First up, the driving position is excellent, with generous visibility to all four corners and great pedal placement, at least in left-hand-drive form. There are also new seats, which are both better formed and provide more support than those of the old model. The added accommodation is immediately noticeable; the increase is not huge, but it serves to make the new Audi a more pleasant place in which to travel than its predecessor.
The various prototypes we drove all featured Audi’s active instrument display, which provides excellent clarity. The dashboard is to be commended for its overall simplicity and high level of quality. We also got to try the head-up display unit, which is making its debut as an option on the A4 along with features such as an 8.3in monitor, an inductive charging pad for mobile phones, sensor control opening of the luggage compartment on Avant models, a Bang & Olufsen sound system, tablet-based rear seat entertainment and the latest version of the German car maker’s Multi Media Interface (MMI) system that features an LTE internet connection.
The front-wheel-drive A4 2.0 TFSI Ultra is one of two models to run a turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine. The most economical of all new petrol-powered A4 models, it replaces the previous A4 1.8 TFSI, which used an older turbocharged 1.8-litre engine that is set to be phased out across the Audi line-up.
The message with the new engine is that downsizing is not the only alternative in the search for lower CO2 emissions. Among its developments is a revised Atkinson cycle combustion process with a compression ratio raised to a high (by petrol engine standards) 11.7:1 and a newly developed exhaust manifold. Power is up by 19bhp at 187bhp, while torque remains the same as before at 234lb ft.
The longitudinally mounted powerplant comes mated to a standard six-speed manual gearbox, although the prototype put at our disposal used an optional seven speed S tronic dual-clutch automatic unit. So configured, the A4 2.0 TFSI Ultra is claimed to return 58.9mpg combined in saloon guise, endowing it with average CO2 emissions of just 109g/km – figures that better those of the new A4 1.4 TFSI entry-level model, no less.
The new petrol unit fails to propel the A4 with the same sort of conviction or low-end urgency as the four-cylinder diesel engine we also tried. Nevertheless, it is smooth and willing to rev. Audi quotes a 0-62mph time for the A4 2.0 TFSI of 7.3sec, bettering that of the old CVT-equipped A4 1.8 TFSI by 1.0sec. Top speed is put at 149mph, up from an earlier 140mph.
As a measure of the added efficiency brought by a claimed drag co-efficient of 0.23, along with reduced mechanical drag and lower rolling-resistance tyres, the A4 2.0 TFSI is claimed to roll 450 metres further than its predecessor from a speed of 80mph. That’s a distance of over four football fields.
The steering, a speed sensitive electro-mechanical set-up, is lighter in nominal weighting than before in Comfort mode but also proved to be quite accurate. The initial sharpness of the previous A4's rack has been traded for a noticeably more progressive action across the first quarter turn of lock, giving the new model a more natural feel in most situations. We’d still like more feedback, but it is nevertheless a big improvement.
The same can be said of the dynamic properties, which have been dramatically improved. There is now a greater subtlety and fluidity to the A4, which not only makes it more accommodating but also a good deal more entertaining over any given road than the car it replaces.
The transformation can be traced to the newly developed body structure, which Audi technical chief Ulrich Hackenberg describes as not only being lighter but also significantly more rigid than that used by the old A4. Further gains have been made with the adoption of new integrated cast aluminium front suspension towers that, he says, allow road shock to be dispersed with greater effectiveness than before.
As a result, the new model receives softer springs and more progressive damper rates than its predecessor right across the line-up. The roll bars have also been upgraded, with the diameter up by 4mm in certain cases. The elastokinetic properties have also been heavily revised with bushings that are described as providing greater initial bump absorption.
Audi says it looked at providing the new A4 with an optional air spring suspension like that offered on the latest Mercedes C-Class. However, the gains made with the standard underpinnings are such that Hackenberg decided against it. “The new platform can easily be adapted for air suspension, but it is not planned," he said. "Not yet, anyway.”
The upshot is a significantly improved ride. The prototypes of the new A4 we drove felt more settled over a variety of surfaces than we remember the old model ever being. This is especially noticeable at lower speeds, where added compliancy has brought enhanced comfort. The new car is occasionally caught out by transverse ruts, which tend to induce a nasty thump from the front end at higher speeds, but for the most part the mid-range Audi proves a much smoother riding proposition than its predecessor.
Equally as impressive is the handling. The more natural feel to the steering happily extends to the cornering nature of the new A4. Of particular note is the roll stabilisation, which was exemplary on the early examples we drove. The softer springs allow more lean than with the old A4, but deft damping qualities introduce greater progression to the body movements.