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By Derek Mau
Stylish. Comfortable. Lots of nifty features that are useful and improves safety. Plus an engine that sparks an enthusiasm for driving and a dynamic sport suspension that does it all. The all-new Audi A4 sedan runs that fine line between luxury and sportiness. After spending hours behind the wheel, both on the open road and on the track, I can testify that the new A4 is all that and a little more.
Once I got past the sexy new design of the A4, I found the hidden jewel of this intellectual 4-wheel “fox-in-wolf’s” clothing to be the electronically controlled dynamic suspension. The sweet part is that the steering response, engine and transmission are all on the alert for when the driver decides to get “jiggy-with-it” and dance the night away on his or her favorite curvy mountain road. Once the sensors detect road conditions and driver input want some action, everything tightens up for some fancy dance moves. The transmission and shifts get tighter boosting up the engine revs and the steering response becomes more sensitive to steering input from the driver. After your favorite section of road runs out or you back down into normal, mundane driving mode, the A4 becomes mild-mannered Clark Kent again and everything goes back to the previously selected driving mode.
Testing out this multi-talented suspension needed more than just a few turns in the hills around the San Francisco bay area. So, I signed up for a track day at Thunderhill Raceway and flogged the A4 harder than a convicted horse thief. The changing weather gave me the perfect opportunity to test the Audi Quattro system on both a dry and very wet track. Getting a rainy track day in October was way more than I could ever hope for in typically sunny California. Normally, our rainy season doesn’t start until November or December.
Does the new A4 perform? The short answer: better than the Temptations performing their classic hits at the Apollo Theater.
The morning was cool and gray with showers in the forecast for the afternoon. For the morning track sessions we were on a dry track and that gave me time to get acquainted with the new A4′s suspension and tires under dry conditions. It also served as a good baseline as to how the A4 performs under hard acceleration, braking, and dicing through the turns. Switching from “comfort” mode to “dynamic” sport mode enabled the A4 to become an able performer with the graceful style of Melvin Franklin. Steering response had the feel and responsiveness of a veteran singer. The new Quattro all-wheel drive system divides the power split 40/60 between the front and rear wheels, giving the A4 great balance entering and exiting the turns. Understeer is just an old memory associated with the previous generation of A4s.
Power delivery from the 265 hp 3.2L engine through the 6-speed Tiptronic® transmission was smoother than Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers dancing “Cheek to Cheek”. The only thing keeping me from getting overzealous were the all-season tires squealing like an 8 year old school girl around every turn. I could imagine the turn workers shaking their heads everytime I came around to their stations. With the all-season tires constantly reminding me about their adhesion limitations, I gave courtesy point-by’s to the spec Miatas and Porsches setup with race rubber.
The rain starting falling at Thunderhill just before lunch. When I got on the track for my first afternoon session, the course was thoroughly soaked with lots of water running off onto the track in turns 9, 6, 5a, 5, 3… well you get the picture. With the suspension still set in “dynamic” mode and with the ASR on (by default), the A4 began to shine even more. Remember those spec Miatas and Porsches that were passing me during the morning sessions? Now they were tip-toeing around the track trying not to spin off course into the mud. The Audi A4 maintained its composure and chased down everyone on the track. Now it was my turn to get the point-by signals. Yeah, retribution is cool when the weather gets nasty and you have Audi’s quattro system working for you.
What about the drivers that don’t have aspirations of being the next A.J. Almindinger or Danica Patrick? For the two and half hour drive between San Jose and Willows the A4 performed exceptionally well on the open road set to “comfort” mode. I arrived in Willows late at night fully relaxed and in good spirits for the next day’s track sessions. The seats in the A4 were super comfy and supportive in the right places for the extended drive. The iPod interface with Audi’s MMI (Multi-Media Interface) worked perfectly and I had direct access to all my songs and playlists. And the suspension had the right amount of dampening for the open road (not too soft, not too stiff). The drive home was equally comfortable and non-dramatic in the heavy rain. The rain sensor worked perfectly and adjusted the wiper speed according to the amount of moisture on the windshield and the car felt stable at beyond-legal highway speeds. Absolutely designed and bred for the autobahn. I wish we had an autobahn to drive on in the U.S.
At the end of the day I came away thoroughly convinced that the Audi engineers had done their homework and produced a well-balanced package. There may be others in the A4′s class that have more power (BMW 335i, Infiniti G37, Cadillac CTS) and cost just as much (around $40k), but you won’t get Audi’s patented quattro system, the high level of fit-and-finish, or those cool LED day-time driving lights.
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