REIBURG, Germany -- After breakfast, the Technicolor test car convoy lines up at the foot of the famous Schauinsland hill climb on a gray Saturday morning. It was here where the annual European championship event -- fearless heroes in fragile, fast open-top single-seat sports cars -- drew large crowds in the 1960s. Audi has chosen the legendary route as the place for the first real drive of the new 2017 Audi A4. The lead car (dubbed “the hare” by the Audians) storms up the winding mountain road first, checking for slow-moving traffic and speed traps. Exactly three minutes later, each undisguised pre-production A4 prototype takes off in 30-second intervals. How’s that for German efficiency?
We start the day in an A4 powered by its highest-spec 3.0-liter V-6 diesel with 272 horsepower (it’s available in the new Q7, but won’t be offered in the U.S.-spec A4), and after takeoff we’re still busy sorting out the basics. The new A4’s redesigned sport seat is supportive and comfortable, but it needs adjusting. Drive Select wants to be in the individual position; we lock engine and transmission in auto and steering and dampers in comfort. We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: Dialing in your favorite settings is too complicated and distracting. It requires the driver to deal with three widely scattered, different controls. But by the end of a 40-plus mph zone that seemingly snakes along the base of the majestic Schauinsland mountain forever, we finally have the vehicle’s DNA tuned to taste.
Although the V-6 TDI spreads its 443 lb-ft of torque from 1,500 to 3,000 rpm, nudging the eight-speed Tiptronic automatic’s new, square drive-by-wire gear selector to the manual position and flooring the accelerator doesn’t quite have the explosive effect we imagined. Once the torque feed has started, however, it feels more progressive and less peaky than last year’s vintage. Since the bottom two gears are spaced for maximum urge, the 5,000 rpm redline reappears in rapid succession. Thanks to Quattro (standard on the V-6 models) there is zero upshift squat and ample wet-weather traction. At speed, the new 2017 Audi A4 is very quiet in absolute terms, especially so for a diesel. It also rides noticeably better than the equivalent A4 it replaces. Proof is provided by its effortless low-speed bump absorption, cushy response to enemies like drainage grids or manhole covers, and the ease with which it masters transverse irritations.
Most of the corners up to the midway point of the route’s first section are fast sweepers, as in 80 mph, fourth-gear fast. The 3.0-liter TDI A4 handles them with maximum precision and minimum deflection -- that is, quite flat, totally balanced, and growling angrily. Instead of changing down early, we surf the V-6’s broad torque wave all the way to the entry of the next slow-ish corner. Now it’s hard on the brakes, down a gear or two, flick the wheel, and as soon as the front end bites we’re back on the oomph pump. The brake feel is on the heavy side, but the modulation could hardly be better. Handling is almost eerily neutral and smooth-edged with no more dents in the now perfectly progressive steering action, although in comfort setting the steering feel is quite light and calibrated more to American than European tastes.
The final six miles to the summit is a stomach-turning mix of second-gear kinks, blind crests, and hidden brake points, complicated during our drive by a random mix of moist and dry surfaces. The 2017 Audi A4 zigzags up the hill like a ground-effect arrow; it’s a commendably sharp core in an unexpectedly soft wrapper. As the going gets tougher, we dial the steering from Comfort to Dynamic – Audi-speak for meaty. We tried the same trick for the dampers, but even on such a super-smooth turf you instantly miss the gracious initial response and the impressive compliance the comfort setting provides. In this particular situation, climbing with a knife between the teeth, engine and transmission also want to be in Sport so that pedal action, gear selection, and torque delivery form a more aggressive threesome.
For the longest leg of the day, which takes us across the Rhine valley and through the picture-book vineyards of the Pfalz area, we switch into a 190-horsepower A4 2.0 TFSI turbocharged gas-powered model equipped with optional variable-rate dynamic steering, front-wheel drive, and Audi’s seven-speed S-Tronic dual-clutch transmission, which is replacing the present A4’s Multitronic CVT (S-Tronic is now available for front-drive Audis for the first time). When you drive the two versions back-to-back, the high-tech rack does make the car feel a little more agile around town. In a straight line and through wide-radius curves, however, it is saddled with a strongly self-centering artificiality that won’t go away completely, even as you apply more lock.
Other options that belong in the “less is more” category are the expensive sport differential (only for Quattro models), the pretty but compromised 19-inch wheels, and its myriad driver assistance systems. The predicative efficiency feature (vorsprung through gibberish) and the newly introduced coasting mode help save fuel, but why does the automatic de-clutch mechanism not work in manual and sport?
On paper, the base 2.0 TFSI seems hardly worth a special mention. But since the press kit dwells on the innovative combustion process and its best-in-class fuel efficiency, we started asking questions. We discovered this is actually a four-cylinder Miller cycle enhanced powerplant that produces 236 lb-ft of torque between 1,450 and 4,200 rpm for strong mid-range acceleration and a remarkably low high-speed consumption. (The U.S.-spec 2.0-liter turbo with 252 horsepower and 273 lb-ft coming for the 2017 Audi A4 also employs the Miller enhancement and is more powerful and efficient than the present car’s engine.)
How does it work? At part load, the intake valves close early, thereby increasing the pressure inside the manifold. This, in combination with the higher compression ratio, improves overall efficiency. Also part of the lean combustion process is the Audi valve lift system, which modulates the breathing apparatus for ample power and low-end torque as well as for low fuel consumption. Although it does not rely on high revs, Mr. Miller’s version of the 2.0-liter Audi engine deserves full marks for plenty of punch, prompt throttle response, and unmistakable acoustics. Acceleration from 0 to 60 mph for the 190-horsepower version arrives in roughly 7.1 seconds. When equipped with Quattro and the seven-speed S-Tronic, the 252-horsepower model of the 2017 Audi A4 sprints from 0 to 60 mph in about 5.6 seconds onto a top speed of 155 mph.
The front-wheel-drive A4 can be coaxed into mild understeer, it can be pushed beyond the limit of adhesion on winding and slippery uphill turf, and its dynamic equilibrium can be upset more easily than that of the A4 Quattro. But you know what? The two-wheel drive car is actually more fun through the bends, although it is harder work at ten-tenths and a little bit twitchier during abrupt changes of direction.
In contrast to the 3.0 TDI, that homogenous blend of carver and glider, the 2.0 TFSI is more interactive and involving. It becomes an even better car when shod with narrower (read more comfortable) 17-inch tires, with ESP set in sport and with the transmission in dynamic for late upshifts and early downshifts. While the Quattro variant is a somewhat stoic master of stability and control, the lesser model feels more accessible and ultimately more entertaining. Foibles? Vibrations on certain types of blacktop and when holding the car on the brake at traffic lights, and the usual ill-matched blend of fast throttle response and unnecessarily low gear in dynamic mode. It’s nothing that couldn’t be fixed by a software update.
As for the rest of the engine lineup, the strongest of the available 2.0-liter diesels delivers 190-horsepower and 295 lb-ft or torque and is likely the version we’ll see in the U.S.-spec A4, which marks the first time a diesel is offered for the car. Audi says acceleration from 0 to 60 mph with front-wheel drive and S-Tronic is about 7.5 seconds onto a top speed of 147 mph. It sports two counter-rotating balancer shafts and selective catalytic reduction that runs through an AdBlue solution designed to further reduce the diesel’s emissions footprint. Coming in late 2016 at the earliest are mild hybrid and plug-in hybrid models.
Once again, the interior is impeccable in terms of fit and finish, but like the new Q7, the latest A4 appears less user-friendly than earlier MMI-equipped cars, although the optional Audi Virtual Cockpit, featuring a 12.3-inch color configurable screen in the instrument cluster, is an impressive piece of kit. Although one look at the crowded center console and the multi-function steering wheel with the three stalks that sprout from it will have some romancing about push-button radios and manual window winders.
The new 2017 Audi A4 drives well, rides well, and performs well. It is built to the high standards Audi is known for. It is also lighter (by as much as 265 pounds, depending on configuration) and quantifiably more space efficient (by cabin length and cargo volume) than its predecessor. But the new model does not turn as many heads as it should. It’s an evolutionary shape, aerodynamically efficient (a best-in-class drag coefficient of 0.23 for the sedan) and true to the brand, but at least visually it’s not the breakthrough car it could have been. It’s that last little bit of emotion the A4 lacks, but that’s about all it does.
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