What is it with some automakers that they insist on giving us cars with aggressive, in-your-face grilles? Chrysler 300... Pow! Kia Amanti... Bam! Audi A4... Take that!
Just as we were becoming accustomed to deeply-sloped hoods and aerodynamics worthy of an F1 car, these manufacturers hit us with a style that dates back to some long-lost era when a home in the suburbs was the American dream. (Not mine, kiddo, not ever.) But wait a minute. Maybe there's more to the Audi look than meets the eye, even if it arrives with a Leon Sprinks uppercut.
Let's return, briefly, to the late 1930's when the marriage of DKW, Wanderer, Horch, and Audi gave us Auto-Union and the four-ring logo. WW2 hadn't begun but European manufacturers were engaged in a race-track war of their own. Auto-Union produced a spectacular mid-engine racer culminating in the Type D, a supercharged 3-liter V-12 that eventually produced 500 hp.
The face of that racer provided Audi with the inspiration for all its new cars, including our A4. Tastefully done, it gradually won me over as I drove a vehicle that obviously derived more than front-end styling from a storied past. Indeed, the 2001 LeMans winner is responsible for some important engine developments.
In the Driver's Seat
The Audi A4 interior puts me in mind of an impeccably-tailored businessman on his way to a meeting at a Swiss bank. He wears a pinstripe Armani suit with a Turnbull & Asser custom-made shirt, regimental tie knotted the old-fashioned (Windsor) way, carries a small leather briefcase by Louis Vuitton.
Everything in the A4 has been set in place with the same careful attention this gentleman gave himself when starting his mission. Like him, it is a tailored interior, and like his perceived image, suggests trust. And I trusted it from the moment I slid into the front seat and hit the throttle. Too much, perhaps, as the instruments are rather small for at-a-glance readouts. But I did like the old-fashioned knobs and buttons that controlled air-conditioning and audio selections. What I didn't care for was the fold-down center armrest that got in the way of the handbrake.
Crawling into the back was not difficult and once seated I appreciated a neat design feature: the front seatbacks have been hollowed out to create kneeroom. Overall, however, I'm inclined to suggest the A4 is a sports sedan first, family-hauler second. The few inches of extra space are certainly welcome and the ride is comfortable and (mostly) quiet.
On the Road
Let's be honest, the A4 is a driver's car. Otherwise we'd all be driving Toyota Camrys. Not that the latter doesn't perform in a family way, but some of us prefer to turn every journey into an adventure. Thus the steering is sharper, the handling more precise, the brakes dynamic even if they're difficult to modulate.
With 200 hp and 207 lb.-ft of torque @ 1800 rpm, the 4-cylinder A4 delivers, although that torque is noticably sudden around 1900 rpm, forcing the driver to quickly adjust throttle settings when flat-out performance is not required. It was the opinion of fellow-test driver Colin Hefferon, who accompanied me on this ride, that the 2.0 liter four is all the engine anyone needs. I'm inclined to agree, for it is the only engine in the world to combine a special direct-injection fuel system with turbocharging.
Given a choice of transmissions, I accept that the 6-speed Tiptronic is the best for most situations though I'd be mightily tempted to go for the gearless CVT. Handling in the new A4, with its 4-wheel independent suspension, can be managed with finesse. Steering response is crisp. Get out of shape and electronic stability assistance combines with anti-lock brakes to safely take over.
A few years ago, encouraged by a neighbour who insisted that Palm Springs was populated by lovely and well-off middle-age ladies looking for a permanent lover, I chose to go there for a vacation. Volkswagen Canada arranged for the loan of an Audi A4 from Los Angeles. Maybe I wasn't looking in the right places but after three days of utter boredom I headed back to the beaches of Santa Monica.
What I recall most from that trip was the A4. It fit me like the Armani suit mentioned earlier and was fun to drive in LA's crowded expressways and Palm Spring's desert roads. A car you could toss around with the seat of your pants and not have to fear if too much understeer threatened stability in the midst of a corner. In plainer words, I really liked the Audi A4.
Not since then have I driven an A4. The new model, being slightly larger, threatened to be less entertaining in the corners. I'm delighted to report that neither the electronics nor the dimensions spoiled the fun. I'm even growing accustomed to her face (apologies, Roberta Flack) which at least provides a place to put those redundant front license plates. If I could return to Palm Springs with an appropriate tour guide, the Audi A4 might still be my vehicle of choice.