Good: styling, equipment levels, standard of finish.
Not so good: fuel economy, ageing design.
Audi has long been one of the leaders when it comes to premium saloon cars, and even though it now branches off into almost every other niche in the market, its core business remains the midsize four-door saloon. And despite fresher offerings from its Teutonic rivals in the form of the BMW 3 Series and (due this summer) Mercedes-Benz C-Class, the Audi A4 still looks every bit as sharp and refined.
Aesthetically the Audi A4 still looks well even in the most basic of trim levels, but upgrading to the S-Line specification does give the car a considerable boost in image. In addition to this, this test car in metallic Scuba Blue makes for a pleasant departure from the usual palette of silvers, greys and blacks that tend to be the default choice for buyers. The addition of sportier-looking front and rear bumpers plus some impressive looking 18-inch wheels result in a car that can still turn a lot of heads despite its relative ubiquity.
Opening the door and stepping in over the S-Line branded aluminium sills into the leather and Alcantara sports seats, you realise that Audi is still clearly winning the battle of best interior design in this category. The look, finish and feel of all the controls are spot on and go some way to giving the A4 that premium feel that is prevalent throughout its current range of cars. Many of the controls fall intuitively to hand while the on-board MMI system is one of the easier infotainment systems to navigate. With the optional S-Line trim pack, the buyer also gets brushed aluminium inlays, black cloth headlining and a perforated leather gear selector.
Under that deep blue bodywork is a 143hp version of Audi's venerable 2.0-litre diesel engine, which also generates a respectable 320Nm. The motor does pack a fair punch, although the difference between this and the more powerful 177hp unit is noticeable - the price difference between the two may be a deciding factor for most. Although the quattro four-wheel drive system doesn't really help outright performance - the 0-100km/h time is a few tenths slower at 9.2 seconds - the added sense of security and road-handling that the quattro system delivers is, for many, worthwhile.
One aspect that was evident with the quattro system was an increase in fuel consumption in comparison to the two-wheel drive version. Granted, some people will naturally prefer the added sense of security of having permanent four-wheel drive, but it is something to bear in mind when deciding on a purchase. On the other hand, Audi has managed to get this car into tax Band B2 with emissions of 119g/km, which equates to an annual cost of €280. For a 2.0-litre four-wheel drive car that isn't too bad.
When it comes to on-road handling the Audi is very surefooted and while more enthusiastic drivers may rue the lack of any high level of feedback from the electromechanical steering, it is still a car that you can drive quite precisely and with confidence. The 'dynamic' suspension gives a firm ride, though is still capable of softening out many of the worst bumps in the road, even with the larger 18-inch alloys fitted.
The Audi A4 finds itself today up against some stiff competition, not just from other brands, but even from within the Audi stable. The keenly priced Audi A6 is not only outselling the BMW 5 Series, but it is also now eating into A4 sales, while at the other end of the scale is the desirable new A3 Saloon. That said, the A4 has to date remained a strong seller despite the potential internal cannibalism by other models. This can be attributed to its ability to be a strong performer across many areas. For me, as an overall package, the Audi A4 still beats its biggest rival, the BMW 3 Series.
BMW 3 Series: the new design is a little edgier than the Audi's, while a wide range of engines offer good fuel economy and now also available with four-wheel drive.
Lexus IS 300h: still the only hybrid offering in this segment, the downside being the E-CVT transmission.
Mercedes-Benz C-Class: it's all new design isn't yet available, but the initial details look like this could be a proper return to form for Mercedes-Benz.