Does It Have “The Look”?
By Robert S. Schultz
It is inevitable. There will be at least one car you seriously regret buying. Remorse is such an immutable law of car buying that Consumer Reports even has a “Regret” category in its Annual Owner Satisfaction Survey. The remorse might hit you head on before you leave the dealership. Or it might sneak up on you over time and tailgate you every miserable mile until you unload your mistake.
Sadly, there is no sure way to predict or prevent it, the reasons for buyer’s remorse being so numerous and personal. But this much can be said: the new Audi A4 is a car that is not likely to drive you to despair for purchasing it. Months, and probably years, down the road, the 2017 Audi A4 will continue to be what it was the day the salesperson handed you the key: a smart, sensibly luxurious sedan equipped with an impressive battery of safety and connectivity features. It will age gracefully, always looking handsome on the street and confirming your excellent judgment in purchasing it every time you press the Start button.
But will the A4 thrill, stimulating that automotive pleasure center of the brain (science hasn’t discovered it yet, but surely it exists)? A short weekend trial of a 2017 A4 from Audi gave us the opportunity at least to ask, if not fully answer, that fundamental car question.
B9 vs. B8
With a 2015 A4 (sport suspension, black optic package, 6-speed manual) resident in our garage, comparisons with this new generation came quickly and easily. Most obvious:
- From the first turn out of the driveway, the B9 A4 felt lighter and more agile. It weighs only 66 lbs. less (quattro vs. quattro), according to Audi, so other factors must account for the profound difference. The new MLB Evo chassis, perhaps?
- It’s quiet, as in library-quality silence. Yes, you can detect an engine note, but it’s all very hush hush. The summer Continentals on our 2015 are beginning to howl, but there’s more noise suppression and suspension isolation overall in the new A4.
- The steering is just numb. Flipping through the drive select options only increases the weight, not the feel. In the comfort setting, ironically, a hint of road sensation manages to work its way up the steering column.
- The increase in horsepower (32) isn’t immediately evident. To be fair, though, we’re comparing a 7-speed S tronic to a 6-speed manual. The hefty torque (258 lb.-ft.) of the B8 A-4, combined with a manual transmission, makes it feel fast. The new engine unleashes its horsepower when called on, though, delivering a measure of Audi S model performance.
- The new interior continues to offer club-level accommodations. Some testers have criticized it for being bland, but in our view, it further evolves what was one of the nicest automotive cabins, especially when equipped with the virtual cockpit.
The 2017 Audi A4 is an important model for Audi of America, proving to be the second-best seller in 2016, next to the Q5 (the outgoing version, no less), and outpacing the A3. Its 2016 numbers were up 19% over 2015, demonstrating the appeal of the redesign. All of this in a declining market for sedans (think FCA, dropping the Chrysler 200 just a few years after its intro).
Street smarts vs. sales numbers
But how does the new A4 fare on the streets, not just the sales charts? Our weekend took us on favorite and familiar roads along the eastern edge of Wisconsin to Door County. Unexpectedly gorgeous late-fall weather prohibited any kind of testing under slippery conditions, but we were otherwise able to check the A4 on a variety of highways and byways.
The predominant take-away is that the A4 is something of a chameleon, whatever you want or need at the moment. Accommodating grocery-getter? Yes. Top-flight highway cruiser? You bet. Incisive country road carver? Yup. Despite the jutting grille, the new A4 comes across with a certain reserve. But don’t mistake its modest looks for lack of depth; Audi has endowed the A4 with a wide dynamic range.
Lots of cars swallow highway miles with ease these days, and the A4 is at the top of the sedan class. Audi’s latest chassis configurations are showing their strengths across the entire model range. Quick turn-in, precise and stable lane changes and a compliant but not cushy ride are all characteristics of the A4 at speed. Much as we like the sport suspension of the B8 chassis for its near-ideal balance, the base suspension on our test A4 seemed well-sorted. It corners flat, absorbs the hits and remains comfortable mile after mile.
The impeccable quality of the A4’s cabin certainly adds to cruising enjoyment. Google earth and Audi’s virtual cockpit together—what more could you ask for? While it takes some familiarizing, the all-digital dash continues to impress. The speed of the NVIDIA processor and the precise rendering of the graphics with their subtle shading are a masterpiece of digital engineering. The rapid pace with which Audi is integrating the virtual cockpit into its lineup is equally noteworthy.
Our only letdown with the A4’s interior was the shift lever. It’s now a stubby T bar, and though it moves fore and aft, there’s no longer any mechanical connection. Action is all shift-by-wire, and it can be a little disconcerting. We can accept the virtues of the S tronic transmission, especially the 7-speed in our A4, but could we please have a shift lever design that pays some homage to the actual task of changing gears? Sadly, the R8 is also saddled with the T-handle, which seems like a transmission travesty.
Normal vs. Sport
Charming small towns and villages linked by undulating roads mark the Door County landscape, on both the Lake Michigan and Green Bay shorelines. The speed limit changes and hilly terrain made an ideal test ground for the S tronic tranny. In normal mode it’s so smooth and quiet it’s nearly indistinguishable from a conventional automatic. Perfect for easy touring. Slot it into Sport mode, however, and both you and the car come to attention. With the extra gear of a 7-speed to work with, Sport mode strikes the right balance between aggressive and relaxed. It shifts intuitively on the rises and falls, and though revs are up, they’re not so high at constant speeds as to be frenetic or nerve-jangling. For the most part, we left it auto, as manual shifting didn’t add much to the experience. As a side note, at highway speed in Sport mode, the S tronic stays in sixth gear; at 60 mph revs are 1800, vs. 1400 in normal mode and seventh gear). We hope Audi fits this 7-speed unit to other four-cylinder cars (like the A3/S3, TT/TTS).
On our one foray into more aggressive motoring, a mile-long corkscrew at the top of the peninsula (and freshly paved, at that), the A4 reminded us that it comes from a noble family of S cars. Here we could use that newfound horsepower to advantage, along with quattro and torque vectoring. The A4 clung and cornered, and even caught some air over a couple gentle rises. So the A4 can be a sport sedan, too.
Proper vs. panache
The driving dynamics and luxury accoutrements of the new A4 can be fairly easily quantified. Styling is another, far more subjective matter. Artful sheet metal creases and intricate design details abound. But the overall effect seems more stiff and proper than we’re used to with Audis. This new generation A4 lacks the flowing visual panache of its predecessor. Primarily, that’s due to a more upright C pillar, which does allow for more rear seat headroom, though. A declining market segment may call for a cautious, conservative approach to styling in order to broaden the appeal. Personally, we’d like to see Audi reach deeper into its gene pool of progressive and distinctive design cues.
Still, our A4 got an approving once-over from a fellow hiker in Peninsula State Park. “It has the look,” he said. We think “the look” goes beneath the surface and speaks to the A4’s gestalt. It’s more than a sharp design crease that stretches from front to rear. More than a dimensional, “singleframe” grille. More than yet another prestigious car. It’s a certain Audi-ness, a sensibly luxurious stance, if you will, that will wear well over time. A car that no one will fault you for buying, including you.
The MSRP of our Ibis White A4 was $47,900, including destination. EPA ratings were 24/31, 27 combined. We saw mileage in the 28 mpg range with mixed city/highway driving. To help improve economy, the A4 is equipped with automatic start/stop. It’s seamless enough once you get used to it, restarting the car as soon as you lift your foot off the brake. The feature can be defeated, but only temporarily. When you turn the ignition off and restart, it defaults to the on position.
Audi supplied the A4, a tank of gas and insurance.
Here are a few of our favorite places in Door County:
- The Blacksmith Inn, Baileys Harbor. A bed and breakfast without peer in a repurposed smithy’s shop on the “quiet side” of the bay. Authentic country charm without pretention. Every room has a private bath, fireplace, and whirlpool. Exceptionally gracious hospitality. And adults only.
- Chives Restaurant, Baileys Harbor. Locally-owned fine dining, casual establishment. Seasonal entrees of local ingredients. Welcoming and friendly staff.
- On Deck Clothing, Sturgeon Bay, Fish Creek, Sister Bay. Ginormous selection of casual and sports wear for women and men. Name and niche brands. Great seasonal sales, and they’re always open.
- Waterfront Restaurant, Sister Bay. The kind of establishment you want to dress up for, but don’t have to. Exceptionally prepared cuisine. Equally extraordinary sunset views, if you get there in time.