In the case of the 2017 Audi A4 2.0T Quattro, the sound-level meter confirms its soft-spoken nature. At a steady 70 mph, the A4 puts out a mere 63 decibels. That’s less noise than you’ll get in an S-class, Audi’s own A8, and the sensory-deprivation tank also known as the Lexus LS600hL. A Rolls-Royce Phantom is quieter, but only by one decibel. Point the A4 down a highway and all you hear is a light ruffling of wind—and watch your speed, the A4 is barely louder at 100 mph.
Some of the credit for the silence has to go to the new A4’s low, 0.27 drag coefficient. But it isn’t just the wind that barely notices the new sheetmetal; people’s gazes will slip right off it as well. The design, a modest evolution of the old A4, isn’t exactly eye-catching. But that doesn’t mean there’s a bad line on the car. Indeed, there is a great line, a crease that runs along the side and into the shut-line of the clamshell hood. At the tail end, Audi has finally figured out how to get its thin band of sweeping LED turn signals past U.S. regulators.
Under that thick veil of conservatism and refinement, however, is indeed a sports sedan. Rev it up, and the turbocharged inline-four’s bark pierces the calm. The four-cylinder is a variation of the engine that powered the previous A4, iron block and all, but enhancements to the head and turbocharger bring output to 252 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 273 pound-feet of torque at 1600 rpm, up from 220 horses and 258 pound-feet. Snarly yet smooth, the four is free of lag and delivers a strong pull from idle to redline.
Connected to the engine is a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic that replaces a conventional eight-speed automatic. A six-speed manual will be available in early 2017. Audi informs us that it did extensive work to get the dual-clutch to match the feel of a torque-converter automatic when accelerating from a rest. It engages easily, smoothly, and predictably from a stop or a slow roll, although the transmission shares the old ’box’s predilection to shift to the highest gear possible to boost mileage.
The big benefits to the dual-clutch, from our perspective, are its instantaneous shifts and launch control. To engage the latter, select the transmission’s sport mode in drive, put stability control into sport mode, and simultaneously hold the brake and accelerator to the floor. Engine revs rise then settle at 3000 rpm, at which point you can release the brake. Four-wheel drive ensures a spin-free getaway, and the 3671-pound A4 hits 60 mph in 5.2 seconds, 0.4 second quicker than its predecessor and the same time as the latest rear-drive BMW 328i. Stay on it and the quarter-mile passes in 13.9 seconds at 100 mph. Despite the Y-rated Hankook summer tires, a no-cost option, U.S.-market A4s are governed to 130 mph.
More-important numbers to Americans will be the EPA’s fuel-economy estimates. The A4 Quattro returns 24 mpg in city and 31 in highway tests, which works out to 27 mpg combined. That’s a 3-mpg improvement in the city and 1 mpg better on the highway versus the outgoing A4 2.0T. In our hands, the car managed 22 mpg overall in a mix of highway driving and stop-and-go traffic, and after attacking Angeles Crest and Angeles Forest highways as if they were Group B rally stages.
Since the A4 we tested had the ability to deal with stop-and-go traffic like an autonomous car, we felt obliged to turn on the cruise control and use it. In traffic-snarled Los Angeles, the self-driving function worked safely and without any hiccups. Set the cruise on a back road and the car will automatically slow for sharp curves using GPS and map data. As equipped, there’s more tech in the new A4 than in a six-figure A8. It’s daunting at first, but you can just ignore it, not purchase it in the first place, or shut it all off. You may also choose to give up your last shred of independence and let the car drive itself.
It’s more difficult to ignore the 12.3-inch LCD screen right behind the perfectly sculpted three-spoke steering wheel. Introduced on the TT, and now also on the Q7 and the R8, the display can be configured with either full-size or small gauges and the background can show a detailed Google map or trip information. Even in direct sunlight, the display remains as legible and crisp as actual gauges. The rest of the interior is just as good, even when rendered in boring black. The A4 doesn’t try too hard; its luxury is born of expensive plastics, real aluminum, artfully sculpted shapes, and switchgear that looks great and clicks satisfyingly in your hands. It’s a soothing interior, too, from the shifter that doubles as a hand rest to the supportive sport seats.
In the final analysis, Audi’s new A4 is a class leader in refinement, technology, and interior design. Its chassis dynamics and exterior haven’t made as big a leap, but the car remains an adept, if secure, handler wrapped in an elegant four-door envelope. It doesn’t make much noise about it, but the A4 possesses a quiet competence that is as wonderful as it is easily misunderstood.