2014 Audi A4 Driving Impressions

During a long high-speed blast, 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 we were blown away by how smooth and fast Hyundai's available 2.0-liter turbo is, for the Sonata. The Hyundai turbo makes 274 horsepower, compared to the Audi's 220 horsepower. The Audi engine is praised for its torque, 258 foot-pounds, but even there, the Hyundai delivers 269 foot-pounds.

Fuel economy for the Audi A4 quattro is an EPA-estimated 20/29 mpg City/Highway with 8-speed automatic, 22/32 mpg with 6-speed manual. With front-drive and CVT, the estimate rises to 24/32 mpg. Premium gasoline is recommended. The comparable Sonata is rated 22/34 mpg, the Regal 21/30 mpg, the Acura ILX 24/35 mpg, and the BMW 320i 24/36 mpg.

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

We loved driving the A4 with the 6-speed manual transmission the most, especially since redline is way up there at about 6500 rpm. It's so 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 move 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.

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.

Introduced 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. Quattro all-wheel drive isn't just for traction in snow, ice and rain. It improves the handling on dry pavement too.

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. Some 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 can 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). This is true 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.

The optional sport suspension makes the ride firm but never stiff, and raises the fun quotient. At the highest level, the Drive Select system with dynamic steering and variable damping, which calculates shock rates 1000 times/second, gives the widest spectrum of ride and handling.

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 0.2 second.

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 and gets an EPA fuel-economy estimate of 17/26 mpg City/Highway.

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