January 26, 2008
Ottawa, Ontario – As a Canadian, I’m used to adjusting how, when and where I drive based on winter’s whims; the last thing I expect in winter driving is for a car to dictate what I wear on my feet. But that’s what the Audi A4 did to me when I realized that my favourite winter boots (big, bulky things, admittedly, but oh so warm) barely fit between the brake pedal and the centre console, where the gas pedal lives.
Indeed, the A4’s front footwells are on the small side, a design compromise necessitated by the drivetrain: placing the bulk of the engine/transmission combo’s weight further back improves weight distribution, which results in more stable handling. To this end, Audi also relocated the differential – the set of gears that apportions power between the left- and right-side drive wheels – from its usual spot to in between the engine and transmission, which allowed the front axle to be placed further forward.
Distributing weight properly is good for handling, but so is keeping that weight to a minimum. Audi has done that, too, through the extensive use of light, high-strength steel. The result is a larger A4 that weighs in at 1,700 kg (3,740 pounds) for a 2.0T quattro automatic transmission model like my tester. That’s just 60 kg more than a similarly-equipped 2008 model.
That’s a pretty reasonable weight increase for a car that’s grown considerably: overall length is up 117 mm (about 4.6 inches) to 4,703 mm (185.2 inches), the car is wider by 54 mm (just over two inches) for an overall measurement of 1,826 mm (71.8 inches), and the wheelbase has been stretched 160 mm (about 6.3 inches) to 2,808 mm (110.5 inches).
The minimal weight increase is offset by extra power. For 2009, the A4’s turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine gets an extra 11 horsepower and 51 lb-ft of torque, for totals of 211 hp and 258 lb-ft. (The optional 3.2-litre V6 also gets an extra 10 hp.) Torque also peaks sooner, at 1,500 rpm, instead of the old engine’s 1,800 rpm peak. The V6 still pulls harder at high speeds, but the four-cylinder’s generous low- and mid-range torque makes it difficult to justify spending more (at least $5,900) to get the six-cylinder engine.
The A4’s six-speed automatic transmission is a model of smoothness. It can be hesitant to downshift for acceleration, but this can be remedied either by using the responsive manual mode, or by adjusting the transmission’s settings through the Audi Drive Select (ADS) interface (more on that shortly). At the moment, the A4 is sold only with an automatic transmission; a six-speed manual should be available soon, at least for four-cylinder models.
Audi Drive Select (ADS) is a system that allows the driver to customize settings for the suspension, transmission, steering ratio and power assist and throttle response. There are three pre-set modes – Comfort, Dynamic and Auto – accessible via buttons on the dash, but a second access point through Audi’s MMI allows the driver to customize individual settings.
Dynamic mode is the sportiest, but its firm suspension and sharp throttle and steering response are a little much for everyday driving, which the Comfort setting goes too far the other way. Auto mode is a good compromise, but the ability to adjust each parameter individually is a great idea. ADS is very cool, but whether it’s worth $2,500 is between you and your bank balance.
The steering offers great feel and transmits useful road surface information to the driver’s hands. I found it felt overboosted at low speeds though, unless one of the more aggressive ADS settings was selected. Audi’s dynamic steering system varies the steering ratio and power assist based on vehicle speed; the system also works with the stability control program to help the driver regain control in the event of a skid. The stability and traction control system – known as ESP in Audi-speak – can be completely deactivated.
The brakes are strong, but touchy at first bite. They’re very easy to modulate beyond that initial grabbiness, though.
My 2.0T quattro Premium tester carries a base price of $45,000. To that, Audi added $2,500 for Audi Drive Select, $2,200 for the Technology Package (which bundles a blind spot monitor, adaptive Xenon headlights, Homelink and an advanced keyless entry and start/stop function) and $3,500 for a navigation system that also brings Audi’s MMI (Multi Media Interface) and a backup camera. All of that added up to a $53,200 A4, not including $800 freight.
Audi’s blind spot monitoring system, dubbed Side Assist, accomplishes the same thing as Volvo’s BLIS (blind spot information system), but goes about it slightly differently. Instead of employing cameras in the side view mirror housings a la Volvo, Audi’s system is radar-based, using sensors in the rear bumper. Like Volvo’s system, side assist lights an orange indicator in the side mirror housing when a car enters the Audi’s blind spot, and will flash if the Audi driver signals a lane change in the direction of the other car.
The A4 also gets a new instrument cluster for 2009. The most useful upgrade I noticed was how navigation system instructions are displayed within it, between the speedo and tachometer – a great way to minimize time spent looking away from the road.
Despite the longer wheelbase, which Audi says allowed them to build a bigger interior into the A4, the cabin is still snug. There’s sufficient legroom for tall front-seat occupants, but it comes at the expense of rear-seat space. Headroom is good: the car’s gunslit windows make this car look lower, but it actually stands at the same 1,427 mm overall height as the 2008 A4. The shallower windows take a toll on rearward visibility; I was grateful for the backup camera bundled with my car’s optional navigation system. The 480-litre trunk is a significant upgrade over the 2008 model’s 380-litre cargo hold.
The 2009 A4 may be new, but its focus is still on driving enjoyment rather than overall practicality. Just remember to wear the right shoes when you go for your test drive.
Pricing: 2009 Audi A4 2.0T quattro Premium
$8,200 (Audi Drive Select, $2,500; Technology Package of Audi Side Assist, adaptive headlights, Homelink and Advanced key with push-button starting; navigation system with backup camera, $3,500)
|Price as tested:||
Manufacturer’s web site