Is the Audi A4 really worthy of the 'Car of the Year' accolade? We spent a week with What Car?'s award-winner to find out
- Lighter, longer and wider, but is the latest Audi A4 better than the rivals?
- We pit it head-to-head with big rivals the BMW 3 Series, Jaguar XE and Mercedes C-Class
- Which one should you choose? We ask the experts which A4 will hold most of its value
You want a family-size saloon with a premium badge? You, sir or madam, want a BMW 3 Series.
Well, that is up until now, according to What Car?, who handed its coveted 2016 Car of the Year gong to the Audi A4 last month.
But while some criticised the decision to give an award to a carmaker that's currently caught up in the VW Group's emissions cheating saga — one of the biggest motoring scandals in recent history — my qualm is how a model that's been out-performed and out-sold by its BMW rival for years can be more deserving of the accolade than the 3 Series.
Unless, of course, this new one has been reformed into the best model in its class, dethroning BMW's pound-for-pound champion...
Is the A4 an A-star performer? Our test car was the top of the range 3.0 TDI which costs almost twice as much as the entry-level 1.4 TFSI petrol
What you need to know about the Audi A4
The A4 has always had its work cut out — it's in one of the toughest sectors to crack.
That's because the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class have been valid reasons not to buy the Audi at all, certainly over the last decade at least.
While the Mercedes has been the plush, cushioned and most executive-feeling choice, BMW's 3 Series has pretty much dominated on all other fronts, from engine range to cornering ability and even practicality - a real Jack of all trades in the compact executive saloon market.
And with Jaguar also trying to punch its way into the family saloon weight division with the all-new XE launched last year, now is the time for Audi to puff out its chest and flex its muscles to prove it is a genuine contender for the title.
But instead of packing on the pounds to take the scrap to rivals, Audi has gone the other way and put the A4 on a crash diet.
By reverting its family saloon to the lighter MLB evo platform, Audi has shaved 120kg over the previous generation car (launched back in 2007). That means it's at a lighter fighting weight than the three rivals.
It also undercuts the competition on price, in a direct head-to-head. While the cheapest model is advertised from £25,900, it uses the 1.4-litre petrol unit.
Compare the A4 like-for-like on 2.0-litre diesel engines (though the Mercedes uses a 2.1-litre unit) and it's the most affordable of the pack.
Our test car was the 3.0TDI — the same engine size that What Car? gave the award to, though ours was the more powerful range-topping 268bhp Quattro all-wheel drive version in S-Line spec.
Kitted out with options, it's double the price of the most affordable A4 you can buy, so it ought to be good...
Longer, wider, lighter: The A4 has got broader but also shed the pounds. The wheelbase - the distance between the front and rear wheels - is also longer, which means more interior space
Easy parker: The reversing camera makes parallel parking in town simple
There's enough space in the back for two 6ft-tall adults to sit comfortably. The centre console and raised transmission tunnel makes the centre seat one to avoid for long journeys
What's it like in town?
ON TEST FACTS & FIGURES: AUDI A4 3.0 TDI QUATTRO S-LINE 272HP
On sale: Now
Price (standard): £38,135
Test car with options: £51,245
Options include: Tango red metallic paint (£645), Black Leather/Alcantara interior (£450), Technology Pack (£1,450), Light & Vision Pack (£1,250), 19” ‘5-V spoke’ design alloy wheels (£1,200), Storage Pack (£175), Acoustic glazing, side and rear windows (£200), Adaptive Sport suspension with damping control (£600), Dynamic steering (£950), Electric slide and tilt sunroof (£950), Bang & Olufsen 3D sound system (£750), Electrically adjustable front seats (£700), Smoking pack (£50), Driver Assistance Pack - Tour (£1,250), Parking Assistance Pack Advanced (£1,675)
Engine: V6, 2967cc, diesel
Power: 268bhp at 3250-4250rpm
Torque: 442lb ft at 1500-3000rpm
Transmission: 8-spd automatic
Kerb weight: 1735kg
Top speed: 155mph
Fuel economy: 54.3mpg (combined)
CO2/tax band: 137g/km, 22%
For the longest and widest of the four cars, the A4 is still effortless in town.
Light steering, ample levels of visibility, plenty of parking-aid features and an urgent response to dabs of the throttle make it just as easy to navigate through the city as a family hatchback.
It also ticks most boxes on the usability sheet - up front it feels spacious, while the increased wheelbase over the previous-generation A4 means rear passengers get 23mm of extra leg room.
This might not sound like much, but it makes all the difference to a pair of six-footers in the back.
While the centre seat on the rear bench is flat enough to be comfortable on long journeys. the centre console eats up most of the foot space - adults will have to straddle this and the transmission tunnel while invading the footwells of the two other back-seat passengers.
The MMI infotainment system has been revised, making it easier to flutter between radio stations at the demand of short-fused teenage passengers in the back.
The controlling scroll dial positioned just in front of the gear selector is simple to use and there are enough cubby holes and cup holders to cope with a family-sized trip to the drive-thru.
The boot is deceptively big too. An early-morning blast on an airport run with parents proved that two large suitcases and a rucksack have enough space to slide around the compartment when driving enthusiastically.
The electronic boot release and closing function puts you on par with the professional chauffeur drivers on arrival at the drop-off point, too.
The 3.0-litre diesel engine will surprise many, especially with a 0-62mph sprint time of 5.3 seconds - that's two seconds quicker than a top of the range Mazda MX-5 sports car and a second quicker than a VW Golf GTI
Even with the 19-inch allow wheels fitted, the ride comfort on motorways and in the city is exceptionally good
What's it like out-of-town?
Where the BMW 3 Series, and more recently the Jaguar XE, have scored major points is on the twisting routes away from town and multi-lane carriageways.
Here both are transformed from ultra-practical family transporters to fast-steering, finely-pitched drivers' cars, capable of turning what should be a fairly mundane journey into one you can easily enjoy.
The A4 doesn't quite provide the same sensation, which is mainly due to the steering. Even with Audi's Dynamic Steering option, which lets you tailor the steering weight, it feels less engaging and responsive than the BMW and Jaguar.
And when you start to really test the cornering capabilities, you're subject to cabin roll and choppy attempts from the chassis to regain composure, even with the Quattro all-wheel drive system. A 3 Series or XE feels planted, balanced and unflustered when driven in the same way on the same roads.
The range-topping motor is more than qualified to thrust you along the straighter sections of tarmac, though. A powerhouse of a unit, the V6 burbles to 62mph from a standstill in 5.3 seconds when combined with the sweet-shifting S-tronic transmission - not bad for a ready-made rep mobile.
Interior upgrade: The Audi A4 beats rivals hands down for interior quality - everything you have to touch regularly, from heating dials to mirror switches, feels premium
No matter how fast you're driving, the A4 remains hushed at all times. The levels of refinement can't be matched in the compact executive saloon market
The digital display replacing the tradition instrument cluster is a work of art, though it can be distracting to begin with
What's it like on the motorway?
This is the natural habitat of the compact executive saloon - tallying up thousands of motorway miles, regularly appearing at Welcome Breaks for much-needed coffee stops and unavoidably being caught up in traffic jams.
And this could be where Audi has made the right compromises, because the A4 is more accomplished in this environment than any of its rivals.
This is down to a combination of fantastic ride comfort, plenty of luxuries and a major upgrade in refinement.
As good as the suspension is at swallowing potholes and speed humps in town, it's the gliding sensation at speed that really impresses, even with the 19-inch wheels fitted to our test car — the biggest available for the A4 - costing £1,200, even for this high-spec S-Line model.
It's during these moments of supreme comfort that you scan around the interior and notice just how significant the improvement to the finish really is. Every knob and dial is heavy and finely chiselled, the stalks and switch gear have a quality-feeling clunk to them and the touch of the perforated leather steering wheel, ripple finish to the gear selector and suede-like alcantara panels on the doors feel incredibly premium.
In fact, close your eyes and move you hands around all the main controls of the A4 and you'd easily mistake it for the more luxurious, and expensive, A8.
Completing the quality feel is the optional TFT high-def display that replaces the traditional instrument cluster, at the extra cost of £1,450 as part of a Technology Pack. Detailed, informative and almost distractingly cool, it's the one option I'd definitely budget for.
But what's most gawp-inducing is the refinement of the package. Even with what should be a rumbling 3.0-litre diesel lump, it's incredibly hushed even at motorway speeds — holding a whispered conversation with a car full of passengers is easily achieved.
There's zero vibration felt though the steering wheel and pedals no matter how fast, or slow, you're driving - something rivals have yet to master in this market.
We wouldn't recommend this £51,000 range topper, unless you can afford it, of course. The more modest 2.0-litre diesels will be more than adequate and will be in more demand on the used-car market
The boot is a good square shape, easily fitting two suitcases. The rear lights are split, so they continue into the boot panel. This means the boot opening is practically wide rather than having big brake lights shrinking the aperture
Which one should you buy?
According to car values firm CAP HPI, the model that depreciates least in cash terms over three years of ownership is the 1.4TFSI SE, but that's because it's the cheapest one to start with. CAP forecasts it will retain 46 per cent of the original list price.
For the best value retention, the S Line models are the ones to go for with the 2.0 TDI Ultra 190 (£32,900) coming out top at 48.5 per cent over a three-year period. Used Audi buyers like power and specification and this model ticks both those boxes.
Audi A4 pub fact
Changeable ambient lighting is not new to this sector, so you might not be all that impressed that there's more than a dozen tones inside the A4.
More ingenious is how it works when you're about to get out of the car. If you open the door when a car or cyclist is passing, the blind-spot warning system links to the interior lighting and sends the door panels red to alert you not to swing it open.
Is it a worthy award winner? It certainly is when you consider the market it's designed for
The Cars & motoring verdict
When you consider who is going to be driving the A4 and the routes they'll regularly be taking, you realise Audi has tuned it's family-size saloon perfectly for the market.
While it might not be as enjoyable to drive on country lanes as a BMW 3 Series or a Jaguar XE, it has all the competition licked for refinement, comfort and quality.
Okay, very few A4 owners will be wafting along the M5 in this £50k version we've been driving, but on paper the more modest diesel makes good sense at £29,150.
The 2.0TDI Ultra has sub-100g/km CO2 emissions, even with a decent level of spec and 17-inch alloy wheels fitted — an equivalent BMW 3 Series can't match it.
With 148bhp and a claimed 74.3mpg return, the Audi combines adequate power with impressive fuel economy too, and with this model in particular is expected to hold 47 per cent of its value after three years, only the Jaguar will depreciate slower.
When you consider all these factors, it's understandable why What Car? handed Audi it's 2016 trophy. With your sensible cap on, it is the choice of the sector right now.
Just don't take a BMW 3 Series for a test drive — you might enjoy it so much that the hat goes straight out the window.
AUDI A4: HOW IT COMPARES TO RIVALS ON A LEVEL PLAYING FIELD
Audi A4 2.0 TDI 150 Ultra SE
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbodiesel
Gearbox: Six-speed manual
0-62mph: 8.9 secs
Top speed: 130mph
Fuel economy: 74.3mpg
CO2 emissions: 99g/km
Value retention* (3yrs/30k miles): 47%
(*figures provided by CAP HPI)
BMW 320d ED Plus
Engine: 2.0-litre turbodiesel
Gearbox: Six-speed manual
0-62mph: 8.0 secs
Top speed: 143mph
Fuel economy: 72.4mpg
CO2 emissions: 102g/km
Value retention (3yes/30k): 42%
Jaguar XE 2.0-litre diesel SE
Engine: 2.0-litre turbodiesel
Gearbox: Six-speed manual
0-62mph: 7.9 secs
Top speed: 132mph
Fuel economy: 75mpg
CO2 emissions: 99g/km
Value retention (3yrs/30k): 48%
Mercedes-Benz C 220d SE
Engine: 2.1-litre turbodiesel
Gearbox: Six-speed manual
0-62mph: 7.7 secs
Top speed: 145mph
Fuel economy: 70.6mpg
CO2 emissions: 103g/km
Value retention (3yrs/30k): 46%
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