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The Audi A4 has over the years become more of a purebred sport sedan and less of a luxury compact. Carried over intact after a complete reinvention in 2009, the 2011 Audi A4 continues to wear its racier design well, and offer an engaging driving experience, impressive in-cabin technology, and, surprisingly, great fuel efficiency.
What is especially to like about the A4 is its aggressive look, and how the whole design fits together. From a few paces back, the A4, like the A5 with which is shares its proportions and most of the mechanicals, has presence—serious, I-mean-business presence on the street. The sport-package wheels, exhaust tips, and Premium-package xenon headlamps and LED running lamps and tail lamps (along with the impressive detailing around the front air dam) altogether give this sedan quite the look. Inside, the A4 has a deeper, darker binnacled dash that leaves out some of the more expensive wood trim of the past, and in the process omits some of the impression of quiet luxury that used to pervade all Audis. It's still handsome and well finished, but there's more black and metallic plastic and LCD readouts than ever.
The A4 accelerates, steers, and hunkers down at high speeds much more like a true sport sedan. The new base 2.0-liter engine, which was introduced last year is quite different than the 200-hp, 2.0T engine it replaces. With 211 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of max torque, it makes 11 more hp and 51 more lb-ft than before, and comes with variable exhaust lift and a host of changes. It doesn't quite churn out the torque just above idle; the torque curve builds rather abruptly, so if you let out the clutch too soon and don't let the revs climb high enough at launch you can hit a flat spot that leaves you wanting—until you pass the 2,500-rpm mark and a rush of boost and torque comes on, all the way up to redline.
The A4's steering system is one of the better systems in this class. The former A4 had steering that was often too light, but this feels firm and reassuring enough at higher cruising speeds yet imparts just a bit of road feel (yet a sense of weighting) in lower-speed corners). It's not quite on par with the all-wheel-drive G37x's awesome feedback near the limit, but it's close and in high-speed hauling it's more satisfying. One of our few nitpicks with the A4 was its brakes, which on our test vehicle felt a bit grabby and overboosted at low speeds; throughout a week with the vehicle we kept stopping several feet short of our intended spot.
The interior of the 2011 Audi A4 is quite comfortable, attractive, and well-appointed, though it's still a bit snug in back. The Audi A4's interior a few years back was a trend-setter in its class—and the new model still leads the pack when it comes to design—but the materials look and feel less remarkable this year, with some of the metallic plastic trim feeling like exactly what you'd find on some much less expensive vehicles. But build quality is still astounding—our editors couldn't get a single creak or rattle from the interior, despite a short stint on a gravel road.
The A4 has a very firm ride—to firm for some, perhaps, with the upgrades included in the Sport Package, which brings 18-inch sport wheels, high-performance tires, and a sport suspension. The one thing that left us wishing a bit was the way the engine sounded—way too coarse in our opinion for a vehicle in this size and price class. Provided you're in one of the higher gears and the revs were below 3,000 rpm, you don't hear the engine, but rev past the 4,000 rpm mark especially, and it gets boomy. There's also a surprising amount of vibration, as well as a tickling of the gas pedal at a resonant frequency around 70 mph.
Bluetooth, a navigation system, Sirius real-time traffic and an iPod connectivity kit are options, as is a high-quality Bang & Olufsen audio system. Audi gives buyers a choice of wood and leather colors, and the lighter palette introduced in the current generation is quite handsome and makes the cabin feel airy. For 2011, HD Radio is newly available with the navigation system, Nutmeg Laurel wood replaces Beige Birch, and there's a new Titanium Sport package.
Standard equipment is a little richer in the high-performance 333-horsepower S4, which is only offered in sedan form. In addition to the sport suspension and host of other upgrades, the 2011 Audi S4 includes heated washers, sport seats with alcantara inserts, aluminum door inserts, and the three-zone climate control system.