Audi's A4 about-face

Do you like Audi’s aggressive new corporate double-decker radiator grille, aka ‘the beard’? You’d better if you’ve got any plans to put a new Audi on your shopping list over the next few years.

It’s now certain the Ingolstadt car maker is running with an idea that it’s going to be the grille of grilles, a core identity statement every bit as powerful and unambiguous a BMW’s and Mercedes’, and twice as striking. 

Soon you’ll be able to line up the entire range nose to tail and, like it or not, that deep, single-frame trapezoidal grille will be as embedded as the writing in a stick of rock. Until quite recently, this would have been considered a gamble, especially for subtlety-merchants Audi. But, if nothing else, BMW’s design chief Chris Bangle has hauled a sense of post modernism back into car design. It’s a far more daring and eclectic place than it used to be.

Audi’s vision of one grille to rule them all is, naturally, unfolding in episodes. And each new reveal is more fascinating than the last in a ‘does my grille look big on this?’ kind of way.

On the A3, the verdict was a definite maybe. But fittingly for Audi’s most important model, the A4, the result looks pretty much spot on. My guess is that even critics of the new nose will have to admit it’s been superbly integrated this time – perhaps a more successful execution of the shades-of-Nuvolari-concept approach than the oddly frumpy tail-light treatment.

Anyway, this is no perfunctory mid-term facelift. As well as re-modelling virtually all of the A4’s exterior panels, Audi has also turned its attention to what lies beneath, re-engineering the four-year-old mainstreamer’s chassis and introducing four new engines along the way.

For our first steer in Sicily, we’re concentrating on the new 203bhp 2.0T, which uses the 2.0-litre FSI turbo engine from the new VW Golf GTI and, in front-drive form, is earmarked to become the big seller. Those in search of more grunt, but unwilling to stretch to the 344bhp V8 S4, will find interest in the compact 255bhp 3.2-litre V6 FSI unit already seen in the A6, and the new 206bhp 3.0-litre V6 twin-turbodiesel which is said to be capable of cracking 0-62mph in just 7.2sec in manual form.

Our test car has the six-speed version of the new-generation ML (Manual/ Lengthways) gearbox fitted to all new A4s which, as well as claiming to improve shift quality, also allows the engine to be mounted further back in the engine bay.

Something of a gift for the chassis engineers this, but they’ve been busy in their own right, endeavouring to further shrink a closing gap with the BMW 3-series, which even Audi acknowledges is the clear class benchmark.

It’s interesting that BMW was probably the first company to talk seriously about suspension elastokinematics (essentially its repertoire of moves in the face of continuously changing dynamic conditions).

For the new A4, Audi’s suspension team is said to have undertaken ‘extensive works’ on the elastokinematics and spring and damper settings with a view to improving both agility and comfort – conceivably the outcome of some personnel cross-pollination from BMW to Audi on the chassis side.

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The basic architecture of the mostly light alloy suspension is unchanged with a four-link arrangement at the front and Audi’s trapezoidal-link design at the rear. At the front, several mounts and track rods have been lifted from the S4, while the mounts for the control arm come from the new A6.

Together with the revised damper settings, this is said to have enhanced the steering’s responsiveness and quality of feedback, and all but eradicated torquesteer. Beyond that, the servotronic power assistance has been tweaked to retain its lightness around town while offering improved turn-in and feel at speed.

The compact, low-weight rear suspension’s trapezoidal link is now the same as the S4’s and made from hollow-section aluminium. It acts as a rigid control arm and absorbs a large portion of the forces acting on the rear wheels. Together with the track rod located behind it, it defines the elastokinematic behaviour of the axle. The larger dampers are from the A6, as are several of the suspension mounts.

As for the chassis’ computer components, ESP 8 is the most sophisticated version of the electronic stability programme yet. It comprises anti-lock brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution and hydraulic brake assist, which automatically increases brake power when the driver applies the brakes in an emergency. 

The traction control system (ASR) interacts with the electronic differential lock to provide efficient yaw control. New pressure sensors are said to make the intervention of the ESP functions even harder to detect, particularly when the car is under-steering, though if the nose looks like ploughing straight on all four wheels are braked until it gets back on line.

ESP 8 even automatically initiates a featherlight application of the brakes in the wet to keep the discs dry and at peak efficiency. The brakes should be better than ever given the slightly larger front discs and the 2.0T’s 7x16-inch alloys shod with 215/55 Continental rubber.

Inside, the A4 looks much the same, save for the new magnesium-framed steering wheel, revised seats and a cut-down version of the excellent MMI control system for cars fitted with the optional DVD-based satellite navigation. There are, however, a brand new selection of trim packs, plus revised alloy wheel designs and sizes.

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And, although it’s hard to believe, Audi is claiming even higher standards of build and finish to go with the beefed-up safety standards and SUV-repelling extruded aluminium beams in the doors and sills. It’s something to ponder, but not for too long as our lengthy test drive out of Palermo airport takes in the fabulously twisted and challenging roads of the legendary Targa Florio. This A4’s up for it, no question.

Smooth, crisp, sweet-revving and a joy to listen to, Audi’s harmonically balanced 2.0-litre direct-injection turbo engine is something of a four-pot marvel: no lag, kicks like a mule and hits 62mph from rest in just 7.3sec. At maximum effort, this new engine has plenty going for it, but it’s also deceptively flexible (the torque curve is ruler flat between 1800 and 5000rpm) and very refined – on a light throttle, its ‘presence’ in the cabin actually disappears beneath the already subdued noise floor created by the tyres and wind rush.

After a brief photo opportunity in Cerda, the news for the driver gets better still in the hills. The new A4’s gearchange is slick and its steering crisp. The whole chassis’ demeanour is both alert yet limber and loose-limbed, too. It points with more precision than before, has more satisfyingly weighted steering at speed (it’s still light, though), communicates more meaningful feel and now beguiles with its balance without ever seeming to compromise grip – which, despite the squealing tyres, it has in spades.

In short, it feels secure without being uptight. It has a well-developed sense of flow and absorbs mid-bend bumps with an easy-going pliancy you appreciate more as the miles pile on. If all this sounds suspiciously like fun, read it so. Fun in a mid-range Audi A4 on what Dr Ferry Porsche described as the most testing true road circuit in the world.

Stranger still, we retraced our steps later in the afternoon in an S4 and were left largely unmoved, despite all the extra straight-line speed and cornering grip. And despite the chassis and steering modifications. Great news if you don’t like spending money.

David Vivian

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