First Drive: 2017 Audi A4

Venice, Italy – A city renowned for its canals seems the most unlikely of places to hold a launch event for a new sports sedan; even less so when it’s one as important to the brand as Audi’s A4 is.

Despite the obvious family resemblance, the 2017 model’s body is 99 percent new.

But that’s exactly where the Ingolstadt-based company unleashed a contingent of international automotive journalists loose with their all-new entry-level luxury car, and a pontoon option isn’t even offered.

The reality is, situated just north of Venice is a spectacular landscape rich with varied scenery and a multitude of different driving conditions ranging from stop-and-go urban to high-speed Italian freeways and, of course, sensational serpentine roads as one drives into the Dolomites.

Audi’s A4 has consistently been a fashionable and sophisticated design statement throughout the generations, and this Mk 9 car (B9 generation) is no exception. Which presents another great reason to choose Italy to launch the new A4: style. Italians seem to put more care into being fashionable and have a greater appreciation for beauty than most other folks – and have for centuries as the gorgeous Venetian scenery attests. More than a few times, admiring glances were cast the Audi’s direction by the locals, and one construction worker even made a point of coming up to me, speaking quickly – and emphatically – in Italian about our blue sedan. I understood only two words – “Quattro” and “Bellissimo” – but grasped enough that he approved of the A4.

Both inside and out, the new A4 is an evolutionary design and not an entire reinvention. This will be appreciated by buyers of this year’s model whose cars won’t immediately look like yesterday’s news once the new cars hit the road. And yet despite the obvious family resemblance, the 2017 model’s body is 99 percent new, resulting in a design that’s simultaneously recognizable but also contemporary.

The most obvious changes are to the now more sharply creased grille opening and on our tester, the Euro-spec LED matrix headlights. The dynamic LED turn indicators are a slick use of the technology and definitely eye-catching on the road, and will be available on North American models, unlike the LED matrix headlights. More impressive is the new body’s 0.23 coefficient of drag, making it not only the most aerodynamic car in its segment, but also the most wind-cheating Audi ever.

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What the photographs do not convey is the greater presence the new A4 has in person. Being both longer (25 mm) and wider (16 mm), yet no taller gives the 2017 model a more hunkered down and serious look, and should make it even harder for most folks to tell the difference between a new A6 and a new A4 without checking the badge.

The bump in size translates directly into more rear legroom (+23 mm) and more trunk room (now 480 L, about tied with the Mercedes C-Class), and better space management also nets an extra 24 mm of front headroom. Numbers aside, front and back the new car is open, airy and spacious.

The A4’s interior borrows a lot of cues from the brand new Q7 sport utility vehicle, which is a much costlier machine. Materials are all of outstanding quality and carefully assembled, giving passengers a variety of interesting textures and hues to enjoy. While perhaps not as artful as the new Mercedes-Benz C-Class, the A4’s execution is more conservative, though every bit as luxurious. Buyers will be able to choose interior design “lines” that either lean more toward luxury or sport, but even the latter features supple Napa leather and Alcantara treatments.

The A4’s dash draws from the best of the newest Audi interiors, too, including the implementation of the brilliantly bright and crisp 12.3-inch TFT Virtual Cockpit display where a primary gauge pod normally resides. This configurable screen can feature the same Google Earth-based navigation mapping as the 8.3-inch MMI display mid-dash. It may seem redundant, but when navigating around parts of rural Italy foreign to us, we were able to set the smaller screen to a wider, overall view of our route, while the other was kept zoomed in to ensure we never missed a turn.

The sharpness and detail of the mapping is industry leading, made even more incredible by the smooth fluidity of the constant rendering of the maps as the car moves. Kudos, Audi, you’ve really raised the bar in this class.

Of course, if you already know where you’re going, the screens can be set up to display anything from musical choices and information about the car to the latest smartphone connectivity through Apple iOS and Android systems. Cleverly, when connected to a smartphone, the car’s antenna is utilized for cellular reception rather than the phone’s own antenna, resulting in a stronger signal and less radiation inside the cabin. Wireless inductive phone charging is also available.

Additionally, the Audi Tablets first introduced on the Q7 (featuring shatter-proof glass and parental control from the front seats), are available here. And a 770-watt, 19-speaker Bang & Olufsen 3-D sound system is optional for audiophiles.

Audi boasts 33 driver assistance systems available for the new A4, highlighting where the new A4’s development team really focused their greatest efforts: technology. Like most luxury cars these days, the sheer capability and number of features (and functions) can take vast tomes to describe.

One of the most innovative ones here is Audi’s Adaptive Cruise Control with Traffic Jam Assist. This system not only manages speed in stop-and-go traffic, but is fully capable of steering the car in those conditions as well. Audi’s engineers fully admit this is the cusp of autonomously driving cars, but regulatory bodies still force manufacturers to build in settings requiring driver steering inputs every several seconds.

The Predictive Efficiency Assist system uses information gathered from road sign data and the navigation system (including topography) to predict when the car is going to need to slow down even before the driver commands it. This sort of tech can help incrementally save fuel, if, for instance, the navigation system recognizes a town or sharp curve just over the next hill that the driver might not see. Rather than power up the hill, the car will gradually slow in anticipation of the reduced speed limit ahead, saving otherwise wasted fuel.

All of the tech goodies operated as promised during our drive experience, but admittedly, when entering the exciting twists, turns and elevation changes heading into the Dolomites, we switched the nannies off to see if this new fancier A4 is still a sport sedan.

The good news is that yes, it certainly is, attacking the mostly rain-slick (and very narrow) pavement through the dense woods and cliff faces with good grip from the 245/35/19 Hankook Ventus S1 Evo2 summer rubber. The A4’s flat cornering attitude and impressive overall handling capabilities give a driver considerable confidence even when pressing hard.

The bad news is that the electrically assisted steering is very light and lacking the feedback we used to get through the leather-wrapped wheel of A4s from days gone by. Other manufacturers are figuring out how to bring the feel back to electric steering, and considering how well sorted the new A4 is otherwise; a bit more communication here would be welcome.

The first car we drove, finished in a gleaming Macaw blue colour was powered by a new version of the 2.0 TFSI power plant connected to a seven-speed S-tronic transmission. Now putting out 252 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of torque, this A4 possessed ample power to propel itself at a lively rate through the mountains, though isn’t particularly melodic.

Still, all that wind tunnel testing helped create an A4 that is virtually absent of wind noise. Engine noise is also extremely subdued and Audi claims the cabin of the new A4 is as quiet as the A8 – a veritable fortress of silence in its own right. Road noise is decently suppressed as well.

When hustling, the S-tronic snaps off lighting-quick shifts punctuated by the subtle whomp sound we love in the S4, but when pulling away from stoplights, it’s sometimes reluctant to shift down to first, mixing with a whiff of turbo-lag to create a bit of a wait….. and go start.

Despite its dimensional increases and the implementation of so much new technology, the 2017 A4 has undergone a considerable weight-loss program, resulting in a reduction of mass of up to 100 kg in some trims. Engineers saved six kg from the front suspension alone, helping the A4 to turn and stop quicker.

We also drove a bright red S-Line trim car with the 3.0L TDI engine and eight-speed Tiptronic automatic. With more power than the blue car (272 hp) and buckets of more torque (443 lb-ft), the acceleration of this car is impressive, pulling smoothly and linearly all the way to its modest redline. Audi claims this diesel to be a half second quicker to 100 km/h than the 2.0 TFSI engine (5.3 seconds versus 5.8).

Better still, it burned less fuel during our mixed driving that included highway cruising around 150 km/h and plenty of aggressive driving in the mountains (mid-9 L / 100 versus low 10’s for the gasoline car). Audi claims a combined average consumption rate of 6.3 L/100 km for the 2.0T and an astonishing 5.2 L/100 km for the 3.0L TDI.

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely the V6 TDI package will make it to North America, instead seeing the 2.0 TFSI accompanied only by a four-cylinder TDI diesel variant delivering 190 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque. Likewise, on this side of the Atlantic we’ll also be deprived the great looking A4 Avant wagon to be launched simultaneously with the sedan, instead relegating those seeking more cargo capacity to settle for the butch-ified Allroad edition. Five additional engine options will be available overseas, with and without Quattro all-wheel drive.

While pricing for Canadian A4s won’t be available until closer to the car’s release here late next year, it is likely a safe bet that Audi will continue to price it competitively against its BMW 3 Series and Mercedes C-Class compatriots.

The A4 is a large-volume seller that Audi really needs to get right to go toe-to-toe with the excellent German, American and Asian competitors. Fortunately for Audi fans, the 2017 A4 is a stylish, luxurious and tech-laden sport sedan that is sure to continue to appeal to those looking for luxurious and fun all-season transportation.

One final word of caution: despite all the driver aids, it’s probably still best to keep the A4 out of the canals.

Venice, Italy – A city renowned for its canals seems the most unlikely of places to hold a launch event for a new sports sedan;... 10/5/2015 7:23:51 AM