New & Used Audi A4: In Depth
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Audi A4 is the nameplate applied to a family of vehicles in the compact to mid-size luxury class. Over many years, the A4 has been offered as a four-door sedan, as a five-door wagon, as a tall-wagon Allroad model, as a high-performance S4, and an uber-performance RS 4 sedan.
The A4 family also calls other Audis relatives: the A5, S5, and RS 5 coupes and convertibles share its running gear. It also counts the Q5 compact crossover as a distant relative.
The current A4 has been on the market since 2009, but a new model arrives in 2016 as a 2017 model.
The A4 is a rival for vehicles such as the BMW 3-Series, Cadillac ATS, Infiniti Q50, and the Mercedes-Benz C-Class.
MORE: Read our 2017 Audi A4 and S4 review.
Audi A4 history
For almost two decades, the A4 was the brand's entry-level vehicle in its American lineup. But with the arrival of the A4's smaller A3 siblings, the A4 is no longer the baby of the family.
Since 1996, when it first arrived as the replacement for the Audi 80/90 lineup, the A4 has been seen as a slightly sportier 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 base engine, a 150-hp, 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 and better fuel economy.
Size was an issue, not just with the Audi, but also with its German rivals. Many shoppers forgot how small the A4 was until they got inside—or tried the back seat. At just 178 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, mostly because Audi was way ahead of most other luxury automakers, including Mercedes-Benz and BMW, when it came to interior appointments. That included the introduction of items such as a navigation 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. The Allroad replaced the A4 Avant, using the same body on slightly higher suspension and with off-road-evocative body cladding.
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 was fitted with a 170-hp version of the 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine or a 220-hp, 3.0-liter V-6. Audi offered an automatic continuously variable transmission (CVT) 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, the CVT was serviceable, 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 Cabriolet was subsequently replaced by a Cabriolet version of the A5, which arrived in 2010.
A new S4 emerged for 2004. This one came with a 340-hp, 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, riding on an all-new platform. All post-2009 Audi A4 models equipped with all-wheel drive get Audi's latest version of the quattro system, which sends 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 for 2010; 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. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety hasn't been as kind: the A4 scores a "Poor" rating in the agency's notoriously difficult small overlap frontal crash test, which was added since the A4 was re-engineered. Rear-seat side bags have been optional for many model years, and blind-spot monitoring is also available.
The current A4 offers just one engine and a choice of transmissions. A turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder, that makes 211 horsepower and is available either with a six-speed manual or an automatic—all-wheel-drive models get a Tiptronic, eight-speed automatic, while front-drive models (Audi calls them FrontTrak) use a continuously variable transmission. The A4 received a mild horsepower boost for 2016, up to 220 horsepower.
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 available: 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 of offering 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.
The 2017 Audi A4
The new Audi A4 finally arrives in the U.S. in spring 2016 as a 2017 model. It remains about the same size as today's car, but will lose weight thanks to better construction and a lighter all-wheel-drive system. An A4 Allroad wagon version has been confirmed to return as well.
The new car looks very much like the current model, but it grows a bit in most external dimensions. It's based on a new architecture that underpins the Audi Q7, and will eventually encompass all Audi's mid-size vehicles. The new platform permits the A4 to drop some weight—Audi claims it's as much as 264 pounds lighter than the prior model.
A new turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder will be the first powertrain available in the U.S.-spec A4. With output of 252 hp, the A4 will be mated to a seven-speed S tronic automatic transmission, with a choice of front- or all-wheel drive. An S4 model will return, with a turbocharged engine under the hood replacing the former supercharged six.
Redesigned five-link suspensions are used front and rear, and Audi says the tuning will result in a "significant increase in comfort with accentuated sportiness." The Audi Drive Select system with adjustable shocks, steering, and throttle will be available as an option. The power steering is a newly developed electromechanical system with an available dynamic mode that varies the ratio based on vehicle speed and steering angle.
Inside, the A4 adopts some of Audi's latest infotainment technology. A 12.3-inch digital instrument panel is available, as is a new Multi Media Interface (MMI) system with touchpad input. Safety features now include lane-keeping assist, forward-collision warnings with automatic braking, and adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go functionality.