2015 is fast becoming the year of the executive saloon. First came the sharp-driving Jaguar XE, before BMW hit back with a thoroughly revised version of its hugely popular 3 Series. Now Audi has waded in with an all-new A4.
Bigger, lighter and more efficient than its predecessor, the fifth-generation A4 will slot neatly between the A3 and A6 in Audi’s saloon car line-up when it goes on sale in November.
From the outset, the new A4 will be available with a range of new or significantly upgraded petrol and diesel engines, ranging from a 148bhp 1.4-litre turbo petrol to a 268bhp 3.0-litre V6 diesel. A more powerful V6 petrol S4 will follow next year before a range-topping RS4 arrives in 2016.
Here we’re testing the 188bhp 2.0-litre diesel (badged 2.0 TDI 190) in front-wheel-drive form, predicted to be the second biggest seller after the entry-level 148bhp Ultra diesel model.
What’s the Audi A4 2.0 TDI 190 like to drive?
The new A4 weighs around 120kg less than its predecessor, which is one of the main reasons it’s more efficient. Even this 188bhp model emits just 102g/km of CO2, while the super-frugal 148bhp Ultra model pumps out just 99g/km.
That’s great news for the company car drivers that make up the vast majority of customers in this class. However, making a car lighter is also a great way to improve the way it drives. It’s hardly surprising, then, that the new A4 is much more responsive and agile than the car it replaces, turning in to corners more eagerly and with less body lean.
Just don’t expect quite the same enjoyable handling as you’d get from an XE or a 3 Series. The new A4 is capable, composed and always reassuring but never feels as pointy or rewarding as its two rear-wheel-drive rivals along winding roads.
One of the key reasons is the steering. Select Comfort mode from the standard Drive Select system and little effort is required to direct the A4 where you want it to go. The steering is accurate, too, with just enough extra weight when you turn in to corners to give you a sense of how much grip there is.
You don’t get as much feedback as in a Jaguar XE, mind, and while switching to Dynamic mode makes the steering heavier, you still don’t get as much interaction as you do in some rivals.
There are no fewer than four different suspension options to choose from. There's a regular Comfort set-up, a lower and stiffer S line option, plus two different adaptable set-ups – one more focused around comfort, and the other sporty handling. We tried the lower and stiffer of the two adaptive options, which all Ultra models come with for aerodynamic purposes.
Even with the suspension set to Comfort mode, and despite the relatively small 17in alloys fitted to our test car, the ride is a little more abrupt than we'd like, especially over sharp-edged bumps. That's not to say things aren't well controlled, because while you might feel a little too much of the bumps as they pass beneath the car, there's never any unwanted body bounce or shudder through the car's body.
As the speed increases, such as at a motorway cruise, the A4 feels extremely well planted and manages to glide over bumps more easily. Of course, switching to Dynamic mode stiffens up the suspension and means there's even less body lean through tight bends, but the trade off is an altogether bouncier ride.
As for the engine, it pulls strongly from 1700rpm, and the six-speed manual gearbox has thoughtfully-spaced ratios to ensure you aren't constantly hunting for the right gear around town. You feel a little vibration through the soles of your feet when you accelerate, and more through the gearlever, but you also hear less diesel clatter than in rivals from BMW and Jaguar. There’s very little wind noise to bother you either – no doubt partly due to the new A4’s class-leading aerodynamics.
What’s the Audi A4 2.0 TDI 190 like inside?
Audi is renowned for its classy, minimalist interiors that are both wonderfully finished and super intuitive. The new A4 doesn’t disappoint – it betters its rivals from BMW, Jag and Merc, with sumptuous materials everywhere you look and a simple, user-friendly dashboard layout.
Audi’s MMI infotainment system comes as standard on all versions, and features a clear 7.0in display mounted centrally on the dashboard that you control using a rotary dial mounted between the front seats. You twist the dial to scroll through the on-screen menus and press it down to select, and there are even some handy shortcut keys to take you straight to specific functions.
The driving position was hard to fault on our left-hand-drive test car, with plenty of seat and steering wheel adjustment and comfortable, supportive seats. However, given that the right-hand-drive version of the outgoing A4 was infamous for its offset pedals, which forced the driver to sit at a skewed angle, we’ll reserve final judgement until we’ve driven a UK-spec model.
The new A4 is around 11cm longer than a 3 Series so it’s hardly surprising there’s plenty of leg room in the back. Audi claims there’s also more rear head room than in the outgoing model, although our six-foot tester didn’t have much spare room above his head.
The A4’s boot is a fair bit larger than a Jaguar XE’s and roughly on a par with a 3 Series'. You'll easily be able to slot in a set of golf clubs or a couple of hefty suitcases, but being a saloon the boot is rather shallow and the opening small. The estate (Avant) version, which goes on sale at the same time, is considerably more practical.
Should I buy one?
There are plenty of reasons to consider it. The new A4 might not look a whole lot different from its predecessor, but it’s a drastically better car in nearly every respect and sets a new class benchmark for interior quality and engine refinement.
Audi has priced the new A4 almost exactly the same as an equivalent 3 Series, which puts this 2.0 TDI 190 model – in our test car's Sport trim – at £31,000. With its slightly lower 18% BIK rate, though, monthly company car tax bills will be marginally lower than the BMW's.
No, the A4 isn’t as enjoyable to drive as the 3 Series or the Jag XE, and there’s still a question mark hanging over how comfortably it’ll ride on UK roads. However, given how well it does everything else, we can certainly see it challenging for class honours when it arrives later this year.
What Car? says…
By Will Nightingale and Rory White
Audi A4 Saloon 2.0 TDI 190 Ultra Sport manual
Engine size 2.0-litre diesel
Price from £31,000
Torque 295lb ft
0-62mph 7.7 seconds
Top speed 130mph
Fuel economy 72.4mpg