The “new look” Audi A4 range has launched in Europe prior to its arrival in Oz in the first half of next year, three-and-a-half years into this ninth generation’s lifecycle that saw a “90 per cent new” revamp back in 2016.
On one hand, it’s more than a simple facelift. Sure, there’s some fiddling in powertrains and, predictably, a trickle-down of some in-cabin tech from further up the Audi tree. But to complement the expected nose and tail remodelling, Ingolstadt decided to go ahead and remodel the rest of the metallic skin, too.
No, we’re nowhere near ‘new model’ territory, but the extent of appearance enhancements show that Audi is mustard keen to keep its big-selling A4 – together with S4 and Allroad permutations - competitive in what’s already a ferociously competitive segment. Archrival BMW’s recently remade 3 Series has proven on home soil to be the current critical benchmark. Meanwhile, the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, itself the recipient of a techy cabin touch-up late-2018, currently outsells 3 Series two to one… and A4 four to one. Back home, at least, this spruce-up is indeed timely.
Audi brought A4 sedans, Avant wagons, Euro-oiler S4s and Allroads to its launch program at Bolzano in the Italian Alps. And while none are strikingly different to their forebears in the flesh at 50 paces, there’s devil in the detail bringing a certain freshness across the range.
Designers call it “quattro genes,” with “almost” every sheet metal surface altered. So the sides have been treated to a lower-set shoulder line, and chiseled horizontal strakes across subtly pumped guards to complement the bluffer nose and wider-look tail. It apes upscale stablemates such as the new A6, which is no bad thing.
As a result, A4 has grown in size, with sedans and Avant wagons widened by five millimetres to go with a 24mm-stretch in length, though carryover structures maintain the same height and wheelbase as their predecessors. Aside from the slick new headlight and taillight designs, there’s more ‘line’ styling differentiation in a three tier system: Basic (as the name suggests), fancier Advanced (with graduated silver and dark chrome accents); and old favourite S Line (which favours chrome highlights).
On the global menu, at least, these can be freely matched to three cabin themes: Basic, S Line and Design Selection. Add 12 different body colours, including new Terra Grey, plus three different headlight and taillight designs and you sense Audi is introducing more diversity and distinction to the A4 range.
Audi reckons the cabin’s had a fair overhaul though, much like the exterior, the newness is detailed in light touches and it feels certifiably familiar. Our test cars plumbed some richer (and optional) choices of colour and texture to drag them out of typical ‘business grey’ boredom, but there’s certainly a sense of gentle evolution without really pushing the game upmarket from the existing A4.
The headlining change is the MMI Touch infotainment format and foregoing a console controller for a purely touchscreen approach is an interesting departure. The “touch experience like that of a smartphone,” as its maker put it, will warm to some buyers favouring minimalism. And the simplified yet clearly more powerful operating system is real boon of improved usability… to a point.
The flipside is that console controllers of any design, good or bad, have been perceived as up-scaling from a mainstream to a premium experience. Removing a handy dial and shortcut buttons – a combination easy to use with averted eyes – and replacing it with an attention-robbing touchscreen interface will, in some eyes, seem like a downgrade. Further, you don’t get the nice, glassy, haptic secondary control screen like you do in Audi’s bigger limos, and the screen you do get sprouts conspicuously from the dash fascia with little regard for integration.
For instance, where the old MMI system allowed quick map scrolling with a drop of the hand, the new touch method demands pinch-zooming, then fishing for a centering icon – neat fun when you’re parked up, quite distracting when keeping it on the twisty, narrow Northern Italian Alpine blacktop.
We had little chance to test the greatly expanded connectivity and bleeding edge digital services as currently specced to A6/7/8 that have remained out of reach in Oz due to a lack of infrastructure support locally. But that’s about to change come August, when the local arm rolls out Audi Connect Plus (though initially only in the bigger limos).
In some regions in Europe, at least, functionality currently includes the ability to indicate traffic light timing, to find empty on-street parking, and other neat stuff such ‘functions on demand’ where infotainment features (DAB+, Navigation Plus, et cetera) can be freely added or removed by the car owner at their whim whenever they please.
In Europe, A4 will fit 2.0-litre turbo petrol fours and both 2.0L four and 3.0L V6 diesels, with eight different power levels ranging from 100kW to 180kW, all tied to Audi’s new and slightly confusing naming structure where nomenclature - 30 through 45 - bears no direct correlation to engine output numeracy. (For instance, the ‘35’ diesel makes 120kW whereas the ’35’ petrol makes 110kW.)
Audi Australia's ‘mum’ on spec given new A4 could be “almost 12 months away,” though has intimated diesel pretty much off the menu and the petrol A4 range might “consolidate” in range breadth. We’ll most certainly get the 180kW/370Nm ‘45’ quattro in sedan and Avant – which is precisely the car we focused on driving in Italy – and perhaps the lower-powered 140kW/320Nm ‘40’ and entry 110kW/270Nm ‘35’ TFSI forms, the latter most certainly in front-wheel drive.
While we’re at it, Australia will miss out on the (made-for-Europe) 255kW/700Nm diesel version of the S4, with the V6’s novel electric-spooling turbo compressor. Instead, we'll get the more powerful and fractionally quicker if less-torquey 270kW/500Nm turbo petrol V6 version (made for everywhere else). Audi quotes 4.9sec and 4.8sec for diesel and petrol S4 sedans respectively.
In short, I’d really be splitting hairs outlining differences between how the MY20 Euro-spec 45 quattro sedan drove in Italy compared with the MY19 Aussie-spec twin we tested recently back home. No surprise, really, given how much commonality lies under the thoroughly massaged skin.
The turbo four is quiet, pleasant and tractable at a cruise, even up steep Alpine passes, and the seven-speed dual-clutch – standard fitment across the petrol A4 board – is slick, seamless and pleasant, if slightly tardy to downshift given a surprise bootfull. It's no firebrand powertrain, though the blend of refinement and gusto, with a neat rort to the soundtrack once you dig in, is genuinely premium if bereft of any naughtiness.
Quite noteworthy, though, was the ‘adaptive comfort’ suspension spec. There are four different ride-handling packages either standard or optional on A4: standard passive, (23mm-lower) sports for S Line fitment, plus continuously variable damping in either (10mm-lower) Comfort or (23mm lower) Sport calibrations.
And while it’s unclear what will come to Oz and at what extra cost, the combination of supremely pliable ride – Italy has shit roads, too – with dynamic savvy body control of the adaptive comfort tune is a real upgrade given your only choice in Oz right now is a one-mode passive design (albeit, a good one).
On balance, the new A4 is perhaps a little too polite. If there’s a fizz in the vibe in our chosen test car, it’s a mild fizz at that. It could, though, have something to do with the unusual spec as tested: S Line in exterior fit out if with 18s rather than our Aussie 19s, together with a regular non-S Line cabin complete with standard seats and round (rather than flat-bottomed) wheel and the above-mentioned adaptive comfort suspension.
As mild mannered family cruiser, it fit the bill ideally, but we’ll reserve judgment on the full S Line package until we get some seat time.
Interestingly, one change to the powertrain is that five A4 engine variants adopt 12-volt versions of the fuel-saving stop-start coasting feature, saving on the cost and complexity of a 48-volt system used elsewhere in Audi’s range, including S4. It’s claimed to save up to 0.4L per hundred though it rarely kicked in during our Italian drive, even setting the car to Efficiency drive mode and coasting all the way down an Alpine mountain.
As an overall package, much of the MY20 change centres around sprucing up impressions outside (design) and inside (infotainment), a nice moderate polish to the window dressing while maintaining a solid drive with improved ride. A little more glow to what’s patently familiar, then. If pricing and equipment strategy of Aussie versions remain mostly unchanged, you have to wonder if Audi’s made enough impact with this revamp to claw back some territory from its German rivals.
Perhaps when Audi Australia unlocks the full connectivity potential already engineered into the car, the yet untapped vorsprung durch technik will lure more buyers. That’s because if you believe any of the German premium carmakers, technical showboating is at the frontline of the luxury battleground when it comes to winning ground and customers. Right?