Did you know that it basically took Audi 126.5 million years to finally agree with everyone alive that having a tall 4,6 or 8 cylinder engine set up high and way in front of the front axle does not do wonders to the handling of their front wheel drive sedans? Having driven the current A6, the previous generation A4 (B7 series) as well as the earlier ones too, I have to say that massive understeer is the preferred way for these front wheel drive Audis to corner.
On the B7 A4 I remember driving it hard and it felt so nose heavy that even with a pointy nose it felt as if the steering was the one end of the stick and the other end was the large elephant hanging off of it. That A4 was a pretty good car and in 2.0TFSI form was a fast ride but the high speed handling on a twisty road was really bad. I would assume this trait would be lessened in the Quattro or All wheel drive version of the cars, but in the front wheel drive A4, it basically was awful.
Now this brings us to the current B8 Audi A4 1.8 TFSI launched around two years ago. The car I tried is owned by a friend of mine and it is a car that is very familiar to me. His ride pictured above is the 1.8TFSI 160bhp spec that comes with the larger 18inch tires and rims. It looks so much better than the stock 17inch rims that the standard car is specced with.
I suppose it was because of nearly universal criticism of mega understeer that Audi had finally decided to re-engineer the engine and gearbox placement of the A4. The wheels are now at least 8cm forward compared to the earlier setup and this equates to better handling as well steering feel. The car does not drive like you were sitting just slightly behind an arrow’s head in flight. You actually have a car in which does not fight the laws of physics all the time unlike the earlier versions.
This time it feels like you’re driving a front wheel drive car with a normal transverse engine instead of a longitudinally placed one (even though it is still longitudinally placed). Imagine driving a slightly larger Honda Civic (in terms of nippiness). This is the first 4 door front wheel drive Audi ever that behaves decently well.
There is very little sign of it being nose heavy like its predecessors. It is a car which you can fling into corners, of course there's none of the tail out antics being a front wheel drive and it will only show mild understeer at speeds in excess of 150km/h on high speed sweeping corners. On tighter corners, it is poised and predictable, with the A4 managing to turn accurately and without much of the artificial steering sensation of the previous variable assist steering wheel. It still lacks feel, but it is better than the previous A4.
The ride and handling is sorted unlike previous A4s I had driven or been in. The handling of this car is just right for most drivers. i.e. pointy and the tail is obedient, even in the wet. This one has the switchable dynamic, automatic and comfort damping. The modes also adjust throttle mapping and steering feel too. I prefer dynamic (the slightly firmer setup) over comfort and even automatic as this is just totally fun to be in most of the time.
Of course the 'comfort' setting will please a lot of older drivers out there and those that just want this A4 to be transport and nothing more. The damping on all settings are so much better than the earlier ones which seems to be undamped or oversprung. The older B7 Audis have a choppy ride due to the over aggressive rebound shock absorber rates.
This 1.8liter A4 comes with a Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) with 8 programmed shift points that has hardly any CVT yo-yo rubber band-like feeling like normal CVTs do and which I don't like too much. It feels much like a normal autobox that would move through the gears without the revs seeming to hold at high rpms on normal CVTs. It feels punchy and because of this the A4 seemed to be in the correct gear during a kickdown or when you downshift manually with the flappy pedals behind the steering wheel. Anytime you stomped on the throttle the CVT would go down to at least 2 to 3 of its programmed gear ratios without any hesitation, especially if you're in dynamic mode. This is by far the best CVT setup I've tried to date.
We have found out that the 160ps and 250Nm that the 1.8liter direct injection and turbocharged engine pumped out was more than adequate to take on most 2.0liter cars out in the market right now. You have to trust me on this as it has been done. Even on a damp road the ESP will blink like crazy if you're wringing the A4 in those conditions. I think the official specs are a little under rated as I think it makes a more than the quoted 160ps.
Even against a 280bhp JDM Subaru Legacy 2.0GT on a stretch of highway it will pull away from the Scooby from 120km/h till approximately 180km/h. This is when the bigger capacity engine with its extra torque gives the large capacity car that top end advantage. Do not even compare with a BMW 320i. In a straight fight (whether on a race track or a drag race) the similar priced BMW will get flattened. You may be able to argue that the 320i is more fun to drive as it is rear wheel drive, but point to point, this Audi is the faster hands down.
It does things very well, but driving the A4 was a slightly clinical experience as it felt a little polished. It does things efficiently and maybe too efficiently in a way. Maybe its that elusive thing called soul which is abundant in cars which are slightly eccentric (like an Alfa Romeo 159). However, I suppose it still is a good upgrade to those who have spent their driving lives in cars like the Mistubishi Lancer, Honda Civic or even the Golf GTI as its still front wheel drive and if you graduated from the Golf, you won't get into a surprise driving a BMW 335i which may suddenly punt you tail first into a tree due to its rear wheel drive (oversteer) nature.
As for the interior, the car is larger than the previous model and has better rear legroom. I have only one complaint is that in right hand drive form in that the pedals may be tight fit for those with big feet. The materials used is of class leading standard and if you were to compare between the BMW E90 3 series, the W204 C-class, you’d only have to choose between the Audi and the C-Class as the material quality in the 3 series is taxi like compared to the two.
On the exterior of the car I'd have to say that it is a successful albeit slightly fussy interpretation of the Audi school of design. However, the stance of the car is good, especially with the 18inch wheels. From the front with those daytime driving lights on it looks like an R8 and from the rear three quarter, it looks low slung, like a coupe. However, it has lost some of the clean lines of the previous B7 model and from the A6 (which facelift borrows the rear light cluster setup – in design). But this look will attract people and that's what Audi wants I suppose.
So what's my verdict on this Audi? Its a good car to drive and miles ahead of its predecessor, albeit slightly clinical. But Audis tend to be like this unless it has a either warbling 5 cylinder engine like in the original Quattro, a stonking 4.2liter V8 like in the RS4 or some Lamborghini derived V10 shoved into them. It is a good entry level executive car nonetheless.