Audi A4 prototype review: 2015 first drive

Yes, this really is the new Audi A4. It’s certainly an evolutionary rather than revolutionary approach to the styling, but under it lies a much improved car.

Besides, Audi isn’t stupid. There’s logic behind the looks, as boss man Dr Hackenberg tells us: “It’s a mistake if [a new model] makes it predecessor look old. The design is OK. It does not scream ‘it’s a new model’, as that would harm values of the old one.”

This approach has worked well for Audi in the past, but other cars in this sector are exactly the same. The BMW 3 Series hasn’t changed dramatically over its lifespan, and neither has the Mercedes-Benz C-Class. The main criticism we have of the Jaguar XE is it looks a little predictable… just like a smaller XF.

But enough about the design. We’ll let you decide whether you like it. More importantly, how did we end up in a car with Dr Hackenberg and what exactly is different about this ‘all-new’ model?

Revealed last month and set to be launched to the media in September before going on sale in the UK in November, the 2016 Audi A4 is currently going through final testing in Germany. We joined engineers (as well as Dr Hackenberg) in a drive of pre-production models ahead of its final sign-off within the next couple of weeks.

2016 Audi A4: on the road

2016 Audi A4: on the road

The Audi A4 has traditionally never been a driver’s car. It’s left that to the BMW 3 Series, while recently the Jaguar XE has thrown its hat into the ring as the enthusiastic driver’s company car of choice.

But, under the watchful eye of suspension and driving dynamics expert Dr Hackenberg, the Audi A4 can finally be considered to be one of the best dynamically.

Although UK specifications are to be confirmed, higher-end models will come with Audi’s Quattro all-wheel drive system. Broadly the same as the system it replaces, under normal driving conditions it’ll transfer 60% of torque to the rear axle and 40% to the front.

But, when required, the central differential can also transfer up to 70% of torque to the front and 85% of torque to the rear. It’s a system that Audi’s spent years perfecting and it does help provide more confidence on greasy or wet roads.

The A4’s wheel-selective torque control goes a step further and can split torque between the front or rear wheels in a bid to prevent those on the inside from spinning up. This results in more agile handling on twisty roads.

The suspension has been heavily revamped for the new Audi A4, with lightness a key consideration. There’s a multitude of suspension options for buyers – from the standard suspension with sensitive monotube shock absorbers, to adjustable sport or comfort dampers.

The ride does appear to be comfortable with even the sportier suspension setups, but it’s hard to tell on the sort of smooth, German roads we can but dream of in the UK. Still, even the 18-inch alloys of our test cars failed to transmit the harshest road surfaces we could find into the cabin.

One criticism many drivers of the outgoing model have is the steering, which features an unnerving ‘dead’ point just off straight ahead. This is now gone, with the A4’s electromechanical steering providing an instant response to every input from the driver. It’s a really pleasing steering set up – one that can be tweaked from ultra-light to sportily heavy through Audi’s driver select system.

Higher-end models will come with dynamic steering which adjusts its ratios depending on your driver select mode and the speed you’re travelling at. While a clever idea, and one we’d imagine we could comfortably get used to, it seems to lack a touch of the directness of the regular steering (we recently criticised a similar system in the facelifted BMW 3 Series).

Aside from the suspension and steering, there’s a host of driver assistance features to make life easier. One of the most significant is the adaptive cruise control (ACC). While ACC isn’t groundbreaking itself – it is becoming commonplace across VW Group products – some of the features debuting on the new A4 are.

For example, the ACC’s traffic jam assist can take over steering at speeds of up to 40mph. It uses the car’s front camera as well as sensors to gently guide the car and follow the vehicle in front in heavy traffic. Essentially, at low speeds, the Audi A4 can drive itself.

2016 Audi A4: on the inside

2016 Audi A4: on the inside

If you’ve ever driven a modern Audi, you’re not going to be particularly surprised by the new A4’s interior. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – it feels solid and well-built, and provides that premium feel you’d expect from a car of this class.

A big change to the Audi A4’s interior is the addition of the virtual cockpit, as seen on the latest TT. This replaces the standard driver’s instrument panel (featuring the speedo and rev counter) with a 12.3-inch LCD monitor.

Using a button on the steering wheel, the driver can change the size of the instruments and switch between features such as the sat-nav and audio. It’s a system we like in the TT and it’s transferred well to the A4 – almost making the 8.3-inch MMI touchscreen in the centre console seem redundant.

While UK specifications are yet to be confirmed, the virtual cockpit is likely to be standard on higher-end models and available as an option on the rest of the range.

One complaint about the interior is the bulky transmission tunnel. It encroaches onto the legroom of the front passenger in the left-hand drive model we tried – suggesting, like the outgoing model, there might be awkward offset pedals on right-hand drive versions.

That transmission tunnel makes for uncomfortable seating for middle seat passengers in the rear. Audi says there’s now an extra 23mm of legroom in the rear, yet it still feels cramped for adults. Not a huge concern if you’re a company car driver covering 90% of your miles without passengers, but families with teenage children should probably look elsewhere.

2016 Audi A4: running costs

2016 Audi A4: running costs

With company car drivers being the staple of Audi A4 buyers, Audi has concentrated on making the A4 more efficient – boasting a 21% reduction in fuel consumption compared to its predecessor.

Because of the efforts Audi has gone to into reducing the weight of the A4 and making it more aerodynamic, it’s now class-leading when it comes to efficiency.

The A4 2.0-litre TDI Ultra comes in at 95g/km CO2 in saloon form (99g/km for the Avant) – bringing it below that 100g/km threshold for car tax and company car users. Jaguar has only just edged below 100g/km with its XE, while it’s only with the facelifted car that the BMW 3 Series dips below 100g/km: the volume diesel model starts at 102g/km.

More importantly for those of us who aren’t company car drivers is the A4’s fuel efficiency. With a manual transmission the 150hp A4 Ultra returns a frankly staggering 76.3mpg, while the more powerful 190hp 2.0-litre diesel achieves 68.9mpg in non-Ultra form.

The 3.0-litre six-cylinder turbodiesel starts at 67.2mpg, while the 2.0-litre TFSI petrol returns 49.6mpg.

2016 Audi A4: verdict

2016 Audi A4: verdict

Without driving the new Audi A4, you have to look very closely to see the differences over the predecessor. A slightly improved interior and tweaked exterior isn’t enough to excite buyers in the premium segment.

But when you start to look closely and, more importantly, take the new Audi A4 for a drive, you start to realise the new model is a much bigger advancement than you might have originally thought.

It now handles with the best – seemingly with little expense in comfort (although we look forward to putting it through a real test on UK roads). The addition of Audi’s virtual cockpit along with a host of technology will appease the most demanding of company car drivers.

They are the mainstay of A4 customers, after all. And on paper, the figures more than stack up for them. It’s a bold move sticking with a steel platform, but Audi has put so much work into saving weight and improving aerodynamics.

The result is huge. It truly is class-leading when it comes to efficiency, meaning it’ll undercut rivals in company car tax and save money on fuel.

We understand why Audi hasn’t changed the A4’s appearance dramatically but for us, having seen just how good the new A4 is, it’s a little bit disappointing that most will dismiss this as little more than a slight facelift.

Our only other complaint? Interior space. Sure, it’s more spacious than its predecessor, but legroom in the back isn’t good for adults. If you rarely carry rear seat passengers, you should give the Audi A4 some serious consideration over a BMW 3 Series or Jaguar XE. Certainly don’t dismiss it without a good test drive.

Specification: 2016 Audi A4

Engines: 2.0 – 3.0-litre TDI diesels; 1.4 – 2.0-litre TFSI petrol

Prices from: £28,000 (est)

Power: 150hp – 272hp

Torque: 184 – 295lb ft

0-62mph: 5.3 – 8.9 seconds

Top speed: 155mph

Fuel economy: 49.6 – 76.3mpg

CO2 emissions: 129 – 180g/km