allowed Audi to go with a smaller light units than before. One of our favorite trick details is the hood – clam shell so that the shut line is hidden in the more pronounced tornado line that runs down the side of the car.a42

In Scuba Blue paint and optional S line trim (the latter available on Premium Plus and Prestige equipment levels), our car was packaged in very nearly the most aggressive spec one might order on the new so-called “B9” A4.

Just as important as appearance is how profoundly this new design affects aerodynamics. In that regard, Audi is learning a lot of lessons from its colleagues developing the brand’s R18 LMP1 racecars. This year, the latter was faced with a power disadvantage against Porsche in the FIA WEC series and at Le Mans. While Audi didn’t manage a win in Le Mans, the R18 still managed a faster average lap time than any of its rivals including the more powerful Porsches. Part of this feat can be attributed to aerodynamic efficiency.a44

As Audi Sport’s head of LMP1 development Chris Reinke tells it, the brand’s motorsport department began developing its computational fluid dynamics (CFD) calculations and at first ran their own computer clusters in the Audi development department at night when the production guys were at home asleep. These days, Audi’s production engineers make use of those same CFD codes in the development of road cars. Apparently it is paying off too, because the new A4 checks in with an aerodynamic CD rating of just .23 that is not just best in class, but better than any other Audi model and better even than exotic efficiency-driven cars you’d expect to trounce it such as the Audi R8 e-tron (.28), BMW i8 (.26) or Tesla Model S (.24). Aerodynamically, that’s a bit more radical than the car’s more evolutionary silhouette might suggest.a53

So, while the evolution on the A4’s appearance may at first appear to be somewhat conservative, it is immediately obvious that changes on the inside are quite radical. Be it substantially new design or a clear indicator of the onslaught of in-vehicle electronics, the changes here are as profound as they are in-your-face.

This begins on a dimensional level. Headroom is up by 1 inch, shoulder room by 2.6 inches and leg room by very nearly an inch. All of this comes mainly from more efficient use of space thanks to the new MLB-evo architecture, as does a larger trunk for storage.a58

The dashboard, with obvious design inspirations from the Q7 and even a bit from the new TT, has changed considerably. Like the TT, the A4 gets Audi’s virtual cockpit available with Premium Plus and Prestige equipment levels as part of a Tech package. This instrument cluster replacing screen offers up 1440 pixels x 540 pixels of dynamic 60 frame per second animated driver information. As you might expect, it encompasses everything you’d have formerly received from a handful of analogue gauges plus pretty much everything from the former MMI screen.

Unlike the TT and more like the new Q7, the fixture of a central MMI screen remains. Design nerds will grouse that the A4’s is now fixed instead of mechanically stowed like previous Audi models, but there’s no denying that the 7-inch standard screen or 8.3 inch screen optional with those Tech package cars is highly useful.a49

How useful? Well, there’s the typical suite of functions you’d expect in Audi’s latest MMI system such as Google Maps with search, car settings, Audi music interface now with standard USB cables or Bluetooth connection, 4G LTE internet, etc. There’s a newer and more robust Audi connect that includes Ingolstadt’s new myService app with emergency services, roadside assistance, lock/unlock functions, car status, health functionality… and we hear it even plays well with smart watches. Apple’s CarPlay and AndroidAuto are also both now native on the system, and we used both during our short stay with the car in order to stream music and more.

Speaking of sound, there’s also been an upgrade in this department. Bang & Olufsen remains Audi’s main partner when it comes to premium sound, though they’ve stepped up their game with a 755-watt, 19-speaker system. No, this setup doesn’t include those trick motorized sound lenses from the A6/A7/Q7/A8 range, but it does feature 5.1 surround sound and new-to-Audi 3D sound reproduction. It also gets Vehicle Noise Compensation tech much like the S6/S7/RS 7/S8 models in order to assure sound consistency. The net effect is much improved over the current B&O system we listen to daily in our own B8.5-generation Project B85 allroad.

The portfolio of new electronic features doesn’t end there. Some, like the 30 color customization of lower cockpit interior lighting seem a bit gimmicky albeit still cool, while others such as the standard rearview camera and improved MMI controls with touch pad rotary knob and pre-set buttons good for channels, navigation destinations, phone numbers and even songs from your storage device will quickly raise the bar of expectation when “slumming it” in an Audi with an earlier level of tech.a48

One of our favorite functional design elements in the new A4 is something as mundane as HVAC controls. Yes, the new TT proves that HVAC controls don’t have to be mundane, but the new A4 puts a finer point on it. What looks like a relatively simple classic digital readout is actually an animated TFT display controlling two zones with handsome and highly functional capacitive buttons… capacitive meaning that you trigger them simply through physical contact when they activate subtle animation that begins the multi-layer functionality. The design is incredibly clean and classic looking, but further augmented with incredibly creative use of the latest technology.

The B9 A4 is also a shining example of tech moving from the biggest and most expensive models down to the more common. Notable additions to B9 formerly limited to cars like the Audi A8 now include options such as a new heads up display improved through use of color and greater functionality, top view camera, rear seat entertainment with Audi’s new tablet, and new sport seats that will receive ventilation and massage features by the time the new A4 launches in the U.S. market next spring.a60

Thus far, we’ve highlighted just the comfort and convenience features. Much of the driver assistance tech including a few we haven’t even seen before will also be coming to the A4. These include Audi side assist, Audi Pre-Sense City that operates throttle/braking/steering functions up to 40 mph in stop-and-go traffic, Audi traffic jam assist, Audi exit assist that uses Audi side assist sensors to help you exit the car when parked on the street, Audi rear cross traffic assist for pulling out of blind parking spaces and Audi turn assist for warnings while turning to cross traffic.

As far as drivetrain choices go, American customers will be able to choose between Ingolstadt’s latest 2.0 TFSI engine or new 2.0 TDI engine. Each will put power to the ground via the DL382 7-speed S-tronic transmission first launched in last year’s updated Audi A6 2.0 TFSI front-wheel drive. Here the S-tronic will be paired with quattro for both engines in the beginning, then later with front-wheel drive as well.a51

Our particular tester was closely built to how most Americans will spec their cars, a quattro model with 2.0 TFSI engine that puts out 252 hp. That setup is reportedly good for 0-62 mph runs of 5.8 seconds just in case you’re counting. On average, the B9 range is said to be up 25% on power while consumption is down some 21%.

Given all these improvements, are there any disappointments when it comes to the new A4 and specifically equipment we won’t be getting? We note just two. First, Audi’s Sport Differential won’t be offered. The rear diff has been added to European 3.0 TDI models that essentially elevates these cars to an S4 TDI in all but name only. We’re fans of the Sport Differential tech, not just because it allows you to throttle-on oversteer your Audi and generally hoon about, but also because it manages to add stability with throttle much like ABS acheives utilizing the anti-lock braking system. While the hooligan in us likes the on-demand oversteer, the sensible side appreciates the added stability. Apparently though, the market isn’t asking for it and as such it remains standard in the A4 lineup solely for the S4 and 3.0 TDI models worldwide.a62

Another point we wish we could change is the lack of manual transmission. Only the most basic A4 models in Europe will get the manual. Even the new S4 will forego a stick shift worldwide. That Audi has moved the A4 from torque converter Tiptronic to DSG-based S-tronic is actually more sporting, but the disappearance of the manual is still lamented by those of us who view driving this form of car as not just an essential skill, but also an art form.

Alas, the manual transmission thing may be a sign of the times. The new A4 gets the same great-looking and yet totally untraditional shifter you may have also spied in the new R8. It is less a knob by which to command a gear change (all done on the steering wheel paddles nowadays) and more designed for resting your hand while you control the MMI or spell out your destination on the rotary touch pad. It all works well and is very ergonomic… regrettably interjects the old guy who misses the days of shifting one’s own gears.a56

While in Italy, we did hop in a base 1.4 TFSI front-wheel drive model for the trip back to the hotel. We’d spotted the standard shifter in the car and wanted to take a stab. While good, we grousingly admit that it wasn’t as good as the S-tronic and made the MMI system more clutzy to use. It seems the times, they are a changin’. We still feel there’s a market of buyers who’d pay a premium for a manual gearbox, but maybe that’s a battle left to fight when talking about the new S4.

Beyond lamenting the loss of the manual transmission, we’re quite impressed rest of the B9’s driving experience. The A4 now receives a new 4-piston brake caliper configuration for more serious braking. An improved electromechanical steering system with a lighter magnesium based steering wheel design but one that comes with better steering feel. No doubt the new 5-link suspension design also plays into this, though the heavily trafficked roads near Venice with teams of bicyclists and oncoming apex-cutting Alfa Romeo drivers didn’t bestow us with much of a chance to seriously test this aspect of the car.a61

So, in the end and as stated, it’s complicated. In some ways, the new A4 is Audi’s Trojan horse. What may just look like a subtle 4-door sedan ushers in a suite of material, electronic and functionality tech that Ingolstadt is banking will hit their main competitor where it hurts… square in the center of traditionally the most important mid-sized 4-door segment.

Quite obviously, the game is changing. Where once engineered obsolescence came from new design parlor tricks such as fins or even grilles, Audi now sees the substance coming from doubling down on technology. The new A4’s very familiar form, albeit much more aerodynamically optimized, hides some of the most advanced material and equipment offerings in the business. On first look, we didn’t feel the B9 aged the old car that much. Having driven it, we find the outgoing B8 to be much more obsolete, kind of like a year-old iPhone.

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