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Audi A4 3.0 TDI SE quattro

Click to view picture galleryThe new fourth-generation A4
  is a far more sporting animal
  than the model it replaces.
  And so it should be — because
  it is Audi’s timely answer to the
  respected BMW 3 Series and
  Mercedes C-Class...”

NO MESSING ABOUT NOW, playing critic to what's on the outside followed by what's on the inside. Just swing open the door (thanks to the keyless system, the key never has to leave your pocket and you will never lock yourself out), climb aboard, get comfortable in the powered seats, thumb the starter button and fire up the 3.0 V6 diesel engine that drives this smart new Audi A4 — and GO!

First impressions: dynamically, this latest A4 is something of an eye-opener because this mid-size saloon is Audi's answer to BMW's 3-series and Mercedes' C-Class. Just find a good driving road seasoned with some challenging twists, turns and crests and give it some stick. The A4's body control is impressive; balance is good, grip superb (don't forget, this is the quattro all-wheel drive model we're testing here) and its attitude into, through and out of corners is unflinchingly composed.

Turn-in is positive; steering precise. Everything today is soundbites, so here's one for the A4 3.0 TDI quattro saloon: not only is its balance much improved, but it strikes a good balance. It stops as easily as it accelerates and the brakes are powerful, meaty and progressive.

Keen drivers who have specified the unique-in-class Audi Drive Select option can enjoy fine-tuning their car's driving characteristics via dashboard-mounted buttons to suit their personal preferences or prevailing road conditions. Three settings are available: Comfort, Auto and Dynamic. With SatNav fitted, the driver can go one step further and create a customised handling programme incorporating preferred throttle response, steering and suspension settings.

To build a more 'sporty' car, one with the emphasis firmly on driving dynamics, was Audi's A4 mission statement. To that end, like the A5 coupé, the A4 makes use of a new platform and suspension with a revised front axle layout designed to improve the weight distribution. The result, particularly on the all-wheel drive quattro versions, is a sure-footed driver's car.

The turbocharged 2,967cc V6 dishes out its 237bhp as quickly as you can spend it. And it's served to the driver smoothly and near-silently, helped by a foolproof six-speed manual change. With 369lb ft of torque available from 1,500rpm, the V6 unit delivers real mid-range get-up-and-go. From standstill, the V6 3.0 TDI hits 62mph in 6.1 seconds. To put than into perspective, we're looking at a practical family saloon — one that, given its head, is quicker than many a red-blooded hot hatch. The side dish of a nice meaty exhaust note makes a great accompaniment! The maximum speed (strictly for autobahns) is 155mph — and even on British motorways at 70mph the sense of real power in reserve is palpable. No wonder — driven sensibly — that it can be so frugal: we averaged 33mpg. Officially it should return 29.4, 40.9 and 52.3mpg respectively in Urban, Combined and Extra-urban conditions.

As much fun as it is using your hands and feet to consciously exploit the abilities of a powerful driving machine, it's likely that the majority of top-end A4 customers will tick the box for the optional six-speed tiptronic transmission. And who can blame them, given the sludge of stop-start 'driving' that's the unavoidable lot of most motorists these days — Labour definitely Isn't Driving!

When the A4 has shown you what it can do is the time to take a closer look at its appearance. The saloon shares front-end styling with the suave A5 Coupé, which explains the distinctively sporting air — good enough to taunt its natural 3 Series and C-Class rivals. Distinctive 'Star' pattern 18-inch alloy wheels, wrapped in 245/40 Bridgestone rubber, fill out the A4's arches, nicely underscoring the clean, uncluttered lines of the fine-looking body.

The intimation of quality so clearly alluded to from outside is palpable inside; Audi has long worn the crown when it comes to cabins, and the A4's is yet another master-class of how to build a 'better mousetrap'. As you'd expect, the quality, layout and feel of the A4's beautifully-finished interior is high-end with crystal-clear dials and classy switchgear (much of which is shared with the A5) that out-smarts the opposition. Every surface, every texture and every control feels spot-on to either use or touch. Even the MMI control knob moves with a satisfying 'mechanical' precision you can feel in your fingertips. In the A4, you feel special just sitting in it.

Fitted as standard is an electromechanical parking brake (with a useful 'auto hold assist' function for uphill starts and automatic braking in stop-and-go traffic). It can also stop the car effectively should the conventional brake system ever fail. Also standard is the quattro permanent four-wheel drive system and Audi's easy-to-use Multi Media Interface. Generous steering wheel adjustment, along with equally obliging seat adjustment, ensure the A4's airy and roomy interior is comfortable and enjoyable for the driver as much as for the three passengers. Four adults can travel in this new A4 with no compromises.

And there's no shortage of quality 'kit', from multi-zone, fully-automatic climate control (seat heating, air distribution and fan speed can all be set individually for both front seats) to power seats with electrically-adjustable lumbar support, drive-away central locking, auto-dimming rear-view mirror, auto one-shot up/down electric windows, auto lights and auto wipers, power-fold door mirrors (they fold automatically on locking the car), top-grade hi-fi equipment, multi-function steering wheel, keyless entry/start, parking sensors (you can even modify the front/rear sounds for better recognition — a bit like customised ring tones!) and an impressively smart SatNav with extremely good timing… far too much, in fact, to list here.

Well-considered touches included a centre front armrest with a sliding arm pad that never gets in the way of the gear lever as some do; the audible and visual on-screen parking sensor displays; and the dedicated compartment for your i-Pod/MP3 (in many cars this is still just a hasty afterthought with a lead flopping about and nowhere to store the player). For the record, our test car's list price was £29,950 but with all the optional equipment fitted the total cost worked out to £44,000. The options available include: Adaptive Cruise Control; Audi Side Assist, which warns of vehicles approaching in mirror blind spots; Lane Assist, which guards against unintentional lane changes by activating steering wheel vibrations to alert the driver; a 505-watt Bang & Olufsen sound system; and an advanced parking system with rear camera.

The new A4 is bigger than the model it replaces and Audi has made maximum use of the increased space. For a start there's generous rear legroom (an extra 29mm) and 480 litres of boot space — the largest in its segment. Fold down the 60:40 split rear seatbacks and this can be expanded to 962 litres.

At speed it's quiet and refined, and the ride quality is a nice blend of comfort and handling: firm enough to favour the latter yet compliant enough for the former. Well-considered damping ensures the A4 is taut without being unforgiving to the degree it rides unflustered over most bumps and B-road imperfections.

Handsome is as handsome does, as the saying goes. That's the new A4. And a very persuasive reason not to make any knee-jerk purchase before becoming familiar with the Audi A4. In 3.0 TDI guise the A4 is a serious player; very quick, comfortable and accommodating with a trendy badge and a first-class perceived image… and a very good place from which to watch the world pass by. — MotorBar

Audi A4 3.0 TDI SE quattro
| £29,950
Maximum speed: 155mph | 0-62mph: 6.1 seconds | Overall test MPG: 33mpg
Power: 237bhp | Torque: 369lb ft | CO2 183g/km | Insurance group 16