Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Test Drive: 2017 Audi A4 Premium

Audi's reputation has been dragged through the mud of late due to the whole "diesel-gate" scandal. Even so, Audi's have always been nicely designed and well-appointed cars and the latest A4 is no exception. With a trip to New York that necessitated renting a car from the city, I opted to take advantage of one of the benefits of my Chase Sapphire Reserve card and booked a car through Silvercar for the weekend. Having only spent a little time with the last iteration of the A4, I was looking forward to having the opportunity to get a little quality time with this latest version.


Picking the car up from Silvercar's garage in Downtown Brooklyn, I was immediately struck by how much sharper the design on the new A4 is. While the previous car had some softer, more rounded edges, the current A4 sports much sharper creases and cleaner edges, giving it a more athletic appearance. The FWD proportions are unmistakable, but Audi has tried hard to design the car in such a way as to hide it as best it can, with a longer stretch between the front axle and the leading edge of the A-pillar. The cab-rearward design helps to make the car appear more balanced and accentuates the overall athleticism of the design. It is a handsome and clean, if not particularly edgy evolution of Audi's styling direction. Think a Brooks Brothers suit versus something from the Men's Warehouse.

Inside, Audi continues to work its magic, creating some of the best looking automotive interiors on the market in any price class. The A4, despite being on the lower end of Audi's line-up, is given an attractive and nicely styled interior with materials that feel of high quality, even the hard plastics. What Audi has managed to figure out, which many of its competitors has not, is that the old ideas of luxury mostly just look old these days. Wood, especially of the shiny lacquered variety, looks like cheap plastic. Flat matte plastic lacking in any texture feels like a cheap kids' toy. Chrome used in excess starts to look gaudy quick. Audi has avoided all of these cliche design mistakes and instead filled the cabin with soft-touch plastics that feel like leatherette, hard plastics that are textured and made to feel expensive, wood is nowhere in sight, and the metallic accents are all brushed to give them a flat appearance. The design is cohesive and ergonomically well thought out, with almost everything immediately usable without so much as a second thought.

The one notable exception is the shifter. Connected to Audi's 7-speed dual clutch transmission, the monostable shifter serves double duty as both the transmission controller and as a platform for using the MMI controller. Its broad flat surface is wrapped in leather and feels nice when I rest the heel of my hand on it. However, the design of the interface is not terrible intuitive. While it works similarly for shifting, the placement and coloration of the Park button is odd. It shares a gray surround and font with the rest of the transmission's labels, which cannot be interacted with right away. This oversight means that being new to the car, I nearly missed putting it into park a couple of times early on. Even once I realized and committed it to memory, it never quite fell to hand as easily as other transmission designs. It seems minor in the grand scheme of things, but could have created real problems had I ever actually forgot.

Now before we dive into the drive, I want to take a moment to acknowledge Audi's fantastic use of technology. Where other automakers have struggled with implementing their infotainment systems, Audi's MMI system is easily one of the best on the market and has done a great job of integrating it into the rest of the car. Powered by nvidia, a company known for producing the industry's best graphics processors, the MMI system looks incredibly slick, is quick to respond, and becomes intuitive after only a few moments of use. The screen atop the center console is managed using the controller in the center console. The full color screen in the instrument cluster is controlled by the buttons on the steering wheel. The information in both displays is linked so that navigation information entered in the main MMI screen is displayed on a fully rendered version of Google Maps within the instrument cluster. And this is not even the Audi Virtual Cockpit. That is a whole separate level of insanity. Best of all, the system still integrates with both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

Alright, enough about the interior. So how does the A4 feel from behind the wheel? In a word, disappointing. Before you run off and unload on me, hear me out. Audis have never been the most engaging cars to drive, so I was not expecting this new A4 to be significantly different.

Fire up the ubiquitous VW group turbo 2-liter motor and wait for it to settle into a rather diesel-like clattery idle. The newest generation of direct injection motors all sound like this, so I cannot necessarily ding Audi for the less than stellar aural quality, but what I can ding Audi for is the overall uninspired exhaust note. No matter how hard I pressed the A4, it simply did not have much voice to offer. In the long run, I suppose this is a good thing given how most people will drive this car, but I expected better from a car that is billed as a sporty sedan. To make matters worse, slipping the car into drive shows one of the major shortcomings of the dual clutch transmission. Without a torque converters torque multiplication effect and without the ability to regulate how the clutch engages, the initial throttle tip-in was pretty underwhelming. With the ratings this motor shows on paper and and the fact that the car was fitted with Audi's quattro AWD system with a 40:60 front to rear torque split, I was expecting the car to pull harder off the line. Perhaps it is my fault for having expectations that were too high, but with 0-60 numbers that are right in line with our Accord, I thought it would at least be able to deliver that kind of punch, yet somehow it never quite delivered the same sensation of speed that I get when I hammer the throttle on the Accord.

Once at speed, the 2-liter motor exhibits some less than refined aural characteristics, sounding rough when pushed and generally feeling a lot less enjoyable to listen to than a melodious V6, like the one in our Accord. But while the motor could use a little more refinement, the transmission comes into its own at this point, clicking off near imperceptible up-shifts and delivering smart gear selection for hills and quick down-shifts for passing. That 7-speed DCT also proves intelligent enough when left to its own devices and responds promptly when commanded using the paddles on the wheel. It is just unfortunate that it is not paired with a motor that is more aurally pleasant to listen to.

Underway, I play with the Audi drive select and test out each of the different modes for a little while only to find that the differences between them are largely indistinguishable. There is no noticeable difference in the heft of the steering, response of the throttle, and shifting algorithm of the transmission. Since the car is not fitted with adaptive dampers, there is no change in how the car rides, which is just fine for me. The standard suspension is more than capable at absorbing the horrid conditions of NYC's roads and actually proves a comfortable ride under nearly all conditions. But the whole point of Audi drive select is supposed to be to offer customizability in how the car feels, yet it just leaves me feeling like it was a waste of time. I left it in Auto the rest of the time.

Wrestling my way out of the snarling traffic of the city, I finally am able to tackle a few curves with the A4 and find myself less than thrilled with its overall demeanor. The car despite its rear-biased quattro and better than ever weight distribution still plows heavily when pushed, the tires protesting profusely about being asked to exceed their intended comfort zones. It does not help that the steering is rather dull and lifeless, though it proved surprisingly precise, if a touch too boosted. That meant that spirited driving was not encouraged, albeit it was not exactly discouraged either. The A4 may not have been the most willing partner in crime, but once I understood its limitations, I was able to relax and just enjoy the drive. I could ratchet up the pace if I wanted to or I could simply dial it back and cruise along.

And this is where the A4 started to shine and make complete sense to me. What the A4 excels at is being a comfortable highway cruiser. Get it up to speed, dial in the cruise control, and just take a deep breath and let it out slowly as all of the tension exits your body. Then sit back and just let the miles fly by. This is where the A4 is in its element. I did not have to listen to the clattering noise of the engine or think about how much the car wanted to understeer in a corner. Instead, I could just focus on the road ahead, my Google Maps navigation providing guidance while the music from my phone streamed over the excellent 10-speaker sound system. In the right conditions, and given the right mission, the A4 serves it purpose well. Rather than trying to push it like a sport sedan, I should have just enjoyed it for its easy cruising demeanor.

So while I was disappointed with its driving dynamics overall, I still thoroughly enjoyed my time with it. As a rental car, the A4 now sits atop my list of choices. When I am in a city and have reason to spend the extra on Silvercar, I will absolutely take full advantage of the fact that they only have A4s in their fleet

Special thanks to Silvercar for providing the car for our weekend in upstate New York. If you would like to sign up for Silvercar, use referral code IOQMAFZW to earn $25 of credit after you complete your first rental.