ROAD TEST: Audi A4 Avant 1.8T FSI

ROAD TEST: Audi A4 Avant 1.8T FSI

OVERSTEER ROAD TEST: Audi A4 Avant 1.8T FSI

The Audi A4 gets a slight facelift and a new engine, but is this enough to take on a startlingly good new BMW 3 Series? Well, in the looks department, the sexiest Euro-wagon in the business has it sewn up, but the rest… after a week with one, we’re not so sure…

With the recent launch of the brilliant new BMW 3 Series, Audi thought it had better do something with its competitor in the segment, the oddly underwhelming A4/A5 range.

And so it has, with a very slight facelift and, most interestingly, a new 1.8-litre turbo engine in the entry level model that now manages to pull the starting price of the A4 range under the $70K mark for the first time in a long while. Until you start playing with the options list, that is, because it doesn’t take you long to drag the entry A4’s price well back up beyond the $70K mark.

But does this new price point, new engine and the subtle spec adjustments and styling tweaks keep the A4 in the running with the new 3 Series? Well…

Outside

It’s still an A4. Despite the “facelift” it still looks like an A4. Which is certainly no bad thing, because this A4 has always been an elegant and sexy looking car, regardless of model or spec.

The facelift tweaks things like grilles, bumpers, headlights and the bonnet, but largely leaves well enough alone. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it and all that…

This particular A4 came to us in Avant (or wagon in non-corporate speak…) guise and, as such, cranks up the level of sexiness several notches. Quite why Audi do wagons so well, no one is sure – especially BMW or Mercedes who can’t even make a dent in Audi’s wagon dominance – but, by God, they do do them spectacularly well…

From simply every angle the A4 Avant looks startlingly sexy. The big, chunky 10-spoke alloy wheels look fantastic hunkered up in the tight wheel arches and the subtle crease that runs the length of the car’s flanks is proof that you simply don’t need to go silly with swoops and curves to make a car look good.

As big an improvement in looks as the new 3 Series is, the subtle, yet startlingly attractive A4 still manages to hold its in the stare-attracting department. Especially the wagon.

Inside

What can you say about an Audi interior that hasn’t been said a million times before? Beautifully put together from high quality materials, the A4’s interior is simply superb.

Designed with a cool Teutonic elegance, the A4 benefits from the MMI (Multi Media Interface) controls being moved up to the dash, but still suffers from the stupidity of Audi’s electric parking brake. Unintuitive and slow, it is just an annoyance. Give us a good lever any day…

That is about the only thing wrong inside the A4’s cabin though, as there is very little to criticise about the quality, design, materials or build. The MMI system, however, is due a bit of criticism…

While it works feel enough, it is not as intuitive as it could be and having to push numerous buttons and scroll through several menus to accomplish otherwise simple operations is tiresome.

Other than annoying interfaces, the A4’s interior reeks of quality and is a wonderfully comfortable and hi-tech place to spend time. Nice, even if more of that time than should be necessary is spent being annoyed by the MMI system…

Under the Bonnet

Here is where the big news in the A4 facelift lies, with the addition of a new 1.8-litre turbo four cylinder petrol engine. The 1.8 promises impressive things with its power of 125kW and torque of 320Nm, all while returning a miserly 6.0L/100km.

And so it proves to be in practise, as the engine is a strong and lusty performer that loves a good rev, but still has bags of torque down low. It is strong across its entire rev range and responds to throttle inputs with a muscular surge and a pleasingly throaty growl.

It would be utterly fantastic, except for one thing. And that thing is the CVT transmission it is hooked up to.

We make no secret of the fact that we are not fans of the continuously variable transmission here at Oversteer, but this is the exact type of application of the hated transmission that makes us hate it so. The engine is willing, strong and characterful, but the sheer awfulness of a CVT spoils all the fun the engine promises.

It robs the A4 of its standing start potential and makes large throttle applications a droney, annoying experience. The only saving grace of the transmission is the 8-speed manual mode, that unusually will shift through the ratios itself, or allow you to do it. It’s better, but still nowhere near as good as a DSG or a manual would be hooked up to this engine.

Still, the fat, muscular torque makes open road cruising a joy and does its best to minimise the CVT’s negative effects.

On the Road

While it may have the looks over the 3 Series, on the road the A4 fades into insignificance in comparison to the BMW.

Not that the Audi is a poor handler, mind you. Quite the opposite in fact, as the A4 is quite a brilliant handler for a front wheel drive car. And that is the key; for a front wheel drive car. For that is very much what the A4 is, and as such, is simply outclassed by the 3’s sublime RWD chassis.

Our A4 Avant was the S Line model, which used to mean that the ride had been ruined completely by big wheels and uncompromisingly hard sports suspension. But in this case the compromise wasn’t quite so great.

The ride is firm, but composed and doesn’t throw you around too much when the road gets less than billiard table-smooth. The ride retains its composure over the majority of New Zealand back roads, but can become fidgety over rougher surfaces and doesn’t respond with much sophistication to sudden bumps or imperfections that are regular features of our roads.

Still, the payoff is in the handling, with the A4 Avant being a decently sharp thing. It turns in briskly and confidently, with little in the way of understeer. While it can skittle wide under provocation on the exit in damp conditions, it is otherwise very confident and planted for a FWD car. But the BMW is still better…

Verdict

Transmission-related disappointments aside, the Audi A4 Avant is an impressive machine. The sub-$70K entry price was not represented at all by our test car being a specced-up wagon costing far closer to the mid-80s, but the basics were all there.

The 1.8-litre engine is a brilliant piece of kit that offers strong performance with frugal fuel usage and the overall quality of the A4 is remarkable indeed.

It’s just when you start the inevitable comparisons with the 3 Series that things start looking less convincing. The Audi’s FWD platform, while ridiculously impressive, cannot hope to match the BMW’s magical RWD platform for handling until you start looking at the far higher-priced 4WD quattro models and will probably never match it for ride quality. The steering is still dull and distant, but it is the CVT transmission that is the real villain of the piece.

It dulls the wonderfully sparkling engine and ruins the character of the A4. Which is a massive shame, because otherwise the A4 Avant is a beautifully built, well-equipped, startlingly sexy looking wagon that ALMOST ticks all the right boxes.

Audi A4 Avant 1.8T FSI Specifications

Price: $80,400 (plus options)
Body type: 5-door wagon
Drive: Front-wheel drive
Engine Type: Inline four-cylinder petrol
Engine Capacity: 1798cc
Max power: 125kW @ 1700rpm
Max torque: 320Nm @ 1400rpm
Fuel Consumption: 6.0L/100km
C02 emission: 139g/km
0 to 100kph: 8.4 seconds
Front suspension: Multi-link
Rear suspension: Multi-link
ABS Brakes: Yes
Air Bags: 6
ESP: Yes
Air Conditioning: Climate
Lap/diagonal belts: 5
Satellite Navigation: No
Electric seats: Yes
Burglar Alarm: Yes
Panic Button: No
Wheel type: 18-inch alloy

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