Audi's A4 isn't an all-new model, more a thorough mid-life update, but, to go with the new styling, there's also an all-new mid-range diesel engine. Can it stay relevant in a world switching to electric and hybrid power?
In the Metal:
The Audi A4 has always been a very, very handsome car indeed and, while that hasn't changed with this major mid-life update, we do have some reservations about the restyling. Although the overall silhouette hasn't altered much, Audi does say that no exterior panel has been left unchanged. There's a new grille (lower, wider and flatter than before), new lights front and back (although the rear, sadly, doesn't get the full-width LED light bar of other Audi models) and reshaped side panels. Our reservations? Well, it's mostly to do with the headlights. These have abandoned the stepped, notched shape of the outgoing A4 for a smoother, more homogenous shape. That leaves the front end of the A4 looking rather less distinctive, and actually looking rather too close to a Hyundai i40 for comfort, notwithstanding the new air-intake gap at the leading edge of the bonnet, meant to mimic that of the old Quattro rally cars.
At least the cabin is still on the excellent side of good. There's nothing inside that we haven't seen before, and arguably Audi has lost some of its once-unassailable lead in cabin design, but this is still a hugely impressive vehicle interior. The only major change is the addition of a new 10.1-inch touchscreen for the MMI infotainment system. This is bigger than the old screen, and it has also done away with the twist-and-click rotary controller that used to live between the seats. We're not too sure about that - it always feels less of a distraction to use a proper, physical controller than a constantly morphing touchscreen, but there's no denying the impressiveness of the MMI system. The graphics look clear and expensive; the Google Maps-augmented navigation system is a joy (especially when you're using the 'big map' view in the 12.3-inch Virtual Cockpit digital instrument display); and the connected services menu keeps expanding, encompassing always-on internet connection, wifi hotspot, live parking and fuel price data, traffic reports and even (where such systems are currently active) a traffic light monitor that will help your surf a 'green wave' of lights in town.
Elsewhere, the cabin has been only mildly nipped and tucked, but that's OK - it still looks fantastic, and feels as solid as the rock of the Dolomite mountains through which we were testing the new A4.
Possibly of more importance for buyers than the visual tweaks is the new 2.0-litre TDI diesel engine. This is not an update of the old powerplant, but Audi avers an all-new engine architecture. It develops a robust 163hp and a very useful 380Nm of torque. Audi hasn't given us fuel economy nor emissions figures yet, but given that this engine was specifically designed with the new WLTP and Real-World driving Experience (RDE) tests in mind, we expect it to be at the very least competitive in both arenas.
Those hoping that the new A4 is going to match the new BMW 3 Series blow-for-blow might be disappointed. The A4 is getting a mid-life update this time around, as Audi and BMW's model programmes are out of sync. No-one's quite sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing from a marketing point of view, but the good news (for those of us tiring of SUVs) is that the A4 already accounts for more than one fifth of Audi's global sales, and this updated version is expected to improve upon that number.
As for matching the Beemer, the A4 doesn't even seem to try, but instead just does things a bit differently. The 3 Series has some of the sharpest steering around, but also has an often-unsettled, fidgety ride quality. The A4 is basically the reverse of that. The steering is smooth and uncorrupted, despite putting 380Nm through the front tyres, but it's not what you'd call chatty. The A4 is a sharper-handling car than you might think at first (it scythed effortlessly through the switchback hairpins of our test route), but it's not as immediate, nor as rewarding for the driver.
What is rewarding is the combination of refinement and comfort. The larger Audi A6 leads its class in both categories, and I'd say that the updated A4 is probably going to do the same in the sports saloon segment. It's exceptionally smooth in its ride (OK; Italian roads are better than ours, but the A4 was very comfy over the few broken surfaces we could find) and very quiet in all noise departments. That new engine is all-but silent, with only a trace of diesel grumble penetrating the cabin at low speeds and when pulling away. On the motorway, it's effectively non-existent from a noise perspective.
It's also very punchy, with that 380Nm of torque coming on strong but smooth, and the lack of responsiveness at low speeds that has so affected the old 150hp and 190hp TDI engines when mated to the seven-speed dual-clutch auto seems to have gone. As to whether diesel still has relevance? Well, yes, it does. Even with the falling customer interest in diesel across the board, around half of all new cars in Ireland still come with diesel power, and that proportion rises in line with the price and premium nature of the car you're buying. Audi pinky-swears that it's sticking to the emissions rules and regs now, so assuming that this new engine proves itself to be clean in a legal and exhaust sense, it certainly still has relevance for a huge swathe of customers.
We'll need a drive at home, on familiar roads, to get a handle on economy, but we bettered 5.6 litres per 100km on a mixture of mountain roads and motorway, so that seems solid.
Of course, it behoves us to once again remind recalcitrant Irish car buyers that this Avant estate version is the one to have - honestly, cast aside your wagon prejudices, as with a combination of gorgeously understated lines and a very decent 505-litre boot, this A4 makes for a compelling mixture of executive express and family load-lugger. You don't need an SUV. You do, probably, need one of these.
What you get for your Money:
Audi Ireland hasn't agreed prices for the new A4 yet, but we do know that it will be on sale in Ireland from the autumn. Equipment is likely to take a step up with new LED headlights and that bigger touchscreen with connected services as standard, but prices are also likely to go up to reflect both that and the arrival of the new TDI engine family (meeting those new emissions regs isn't cheap).
Audi's update of the A4 is as solid and thorough as you would expect of the marque from Ingolstadt. We're not 100 per cent sold on the restyling, but the quality, refinement and comfort levels are all exceptionally good. That's an impressive new TDI diesel engine, too.