Acquired by Volkswagen in the 1960s, Audi became the parent company’s saviour by supplying VW with the front-wheel-drive technology it desperately needed for new models that would replace the aging, air-cooled Beetle.
It was Audi’s know-how that got Volkswagen back in the game with contemporary vehicles like the Passat, Golf and Scirocco. Audi itself was introduced to North Americans as VW’s sporty – if somewhat dubious – marque in 1970.
More so than the unintended-acceleration brouhaha involving the all-new Audi 5000 in the 1980s, cars like the Audi Fox and Coupe were petulant machines that tarnished the brand by consuming oil, shorting out or burning up.
Audi overhauled its faltering reputation with a combination of breakthrough designs and technological innovations such as its “quattro” all-wheel-drive system and aluminum spaceframe construction. Today the German automaker is back big time with a well-conceived line of premium cars and sport utilities that command attention.
Audi’s popular A4 sedan and wagon hark back to those early days when the Audi 80 (or Fox) was Germany’s modern front-wheel-drive car, preceding the VW Rabbit by two years. The A4 succeeded the Audi 80 in 1995, built on the front-drive platform that also underpinned the Volkswagen Passat.
Unlike many front-drive cars that fit their engines sideways, Audi chose to keep the engine orientation north-south to make room for its all-wheel-drive hardware. The longitudinal placement meant the front axle was situated behind the engine, which led to the criticism that Audis are often nose-heavy with 55 per cent of the mass over the front wheels.
Despite the seemingly awkward architecture, the Audi A4 was a sweet handler and it was styled to turn heads. The die had been cast for subsequent generations of the car.
The fifth reincarnation of the A4 was revealed at the Frankfurt Motor Show in September 2015 and arrived in North America as a 2017 model. While viewed as merely an evolutionary restyling outside, the car was engineered to impress with its new MLB Evo platform underneath.
While slightly larger in wheelbase and in overall length and width, the A4 managed to shed some 45 kg due to extensive use of lightweight materials in key areas, including the suspension, brake components and body stampings. Extensive wind-tunnel testing yielded an exceptionally low coefficient of drag by smoothing the underbody and mounting the exterior mirrors lower on the doors.
Its enlarged dimensions provided a little more room inside in terms of headroom and rear legroom. The A4 no longer feels like a compact car. Visibility is good all around thanks to narrow roof pillars, a boon to drivers young and old. If there’s a gripe, it’s that the trunk is on the small side at 368 litres (13 cu-ft), although the 40/20/40-split folding rear seats grant some cargo-carrying flexibility.
Audi keeps setting new quality benchmarks for cabin materials and construction. Its luxury is born of expensive-looking plastics, real aluminum or wood inlays, artfully shaped elements and switchgear that moves and clicks with Germanic precision.
Audi updated its MMI infotainment system with a 7- or 8.3-inch dashtop screen, pinch-and-zoom functionality via a touchpad and helpful pre-set buttons for common functions. The optional Virtual Cockpit digital gauge cluster directly in front of the driver takes a little getting used to, but its custom features do add some functionality.
The A4 is absolutely brimming with new safety and driver assistance technology that includes adaptive cruise control, traffic jam and active lane assists, and even a self-parking feature that uses everything from road markings, radar and satellite navigation data to keep the car between the lines.
Powering the A4 are two versions of Audi’s trademark 2.0-litre TFSI turbocharged four-cylinder. All-wheel-drive quattro models use the full-zoot engine, good for 252 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of torque, while the base front-drive model gets a detuned version that puts out 190 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque.
The vast majority of A4s use a seven-speed dual-clutch automated transmission for quick shifts and maximum efficiency. A small number of quattro-equipped A4s were sold with a six-speed manual transmission in 2017 and 2018 – a rare gem if you can find one.
The Allroad wagon variant returned for 2018 with its on-demand all-wheel-drive system. Also making a comeback was the high-performance S4 sedan packing a 354-hp 3.0-L turbo V6 tied to a conventional eight-speed automatic transmission, the S4’s sole configuration.
The A4 earned a mid-cycle refresh for 2020 that included revised front-end styling with standard LED headlights, and an updated MMI infotainment system that includes a large 10.1-inch high resolution touchscreen for those people accustomed to putting their mitts on the display. The A4’s list of standard features grew, as well.
With its long-running 2.0-litre TFSI engine renovated with a new head and improved turbo, driving the A4 is a caffeinated thrill. Zero to 97 km comes up in 5.2 seconds with the fast-acting automatic, and 5.1 seconds if you know how to work the clutch-equipped model well. The 190-hp version will propel the base A4 to highway velocity in 6.8 seconds.
To overcome the excess weight over its front wheels, quattro is set up to dispatch 60 per cent of engine torque to the rear wheels, though the system constantly adjusts the split front to rear. The A4 works its front tires harder and they give up sooner than more balanced cars like BMW’s 3 Series. To combat understeer, the A4 blips its inside brakes to pull the car into the corner. The result is a remarkably stable and balanced handler that oozes confidence at every turn.
“The new A4 is not flashy, but it is luxurious and competent. Steering is precise, braking excellent and power is more than sufficient. The car is a joy to drive – quiet and comfortable,” one owner posted online.
Set in Auto and Comfort modes, the adjustable electric power steering system’s lack of heft imparts a slight sloppiness when the car is tracking straight ahead. Selecting Sport helps eliminate some of the vagueness. What isn’t vague is the car’s superb braking, thanks to its standard four-piston front calipers. The brake pedal reacts precisely to scrub off speed with Porsche-like efficiency.
In fact the A4 appears to do everything well. Occupants never fail to notice the serene cabin at speed – said to be virtually as quiet as a Rolls Royce. It delivers stirring performance without sacrificing comfort or even fuel efficiency, although the turbo engine only thrives on premium fuel.
OWNERS TALK RELIABILITY
As noted off the top, Audi has wrestled with its reliability demons over the decades. Even fairly recent models have seen chronic oil-burning, short-lived water and fuel pumps, and myriad electrical faults diminish what should be a beautiful relationship.
J.D. Power’s 2019 Vehicle Dependability Study – conducted in Germany – ranked automakers by reported problems per 100 vehicles. Out of the 22 manufacturers in the study, Audi ranked near the bottom in 20th position, with an average of 142 problems per 100 vehicles compared to the industry average of 115. North American buyers had a better experience: Audi ranked 15th out of 32 brands and just below the industry average at 136 problems per 100 vehicles in the 2020 study, which probed 2017 models like the redesigned A4.
Bearing that out, the fifth-generation A4 has accumulated relatively few complaints online. The source of the most gripes is the MMI infotainment system, which may malfunction or respond poorly to inputs and commands.
“The MMI screen would randomly go blank sometimes. This would happen without any user intervention with the MMI system. It would not come back on until you switched the car off completely and turned it back on,” noted one unhappy owner.
A more serious concern has to do with a coolant leak reported by a few hapless owners, which may be traced to the thermostat housing or coolant pump. A few others noted oil seeping from the engine.
Other documented snafus include faulty power window regulators, failed coolant pumps, and buggy Pre-sense safety sensors that may apply emergency braking erroneously. Low-profile tires may exhibit sidewall bubbling that requires immediate replacement.
Despite these notable setbacks, the latest version of the Audi A4 is an appealing used-car buy with its impeccable construction, Bauhaus-cool styling, abundant refinement and stirring performance. If you harbour reliability concerns, know that Audi dealers are happy to sell an extended warranty to allay any worries.