Audi adds some softly-softly into the sporty new A4 range

Audi adds some softly-softly into the sporty new A4 range

In a luxury market awash with SUVs, Audi New Zealand boss Dean Sheed reckons there's plenty of life left in the traditional compact-executive car. Potential for growth, even.

Mind you, he would say that. Audi has an all-new A4 range to sell and the brand's equivalent-size SUV, the Q5, is in the late stages of its life cycle (we should see the next-generation version in early-2017).

The outgoing A4 accounted for 11 per cent of Audi NZ's 1765 sales last year, hovering around third or fourth place in the four-ringed marque's local ranking. "That's good but it should be higher - perhaps 15-20 per cent," says Sheed, mindful of the fact that the A4 is Audi's most important model globally. 

Over at rival brands Mercedes-Benz and BMW, the C-class and 3-series are number one and number two respectively.

Now's the time to try and boost the A4 for a number of reasons. The model just launched is truly all-new, based on the Volkswagen Group's large-car MLB platform (smaller models like the A3 and Golf ride on the MQB base). It has a good run at the market while the Q5 winds down for the rest of 2016.

There's also Audi's traditional strength in the Avant (wagon) body style, which accounts for 60 per cent of A4 volume. A wagon appeals to lovers of both conventional estates and SUVs, especially when it comes with Audi's other great selling point: quattro four-wheel drive.

"It depends on your priorities," says Sheed. "Families tend to go for SUVs, but wagons have better load space and that's really important. And there's still a large pool of buyers who just don't want an SUV."

The new A4 has arrived in four different models with three different engines (one in two states of tune, so you could argue there are four powerplants). The petrol option is the interesting one: it's a new 2.0-litre turbo 'ultra' unit with valve technology that allows it to behave like a small capacity engine at low-to-middle speed, then wake up for higher performance under load.

The so-called TFSI 140kW almost matches the familiar 2.0-litre turbo-diesel (TDI) for combined fuel economy, achieving 5.1 litres per 100km (TDI 4.5l). Performance is close, too: 0-100kmh in 7.3 seconds for the TFSI and 7.2 for the TDI.

The TFSI also comes in faster 185kW guise (0-100kmh 5.8sec, 6.2l/100km), but the flagship A4 for now is the TDI 200kW: it boasts 0-100kmh performance of 5.3sec and achieves 5.2 l/100km.

There will of course be S4 and ultimately mad-as-a-hatter RS4 versions to follow.

The closeness of the entry-level TFSI and TDI models is also the basis for Sheed's growth plan, as the petrol car comes in a new specification called Design, while the TDI joins the rest of the range in Sport guise.

Sport is supposed to satisfy the established A4 buyer base, while Design broadens the appeal.

Design is the only non-quattro A4, has softer suspension sans damping control, less warpaint on the outside and more ornate interior trim. It has Milano leather upholstery versus the softer Nappa of the Sport cars and is the only A4 not to get Audi's trick Virtual Cockpit digital dashboard (it's a $1400 option). But it still has triple-zone air conditioning, sat-nav and a host of other luxury features.

The TFSI Design is the least expensive A4 in the range (it's an $8000 step up to the TDI quattro Sport), but Audi doesn't want you to think of it as entry-level. Rather, it's one one for more traditional/comfort-oriented buyers who haven't been well-served by the A4 brand to date.

"We've always done really well with the sporty versions and we want to maintain that," says Sheed. "But we want to grow with this Design model."

Sheed is happy to acknowledge that Mercedes-Benz was part of the inspiration for this strategy. "They do well with the performance C-class models but the volume is actually in more luxurious models."

We drove the TFSI Design and TDI 200kW during Audi's local launch programme: the two extremes. Sedans only at this stage, as the Avant versions (there's a wagon option for all four models, now with power tailgate across the range, at a $3500 premium) don't arrive until April.

The Design has much in its favour as a pseudo-luxury car. The engine is outstanding, flexible at the low end and crisp/smooth when extended. The move from the Multitronic (that's continuously variable to you and I) gearbox of the previous entry A4 to the dual-clutch S tronic (it's VW's DSG, really) is also a big plus.

The cabin continues Audi's march back towards high style. It's always had high quality, but like the Q7 this new A4 has interior styling that really creates a luxurious impression. There's plenty of kit on this car too: city/rear pre-sense braking, cross-traffic assist, exit warning if you try to open a door into traffic, sat-nav, power/heated seats, keyless entry/start, the Audi 'phone box' with mobile signal booster and Qi wireless charging pad, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto and three-zone air conditioning.

Reservations? The same ones we've always had with any entry A4: it's front-drive and as such simply doesn't have the same chassis balance and driver involvement as rivals from BMW and Mercedes-Benz. Being pulled along rather than pushed just doesn't feel as posh and there's no escaping that.

Some of Audi's quattro models have felt a bit stodgy in the past as well, but the brand seems to be getting the hang of combining maximum traction with genuine driving pleasure. The sheer straight-line go of the TDI 200kW also created quite an impression of course, but there seems to be plenty of finesse in this A4 quattro chassis.

And the Sport models (covering both TDIs and the TFSI 185kW) go all the way with the high-tec equipment, adding active lane assist, adaptive cruise control, traffic jam assist, collision avoidance, stiffer suspension with adaptive dampers and that Virtual Cockpit, with an instrument panel that can be configured to look like traditional dials or have just one element (the sat-nav map, for example) dominate.

Virtual Cockpit was introduced by Audi in the TT and is based on technology used by Audi-subsidiary Lamborghini, in its Huracan and Aventador supercars. It's a standout feature for the A4.

But this is a German compact-executive and therefore you can still spend plenty on other high-end options: Matrix adaptive LED headlights for $5400, a premium Bang & Olufsen sound system ($3250) or rear-seat entertainment system featuring the Audi Tablet ($6000) should get you started.

 - Stuff