2017 Audi A4: First Drive

Justin Hyde
·Managing Editor
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What it is: 2017 Audi A4 entry-luxury sedan

Price as tested: To be determined; previous models started around $35,900

Competitors: Mercedes-Benz C-Class, BMW 3-Series, Lexus ES350

Alternatives: Cadillac ATS, Acura TLX, Infiniti Q50

Pros: Top-notch technology, interior quality/space, intelligent all-wheel-drive

Cons: Some anodyne design choices; a tech learning curve.

Would I Buy It With My Own Money? That depends on your definition of “buy.” I would lease it. But buying it outright would be a stretch.

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In the luxury-car realm, there’s usually a reputation gap between the traditional players—Mercedes-Benz, BMW—and the front-wheel-drive newcomers—Lexus, Acura, and so forth—that’s manifest in valet lines and other daily forms of prestige. Audi has made a reputation for straddling that chasm with its entry-luxury sedan, and that game continues with the eighth generation, the 2017 Audi A4.

How is it that the A4, which comes as a front-wheel-drive only setup in base models, gets a pass into the upper class? Audi MLB chassis, versions of which underly most of its volume models, was designed to look like a rear-wheel-drive car, with a engine set back longitudinally toward the center of gravity. The 85 percent of A4s sold with Quattro all-wheel-drive will get most of their drive power from the rear wheels; more importantly, the A4 maintains a traditional ratio of space between its front axle and dash that the world has associated with high-end motoring for roughly a century.

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The new A4 takes the previous design and presses it more firmly, creasing the hood and fenders, tightening the rear and lowering the stance. The changes increase the presence of the A4, although Ford and Hyundai have so brazenly copied Audi’s hexagonal grille that designers at one of the three will have to look further afield soon.

While European A4s come in a variety of power choices, most of the U.S. editions will sport a 252-hp 2-liter four-cylinder turbo, paired with an updated 7-speed dual-clutch transmission. That combo will be good for a dash to 60 seconds in 5.6 seconds, with better overall fuel economy thanks in part to a chassis roughly 100 lbs. lighter than before. There’s also a 2-liter turbodiesel edition, but given corporate parent Volkswagen current issues, the prospects of the Audi oil burner look more doubtful for the moment.

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Audi has made its mark among American buyers in recent years with interiors and technology, and the new A4 pushes further on both fronts. The driver gets all information via a “virtual cockpit” — an HD-quality display that replaces gauges with a series of screens. Another fixed-dash screen handles the entertainment and navigation duties via Audi’s MMI controller, with Apple CarPlay or Android Auto as needed. The high-end stereo now comes courtesy of a Bang & Olafson unit with 19 speakers. And much like the dock on an Apple Mac, the HVAC controls will zoom into a function when it senses a finger touching a switch. Other manufacturers have similar gadgets, but none make them work together as well.

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The new A4 does maintain Audi’s reputation for decor, from the color-changing LED accent lighting to the open-pore wood trim on the dash. The front seats remain among the best in the industry. The rear seats can come with their own entertainment tablets; more importantly, they welcome six-foot-tall adults without the yoga poses required by some competitors. And the slightly longer chassis also pays a little dividend in trunk space. The only choice I disagreed with was the new vent strip running across the passenger dash; in the real world, it looks more inviting to dust and slightly downscale than in photos.

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As for driving, I have to issue a few caveats. First, for a variety of reasons, time in the American edition was brief, and the tires on the American edition were not the tires that will come to the U.S. Secondly, we had to let the car drive us almost as much as we drove it.

This A4 has no fewer than 30 driver assistance systems of some form. In traffic jams it will drive itself; it will brake to a stop from 20 mph if it senses a potential crash, and on longer drives, the cruise control will use the GPS to save fuel by anticipating hills and choosing when to coast. We couldn’t test all of them, but most we did try worked as advertised—mostly. In slow city driving, with the radar cruise control and lane keeping systems on, you can take your hands off the wheel and feet off the pedals, and let the A4 do all the work—albeit only for short periods of about 10 seconds before the car politely asks for a hand back on the wheel. About that “mostly” caveat; lane control requires well-painted road stripes. When the road turned to plain asphalt, the system lost track and surrendered.

Compared to the previous edition, the A4 gains some hustle. The steering is slightly stiffer, but with sharper response to the road and wheels. Ride motions feel controlled in all of the suspension’s new ride settings, although “dynamic” was the only setting that felt, well, dynamic. Pushing in a corner will still eventually produce understeer, but the limit has been raised from before and arrives without drama. All in, the A4 lacks the nimbleness of BMW (or, for that matter, Cadillac,) but it feels more engaging and controlled in first impressions than its front-wheel-drive alternatives.

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We’re still a few months from the A4 going on sale here, and prices haven’t been set, although it’s likely that the new A4 will occupy a similar range to the current model. To me, the more important numbers will be the monthly lease prices Audi dealers come up with. Audi promises to keep updating the technology throughout the car; Audi executives say the next A4 due in the 2018 model year will have “piloted driving”—that hands-off but still alert mode—at speeds up to 40 mph, for as long as local laws allow. Buying a car outright makes sense when not much changes from year to year, but the Audi A4 makes the case for transportation as tech service. Much like that smartphone in your pocket, Moore’s Law means a more powerful machine is never further than 24 monthly payments away.