The Good: Gorgeous inside and out; gadgets galore; as sporty as you’ll ever need.
The Bad: Surprisingly poor fuel economy; asking $47 grand for a four-cylinder car.
The Verdict: Don’t be afraid of downsizing.
In the second and third installments of The Transporter film series, stubble-headed badass and pain enthusiast Jason Statham alternates between wrecking more people than Bruce Banner at a coffee-less Rageoholics Anonymous meeting, and piloting his Audi A8 from one laughably absurd stunt to the next. In the series, Statham’s Audi proves almost Kryptonian in its durability – whether it’s leaping between skyscrapers or scraping bombs off his car’s undercarriage with a one-legged ramp and a handy crane, the big sedan takes it as stoically as the Lone Ranger’s steed, with nary a scratch or flat tire for its troubles.
Indeed, the film’s reputation landed Statham in a starring role in this year’s best Superbowl ad, demonstrating the prowess of the newest Audi A6 while subtly pissing on Mercedes-Benz, Lexus and BMW. And while the decision to slide the British shitkicker behind the A6 instead of his usual, larger A8 was likely because the A6 has been rebooted with a supercharged V6, it also pointed out an important fact in the modern automotive world: downsizing is the new trading up. With the economy continuing a long, Titanic-like plunge, and the only thing preventing gas prices from skyrocketing is the frequent knocking of knuckles against wood, car buyers are looking to smaller, less expensive models.
But while Statham, in all honestly, probably needs that extra horsepower and leg room for his job as the world’s flintiest chauffeur, most of us can get by with a little less these days. In fact, moving down brings with it some advantages – easier parking, cheaper payments, and fewer digits on the gas pumps. (Usually.) Providing a prime example of this principle is the Audi A4, the smallest sedan in the German manufacturer’s lineup (and, in the unlikely event that Crank: High Voltage bombs at the box office, Mr. Statham’s next ride).
The A4 went through a top-to-bottom redesign last year, scraping away the previous generations’ baby fat to reveal a svelte new design. Any similarities to Audi’s A5 coupe are more than just skin deep; the two cars share platforms as well as faces. And while much has been made lately of the obsession with “four-door coupes” such as Volkwagen’s Passat CC and Mercedes-Benz’s CLS, the A4 manages to take the coupe’s tight proportions and draw them out into a more conventional sedan shape without losing much of the two-door’s good looks. On several occasions, my oxygenated-blood-red tester drew comments from anonymous passerby, including a teenage boy who turned to his brother and said, simply, “Yo, that car is awesome.”
The Audi’s sense of style continues into the cabin, too. Audi has been known for years for producing some of the classiest interiors in the automotive world, and the A4 is no exception. Every panel fits neatly into its place, and controls execute their tasks with solid clicks, with none of the chintziness you might find in the products of other car companies, who shall remain nameless in order to preserve the infinitesimal amount of dignity they have remaining after begging Congress for money. The materials, too, were top-quality; my tester’s “Cardamom beige” leather interior was nicely accented with “ash almond beige” wood trim, though I doubt anyone would ever refer to their car as having a “cardamom and ash almond beige” interior. (And if somebody does, I sure as hell don’t want anything to do with that jagoff.)
Those cardamom-wrapped seats (sorry) are pretty good places to spend some time, as well. The front seats offer more than enough room for even the lankiest of people – at 6’4”, I didn’t even need to push the front seat back all the way to make room for my Conan O’Brien-like legs. The back seat isn’t quite as nice as the front – this is a pretty small car, and that back seat has only six-tenths of an inch more legroom than the rear bench of a Honda Civic. Still, my 5’8” girlfriend was able to sit behind me in relative comfort, and the Audi was able to transport me, her and my parents about with ease during a weekend trip up to Stowe, Vermont.
The Audi A4, seen with the famous Ice Penis of Stowe.
But these days, a car has to have more than leather seats and brand cache to be considered a luxury ride – it’s all about the options. The crazier and fancier the shit you can load onto your car, the better. Thankfully, Audi hasn’t held anything back on the A4, so anyone downsizing from a larger, more expensive model won’t feel like they’re losing out in the gadget race.
The first technological wonder you’re likely to notice is the MMI (Multi-Media Interface) system, and with good reason – it’s the one you’re going to be using the most. Located below the gearshift lever, the MMI uses a silver-dollar-sized knob to control most of the car’s secondary systems. Arrayed around the dial are eight buttons, each of which brings you to one of the system’s main menus – one for the navigation system, one for the radio, one for the telephone, etc. Each button brings up a menu display on the large color screen atop the dash; once at the menu you want, you navigate through the submenus with the wheel, and press down to select. It’s a little disconcerting at first, especially when you just want to change the radio station, but I was able to get accustomed to it within a day or two.
The navigation system, for its part, consistently figured out every attempt to confuse it I threw at it; when I deviated from the path it told me, it rerouted me on a new path based on my course change. (Sorry, New York State Assembly, you can rename the Triborough Bridge after any Kennedy you want, I’m still not paying the $5.) In addition, the nav also displays nearby restaurants, gas stations, hotels, and schools (the latter a little inexplicable – when was the last time you needed to find the nearest school in an emergency?). But setting the navigation system is a chore – dialing out an address one letter at a time with the click-wheel makes hunt-and-peck typing seem efficient. The system advises you to stop the car before inputting coordinates – but seriously, who’s gonna do that? If I had the time to pull over, I’d look at a map.
The other fancy feature installed on my tester was the Audi drive select system. Designed to control the car’s handling and performance, the system lets you choose how much the steering, throttle and shifts are, as well as how buttoned-down the suspension is. The program offers four settings – comfort, sport, auto, and an individualized setting you can adjust as you like.
While I spent most of my time on auto, flipping through the various settings didn’t seem to produce much of a difference. The sport setting made the car’s handing a little more taut, as you’d expect, and held the car in lower gear longer; likewise, the comfort setting made those nasty Lexington Avenue potholes a little gentler on my butt. But ultimately, it didn’t really seem to produce much of a difference – especially not given the option’s nearly three-grand price. My advice? If you know you’re the sporty type, spend the $1,950 on the sport package, which includes sport seats, sport suspension and shift paddles (which I frequently wished for on windy back roads).
The rest of the features of the car, though, were wonderful. The 505-watt Bang & Olufsen stereo (14 speakers, baby!), coupled with a 6-disc CD changer and Sirius XM satellite radio, can only be described as “kick-ass;” listening to the newest Springsteen album was almost as good as seeing him live. (Except with fewer crotch slides.) The A4’s keyless go system meant the car sensed the key in my pocket and unlocked automatically, then let me start the car with the touch of a button; I never realized how much of a pain in the ass it was to dig out my car keys until I drove this car.
The rear-view camera and rear sonar, designed to aid in parallel parking, was a welcome balm after the endless hunt for a spot in New York City. And while the car was also equipped with side assist (designed to keep you from plowing into a car in your blind spot) and voice command tech (designed to make you feel like Jean-Luc Picard), I wasn’t able to figure them out during my time with the car, which I completely credit to me being to stubborn to look in the owner’s manual.
But enough about features, I hear the car fans clamoring. What’ll she do? Well, there’s plenty of good news and a dash of disappointment here. Let’s start with the good stuff, of which there was plenty. My car was equipped with the 2.0 liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, which puts out 211 horsepower and a mighty impressive 258 pound-feet of torque; all of that was sent to all four wheels through a 6-speed manumatic automatic transmission. While Audi also offers a V6 in the A4, after a few days with the four-cylinder, I can’t imagine why anyone would ever buy the six.
While the four is down 54 horsepower to the six, it actually has 15 more pound-feet of torque than the bigger engine. As a result, real-world performance is pretty much equal: Car and Driver ran the four-pot from 0 to 60 in 5.7 seconds, the same as the V6. My tester started to lose steam around 85 miles an hour, but for almost all the driving you or I will be doing, the four is the Goldilocks engine – just right.
Likewise, handling and braking are just fine; the quattro all-wheel-drive system grips tenaciously on dry roads and ice alike, and it’s ultimately transparent in day-to-day driving. Audi’s been equipping its cars with all-wheel-drive for years now, and not only have they got it down to a science, the other German manufacturers are paying them the ultimate complement by stealing their idea; Mercedes-Benz now offers AWD on everything from their cheapest car (the C-class) to their priciest sedan (the S-class).
The only real quibble I had with the powertrain was the fuel economy. While the EPA rates the A4 2.0T at 21 mpg city and 27 mpg highway, my car only eked out 23.6 miles per gallon during a mostly-highway-cruising jaunt. I suppose it’s possible the disparity was due to my cruising speed of 75 miles per hour (as opposed to the EPA’s test drivers, who I doubt ever break 55), but even so, it was disappointing – especially given that my prior tank, much of which consisted of stop-and-go Manhattan driving, managed at least 22 miles per gallon. (I wasn’t able to calculate exact mileage, as I was unsure how much fuel was in the tank when the car was dropped off.) In comparison, the EPA rates the V6 model at 17/26; I’d be interested to see what kind of real-world mileage it gets.
But saving gas isn’t the purpose of this car; if you’re looking for bragging rights at the pump, buy a Prius. Audi’s game is stylish, sporty luxury, and the A4 delivers that in spades – but it does so at a price. In this case, $46,675. Yes, that’s right – it’s a four-cylinder compact car that costs almost $50,000. It’s the sort of stat that takes your breath away, especially if you’re the sort of person (like me) who grew up driving Hyundais and Subarus. But it’s not the size of the ship that matters, but the motion of the ocean, right? And this Audi, four-cylinder engine or not, has all the right moves to compete in its class.
While it may be down two cylinders against its competitors, its power outputs and performance are right in line with other base-model compact luxury sedans; Mercedes-Benz’s C300 puts out 228 horsepower, while BMW’s 328xi makes 230 horses. And the Audi’s pricing lines up quite nicely, as well; a loaded 328xi and a loaded C300 4MATIC come in at $48,220 and $45,750, and don’t even bother looking for adjustable suspension or rear-view cameras on those models. And when compared to the V6 model – which, when identically equipped, costs $3,750 more – the four-cylinder makes even more sense.
So in the end, what’s the ruling on the field? Well, while its price may look intimidating at a glance, Audi has put together a luxury sedan that fits the zeitgeist very well. By offering the high-end options and cool new technology in its smallest, cheapest sedan, it gives buyers a chance to feel like they’re having their cake and eating it too. In a crummy economy, that’s a rare bargain. And if Mr. Statham’s feeling the pinch of hard times, he shouldn’t worry about downsizing – the A4 will take good care of him.