2013 Audi A4 Driving Impressions

We got a lot of good seat time in Colorado, including one high-speed blast for 100 miles to the airport, during which the 2.0-liter turbocharged engine really showed its silky stuff. It's long been the smoothest and best 2.0-liter out there; although recently we came away from a week-long test of the Hyundai Sonata, and were blown away by how smooth and fast its own available 2.0-liter turbo is. The Hyundai engine makes 274 horsepower, compared to the Audi's 211 hp. The Audi engine is praised for its torque, 258 foot-pounds, but even there, the Hyundai delivers 269. Korean engineers challenging the German kingpins, we love it.

Fuel economy for the Audi A4 is an EPA-estimated 20/30 mpg with 8-speed automatic, 22/32 mpg with 6-speed manual. Premium gasoline is recommended. Comparing fuel mileages of 2.0-liter turbos among cars of this size, the Sonata is rated 22/34 mpg, the Regal 19/30 mpg, the new Acura ILX 24/35 mpg (it's a wee bit smaller), and the BMW 23/33 mpg.

However the exceptional thing about the A4 is that the torque range is so broad, so you have acceleration any time. Zero to 60 is reached in 6.7 seconds with the manual transmission, 6.4 seconds with the Tiptronic.

We loved driving it with the 6-speed manual transmission the most, especially since redline is way up there at about 6500 rpm. It's so very easy to transform the ordinary A4 into a way fun sporty sedan, by opting for quattro with the manual transmission. Shifting is precise and pleasurable. The clutch is easy. Starting on a hill, the brakes are held on while you your foot from the brake to gas pedal, so even novices can manage an uphill start.

Not that the Tiptronic 8-speed automatic isn't a brilliant transmission. It's fast-shifting and obedient, with rev-matching downshifting. Sixth gear is the direct drive (1:1 ratio), so 7th and 8th gears are for high speeds and fuel mileage, so when you're working the transmission with the paddles in the twisties, you really only use maybe 2nd through 5th. In Sport mode it will take hard downshifts, and won't change gears unless you ask it to. We hit the mountainous curves in Colorado, and loved driving the A4 like that.

The brakes were up to the task, as well. We like the feel of the pedal, which didn't soften during aggressive downhill applications. Well, not much. Discs are ventilated in front but not in rear.

Quattro all-wheel drive isn't just for traction in snow, ice and rain. It improves the handling on dry pavement too. Come to think of it, we were there in 1988, when an Audi quattro used its superior handing and grip to win the Trans-Am race on the streets of Detroit, against the big V8s. And we saw Walter Rohrl head out for practice on Sears Point Raceway at Sonoma in the pouring rain, the sole car to do so, his Audi quattro looking like an unlimited hydroplane as it blasted around the serpentine circuit, a big rooster tail in its wake. And we saw Michelle Mouton, one of the world's fastest women, dance on the pedals of her quattro as she tore down dirt trails in the World Rally Championship. And we watched John Buffum win 11 SCCA Pro Rally Championships. Audi introduced quattro more than 30 years ago.

Quattro comes on most A4s. Until a wheel starts slipping, 60 percent of the drive goes to the rear wheels, for ideal driving dynamics and balance. Quattro also uses differential locks for best low-speed traction.

Meanwhile, the mundane CVT continuously variable transmission in the front-wheel-drive 2.0T feels different. Engine speed matches how hard you're pushing the gas pedal, rather than how fast the car is going, so it feels like a car with a manual transmission whose clutch is slipping. Buyers resist this weirdness so carmakers have been fixing it with a Sport mode that allows the CVT to shift in steps. There are eight of them with the A4's CVT, which you shift through with the shift lever or paddles, and it all feels fine.

The A4 isn't a lightweight when compared to other cars in its class (BMW 3 Series, Hyundai Sonata, Buick Regal are all lighter, in that order), even though most of the suspension pieces are forged aluminum, as is the front crossmember. The rear suspension is based on the larger A6, with trapezoidal links and separate spring and shock mounts that allow a lower floor but more suspension travel, a win-win situation. For better balance, Audi mounts the battery in the trunk. The A4 corners well, although both the Sonata and Regal have a wider track, while the BMW 3 Series is about the same as the Audi.

There's an optional sport suspension, making the firm but never stiff, and raising the fun quotient. At the highest level, the Drive Select system with dynamic steering and variable damping that calculates shock rates 1000 times/second gives the widest spectrum of ride and handling.

The Audi S4 is another animal. It's powered by a supercharged 3.0-liter V6 producing 333 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque, mated to a standard 6-speed manual transmission or available 7-speed S tronic twin-clutch transmission, which uses dual input shafts and dual clutch packs to execute computer-controlled gear changes in just .2 seconds.

The S4 engine is fueled by direct injection and breathes through four valves per cylinder; additionally the V6 employs a two-stage intake manifold for maximum flexibility. An optional active rear differential overdrives the outside rear tire in corners, forcing the front end to turn in more quickly. It also communicates with the vehicle's Drive Select system and stability control to help maintain control in emergency maneuvers.

The S4 accelerates from 0-60 mph in just 4.9 seconds, which is quicker (by 0.4 seconds) than the previous-generation S4 that used a V8.

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