The Audi A4 is an improvement over the previous version, but isn't good enough to topple the BMW 3-series
When we first drove the new A4 saloon, it was clear that not only had the outer skin changed dramatically (the roof is the only panel carried over from the old car), but a good degree of everything beneath had been worked on, too. And while the melee of new lines, shapes and angles only looks strong when viewed from head-on, the engineering changes – designed to make the A4 a more enjoyable drive – are a lot more successful.
In practical estate terms, the A4 remains unchanged from the old car, which means a reasonably capacious but hardly cavernous boot. The new Avant is actually 41mm longer overall (although that is all crash structure). With the rear seats folded flat you’ll still get the same 1184 litres of load space which, while useful, is a long way short of the 1850 litres you get with a Vauxhall Vectra estate; the Avant is more about style than load-lugging.
Dynamics have not recently been an Audi strong point, and the parts bin has been raided in a quest to tighten up the A4: there’s the S4’s Servotronic steering and its influence in the redesigned four-link front suspension, plus new A6-style rear dampers. The mounting bushes and geometry have also been tweaked and there are new, larger brake discs, a better ESP system and bodyshell reinforcement.The new range costs between £19,915 and £27,820 and comprises the established petrol 1.6, 2.0 and 1.8T engines boosted by some new high-tech firepower: FSI-equipped 2.0-litre turbo and 3.2 V6 engines. The proven 1.9, 2,0 and 2.5 V6 turbodiesels are joined by a new 3.0-litre V6 TDi.
The latter is the engine tested here. Having already received praise in the new A6 (it’s detuned slightly from that application), the 2967cc DOHC 24-valve motor is the latest in diesel technology. With common-rail injection using piezo injectors (which give extra-fine control over the fuel spray in the combustion chamber) and a variable-vane, twin-intercooler turbo, it produces 201bhp and a solid 332lb ft from 1400-3150rpm – yet it’s Euro4 emissions-compliant (meaning less tax for company car users). The only gearbox currently available is a new-to-the-A4 six-speed Tiptronic (an automatic with manual override; a proper manual will follow) and permanent four-wheel drive is the only drivetrain option, with a Torsen differential splitting the power 50:50 front and rear in typical driving conditions.
Considering our experience with this engine the level of refinement shouldn’t be a surprise, but when I twist the key following a night of sub-zero temperatures, the resultant soft growl and total absence of cackle and chunter is amazing. Once warmed you’ll be able to fool even semi-car-literate passengers that the V6 murmur (overlaid with subtle belt whine) is that of a petrol engine.
There’s no explosion of torque as the boost arrives. Instead the common-rail system seamlessly spreads power and torque delivery across a broad range, allowing the V6 to rev more than you’d expect, but robbing it of the characteristic big-diesel surge.
Audi quotes a 0-60mph time of 7.9sec, but it isn’t until you glance at the speedo that you notice how relentlessly this A4 piles on the numbers. The 1705kg kerbweight (which includes 50kg for the estate body and a further 45kg for the Tiptronic ’box) threatens to hamper progress but the six-speed transmission copes well, hanging onto gears on entry to corners and shifting quickly. Only occasionally does it thump a shift – usually from first to second under full acceleration – and it’s still advisable to slot the lever over into Tiptronic when the roads get really tight to introduce some much-needed engine braking.
Our car was supplied in SE rather than Sport trim, and despite retaining the traditional hard Audi ride, the new A4’s initial firmness over small bumps never escalates into crashing and jarring as the road surface deteriorates.
The revised steering is much heavier than before, with a more progressive weighting away from the straight-ahead and a pleasing accuracy, even if there’s still no feel through the elegant rim. On fast, sweeping roads or those with a rhythmical series of corners the A4 stays flat, corners hard and finds excellent traction.
But it still works best when driven at seven-tenths. Beyond that point it becomes nose-heavy – the V6 block still sits well ahead of the front axle line – especially under braking from high speed, when a shudder through the steering rack communicates the understeer.
Otherwise, the new A4 continues established Audi characteristics. The interior is beautifully built and has the depth of quality that seems to prove tantalisingly out of reach for its rivals. Inside, there’s the new steering wheel with its Audi grille-shaped hub and the optional MMI control system that’s a cinch to use after BMW’s iDrive. Refinement is excellent, the redesigned seats comfortable and the instrumentation as attractive and clear as ever.
At £29,830 (with the SE pack) this A4 might not offer the driving thrills of a £30,820 BMW 330d Touring auto, but it makes a fine all-round sporting estate: refined, quick, smooth, satisfying and the car it always should have been.
The Avant is unlikely to come high on the list of those in need of a really practical wagon, but in the lifestyle estate segment it looks stronger than ever because its previous dynamic weaknesses have been improved to at least a decent level.
The A4 Avant 3.0 TDi is a great way to move a small amount of luggage a long way, rather quickly.