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Introduction ---------------- I've had my Audi A4 Avant for just 6 months but having covered over 15,000 miles during this period I've built up a comprehensive opinion of this car that I'd love to share with anybody thinking of buying an A4. Everybody has different needs from their car, so I've approached this review by explaining what my needs are before giving my view on how well it achieves.
This is a company car, but is mine for 3 years so the choice was made with as much attention as buying the car myself. I needed a car to fulfil primarily long distance work travelling for myself, a car that will also carry my young children with plenty of space for shopping, luggage and other odd sized kid items such as bikes and buggies. I also wanted a car to be proud of with distinguished looks, pedigree and style to compliment to high tech business I work in, where the car you drive so often reflects a lot about your work approach and lifestyle.
I was lucky enough to test-drive a shortlist of 4 cars all circa the £21-24k price tag before choosing. I tested a Saab 9-3 2.0TD Vector Sport, BMW 1-Series 120d SE, Audi A3 2.0 TDI SE.
Overall I loved the Audi A4 Avant and still do, but considering the high cost, image and market expectations of a car like this I feel no shame in being brutal in some aspects of the review.
Looks and street cred - First Impressions -------------------------------------------------------- The first thing that captured my attention was the new look front-end to the A4. The deceptively long bonnet with an over-sized front-grill slapped in the middle of cleaner and smoother front bumper than any Audi has seen so far is truly eye catching. It stands out against the mush of generic plastic front-ends. Even the recessed silver headlights are simple, subtle and look technically advanced as well as stylish. Too many manufacturers have gone over the top with quirky arrangements in the headlights making them look cheap. From a distance the car looks low and wide giving an impression of inner strength combined with clean lines from front to back and at every panel join, window and door edge to add to the solidity. The bright silver roof rails increase the optical illusion of length, as do various extra chrome and body coloured aerodynamic features found on the SE models. The rear looks clean and understated, not much to look at compared with the stunning front though!
Driving Experience ------------------------- Although I've driven over a hundred different cars over 10 years I'd never driven an Audi. But I was wanting something special from this car even before I dropped my 6' 6" frame further than expected into the low seats and reminded myself that Audi's image in my mind stemmed back from the Rally Championships around 20 years ago when the Audi Quattro created a storm.
For a big bloke I quickly found that I didn't need the seat pushed back all the way to find a good driving position, and the lowest setting on the seat height was indulgently low but I chose it anyway. Despite getting comfortable so quickly and finding the control and instrument layout quick to adapt to, I was not prepared for how different the actual driving would be using 3 pedals, a stick and a wheel. In the same way the crystal clear and bright red instrument lights set fire to the grey and black interior backdrop, this feisty dynamics of driving this car made me shuffle around in the well sculpted, body grabbing and far too comfortable driving seat. Suddenly thoughts of how suitable the seats and driving position were for my back breaking and boring 300-mile motorway work trips vanished and were replaced thoughts of a drive so involving and stimulating I would be totally distracted from back ache. I liked this. It wasn't the capabilities of the car that had smitten me, it was the way Audi has retained some of the feel of the car not experienced since driving old-bangers dating from the 70's and 80's. They weren't high performing cars, just cars that felt like you were driving rather than playing a on a computer simulator.
Simple things bring this car to life, like the gear lever being sat on the top of the gear box making it's shifting action feel like you are actually moving cogs around a mechanical device, albeit a well oiled and precise one. Despite being front wheel drive the engine is mounted in the traditional position for rear wheel driven vehicles and this means the torque from the engine converts into an impressive body shaking roll from the car when revved. "It feels like it's got an engine" I thought when I engaged the clutch for the first time, and was quickly followed by a worryingly loud clang and a lurching halt as I stalled with more than 320Nm torque on tap like a learner on their first outing. The unfamiliar high compression diesel engine was letting me know who was boss from the start. I'd driven
Pictures of Audi A4 Avant 2.0 TDI
diesel engines in the past and found them uninspiring so I always had petrol as first choice for my main car.
Once I got off the mark, I found the engine didn't do anything to get excited about below 2,000 rpm. In fact it frustrated me at first because I couldn't get the best out of the ample 6 speed manual gearbox and the power this engine promised. It took time to realise this was a totally different driving technique to the plethora of 5 speed petrol drives that have numbed my sense so much. Not because they aren't capable of the speed or acceleration of the 140bhp diesel, but because they don't dare to reveal the engines true characteristics and instead blend them into a more consistent mediocre pull across a wide rev range. This car has 6 gears because you need them. Forget what you have learnt about using a paltry 5 gears for particular speeds, drive with the rev counter and you won't be lingering in 1st but you'll find reasons to use 3rd at 80mph and 6th at 50mph.Once the 2k rev barrier is broken I pray for clear roads as the car goes like rocket until you get near the 4,500rpm red line. Most petrol engines don't wake up until you get to up to the diesels max revs, and tempt you to push them right up to the limit. The massive torque is just a squeeze away as long as you keep that turbo working, and at worst there is a half second turbo lag that is worth the wait.
Enough of my grease monkey rambles about the engine, I get even more excited about the way it handles on the road. Again it took some getting used to. When the front wheels go light on a wet roundabout or tight corner, most rides will simply carry on at the same trajectory towards the edge of the roundabout until you regain grip by lifting the power and easing the steering towards the skid. Sporty front wheel drive cars can be pushed further before reaching this limit, but the Audi does something quite different that had me looking underneath to car. I couldn't believe it really was front wheel drive, because under the same scientific test I take with every car I drive, which is a local huge and fast (60mph limit) roundabout with patches of different tarmac surfaces, it didn't quite do what I expected. Instead of sliding in roughly the same direction as it did prior to losing grip, it slid sideways momentarily before the ESP penalised me by reducing the power intermittently to keep me from the crash barriers. So I tried again without ESP and dared to boot the power hard just as it lost grip and with a slight feeling of a rear end skid the car pulled back into the roundabout an gave me an astonishing feeling that this car was rear wheel drive. That's why I had to look underneath, but the book is right, it is front wheel drive yet it pulls off an amazing trick of giving you control by losing grip from the front and back together in a way that retains some steering response despite giving away grip to spinning the front wheels.
So it's fun and can be pushed harder than you expect, but what else can it do. It feels low on the road and sometimes tells you more about the surface than you need to know and as I said earlier this just helps keep the boredom away for me, but it might not be for everyone's taste. The steering doesn't just feel light, it feels right as it adjusts for the road speed. At high speed it locks nicely to a straight course and doesn't get knocked off course by bumps or engine torque but it's doesn't feel quite as well stuck on the road as the Saab 9-3 does at motorway speeds. At low speeds the rack turns quickly which reduces the turning circle and makes parking look less dramatic.
It can go but can it stop? Even if I have a hire car for only 1 day I'll always try an emergency stop from speed on a quiet road. Just as we master the clutch and gears on a new car, I spend time practising stops from various speeds, and not just going in a straight line. So I can confidently say the brakes on the Audi are strong and don't give up. All cars have a grip limit and as expected it's good on the Audi, but something else impressed me. It's the ABS. I had a frightening experience with a Vauxhall Meriva last year on an icy petrol forecourt when the car skidded and refused to stopping as I juddered towards a busy 60mph A-road. Something extreme had happened involving all the wheels locking so quickly on the icy and probably greasy forecourt combined with the downhill turn to the a-road that I thought the car wouldn't stop. ABS reduces braking force with the intention of allowing the tyres to grip again so that the brakes can be re-applied. The faster you can do this, the better. During my scare in the Meriva at only 10mph, the basic ABS was so slow at releasing the locked brakes then reapplying them, I hadn't even slowed down by the time the wheels locked and the ABS once again released the brakes. To compound this the two front wheels providing most grip were turned at an angle meaning they didn't regain speed (and therefore grip) quickly enough. I've not put my Audi through its paces on ice yet but I'm expecting more. Advanced ABS with brake force distribution and emergency assist will change the distribution of brake force so when just one wheel has lost it's grip it doesn't force all four to release the brakes and lose out on braking power from the wheels that can grip and additionally it will add braking force if the driver hasn't had their Weetabix that day. I'd cut this whole paragraph out and just say the ABS is better than any car I've driven if you could believe me without this explanation, in a round-the-houses way I am trying to prove to you why I think the ABS is better on the Audi. And it is because it feels like the car is stopping throughout the emergency brake with high-speed intermittent clunks as individual wheels have slightly reduced braking power, not like to slow on and off feeling the Meriva gave me.
Economy ------------- I go by a rule of thumb nowadays when it comes to the economy of petrol vehicles regardless of manufacturers claims. The worst is wintertime short distance driving in a city like Manchester will be about 25-30 mpg with rates improving to 35-40mpg on long distance steady runs. The last petrol engine I drove that had as much power as the 2.0 TDI was a 2.3 16v and it only just crept into this range with a disappointing 23mpg on bad days and about 36mpg at it's best. If I get about 35mpg for the Audi I've had a fun day and probably used a lot of rubber off the tyres. Typically even choking winter drives around town achieve as much as 38mpg, and over the 15,000 miles I've driven the average is a respectable 44.1mpg (according to the trip computer). Take a steady 200mile mostly A-road and motorway journey and I've achieved up to 55mpg. It's so annoying now that diesel prices don't have the edge on petrol they used to, claiming back some of the improved efficiency in forecourt and government revenues. Knowing I can floor the Audi occasionally without getting the feeling you do when a couple of quid falls out of your pocket and down the back of the sofa and knowing I'm helping the environment a bit eases my conscience, especially driving a big car with only me inside for a lot of the time. It's worth noting also that the engine has a 20,000-mile variable service interval and there was no degradation in economy at the end of the cycle.
Comfort & Space ----------------------- Where is the lumbar support adjustment? I expected this on an SE model, however I haven't missed it. The seats and legroom are all good and comfortable over a period of time. I would prefer leather seats on a car of this price, especially with my children leaving a sticky dirty something or other all over the car. I've got a dark grey, black and aluminium interior that is a bit boring but practical, hard wearing.
I've owned and MPV in the past with no less than 12 cup-holders, but this has one. It would have had two but I had to sacrifice one for an ESP button. The rest of the space becomes a coin tray. Ok if I'm on my own but no good when I have a passenger or the kids in the car. But that is still one more than the BMW 1 series where it is an at-cost optional extra.
The climate control system is good. The interior quickly reaches and hold the desired temperature. I've been out on a really cold day yet but the engine seems to heat up reasonably quickly, although diesel can be slow to warm. The cooling ability of air con in a car is always strained on a really hot day, but it seems far more powerful than air con on a Ford, Vauxhall or Mazda that I've driven on the same hot day this summer. The climate control needs little adjustment, as it should be and keeps the temperature steady. I know that I will miss the heated front windscreen that I had on two different Ford cars in the past on those really icy winter days. Why can't more manufacturers add this feature? The only minor complaint is that when I travel at high speeds the air pushed through the vents increases significantly.
There is a decent glove box with a shelf and light, coin tray and centre console storage sufficient for my needs, but not much for the passengers. The interior lighting is extra bright, comes on when the doors are unlocked remotely and features slow dimming.
The Avant version of the A4 is designed for extra boot space and it doesn't disappoint. The total capacity might not be the biggest on the market but like all estate style cars it offers easy loading and different combinations. Using the inbuilt luggage cover is easier that the flimsy hard to lock one I've just been using on a Toyota. As an added extra the A4 Avant includes a black fabric screen that lifts up just behind the rear seats for both safety and comfort whilst still allowing good vision through the rear. A solid boot floor that folds back to reveal a full sized spare alloy wheel (no not a space saver or a money saving steel wheel!) along with a toolkit and jack neatly placed.
Externally the integral roof rails are ready and waiting to take heavier roof loads than cars without rails, and don't make your car look like you're in the window cleaning or roofing business when not in use.
Equipment --------------- It's never really made sense to me. Think of manufacturers like Ford, Vauxhall, Toyota, Mazda, VW, Rover and many more that provide a really high equipped mid-sized vehicle about the size of an A4 for anything from £15k to £20k. Yet an Audi with less equipment will cost £5k or more extra. So what so you get for your money? Well most of that extra money is in better engine and mechanical components. Designs and technologies that are hidden from view such a more powerful and reliable air-conditioning unit will not be apparent but the presence of an A/C button will be enough to change a buyers mind on a hot sunny day. I think this is reflected reasonably in the Audi.
The interior equipment satisfies my expectations and needs of a modern driver with features like climate control, cruise control, electric windows and doors, front fog lights, ABS, ESP, comprehensive computer with more than just fuel distance and trip details. But what stands out is that everything is arranged so neatly. The main instruments are displayed in symmetry on the dashboard in really easy to read colours. Controls are visible from the driving position and are intuitively placed. I do notice the lack of remote control for the radio on either the steering wheel or a stalk, something I did expect but is available as an optional extra. All buttons and switches have the same 'feel' when pressed, and the size and shape is always appropriate. I do think the ESP button should be elsewhere to allow two cup-holders.
The dealers ---------------- Waiting time. I've been to the dealer once for a service. The reception on my arrival was welcoming. A comfortable seating are with complimentary tea and coffee brought to you along with a TV, magazines and paper. But instead of a comfortable waiting area I'd have preferred a quick response. It took ages. I don't take a day off work to service my car, I drop it off, use a courtesy car and pick it up later. On this day I waited 10 minutes to see somebody, another 15mins booking the car in then was told my courtesy car wasn't available. They gave me a lift home but I had to get a taxi back to the garage to pick it up later in the day. The cost of servicing was met by my company so I'm not sure how much it was. The second time I went to the same dealer (Chester Road Audi) I wanted some oil. I even phoned up in advance to ask if it was in stock and a said I was in a hurry as I was just setting off on a 250 mile trip when the low oil light came on. I still had to wait 10mins before being served after asking twice but they did offer to pour the oil in for me!
Reliability ------------- Faults found to date
1. Both remote key fobs fail to lock or open the car on an increasingly regular basis despite changing the battery. It is a known problem with software and was fixed by Audi under warranty. 2. The speaker in the left door failed catastrophically by ripping the cone apart during an intense bass section of a track. I haven't been back to the garage about this one yet. 3. The glove box jammed shut and had to be opened in the workshop by Audi, but it was done quickly. 4. It burns a lot of oil, but that's not necessarily a bad thing, just unusual because I have none of the other symptoms of high oil consumption. 5. The coin tray in the front dash jams occasionally
Overall value for money -------------------------------- When it came to making my needs based decision from the original shortlist, each car had it's own merits. The BMW drove well, looked great (sadly a bit too common now) but it failed miserably on the equipment levels even on higher spec models and was too small for my needs. A 3-series BMW would have suited but this pushed me well out of budget for a similar diesel engine. The Saab excelled in equipment although complicated to use, drove fantastically but one day when closing the flimsy boot I was reminded that many of it's components were shared with it's close relative the Vectra and from then on I couldn't help faulting the cheap plastic components and various build quality issues on a car that deserved to be among the best for driveability. So the Audi got it on the basis of doing really well at all my needs without excelling or disappointing in any. If it hadn't been for it's daring and unique looks and involving driving experience it would have just been a simple "safe choice". But by no means has this car become a safe choice, I have been without it for 2 weeks until today (my fault - argument with a high kerb) and I missed it every day which has made me notice it's so many enduring features that I wouldn't be able to find in any other car. It was from the moment I picked the car up today that I knew I had to write this article.
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