Not too long ago, anyone who didn’t wear a badge on their sleeve would look at the Audi A4 1.8T and then buy a Honda Accord Euro.
Quite simply, the Euro takes the virtues of allegedly ‘premium’ mid-sized offerings – cabin quality, ride quality, refinement, and handling – then asks $10K less for the ‘privilege’. Meanwhile, the likes of a BMW 320i, Mercedes-Benz C180 or A4 1.8T used to ask extra for the privilege of not winding up rear windows.
The German base models are a different proposition these days. In the current Audi A4 1.8T, facelifted earlier this year, leather trim, climate control and alloy wheels are standard, in addition to power windows all-round. There’s not much else included. Electric-adjust front seats and sunroof are extra-cost options on the $52,700 (plus $2800 for the CVT) entry-level mid-sized Audi – both of which are featured on a $37,840 Euro Luxury.
But it is this Audi’s lack of equipment, its very lack of pretension, that marks it as an excellent sedan that provides clear reasons to spend extra over the Japanese mid-sizers.
The 16-inch tyres, with chubby sidewalls, may not be as fashionable as low-profile 18s (they’re optional), at least not for types who flash the four-rings doing mainies down George Street. What they help provide, however, is excellent ride quality. The damping tune in the 1430kg base A4 is quite tight, which is ideal for belting down a country backroad en route to a winery somewhere in the Hunter Valley (or Barossa, or Yarra) without waking up the missus or mister. Its composure and comfort are both properly premium grade.
However the tyres also help take the edge off potholes and roadworks-scarred tarmac around town. The Audi A4 is a near-match for the Euro in terms of ride comfort, yet it controls its body with greater discipline and remains quieter across all surfaces.
The interior may not be feature packed, but there’s inherent quality in a design that is shared with the $130K S4 sedan. Soft-touch plastics, comfortable seats, clear colour-TFT screens and – thanks to the lack of equipment and extra buttons – terrific ergonomics, mean the A4 cockpit is lovely to sit in and use.
Rear legroom is more expansive than the 3 Series and C-Class – thank the front-drive layout, which means it lacks a driveshaft drilled through the centre to the rear axle – although Audi is awfully stingy by omitting rear seat air vents. Some of the ‘old Audi’ comes through in the rear-coolers being offered as part of an optional ‘Comfort pack’, which is a euphemism for wanting extra bucks for something that should be standard. Same goes for the optional satellite navigation.
Base model Germans used to come with, in addition to only wind-up rear windows, a breathless naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine that ensured badge snobs were easily identified. These days, the C-Class and 3 Series both feature turbocharged engines, and the A4’s 1.8-litre unit is similarly forced to produce healthy numbers. Its 125kW and 320Nm is up 7kW/70Nm up on the pre-facelift A4, which shared its same-capacity turbo four with the – gasp! – $30,990 Skoda Octavia 118TSI. For those who don’t know, the VW Group Czech-made liftback is an Accord Euro rival, and almost as good…
Thanks to almost completely new engine internals, the powered-up 1.8T accelerates to 100km/h in 8.3 seconds, and does so via a continuously variable transmission. Yes, the CVT is incredibly jerky when, for example, reversing up an incline or staggering past joggers in peak-hour. It also holds revs at a constant, somewhere between 1400-3700rpm, where peak torque is made, and 3800-6200rpm, the plateau across which maximum power is delivered.
That’s no aural assault, because the 1.8T sounds creamy and remains distant, and as the production figures suggest, the engine dominates in all parts of the tacho. Now the A4 starts to really make its move on the Accord Euro. As sweet as a Honda VTEC engine is, it waits until 4200rpm before introducing its 230Nm –that’s like making an audience wait for a band playing through speakers too soft to drown a concert hall. In the Audi, there’s a drowning.
Traditionally, the front-drive Audi A4 has distanced itself from the rear-drive 3 Series and C-Class by tending to push its nose around corners instead of sweeping away understeer following a bit of early throttle. The current Audi chassis is exemplary, providing clear answers to the question about whether to spend extra on the quattro all-wheel-drive models. It simply isn’t necessary. The front-driver is sharp at the front and throttle adjustable. It brings life to the grey-on-black colour combination of our test car.
A C-Class still nails the A4 for steering feel, particularly. The Audi system is light, quick and precise, but never earns remarks about lovely feel and consistency like the Merc variable-ratio system does. The 1.8T can’t quite match the lush ride quality of the C200, either, although it also rolls a lot less in the corners. By this stage, the comparison with the Accord Euro is long forgotten, as lovable as that car is for the price. Unless a 3 Series is optioned with adaptive dampers and sports steering, the BMW presents no match for the A4, either.
Ultimately, the Merc is the better car for its ride and steering advantage, but the Audi has the better cabin and engine, so it’s a matter of preference to decide which way the hair is sliced.
What’s clear is that, for all the pretension the four-ring badge usually suffers, and all the cheap-shot comparisons with Skoda and Volkswagen products (oh, and Hondas) that Audi endures, the A4 1.8T stands as its own product. High-quality, fine-driving, sensibly spacious and conservative, yet surprisingly characterful, it is one of the best current Audis.