If the 60 Minutes-driven fall of Audi in America was a perfect example of media activism gone wild, the brand’s Millennial resurrection was surely a perfect combination of cynical engineering and masterful marketing.
Yes, there was some genuine innovation present in the form of the aluminum-framed A8 â€” but it was the decidedly prosaic A4 that led the charge back to desirability. Essentially an early release of the G.O.A.T. with less room, more profit, and a variety of “Cool Shades” that looked stunning in the showroom but persisted only indifferently under the assault of the Southern sun, the A4 was a showroom success simply because it offered a credible alternative to the default-choice E36 BMW 325i. The fact that the BMW was a thoroughbred rocketship while the A4 was a slightly scaled-up Volkswagen Fox mattered not at all. By 1995, the Roundel had become more than a bit passe among the cool kids.
Fast forward 20-plus years and four generations. The A4 is neither cool nor hot nowadays. Rather, it’s the sensible-shoes sedan for people who are too proud to buy the Golf-derived A3 and too poor to buy the increasingly strident A6. It’s also a pretty good value. A front-wheel-drive, 190-horsepower “Ultra” model starts at just $36,500, while the 252-horse Quattro Premium is a tick north of forty grand. Hertz would love to sell you a used 2017 A4 2.0T Quattro Premium at a $15,000 discount. Should you bite on that? And what if you found out that the person who rented it before you bought it took it to a racetrack? Would that bother you?
Naturally, I value my relationship with Hertz far too much to drive one of their cars on a racetrack. But it just so happened that while I was attending MSF Level II Certification training, I ran into someone who had an absolutely identical A4 Quattro. So I drove that car around Thunderhill West while I left my rental ride safely in the paddock.
Before we get to that, however, let’s talk about what I learned in the course of the 350-mile roundtrip between SFO and Thunderhill. We might as well start with the two-liter turbo engine. Every time I drive one of these anonymous blown four-bangers, whether it comes from Honda, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, or elsewhere, I can’t help but be reminded of the “eta” 2.7-liter straight-six that powered my father’s pair of 3 Series sedans 30 long years ago. Like the “eta,” the 2.0 turbo has plenty of shove at low revs but almost no “breath” once you get the engine spinning for real. BMW set the eta’s redline at 4,700 rpm to enforce “efficient” usage; today’s 2.0T engines will let you rev to six or seven grand but there’s little point in doing so.
Yet this new A4 has been on a diet and as a consequence it now boots along well enough with the two-liter. Which is good, because you can no longer have a six. At least not right now. Something you can still have: a manual transmission. But you can’t have it on a rental, obviously.
On the freeway, the A4 is eerily quiet and virtually immune to crosswinds. The interior is spacious and laid out remarkably well, with sensible analog instrumentation and a general lack of upsetting inventiveness. The operation of the MMI infotainment system is pretty much unchanged from the way it worked in my 2009 Audi S5. The plastics are reasonably soft and the seats are supportive. There’s nothing to surprise, delight, shock, or awe. It’s pretty much German business as usual. I drove both a 430i and a C300 in the days that followed my Audi rental, and in general I preferred how the Audi worked. Your mileage may vary.
Fuel economy was a vehicle-reported 33.2 mpg during mixed urban and freeway driving from San Francisco to Willows, CA. When I wanted to make a quick pass, the kickdown function of the automatic was sufficient to get me where I needed, offering up a slug of eta-style torque before quickly grabbing another gear. That automatic, by the way, is still a double-clutch “DSG.” If you want my advice, here it is: get the stick shift so you don’t have to swap the clutches in the DSG, which is expensive. Given how quickly the Germans are going back to planetary automatics that spend most of their lives with the torque converter locked, I’m surprised that Audi kept the DSG in the new generation. It’s not like it shifts particularly quickly unless you twist all the knobs and set it for Sport Everything.
Okay, enough of this messing around. Let’s get it on the track. Here’s where the genuine surprise arrives, because the A4 is just this side of brilliant as a track rat. The engine and transmission work remarkably well together in manual mode, although you won’t be tempted to run to the redline very often it at all. The brakes survived two sessions around Thunderhill West without ever letting the pedal sink to the ground. And the handling? It’s pretty, pretty good! In particular, the way in which the A4 can be coaxed into tail-out attitudes with a big mid-corner throttle lift is positively hilarious.
A session with a brand-new 3 Series BMW the next day confirmed my first impressions: this FWD Audi is more fun to drive around a road course than a RWD BMW from the same segment. It feels light on its feet, sporty, and alive. The steering is informative and granular, letting you know the moment that you’ve asked too much from the front tires. The quattro system doesn’t really feel like it’s doing a 50/50 power split but it does keep the back end working and the inside front wheel never spins under any circumstances. I had no trouble keeping up with an instructor-driven Chevy SS, although on Thunderhill’s more spacious East course that certainly would not have been the case.
In fact, this A4 reminds me quite a bit of my 2001 BMW 330i Sport. That, too, was a quiet and composed freeway hustler that was ready and willing to run around a racetrack for twenty minutes or so without losing its cool or killing its tires. On the move, it feels more BMW-like than the current four-cylinder 3 Series offerings. With a manual transmission and some high-temperature brake fluid I think it would make a stellar choice for a young professional who is going to run just the occasional novice-level trackday.
I couldn’t help but be impressed by the A4, despite the charmless two-liter and despite the fact that the A4 has always been a pretty cynical effort at separating over-compensated twenty-somethings from a lease payment. At the mechanical level, this is a solid and heartfelt effort. You could do a lot worse for the money. If you’re shopping for an entry-level German sedan, I recommend that you skip right over the transverse-engined offerings and head for the $40,500 base A4 with a manual transmission. It’s the best small Audi since… well, since ever. You could go a lot faster for the same money in a Mustang, and you could have more room, more features, and the same straight-line performance in a stick-shift Accord Touring for six grand less. But those comparisons ignore the fact that most A4 buyers are only shopping the German competition. In that company, it truly shines.
[Images: Jack Baruth/TTAC]