Audi, in recent years, has been in the rather unfortunate position of selling the worst car in its class. It’s long been unable to topple the BMW 3 Series as the best compact premium saloon, of course, but an honourable runner-up slot used to suffice.
Then Mercedes-Benz came along with the new C-Class and, one World Car of the Year title later, Audi was knocked down to third place. Then, out of nowhere, Jaguar arrived with the new XE, and suddenly the ageing A4 was sitting plum last in the four-car group tests. As one of the brand’s best-selling cars in Britain, this was a problem.
And so, belatedly, there’s an all-new A4 to restore the order. Yes, all-new. No we haven’t accidentally printed an image of the current model. Audi’s evolutionary styling means it’s a new car that’s arrived almost by stealth, but get past this and you’ll discover something that’s radically better than the one it quietly replaces.
There is, for instance, more in-cabin technology than in any of its rivals. That’s what buyers these days prioritise, we’re told. After all, said Audi, the average A4 buyer will spend 42 days inside the car during the three-year ownership cycle. So 4G wifi and fancy-pants smartphone connectivity with standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are as important as ride and handling.
Given all this, as the drive got underway and everyone else turned right for the twisty roads, we turned left, onto the M4, to play commuter for the day. M4, A4, turn around at Hyde Park and back. It’s a journey A4 drivers will be doing on a regular basis, and when they do they’ll find a few surprises to make it a little easier.
First, the interior. It’s magnificent. Open-plan and airy where the old car was blocky and claustrophobic, Audi’s designed a wonderfully modern and tactile cabin, built from indulgent materials the equal of the A8 luxury limo. It’s easily the best in the class. With a better driving position and much more space in the back, it’s a fine place to spend six solid weeks’ commuting.
And boy, is it quiet. Limo-quiet, even at motorway speeds. With a much-smoother ride and silent, long-striding 2.0-litre TDI engine (which nine in 10 buyers will choose), it’s like being bumped up to first class on a commuter train.
Don’t fret about productivity either; the smartphone connectivity is standard. We tried Apple CarPlay and found it brilliant, from dictating messages via Siri to reading out the latest get-ahead business titles via Audiobooks. Rather amusingly, said Audi, there’s even optional auto-pilot cruise control – “hands and feet off up to 38mph,” said the Audi spokesman, “so you can get the laptop out in traffic”. Do so and someone will soon upload your picture to social media, however.
The more we drove the new A4, the richer it felt. OK, it wasn’t exciting when we did stumble across a few twisty roads, but it doesn’t need to be. People choose the 3 Series for that, not the Audi. What it needs to do is up the Vorsprung durch Technik quotient, and it does so supremely.
More luxurious than a C-Class, more sophisticated than a Jaguar XE, it’s still not quite the best car in its sector, but it runs the BMW close. From worst car in the class to a class act – pity the samey styling risks concealing the transformation.