Audi A4

Opinion: sorry, Britain, you’re buying the wrong compact executive car

Audi A4

Hold the front page:new car registrations hit a record high in 2016, with more of us buying new cars than ever before. Well, knock me down with a feather and call me ‘pre-reg’ – it’s hardly a tale of the unexpected, is it?

Don’t expect any plot twists in the top 20, either. Ford Fiesta, Vauxhall Corsa, Ford Focus, Volkswagen Golf, Nissan Qash…

Sorry, drifted off there for a moment.

Actually, the real interest lies in what’s absent from the list. Take the compact executive segment, for example. The Mercedes C-Class: in at number nine. The BMW 3 Series: a chart-hogging 14th. The Audi A4: fails to the make the top 20.

Wait, what? The only Audi to make the grade is the A3, which manages to creep above the Mercedes A-Class to sit on the throne as the fresh prince of the premium hatchbacks. But the A4 – widely considered one of the best real-world cars Audi has ever made – is conspicuous by its absence.

Sure, you can thank PCP deals, lease agreements and discounted cars for muddying the waters, but I’d like to put it on record that the new Audi A4 deserves far more attention. Allow me to explain.

It’s at this point that you might argue that Audi doesn’t need any support when it comes to marketing. The brand is such that many non-car people aspire to Audi ownership without really knowing why. And for company car drivers, an Audi is the modern equivalent of a Ghia or CD badge on your boot of your executive express.

You might also point to the – how can I put this – less than polished image of a select group of Audi drivers as a reason not to own an A4. And, yes, many instances of erratic driving do tend to involve an Audi of some description.

But I put this to you: would Tailgating Terry, Late-Braking Larry and Speeding Steve really be interested in the common or garden A4? Surely the A3, S4, A5 and S5 are more suited to their antics? Discuss.

Besides, we all know saloon cars have had their day, right? #Crossover

Audi A4 saloon

I had the pleasure of running a long-term Audi A4 for Diesel Car for six months. I wanted it to be as far removed from a rep-spec A4 as possible, so I ticked the 3.0-litre V6 TDI box, along with Tango Red paint and a host of other options.

I’m ashamed to admit I found the S line trim too hard to resist, but I did manage to avoid upscaling to 19-inch rims, figuring a set of 18-inch diamond cut alloys would be better for my spine.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was almost impossible to find fault with the A4. I could say that the S tronic transmission was a mistake, but that’s a pitfall easily avoided by opting for a manual gearbox.

I could also say that Apple CarPlay threw the occasional wobbly and some of the many driver assistance tools could be prone to the odd hiccup, but these would have to be filed under ‘first world problems’.

Then there’s the price. At £45,825, my test car was getting perilously close to A7 and Q7 money. I could pen a few paragraphs attempting to justify spending £46k, but I’m struggling to get my head around such an expensive Audi A4.

It probably doesn’t help that I once spent £300 on an Audi 80 and £420 on a first-gen A4 to tackle airport runs. Spending even four figures on a car sends me into a cold sweat and keeps me awake at night.

But here’s the thing. Not once did I feel shortchanged for ‘my’ £46,000. Spend any amount of time inside a new A4 and you’re left with the impression of a car honed and chiseled to within a millimetre of perfection. Forget all the nonsense you might have read about the A4 being too much of an evolutionary step. It’s far better than that.

For sure, the styling is, at best, sombre. And the driving experience is best served on trunk roads than it is on back roads. But other than that I’m struggling to find anything wrong with it, even after six months behind the wheel.

I miss the combination of fuel economy in the mid 40s and a 0-62 time of 6.3 seconds. I miss the clever Virtual Cockpit, even with its daft name. I miss the ride comfort, the quality of which will be alien to anyone who has driven a modern Audi over the past decade.

Two months on, I miss the adaptive cruise control, which is near as I ever want to get to an autonomous car. Set the sat nav to your destination – which is gloriously easy in itself – point the car in the right direction and it’ll pretty much drive itself. It slows for cars in front, reacts to a change in the speed limit and will automatically re-route itself if there’s a delay up ahead. Heck, it will even steer itself round corners.

Audi A4 interior

But most of all I miss the interior, which is wonderfully free of any touchscreen nonsense. At first there’s a bewildering array of switches and controls to become familiar with, but you soon learn that it’s one of the most ergonomic and driver-focused cars in the business. It even has a proper volume dial for the excellent (but optional) Bang & Olufsen stereo, and a very old-school dial for the dashboard illumination.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the simplicity of a new Volvo interior. But somebody at Audi has stuck two fingers up at the folk who believe touchscreens are the way forward. And that somebody deserves a medal.

It’s the little details you might not notice on a press launch or quick test-drive, like the magnificent, if terribly geeky, four-lever bonnet hinge and washer bottle hidden within the front wing. Or the shut-lines, which are tighter than a fly’s bottom caught in a spider’s web.

And while diesel engines might be as popular as Donald Trump in a taco bar, the 3.0-litre V6 TDI is so wonderfully free of vibrations and harshness, you’d swear blind there was a petrol unit beneath that clamshell bonnet. That it can, even in the lower 218hp guise, show a hot hatch a clean pair of heels is an added bonus.

Yet despite all the positivity, I’ll have to admit that the Audi A4 never really got under my skin. It was so utterly efficient, to the point of it being, well, a little bit dull. Like my dishwasher and fridge freezer – both of which are German – I almost took it for granted. But rather than a criticism, that’s arguably the A4’s greatest strength.

It’s dependable, reliable, free of faults and the kind of car you’d take home to meet the in-laws. Take it on a one-night stand and you’re unlikely to remember much in the morning. But as an unassuming tool for the long haul, the Audi A4 is a close to perfection as you’re ever likely to get.

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