Few competitions are fiercer than the compact sports sedan faceoff between Germany's big three luxury manufacturers: BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi.
Engineers and designers at all three companies strive to dazzle prospective customers with state-of-the-art performance and safety innovations. The one-upmanship focuses on two types of technology. One is invisible and makes up for driver errors and shortcomings. The other deals with controls for navigation, climate and audio that can be learned and used with some effort, but which can befuddle the casual observer.
The 2009 Audi A4 is a case in point. It is relentlessly all-new, offering such wizardry as dynamic steering with ratios that vary continuously, depending on conditions. In concert with computer-controlled stability and traction control, it can even counter-steer in an emergency situation, unobtrusively correcting for driver mistakes.
That's only one facet of this rolling space-age capsule. It also features four separate, driver-selectable modes that alter the steering as well as engine, transmission and suspension system settings. In addition to automatic, comfort and dynamic choices, a fourth mode has customized settings.
Yet despite its continuing refinement and focus on high-tech embellishments, the A4 trails the leading BMW 3-Series and the Mercedes-Benz C-Class in sales. Even the upstart Lexus IS from Japan attracts more buyers. That could change some with the 2009 A4 model, if enough buyers in this category check it out against the competition.
The new A4 has its mechanical underpinnings stretched out, which produces a longer hood and a shorter front overhang. The result is a longer car — almost five inches more than the 2008 model — with the wheels closer to the front and rear to provide better balance and handling.
The sleek styling is in keeping with a trend among sports sedans to make them more coupe-like in appearance. But that leaves a cramped back seat with limited head and knee room. There's space back there for two modestly proportioned adults, although getting in and out takes some agility.
However, the tight dimensions do not extend to the capacious trunk, which has almost 17 cubic feet of space augmented by rear seatbacks that fold forward.
Audi has always followed its own design road. Where BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Lexus use rear-drive platforms, Audis are basically front-wheel-drive cars. But the company also is famous for its quattro all-wheel drive, which is a mechanical system with a self-locking differential for tough traction situations.
Two engines are available: a 211-horsepower, 2-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder and the tested 265-horsepower, 3.2-liter V6. According to Audi's tests, the 4-cylinder accelerates to 60 miles an hour in 7.1 seconds and delivers 21/27 miles per gallon on the EPA's city/highway cycles. The V6 gets to 60 in 6.7 seconds and is rated at 17/26 miles per gallon.
The tested V6 started at $40,825. Basic equipment on the latter included antilock brakes, electronic stability control, the aforementioned dynamic power steering, six-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission with manual control, motorized glass sunroof, leather upholstery, three-zone automatic climate control, heated front seats and outside mirrors, remote locking, Bluetooth communications, garage-door opener and Sirius satellite radio.
Similar to setups on other cars, the pushbutton keyless ignition allows the driver to keep the remote control in pocket or purse while locking and unlocking the doors by touching small buttons on the outside door handle or the handle itself. On the test car, the system operated erratically, sometimes requiring three or four pushes of the button to lock the car.
However, Audi's reputation for simplicity suffers a bit from a center stack that features more than 40 buttons, plus a few knobs. They take a bit of learning.
With all of the built-in computer-driven innovations, the A4 handles tightly, competently and effortlessly. The tradeoff, as with most sports sedans, is a ride that can get choppy on rough surfaces.