September 25, 2004

Paris Inspection: An In Person Look at the New A4
Gavin Conway, AudiWorld UK Correspondent

There is absolutely nothing like experiencing a new car in the flesh, and the Paris Motor Show gave us our first opportunity to take in the new A4. And even though the bright lights of the Paris show tend to flatter, it is instantly plain that this car has all of the technical elegance and grace that the A4 badge demands. And perhaps because this is such a distinctly new model, the controversial Nuvolari concept-inspired grille actually works better here than on big-brother A8. The two-piece rear tail lights also afford the car a more technical appearance, well in keeping with the brand message. 

And I must confess to a feeling of relief - having seen the A4 in pictures, I thought it might lack some of the classic Audi `road presence'. Happily, that's not at all the case, as the A4 projects a strong, dynamic presence. That's helped, of course, by the strong nose and those clear-glass headlights with the slightly BMW-esque curvature at the bottom edge. There is also a very strong `character line' running the length of the car at the shoulder line. But as with all good design, it is the clean, uncluttered look that has become an Audi hallmark that distinguishes the A4. In fact, the only element of the A4's style that I'd question is in the rear flanks. There's just a bit too much metal between the top of the wheel well and the sideglass, giving a visual impression that the wheel well is too small, or that the back end of the car is a little dumpy. This will be less of a problem with the S4, sitting as it does on 18-inch wheels. Dimensionally, the new A4 has a slightly larger exterior, with the sedan being 38mm longer and the Avant wagon 42mm. 

Inside, the A4 has been neatly updated, although the architecture remains largely unchanged. The first thing you'll notice is the new-look, chunky and good-to-hold steering wheel with the Audi logo surrounded by an aluminium representation of the grille, which looks very cool indeed. You'll notice the use of aluminium trims, also becoming something of an Audi hallmark, even on the door sills. If you like a more traditional expression of luxury, Audi will happily slather on walnut or fine-grained Birchwood in grey or beige. Having looked at these options, I'd have to say the simpler, more technical aluminium treatment suits the car's character a bit better.

The other thing that hasn't changed in the new A4 is that over-riding sense of designed-in quality. That applies not only to the quality feel of every surface your hands come into contact with, but the fit and finish, the way different materials are joined so seamlessly and the damping action of even the most minor controls. Pull the overhead hand holds and watch how gently and progressively they glide back into place. That's all part of the Audi magic, still very much present in the new A4.

One of the most exciting elements of the new A4 is what engineers have done to the chassis. It's probably more true of the European press than North American, but the A4 has traditionally come off dynamically second best to BMW's 3-Series. This has plainly stung Audi's chassis guys, so the new A4 gets a pretty comprehensive make-over. The familiar four-link front suspension and self-tracking trapezoidal-link rear suspension specially designed for quattro powertrains remain, but in completely modified form and with the addition of new components. Significant changes have also been made to the elastokinematics and, crucially, to the spring and shock absorber settings. Several mountings and even the dimensions of the front and rear shock absorbers have been adopted from the A6, and the rear trapezoidal links and front track rods come from the S4. Gosh.

The idea behind all of this is to invest the A4 with a higher degree of agility and handling precision, whilst maintaining a good ride quality. Audi hasn't mentioned it, but I'm willing to bet that these changes will also aid steering feel and feedback. With more potent engines coming online, the A4's brakes have been uprated, too.

Equipment levels remain predictably generous, with every new A4 getting deluxe automatic air-conditioning. And Audi still has one of the best satellite navigation systems in the business (an option). For the first time, you can also specify your A4 with dynamic adaptive headlight technology, complete with xenon headlights. These I can highly recommend, because xenon's really do throw some serious light. And here's something you won't read in the brochures about adaptive headlights - if you are oversteerring on a slippery surface (or a dry one if you're in an S4), they do a brilliant job of lighting up bits of the road that would normally be in the dark in such a circumstance. Think about it...

Overall, the new A4 is a very evolutionary update of what was already a first rate piece of automotive design. Audi has eschewed the radical styling phase-shift that we've seen with BMW, and to a lesser degree, Mercedes Benz. This is a car the Audi faithful will love, and one that might just tempt others tired of change for the sake of change.

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