New & Used Audi A4: In Depth
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The Audi A4 is a mid-size luxury sedan that's become the German automaker's best-selling vehicle. For a while, it was the entry-level vehicle in Audi's American lineup, although today the brand offers the compact A3 family of sedans, wagons, and cabriolets below it.
The current A4 has been on the market since 2009 and is due for a revamp by 2016. It competes with the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Cadillac ATS, Infiniti Q50, and BMW 3-Series.
The A4 family of vehicles is more than just the A4 sedan; it also includes the hotter S4 edition; the Allroad wagon, which is spun off from A4 Avant wagon mechanicals; and the A5, S5, and RS 5 coupes and convertibles, which share some running gear. It also counts the Q5 compact crossover as a distant relative.
Since 1996, when it first arrived as the replacement for the Audi 80/90 lineup, the A4 has been seen as a more dynamic alternative to traditional luxury cars.
At first, it wasn't a pure success: The 1996 A4 offered a wheezy 172-horsepower, 2.6-liter V-6 with a five-speed manual transmission or optional five-speed automatic (with Tiptronic manual control on some models). Performance with this engine was just adequate, particularly with the added weight of quattro all-wheel drive. At least it sounded good and was very smooth. In its second year, the A4 grew stronger with a 193-hp, 2.8-liter V-6 that moved it with more authority. Its new base engine, a 150-horsepower, 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine (dubbed 1.8T) ended up being the real star, however. It offered a more sprightly feel than the V-6 because of its accessible torque, along with better fuel economy.
Size was an issue, not just with the Audi but with its German rivals. Many shoppers forgot how small the A4 was until they got inside—or tried the back seat. At just 175 inches long, the 1996 A4 wasn't much longer (or any larger inside) than a contemporary Toyota Corolla. It had a winning interior with a rich feel, however; Audi was way ahead of most other luxury automakers, including Mercedes-Benz and BMW, at that time when it came to interior appointments. That included the introduction of items like a nav system before most other compact luxury sedans were offering one.
Avant (wagon) models of the A4 were offered from 1998 until 2012, and mirrored the sedan offerings, though they offered a bit more versatility thanks to flat-folding back seats and the wide-opening hatch.
For 2000 and 2001, the limited-edition S4 offered a 250-horsepower, twin-turbo V-6 and quattro all-wheel drive.
Audi extended its lead with the A4's redesign for 2002. It brought with it a completely new, more athletic look on the outside. With this generation, the A4 got a 170-horsepower version of the 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine or a 220-horsepower, 3.0-liter V-6. Audi offered a CVT (continuously variable) automatic for several years, but it was only offered on front-wheel-drive versions of the A4 (quattro models had the manual or a five-speed automatic). Overall, performance with the CVT was fine, just not especially satisfying from a performance standpoint.
Audi introduced a Cabriolet (convertible) version of the A3 in 2003. It used a soft folding top and was made safer with a pop-up roll bar and side airbags. It was offered with a choice of front drive and a CVT or all-wheel drive paired with an automatic transmission through 2009. The A4 Cab was replaced by a Cabriolet version of the A5, which arrived in 2010.
A new S4 emerged for 2004. This one came with a 340-horsepower, 4.2-liter V-8 engine. An RS 4 joined the lineup briefly toward the end of this generation, using an uprated version of the 4.2-liter V-8 that made 414 hp.
The new Audi A4
The Audi A4 was completely redesigned for 2009, on an all-new platform. All post-2009 Audi A4 models get Audi's latest version of the quattro all-wheel drive system, which biases more power to the back wheels and should appeal to those who want more of a performance feel without alienating those who simply want all-weather security. The S4 returned a year later: it was fitted with a supercharged 3.0-liter V-6 with 333 horsepower, teamed with a dual-clutch transmission, and an available Drive Select system that allows drivers to tailor transmission, steering, throttle, and suspension settings through Normal, Comfort, and Sport modes.
In the years since it was new on the U.S. market, the Audi A4 has grown about ten inches in length and has a wider, more spacious interior. Back-seat space remains a bit tight for taller adults. Front seats are another story altogether. The Audi A4 has offered very comfortable, supportive ones for years, and it remains one of the best smaller sporty sedans for tall drivers.
The A4 has remained one of the safer choices for those who are safety concerned, especially the most recent models, which have earned top five-star federal results and have been IIHS Top Safety Picks. Rear-seat side bags have been optional for many model years.
The current A4 offers just one engine and a choice of transmissions. A turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder makes 211 horsepower and is available either with a six-speed manual or a two-pedal transmission—all-wheel-drive models get a Tiptronic auto, while front-drive models (Audi calls them FrontTrak) use a continuously variable transmission. For 2011, the Tiptronic was upgraded to an eight-speed ZF unit. The A4 has stayed mechanically the same since then.
A facelift was applied for the 2013 model year, when Audi also fitted its latest infotainment and telematics services, including Audi Connect, which turns the car into a mobile hotspot. Also on offer: an optional navigation system that incorporates Google Earth and Google Street View data, displayed on a gorgeous LCD screen, for one of the best GPS experiences available today.
Instead continuing to offer the sport wagon in the 2013 model year with other revamped models, Audi instead chose to import the Allroad, a wagon with higher ground clearance and standard all-wheel drive. The Allroad is basically an A4 Avant with body cladding and more standard features. It lacks the manual-transmission option of its Avant forebear.
According to the latest reports, a new Audi A4 is expected to arrive soon, likely in 2015. It's expected to remain about the same size as today's car, but will lose weight thanks to better construction and a lighter, electric-driven all-wheel-drive system. A wagon version would likely follow a year later. Audi has confirmed that it will offer a turbodiesel engine in the A4 when the new model arrives in the U.S.