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2009 Audi A4 Preview

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2009 Audi A4

Keeping Up With the Premium Small Car Segment
By Thom Cannell and Steve Purdy
Photos by Steve Purdy
Detroit Bureau

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The premium small sedan category is a hot one. BMW has been the benchmark in this segment ever since the 3-Series grew out of the wonderful 1800 and 2002 models of the 60s and 70s. While the US manufacturers can’t seem to make a dime on small cars, they don’t make anything that can justify the price. The Germans, on the other hand, know this market intimately, and Audi is keeping up admirably.

THOM: A4 is Audi's volume model, its bread and butter. How to make it more appealing, which for Americans means larger and more fuel-efficient at the same time, is a problem they’ve solved. The new A4 is longer and wider, has a longer wheelbase and more standard content, yet is similarly priced (price not yet announced) and weights only 40 pounds more than the car it replaces.

STEVE: Pricing for two models, arriving at dealers in September of 08, just landed on my desk: $32,700 for the A4 Sedan and $34,500 for the A4 Avant. The rest of the pricing will be available soon, I’m assured. This, of course, reflects a premium small car along with Mercedes C-Class , Lexus IS and BMW 3-Series. From what we’ve seen so far the A4 will compete just fine in that auspicious company.

THOM: The last time Audi introduced an all-new A4 was at the 2001 Frankfort auto show. As before, the 2009 model is new from the ground up, with new styling that emphasizes its width and length, and low roofline. The popular import is 2.1” longer and has a greater, more stable track (distance between wheels) that has grown by 1.8”.

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Its low, wide design shapes emphasize this width. Look at how the headlamps and fog lamps are broad and narrow. That makes us think wider. Everything on the front is both substantial, and appears wide. The rear end, connected by what Audi calls a “tornado line” between the headlamp and tail lamp, is also subtly pinched to appear wider. Side views show an upswept character line near the doorsills that looks fast and improves body strength.

STEVE: Popular import, indeed. They sold over 45,000 of the A4 last year and expect the new one to increase that number a bit. The A4 represents nearly half of Audi sales in the US. That’s a testament to the company’s persistence after Audi sales were barely visible, the result of the bogus “unintended acceleration” scare of the 80s.

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THOM: Some, not all, A4s adopt signature LED daytime running lamps; you’ll have to purchase the bi-xenon headlamp option or an upscale model to get them. Like question marks on their side, they consume a paltry 14 watts (compared to 40 watts for incandescent lamps or 200 watts when your headlamps are used for DRL.) This means less energy is needed from the engine to run the alternator and less energy always means less fuel consumed.

STEVE: Every little detail is looked at in the pursuit of incremental fuel savings. Even the AC unit has been lightened and made more efficient saving a drop or two of fuel each mile. After a while all those drops add up, I suppose.

THOM: Another reason the new A4 looks bigger is that it is, the wheelbase is 6.5” longer.

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Inside, and Audi holds the benchmark for automotive interiors anywhere near its price range, the new A4 features a variety of colors and textures, up to S-line leather seats with inset ventilated Alcantara (very grippy) seat panels. The A4 continues as an entry-level luxury car, an entry sports sedan. And, with the longer wheelbase there is, finally, decent legroom for rear seat passengers.

STEVE: You’ll also find inside an optional premium Bang & Olufsen audio system, Ipod and Bluetooth compatibility. Audi’s MMI control system is standard and gets simpler and more intuitive with each update, we’re assured. I found the earlier systems confusing and awkward, just as I found most of the German systems. They seemed to take pride in how complex they could make them.

THOM: Audi is also known for being fun to drive. With a longer wheelbase, the engine has been moved forward to preserve cabin space. Like moving a heavy object to the end of a plank, this could upset balance, making the car nose heavy. Audi did some powertrain magic and changed the location of the differential and torque converter housed inside the front-mounted transmission. The result is moving engine weight to the rear and allowing short front overhang.

Suspension design is pulled from existing A5/S5 models and uses many lightweight aluminum parts to build a 5-link front suspension, and trapezoidal rear. The design of the rear defeats tendencies to dive when braking. Brakes, themselves new, are promise to be the best in their class, even under extremely heavy and repeated breaking. In designing the new car, the chassis is 10% lighter and 5% more rigid. This is because of the use of ultra-high strength steels (UHSS) in selected areas. This kind of steel is usually thinner and lighter, yet more rigid and strong. It is also much harder to bend into shapes.

STEVE: The suspension is adjustable with an electronic control inside. Called “Drive Select” you can go from sport to luxury modes – part of the adaptive suspension which includes variable steering rates, throttle mapping and changing shift points in the transmission that adjust to your driving style.

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THOM: Audi is continuing to offer their well-respected 3.2-liter V6 to customers who want the prestige of a V6 engine. Most buyers will opt for a new 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 211 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. Remember, it’s torque you feel when you step on the gas pedal pulling away from a stoplight, or passing a slower car. That torque is mostly available from 1500 rpm up. Audi says this beats VMW and Lexus V6 engines. At the same time, it gets 15% better fuel economy.

STEVE: Audi shares the turbo 4-cylinder engine with sister company VW for use in the GTI, GLI and Tiguan. The VW version makes 200 horsepower. I’ve always thought it just about the sweetest, most sophisticated 4-cylinder engine out there, with very little turbo lag, an acoustic attenuation system that lets the engine sing through the higher rpms and a rev limiter that just gently suggests you’re reaching the limits.

EPA fuel economy figures were just announced for all the A4 variants. These range from 17-city/26-highway for the V6 Quattro with Tiptronic automatic on the low end to 23/30 for the 4-cylinder with CVT. The new CVT – chain-driven, not belt-driven like most – has programming that can make it act like an 8-speed.

THOM: Both engines use variable lift valves, but differently. The valve actuators - camshafts - have two profiles and the engine control software selects which to use based on throttle position and desired efficiency. The V6 uses this Audi Valve Lift to control the air intake into each cylinder for efficiency and a more homogenous mix of air and fuel. The four cylinder uses the technology on the exhaust side, where it enables the huge - for a four cylinder engine - torque by preventing cross talk on the exhaust.

New for the 2009 A4 is a new ZF 6-speed automatic transmission that disengages when stopped to reduce fuel consumption. On some models, a 6-speed manual will be available, for now it will be the A4 with 2.0-liter engine and all wheel Quattro drive. Later, Audi's multitronic CVT (continuously variable transmission) will be available on front wheel drive cars.

STEVE: Safety features, as you might guess, match the competition with lots of airbags (no, not a back seat full of politicians), side assist (blind spot warning system), adaptive cruise control (which I’m finally getting used to, and fond of) and all the other stuff everyone else has. Thom and I agree the new A4 is a solid contender in this premium small car category – but, of course, the price is substantial. It won’t take many options to be looking at 40-grand. Only time will tell if our economic troubles will effect this segment of the market.

Only a thorough road test will reveal whether the new A4 will live up to this preliminary positive assessment. Given Audi’s recent history of fun and exciting products we have no reason to be skeptical.

Thom Cannell and Steve Purdy