By Steve Walker
It's possible to predict certain things about a compact executive car without ever having seen it. If the model is reasonably new, there's a decent chance that it's a company car, more so if it's a lower priced diesel version. The odds would be even more stacked in your favour if you ventured that the vehicle is manufactured by BMW, Mercedes-Benz or Audi. These three German brands dominate this sector of the market, mopping up big fleet contracts and individual company car allowances like there's no tomorrow. There is a tomorrow of course, and that starts when these compact executive models emerge onto the used market. Here, things get a lot less predictable but we can have a stab at deciding if a pre-owned Audi A4 is worth a gamble.
Today there are three German car brands locking horns over dominance of the executive car market but it wasn't always so. Audi came a little late to the party, the modern company having only sprung into being out of the NSU and Auto Union merger in the late 1960s. It played third fiddle to the giants of BMW and Mercedes-Benz for quite a while but by the closing stages of the 20th century, it was getting on level terms.
Audi had built a cool brand image and its four interlocking rings were seen as a less overbearing alternative to the three-pointed star or the blue and white roundel. It had also had major success in rooting out new niche markets with cars like the TT Coupe and the A3 hatch. What Audi hadn't quite managed was a major coup over its rivals in one of the big market sectors where they went head to head. The A4 compact executive model had been on sale since 1995 and while later generations had the Mercedes-Benz C-Class worried, none had come close to eclipsing the mighty BMW 3 Series. That changed with this car, the fourth generation A4 launched in 2008.
The car arrived in the early stages of 2008 with a largely familiar range of engines and trim levels. The petrol engines were the 1.8 TFSI turbo unit and the 3.2-litre V6, while diesel customers could select from 2.0-litre, 2.7-litre and 3.0-litre TDI diesels. The Avant estate model arrived to supplement the saloon just a few months later, as did the 2.0-litre TFSI petrol engine. The S4 performance model turned up early in 2009 powered not by a thunderous V8 as in the previous generation car but by a 3.0-litre supercharged V6. An off-road capable Allroad model joined the Avant range towards the end of 2009.
What You Get
The headline feature of this A4 was the fact that it sat on the longest wheelbase in its class. Audi took action to try and solve the appallingly small bootspace problem suffered by the MK1 A4 when it came to launching the second generation car at the turn of the century and here, they turned their attention (at last) to the poor old rear seat passengers. The lengthened wheelbase enabled a 36mm increase in rear leg room, with the added bonus of a 20-litre boost in boot capacity, making this car easily the most spacious in its class.
This meant that buyers no longer had to choose between the prestigious badge and low residuals of a compact executive car like the A4 or the larger cabin of a cheaper Medium range model like Ford's Mondeo or Volkswagen's Passat.
The wheelbase change was about promoting the A4 as a driver's car as well as improving its cabin space. It entailed the repositioning of the front axle 154mm further forwards than in the MK2 model. Complemented by a new state-of-the-art suspension and steering configuration, this more stable foundation allowed improved handling balance and agility. It doesn't make this Audi better than a BMW 3 Series through a set of testing twisties (only rear wheel drive would do that), but it does lift it clear of its Mercedes rival in this respect.
The Avant estate version increases space in the boot to 490 litres with the rear seats in place and 1,430 with the rear bench folded. There are standard, SE and S line trim levels and all models get a decent level of kit that runs to 16-inch alloy wheels, an 80-watt audio system with single CD drive and 6.5-inch display, electronic climate control, front and rear electric windows and a split/fold rear seat.
What to Look For
Reliability hasn't been an issue for the A4 as yet. Many models will have done high mileages in the hands of overworked sales reps but that shouldn't necessarily put you off. Look for a fully stamped-up service history and keep an eye out for uneven tyre wear on the more powerful models.
(approx based on a 2008 A4 1.8 TFSI) A clutch assembly kit will be around £250 and an exhaust system (without catalyst) will be about £300. An alternator should be close to £150 and a radiator around £170. Front brake pads are around £75, rear brake pads will be £50.
On the Road
The great strength of the BMW 3-Series had been the greatest weakness of Audi's A4, namely its sporty driving experience. This A4 set out to address this with the repositioned front axle moving the centre of gravity towards the middle of the car, sharper steering and a quattro all wheel drive system with a torque split biased towards the rear wheels. Buyers who had the money could also specify 'Audi Drive Select' which enabled tailoring of throttle, steering and suspension characteristics to suit driver preferences.
Petrol buyers chose either the turbocharged 1.8 TFSI with either 118bhp or 158bhp. The other four cylinder petrol option is a 209bhp 2.0TFSI turbocharged unit. Otherwise, it's the normally aspirated but silky-smooth V6 3.2 FSI with 265PS or the 328bhp S4. On the diesel side, there's the familiar choice of 2.0 TDI (118, 141 or 168bhp), 2.7 TDI (187bhp) and 3.0 TDI (236bhp). If you want automatic transmission, there's the multitronic continuously variable (CVT) 'box or the excellent S Tronic double clutch transmission. Otherwise, you'll find yourself with a six-speed manual. If you want quattro 4WD, you'll need one of the bigger-engined cars.
At launch, this fourth generation car set a new standard for the Audi A4 and did more than any Audi compact executive model before it to put the wind up rival manufacturers. Sharpened handling and a more spacious interior are added to the usual Audi virtues of build quality and classy design. It's not the most visually arresting machine but beneath the surface, it's got the lot.