Middle managers of great Britian have never had it so good. BMWhas just revised its 3 Series to make it even more compelling. TheMercedes C-Class offers the looks and tech from the S-Class for a fraction of the price. While the new Jaguar XE is a stylish British alternative to the established German mainstream which has just won compact executive car category in the recent Auto Express New Car Awards 2015. However, its reign at the top could be short-lived…

Audi is just about to replace its ageing A4 with an all-new version which claims best in class statistics in a number of key areas including weight, economy, practicality and technology. Plus it promises to match the very best in terms of driving fun yet beat them on comfort.

But can it? We’ve been granted an early test drive of some preproduction models in both saloon and estate body styles to see if the impressive claims translate into a car which can finally take Audi to the top of the compact executive car class.

• Best executive cars to buy now

However, things don’t get off to a roaring start. Once again Audi’s design team have played it safe with the external look of the car to a point where the uninitiated wouldn’t be able to tell this 9th incarnation apart from its predecessor. Still it looks smart enough and buyers in this sector are notoriously conservative, so Audi would be foolish to rock the boat.

Underneath that familiar skin though, the new A4 is a very different beast. It’s built on Volkswagen Group's new MLB Evo platform, which is for cars with longitudinally mounted engines. The A4 is the second car to use this architecture and smallest too. As a result, represents the starting point for the various configurations which will follow to underpin models including the new Q5A8 as well as other VW Group vehicles such as the Bentley Bentayga.

We've already been mightily impressed with the combination of improved agility and comfort the MLB platform delivers in the newQ7. But it's the  A4 which is the most important application as the A4 is Audi's best selling model globally.

As with the Q7, the architecture enables significant weight savings in the A4. The new model is up to 120kg lighter than its predecessor and, when comparing, like-for-like the car weighs less than the equivalent BMW 3 Series, Mercedes C-Class and even the aluminium bodied Jaguar XE. This in combination with improvements in engine technology, reduced rolling resistance and enhanced aerodynamics, has allowed Audi to set record-breaking efficiency levels of 95g/km for a 2.0-litre diesel and 109g/km for a 2.0-litre petrol.

The car’s new bodywork also sets a class record for low drag. A lot of work went into honing the car's shape to make it as slippery as possible - the new side mirrors took over a year alone to develop. These are now mounted directly on the door panel rather than at the junction with quarter light as this allows air to slip more smoothly down the side of the car. As well as minimising drag, this also minimises wind noise and helps make the A4 a very quiet car to travel in. Meanwhile extensive soundproofing helps block out tyre roar and energy absorbing engine mounts prevent vibrations and rattles entering the cabin.

Audi says the A4 is the quietest car in its class, and based on our first impressions, we have no reason to doubt this claim. But a hushed cabin alone does not a relaxing car make. A cosseting ride is also essential, something Audi’s not exactly renowned for.

That’s why comfort was one of the key areas of development for the new car. The MLB Evo platform is about 15 per cent stiffer than that of the old A4. This, plus the use of lighter aluminium suspension components, means that softer suspension can be fitted, while body roll can be kept in check by using fatter sway bars than before.

Buyers will be able to choose from four different suspension settings. There’s the fix rate dampers which feature a monotube design and this apparently causes less internal friction so they can respond faster to small but quick movement. Basically this set up makes the car fidget less over small bumps.

These dampers are offered in a normal setting or a firmer sports setting which also rides 23mm lower. We were only able to try the latter, and while German roads are generally a lot smoother than those in the UK parts of our test route had tarmac as patchy as that in Britian. The A4 still felt quite firm but it was never crashy in the same way the sports or S Line suspension felt on the old car.

Once again, variable dampers are offered on the A4 but this time customers can choose between two set ups: normal, which is lower than the standard car by 10mm, and sport which, as with fixed rate, sits 23mm lower for a more aggressive look and a sharper drive. Both the normal and sports adaptive dampers can then be switched between different modes, Auto, Comfort and Dynamic. The latter is best avoided because it reduces comfort for a highly marginal, or most likely imaginary, improvement in handling.

So the adaptive dampers are best left in auto mode to constantly adapt to the road and your driving style, and then the balance of comfort and handling is highly impressive, allowing the car to glide effortlessly up the road. In fact even in auto mode the sport adaptive set up felt noticeably more comfortable and composed over bumps than its fixed rate counterpart and is therefore an option well worth having.

One extra best avoided, though, is the active steering. This varies the amount of angle at the wheels compared to the amount of lock applied depending on the conditions or driving style. However, it doesn't feel anywhere near as natural as the standard set up, which is without doubt the best yet on any A4 to date, though steering feel has never been an Audi strong point... Until now.

Buyers in the segment increasingly demand more comfort yet still want an involving drive and the new A4 steers sharply. It telegraphs to the driver sensations which communicate levels of grip and steering angle while filtering out distractions such as bumps and vibrations. While the previous A4 felt like a point and squirt machine with plenty of grip but little involvement, this new one works with you, allowing you to flow through corners.

Essentially the new car feels more connected to the road in all the right ways, but less so in the wrong ways. As good as a rear drive BMW 3 Series? In Quattro guise - which operates a 60:40 biased to the rear – maybe. Though a back-to-back test in the UK is required to finally decide that.

Thankfully, even front wheel drive versions are more fun than before, though, obviously, you can't get on the power quite so soon when exiting a corner. But for most people most of the time, these models will provide all the grip they will ever really need.

Non Quattro A4s are available with all engines apart from the 4x4-only higher power  3.0-litre 268bhp V6 diesel engine - which is good for 0-62mph in just 5.3 seconds yet still emits only 129g/km CO2. So the choices include a 3.0-litre 215bhp V6 diesel or the best selling 2.0-litre diesel, which is available with either 187 or 148bhp. These emit as little as 95 and 99g/km of CO2 and return a claimed 74.3 and 70.6mpg respectively. Petrol engines include a 1.4TFSI with 148bhp capable of 57.6mpg and 114g/km plus a 2.0 TFSI with 249bhp that can get from 0-62mph in as little as 5.8 seconds yet still manages a decent 49.5mpg and 129g/km of CO2.

There's also a new 187bhp 2.0 TFSI engine which uses a special dual stage combustion cycle to deliver the performance of the old 1.8 turbo petrol but with the economy of the 1.4. Actually, it betters the smaller engine slightly with figures of 109g/km C02 and 58.9mpg. When cruising the engine limits the amount of fuel and air entering the cylinders which means it effectively operates as though its capacity is 1.2-litres. But if you want to accelerate hard the inlet cam profile changes seamlessly to utilise the full capacity of the chambers and deliver maximum performance with strong and smooth acceleration.

This new engine is a great solution for company car drivers who want a nippy petrol car - 0-62mph takes 7.3 seconds in the saloon - but with minimal tax implications. The only downside is that like with the lower power 2.0TDI and 1.4TSI, the engine is not available with Quattro all-wheel-drive.

You can have it with the fast-shifting 7-Speed S tronic dual clutch gearbox instead of the standard six speed manual, though. Meanwhile the 3.0-litre diesels come with an eight-speed normal automatic which actually feel a little smoother at lower speeds and still responds quickly enough should you suddenly need to up the pace.

And driving at speed in the new A4 has never been safer. New powerful brakes offer more stopping power than before and superior pedal feel making it easier to modulate your braking effort. Also the A4 gets Audi pre sense city as standard. This can automatically brake the car at under 53mph reduce the severity of any impact and can even prevent a collision entirely if you are doing less than 25mph.

The A4 also gets the same raft of gadgets introduced on the Q7 earlier this year. So there's adaptive cruise control, which can drive the car for you in crawling motorway traffic or, at higher speeds, automatically keep itself within its lane, so long as the driver periodically puts their hands on the wheel. There's also clever matrix LED lights which can read the road ahead adjust the spread of their light pattern so that you can effectively drive round with high beam on the whole time without dazzling other drivers.

Other features include the virtual cockpit first seen on the TT, though as with the Q7 there's also a high definition central screen so the passenger can operate the navigation or stereo. This is upgradable to a Bang and Olufsen 3D sound system, which gives the effect of turning the car into a concert hall as all the sound appears to come from the top of the dash as though its a stage.

Buyers can also opt for LTE mobile connectivity to turn their cars into a wi-fi hot spot. It also enables the sat-nav to stream high definition Google maps, a new high-speed CPU ensuring the crisp graphics are rendered quicker even than on most mobile devises.

All this tech helps create a contemporary feel inside the A4s well built, high quality cabin, which just has a touch more class than that of its rivals - though people after a bit of bling may find it a bit subdued next to the shiny and showy Mercedes C-Class. Regardless, there are some nice touches such as an extra wide vent in the centre of the dash that acts as a subtle diffuser which Audi calls 'air shower'.

Interior space is better than before. Even though the new A4 stands at the same height as before headroom front and back is improved as the comfy seats, which are now thinner and lighter than in the old car, are mounted lower. A wider body creates more shoulder room while a longer wheelbase means there's a 23mm increase in legroom. This may not sound like much, but it means that six footers will be comfy in the back seat - which they most certainly won’t in the cramped Jaguar XE. Overall the new A4 feels like the most spacious car in its class, though once again we need to compare it against the 3 Series, which was the class leader for rear passenger space.

While it’s roomier inside, the new A4 saloon’s load carrying capacity is similar to before, though a lower boot floor and lip plus a wider opening make it even more useable. Those seeking more practicality will want the Avant as it can swallow 505-litres or 1510-litre with the seats folded flat - numbers which trump estate versions of its German rivals.

In fact anyone considering a car in this class would be wise to hang on until later this year until they can take a test drive the new A4 before making their final decision. It’s hard to tell for sure without a group test on UK soil, but early signs from our time with a variety of preproduction models suggest that Audi may not have only built the best car in this class, but perhaps even the best all-round car in the company’s history.

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