Audi A4 2.0 TDI S line

21 Mar, 2012 12:00pm

We see if subtle updates can keep classy saloon in contention

The Audi A4 has played second fiddle to the BMW 3 Series for years, so is it time for the tables to be turned? With tweaked looks, revised engines and an uprated chassis, the latest car seems to have what it takes.

There wasn’t much wrong with the styling of the previous A4 – as demonstrated by the subtle nature of this facelift. You’ll need a magnifying glass and a comprehensive knowledge of the old model to spot the changes.

For the record, they include new bumpers, revised headlamps and a reshaped grille. In sporty S line trim, you also get xenon headlamps, LED rear lights, side skirts, lowered suspension and 18-inch alloys.

The A4 looks understated and smart beside its rivals, but badge appeal is what attracts buyers in this class, and the Audi still has plenty of upmarket clout. Cabin quality is a traditional strong point, and the new car doesn’t disappoint. It’s full of high-quality material and kit. All trims have Bluetooth, three-zone climate control and cruise control as standard, and S line adds part-leather sports seats and a multifunction steering wheel.

Interior space is on a par with the BMW, so the A4 leaves the Mercedes C-Class trailing for rear legroom. It’s also the only one of our trio to feature useful split-folding rear seats as standard equipment.

The engine line-up consists of no fewer than four different 2.0-litre diesels, including eco-tuned 134bhp and 161bhp TDIe variants aimed at cutting CO2 emissions. They’re not available in S line spec, though, so if you want the sportiest trim in the range, you’ll have to opt for either the 141bhp version or the 175bhp engine fitted to our test model.

The most powerful 2.0-litre diesel emits 120g/km of CO2 – the same as the slightly more powerful BMW engine. But the A4 isn’t in the same performance league as the 320d. While its torque output of 380Nm is identical to the BMW’s, the Audi trailed in all but one of our tests against the clock. We recorded our figures using a slightly heavier Avant estate model, yet that doesn’t account for the large disparity in performance between the cars.

The Audi’s 8.4-second 0-60mph time was 1.1 seconds slower than the BMW’s. In the sprint from 50-70mph in sixth, it trailed the 3 Series by a full second, with a time of 9.7 seconds. Still, the Audi was comfortably quicker than the Mercedes across the board and its diesel engine can teach the BMW’s a thing or two about smoothness and refinement at low revs.

The A4 was noticeably quieter than the 320d at idle and when pulling away from a standstill, while its stop-start system was also much smoother. That makes the Audi the pick of the three cars tested here for town driving.

Or at least it would if it weren’t for our test model’s S line suspension. This firmer set-up lowers the car by 20mm and hurts ride comfort. The A4 jars at low speeds as it crashes into potholes, and at higher speeds it thumps noisily over motorway expansion joints and cat’s eyes. This really takes the sheen off the car’s otherwise very impressive refinement.

But it’s not all bad news for the Audi: its powerful and confidence-inspiring brakes were the best on test, and its light gearshift action and grippy chassis are other dynamic highlights.

Unfortunately, any hopes that this revised A4 had of competing with the 320d on twisty back roads are dashed by the new electric power-steering set-up. This system has been introduced to help reduce fuel consumption, but it feels slow and lifeless. It takes the fun out of the experience, so the 3 Series is still the default choice for keen drivers.

While the A4 is now better than ever before, the upgrades haven’t really gone far enough and it faces an uphill battle to take the overall honours in this test.

Details

Chart position: 2
WHY: A raft of cosmetic and mechanical updates aims to propel the classy and beautifully built Audi A4 to the top of this highly competitive class.

Key specs

* Price: £30,130
* Engine: 2.0-litre 4cyl, 175bhp
* 0-60mph: 8.4 seconds
* Official economy: 61.4mpg
* CO2: 120g/km
* Annual road tax: £30

AEX 1,341
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