The Good: More powerful engines, attractive interior, excellent fuel economy in the base model
The Bad: Mediocre fuel economy with V6 engine, slower acceleration than many rivals, pricey option packages
The Bottom Line: A classy, easy-to-live with compact luxury sedan
Audi is weathering the economic crisis better than most of its rivals. The German company, which is owned by Volkswagen (VOWG), trails BMW (BMWG), Mercedes-Benz (DAI), and Lexus (TM) in sales, but has been slowly gaining U.S. market share for more than a year. One of the main reasons is the relative success of the redesigned Audi A4, the flagship model that accounts for nearly half the company's U.S. volume. A4 sales fell 22.9%, to 7,515, in the first three months of this year—a good performance in the current environment. By comparison, first-quarter sales of the once-hot BMW 3 Series fell 26.4%, the Mercedes C Class by 29.8%, the Cadillac CTS by 36.7%, TM
Lexus ES by 41.4%, and the Infiniti G37 sedan by 43.2%.
What's the A4's appeal? It can't match the raw speed of most of its rivals, but it has a classy interior, excellent handling, and plenty of pep for most owners. It also has better fuel economy (the base model gets 30 miles to the gallon on the highway and 23 mpg in the city) because it's one of the few compact luxury cars offered with a four-cylinder engine. And you can always pay more and get the A4 with all-wheel drive and a powerful six-cylinder engine, as well as in station wagon and convertible versions.
The new A4 sedan, the version I test-drove, is 4.6 inches longer and 2.1 inches wider than the old one, as well as being nicer and a tad roomier inside. Both of the A4's available power plants have been bumped up in power for '09. The base engine is a turbocharged 2.0-liter, 211-horsepower, inline four-banger (up from 200 hp in the previous A4), while the 3.2-liter V6 is now rated at 265 horsepower (up from 255 hp before).
However, choosing among the many versions of the A4 is complicated. The front-wheel-drive entry-level model, the 2.0T, comes with a continuously variable automatic transmission, while all-wheel-drive versions of the 2.0T come with either a stick shift or a six-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission. The V6-powered A4 sedan comes only with the Tiptronic transmission and all-wheel drive. The wagon comes only with the smaller engine and all-wheel drive. The A4 convertible is still based on the previous generation A4.
The list price of the '09 A4 sedan is about the same as for the previous A4—starting at $31,825 for the entry-level 2.0T with the four-cylinder engine and front-wheel drive and rising to $41,225 for the top-of-the-line V6-powered 3.2 quattro.
Adding options, however, can dramatically raise the ante. In 2.0T models, many of the available options are bundled into packages ranging in price from $4,000 to $7,350 and including such enhancements as 17-inch alloy wheels, heated front seats with a memory function, auto-dimming mirrors, an upgraded sound system with a 6-CD player, rain-sensitive wipers, and a trip computer. A similar Prestige Package in the 3.2 quattro costs $3,350.
There's also a $1,450 Sport Package in the 2.0T that includes sporty suspension and front seats, 18-inch performance tires, a sport steering wheel, and paddle shifters.
In the fancier versions of the car, this morphs into a $2,450 S Line Package that also includes special exterior and interior trim and badges.
High tech options include a $2,950 Drive Select Package that allows the driver to adjust the car's steering dynamics and suspension damping, as well as a $2,100 adaptive cruise control system that senses other vehicles ahead and applies the brakes, if necessary, to avoid an accident.
The A4 comes standard with a full panoply of safety gear, including head-protecting side-curtain air bags. It earned the highest possible Five Star government crash test rating in all five categories.
However, I have a couple of gripes about the A4: If you go with the V6 engine, fuel economy drops to just 17 mpg in the city and 26 on the highway. Also, the car's styling is pretty nondescript. Its most distinctive feature is a grouping of high-density, Christmas-tree-style lights that form a sort of eyebrow over the headlights.
Behind the Wheel
The A4 isn't the fastest car in its class (that would be GM new Cadillac CTS-V), but it's quick enough for most people. Top speed is governed at 130 mph, and in my test car the turbocharger kicked in with no discernible lag when I punched the gas. Audi says the A4 will accelerate from 0 to 60 in 7.1 seconds with the smaller engine (which is about what I got in my test car) and 6.1 seconds with the V6.
However both Motor Trend and Edmunds.com clocked the 2.0T quattro at 6.5 seconds, faster than Audi's rating. Times for the 3.2 quattro, meanwhile, are all over the map. Road and Track timed that version of the A4 at a respectable 5.9 seconds, while Edmunds.com clocked it at 6.9 seconds, which the reviewer deemed "not a competitive performance for this class."
The good news is that the A4 handles extremely well. It feels more balanced and solid on the road than the previous A4, and the optional Drive Select system, which allows the driver to choose among "comfort," "automatic" and "dynamic" settings, works surprisingly well. I tried it many times on the fly and switching to the "dynamic" setting always instantly and noticeably hardened the suspension.
I like the A4's interior better than the interior of BMW's 3 Series. The design is clean and understated. Controls are bunched in the center stack and there's the usual Audi central knob for controlling most functions via a video screen on the dash. There are also dedicated switches for many functions on the center console if you prefer not to use the knob. The wood trim (a $400 option) is available in ash or dark walnut, and the ash is a gorgeous shade of almond beige.
The front seats are roomy, but (as with other compact luxury cars) leg and headroom in the rear seats is tight. I'm 5 ft. 10 in, and my head was close to brushing the ceiling in the back seat. In the all-wheel-drive version of the car, there's also an annoying hump down the middle of the floor that makes the center rear seat impractical, except for a child.
The A4's trunk is huge. There's an optional pass-through to the rear seats for skis and other long objects, and the rear seats fold down independently in a 60/40 pattern. Heated rear seats are available as an option.
Buy it or Bag It?
For my money, the top choice among compact luxury sedans is still the BMW 3 Series (the 328i and 335i). The Bimmers are quicker than a comparable A4 and have rear-wheel drive (the preference of most driving enthusiasts) and sharper handling. However, if you care more about daily driving economy and comfort than performance, the four-cylinder version of the A4 is an excellent choice. It costs an average of $35,201, according to the Power Information Network, versus $41,737 for the six-cylinder A4 and $38,126 for a BMW 328i sedan.
Personally, I'd skip the base model A4 and go with the 2.0T quattro with either a stick shift (starting price: $32,675) or Tiptronic automatic (starting price: $33,875). Fuel economy isn't quite as good as in the base model but either would be more fun to drive than a car with a continuously variable transmission.
What makes the decision difficult is that there are numerous good alternatives in roughly the same price range, including the Mercedes C300 and C350, the Infiniti G37, the Acura TSX and Acura TL, the Lexus ES350, the Lincoln MKS, and the Cadillac CTS.
Of all these models, the ones I'd be sure to test-drive against the A4 are the Acuras. Like the A4 2.0T, the Acura TSX has a peppy four-cylinder engine and can be had with a stick shift or automatic. Like the A4 3.2T, the Acura TL has V6-power and is available with a sporty all-wheel drive system. Both Acuras also can be packed with high tech options—and for less than the A4.
Click here to see more of the 2009 Audi A4.