To prove that much can be made of little, chefs have taken to preparing gourmet meals with hotel appliances. A Scotsman named Jimmy Stewart prepared kebabs in a trouser press, and super chef Gordon Ramsey doffed his toque to contraption cuisine when a man on social media recorded himself whipping up a salmon filet, bok choy, and rice vermicelli using an iron and a coffee maker.
Audi's 2021 A4 is yet more proof that, in the right hands, much can be made of little. There aren't big changes for 2021, but the A4 is still a tasty thing. The big news is a 12-volt mild-hybrid system that is now standard on both of the A4's powertrains, and each version of the familiar turbocharged 2.0-liter four makes an additional 13 horsepower. The base 2.0-liter in A4 40 spec now makes 201 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque, and the same 2.0-liter in A4 45 spec like our test car puts out 261 horsepower and 273 pound-feet. Audi quotes the scamper from zero to 60 mph for the 261-hp A4 at 5.2 seconds. Our testing unearthed a soupçon of German modesty as we clocked a 4.8-second dash, three-tenths quicker than the last A4 we tested.
There's more standard equipment for 2021. Front-wheel drive is no longer available; all A4s now have all-wheel drive. Other now-standard equipment includes a sunroof, a heated driver's seat with power adjustments, three-zone climate control, lane-departure warning, and ambient interior lighting. We turned off the ambient lights since even on their lowest setting, they make the cockpit glow like Bomber Command.
Now in the middle of its life cycle, the current A4 received a visual refresh in 2020. Non-sheetmetal bits such as the front and rear bumpers, grille, and lighting elements were all tweaked. The composition holds pat for 2021. A $500 Black Optic package on our test car darkens the otherwise shiny metallic trim around the grille, front bumper intakes, and greenhouse. While Audi's design evolution moves at some scale close to Darwinian, we can't fault deliberate pace when the brand continues to nail its understated luxury ethos.
The restraint continues in the cabin. Interior room measurements are in line with the competition, and seating is comfortable front and back. Drivers with long legs and who are six feet or taller will have to curl around the B-pillar to get in and out. The $500 S-Line interior package is money well spent as it adds a three-spoke, flat-bottom sport steering wheel, leather and Alcantara upholstery, brushed aluminum inlays, and stainless-steel caps for the two pedals. (Audi killed the A4's three-pedal manual option in 2019.)
The sharp-looking head-up display could have come from Stark Industries, the fantastically crisp lighting and layout of the climate-control system deserves a museum plaque, the backlit switchgear feels substantial to the touch. The 10.1-inch infotainment screen that replaced the previous 7.0-inch and 8.3-inch units for 2020 would please the Mandalorian, although we still think it was a mistake to drop the control knob and go touchscreen only.
Intending to put the A4 though some performance drills on surface streets, we headed south from our Michigan office to the curvy roads of northwest Ohio. A two-hour expressway trek passed swiftly, the A4 moving at the speed of luxury—meaning that by the time a driver's ears register indecent cabin noise, the speedometer is pointing at numbers only meant for the most generous stretches of Eisenhower's highway system or the German autobahn. Our testing measured cabin noise at 67 decibels when doing 70 mph, and there's just enough tire noise to let you know you haven't achieved capital-L luxury yet despite the dual-pane side windows that come with the Prestige trim. Nevertheless, the A4's sound measurement undercuts the results from our most recent tests of the Mercedes-Benz C300 4Matic and BMW 330i.
Put to work on roads left slick by the remnants of Gulf Coast storms dying out in the Midwest, the A4 showed a sensational lack of play in all its inputs and reflexes. Press the throttle enough to compel a downshift and the seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission snaps to attention, the turbo takes a deep breath, and the 2.0-liter emits loud burbles through its trapezoidal exhaust finishers as it pulls with vigor through the rev range.
With the drive-mode settings flicked to Dynamic, the steering wheel takes on just the right amount of heft, and the DSG transmission, usually in a hurry to get to the highest gear for efficiency, holds the 2.0-liter at the target heartrate for interval sprints. The suspension retains just enough roll to trigger the human body's natural physiological feel for velocity and lateral acceleration through esses. The brake pedal doesn't waste a millimeter of travel and follows an arc just long enough for nuanced modulation, and the calipers and rotors don't know the meaning of the word fade. Some of the credit for the A4's handling should go to the optional Continental SportContact 6 summer tires size 245/35R-19. At the test track, they contributed to the 0.97 g of skidpad grip and curt 149-foot stops from 70 mph, which are 0.07 g and six-foot improvements over the earlier A4 shod with Hankook summer rubber.
When darkness descended, the Matrix LED headlights actually proved to be too brilliant in many situations. We're thinking the high beams could be used as lighthouse lamps to warn freighters of coastal reefs. We found ourselves having to take manual control over the automatic high-beams since other cars on the road don't seem to possess lights bright enough to be seen by the A4's windshield-mounted camera that decides when to switch to low-beams. The low-beams are also incredibly bright, turning reflective signs into dazzling beacons, which then reflected on the wet tarmac, a reminder that those signs were designed for a more lumen-deficient era.
The top-of-the-line Prestige trim, which is best thought of as an $8,900 package that bundles a brace of luxury, tech, and driver-assistance features, is a pricey teaser. After the aforementioned options, plus $800 Black Optic 19-inch wheels, $350 rear-seat side airbags, and a $1,045 destination charge, our tester came to $53,840. We believe the mid-range Premium Plus returns the best cost-benefit breakdown. Even so, depending on one's proclivities, payment arrangements, and need for 19-inch wheels, the Premium Plus can still narrow the price gap to the Prestige to a difference worth questioning.
The 2021 Audi A4 is everything we've come to like and expect from the current-generation A4, with a touch of extra frugality thrown in. If we ever wish to prove how much can be done with a little, we won't wheel out a hotel ironing board to make a peanut butter and melted-chocolate sandwich. We'll grab the keys to an A4 instead.
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