Posted: April 01, 2009

2009 Audi A4 Sedan 2.0 T Quattro Tiptronic, Audi A4 3.2 and Audi A3 3.2

The turbo, the refined automobile and the odd duck

Jeff Rundles

Mid-year 2008 a friend of mine, a very picky person, went looking for a new car, or rather a new car to him, and he went round and around with BMWs, Hondas, Lexuses, Acuras and others. He worked with a broker for a while, talked with dealers, checked out Web sites, and test drove a bunch of cars. This wasn’t a desperate situation; being the person he is, he was going to keep looking until the right car and the right deal came along. I was convinced at the time that he would eventually buy something and then, not too long into driving it, he would have buyer’s remorse. He’s very particular.

When he finally decided on a purchase, he selected an Audi A6 sedan. To be honest, after all the car machinations he went through and all the questions he threw at me knowing my car-reviewing background, I’m not exactly sure which model he got. Suffice to say that it is a relatively late-model A6 and it had plenty of the bells and whistles. It’s a very nice car – I have ridden in it – and is very classy looking, befitting the man and his station in life. At least I thought so, but I was convinced that he would soon be griping.

Au contraire. After now several months of driving the A6 as his primary vehicle, to my astonishment, he remains very high on the car and firmly believes he made the right choice.

To me, this speaks volumes about Audi. If you can please this particular friend in all the combinations – performance, value, luxury, what the car says to world about him – then you can pretty much say you have a winner on your hands.

So I was already tuned into the fact that Audi is a winner. My friend’s situation, coupled with my own experiences over the years driving and reviewing a bunch of Audis, contributes to my overall feeling that Audi is one of the best carmakers in the world. And I only get brand-new vehicles – my friend bought a used one and is pleased, which adds the extra “how does it hold up over time” assessment to the mix.

Given all of this background, over the last six weeks or so I saw on my schedule that I would be getting the 2009 Audi A4 in three versions, the 2.0 T and the 3.2. I thought that would make for a good review since I could discuss the two models more or less side-by-side. I held off until now because then I learned I was going to get the 2009 A3 3.2 and it seemed to make sense that I wait and discuss all three at the same time.

I am going to say this right off before I get into some of the details: All three of these vehicles from Audi are splendid automobiles, and from a pure driving point of view – including the performance, the handling, and all of the equipment operations – I would take either one if someone gave it to me, and I’d be a happy man. Not happy in that I didn’t have to pay for it, but happy in the knowledge that I was driving an excellent car, with all-wheel-drive, performance and luxury. There really isn’t much to criticize. If you got behind the wheel of any of these cars, you’d be satisfied.

But, of course, there are a ton of other considerations, and the devil’s in the details. So we’ll take them in order of my driving schedule.

A4 2.0 T Sedan Quattro Tiptronic

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The first one I got was the A4 2.0 T Sedan Quattro Tiptronic. A very nice car. My first impression, within a few minutes of sitting in the car, was that it was more highly technical than I remember from my last Audi go-around a year or so ago. This didn’t surprise me as this car is German and the Germans – all of them, Mercedes, BMW, Audi, Porsche, VW – pride themselves on all of the electronic bells and whistles. It took me a little while to figure out the operation of the knob on the console that controls the sound system and such through the LCD screen display mounted front and center in the dash, but once I had it down – a matter of a few minutes – I had it. After all, this is not the BMW 5 and above where you need to take an advanced degree in engineering just to operate all of the systems, and even then it sometimes frustrates even people who have owned one for more than a year. This is an Audi, and the system is intricate, but not impossible.

My biggest complaint with these German operating systems is that they are all unnecessarily complex. The BMW system goes beyond the pale and is just frustrating, but in the Audi system here in this A4 2.0 T the feeling is more just mildly annoying. I quickly figured out how to switch from AM to FM to other media and all of that, but to do it, it seems like you have to go through more steps than you do on the average Japanese car, even the luxury ones. It’s not complicated, but it could be simpler. The truth is, if you owned an Audi, you’d get it down pretty quickly, have your routine, and you wouldn’t notice until you tried to do something out of the ordinary. Then you’d have to pull over and play with it, or try to look it up in the manual. No big deal.

Having said that, the interior of the Audi – all of them – is very classy, handsome, comfortable and very warm-feeling. What I mean is that the look of the dials and equipment, and especially the dash lighting, is like being in a leather-appointed library in an upscale men’s university club. Quiet, elegant, a little dark, a place where a serious person, an accomplished person, unwinds while reading the Wall Street Journal.

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I am not going to go into detail of all the stuff in here, because this is a true luxury car and has all the stuff you’d expect. Bang & Olufsen premium sound system (which in this environment can sound like sitting next to the Philharmonic in top form), navigation of course (quite easy to use), Bluetooth hands-free phone interface, a back up/review camera and voice controls. You won’t want for anything.

And this is key: It has been general lore over the years that in the Audi line, the A4 is just a little too small, with the A8 a little too big, leaving the A6 as just right from a size point of view. The new truth is that the newer A4 is the old A6, which is to say roomy; roomier than your memory would have it if you haven’t actually checked one out in the last few years. 

Outside you’re looking at one handsome car, and Audi has gone the extra mile in the last couple of years with those really way-cool xenon headlamps that are a whole series of little lamps elegantly sweeping along the headlamp case. I’m sure replacing them would take a king’s ransom, but they are very good looking.

Driving the car is also quite wonderful. It used to be that Audi was a step below, a small step below, from BMW and Mercedes. In other words, those who couldn’t afford the BMW 3 Series or the Mercedes “C” would opt for the Audi, at a somewhat smaller price, and settle for a little less in the performance and luxury arenas. Part of this stemmed from Audi’s failure in the late 1980s to maintain adequate quality control, particularly on its diesel models, and its reputation suffered. So for years, the line was decidedly second to its German cousins. What with price inflation effecting every car line, and particularly the Germans, Audi is still a little behind on the sticker-price race, but not by much, and the cars themselves are worthy of head-to-head competition. And besides, the smart thing Audi did – and this was almost done without a plan, but rather the marketplace dictated – was to push its quattro all-wheel-drive system as the ultimate selling point and clear distance maker from BMW and Mercedes. Yes, you can get AWD in both BMW and Mercedes, but I am firmly convinced they offer AWD in their sedans in direct response to the popularity of Audi’s quattro.

Anyway, this Audi handles magnificently, and here with the six-speed manual transmission this is a luxury car with more than sports-car aspirations.

But I have reservations here. First is the engine, in this case a 2.0, 211 hp four with turbo. A lot of people clearly like turbos, and the way they boost performance. I spoke with many of my younger colleagues, people in their 20s, and they all ooh and aah at the prospect of a turbo-charged engine. You may have your own feelings, but here’s mine: I am not a turbo fan overall, and I especially dislike that they turbo charge such small engines. In the other Audi A4 I drove for this review, the 3.2, you have a V6 with 265 hp. I prefer a larger engine with no turbo because, essentially, the larger engine has to work less hard, it runs less hot, and the turbo just makes the work harder and the heat higher. Admittedly the modern turbo is different than the 1980’s variety where they blew out all of the time, but I think turbos put stress on engines and shorten the expected life span.

Then there’s the issue of how the engine with the turbo performs. In this A4 2.0 T there is a slight pause when you hit the accelerator, then when the turbo kicks in the car rockets off. Some people, particularly young people, like this; I don’t. It bothered me throughout the test drive. Don’t get me wrong – I like fast cars. But I prefer one that operates more smoothly, and this 2.0 T is too herky-jerky for my tastes. The mileage stats are rated at 21 mpg city/27 mpg highway, 23 combined.

Then on to the other negative about the A4 2.0 T. The cost. The base price on the vehicle is $32,700, which in the marketplace of competition and considering the quattro system, is an excellent price. But on my test-drive model they added a bunch of things that jack the price up to the stratosphere for this model. An extra $7,300 for the Prestige model: 18”, 5-spoke alloy wheels, the B & O sound system, the Audi parking system, the xenon plus headlamps, Bluetooth, three-zone climate, heated front seats and a few other things. Then another $2,950 for Audi Drive Select, which alters gearing and suspension. Then $2,500 for the Nav system, voice command and rear camera. Then a little extra for a special color on the interior leather and a destination charge of $825. The bottom line here is $46,675. For an A4. Please.

RATING: THREE WHEELS (OUT OF FOUR)

Then I got my hands on the A4 Sedan 3.2 quattro Tiptronic. To me, this car was simply more refined.

This one had most of the same stuff in the equipment arena – Bluetooth, leather, xenon headlamps, a great stereo – but it wasn’t quite as fancy. No Nav, for instance, and the fine stereo wasn’t B & O, but in most respects, from a driver’s point of view, there was very little difference. A little more high-techy in the 2.0 model, but not enough so you’d notice most of the time.

What separates the 3.2, however, is the approach. First, the engine is the V6 with more than enough power at 265 hp – it felt more powerful than the 2.0 T and it was considerably more smooth, especially without the turbo and with the 6-speed automatic transmission. It performed beautifully. It may be an age thing, but I much prefer the larger engine/no turbo and auto transmission combination. Rated 17 mpg city/26 mpg highway, 20 combined.

The other great thing is that while the base price is higher -- $40,000 – most of the stuff offered is not extra. They only added $475 for an Aruba Blue Pearl Effect paint job and $825 in destination charges. All the other luxuries were standard, including the sunroof.  The bottom line is $41,300 – five grand less for a car that I personally liked better. At that price, and with all the standards, this is a highly competitive care versus the competition and one that should attract a lot of attention for those seeking a smaller German luxury car.

RATING: FOUR WHEELS (OUT OF FOUR)

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Now we have the A3 3.2 S line Quattro S tronic, according to the sticker. All I can say is that this is an odd car. First of all, it is quite small. That’s not a bad thing, but is has a rather Volkwagen Golf look to it.

As I said earlier, I really liked driving the car. It was quiet, speedy, handled well – it’s a first rate piece of work. And quattro. All good things.

And to be perfectly hones, I rather liked the size. As I mentioned earlier, the A4 has kind of crept up in the size department over the years, and in this day and age I have taken to liking smaller cars more and more. This A3 is the perfect size: roomy and luxurious inside, able to zip in and out of traffic, and you can park it in seconds in the smallest of spaces. It’s a hatch back with roomy seating, adequate storage in the back and a 60/40 split rear seat easy to use for those bigger-cargo errands.

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And for some reason here the very same engine that’s in the A4 3.2 has just 250 hp, in a much smaller car. The rating is 18 mpg city/25 highway and 21 combined.

So why do I say odd? Because, while this car is all Audi and nicely done, it is clearly a lesser vehicle than either of the A4s. Smaller. Lighter. A little tinnier. But the base price is $36,975. What? Having driven the other two and without checking on the price of this one until the end, I guessed that it would be around $30,000 fully equipped and at that price it would be a wonderful car.

But they added on $1,950 for navigation and an in-glove-box 6-CD changer, then $1,400 for a sport package – sport seats, sport suspension, 18” alloy wheels with summer performance tires, and $500 for heated seats, heated windshield washer nozzles and heated exterior mirrors. What all the heated equipment and then summer tires? Hmmm… Add in $825 in destination charges and the bottom line is a whopping $41,650. It upsets my sense of fairness, yes, but more than that it is simply not wise. At $41k I can get a lot of car in many places, not the least of which is that I can get the A4 3.2 for a little less than that price and it is clearly more car. Not to mention all the Japanese cars and even fine American models that are more car for a lot less money. I just don’t get it. The pricing on the A3, I believe, is a blunder. Too bad too, because it’s a nice car.

For the record, this A3 has a lot of nice stuff in the standards. Xenon headlamps, great sound system (Bose) and a lot of the luxury bells and whistles. I just think it’s over priced. By a lot.

RATING: TWO-AND-ONE-HALF WHEELS (OUT OF FOUR)

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Jeff Rundles is a former editor of ColoradoBiz and a regular columnist. Email him at jrundles@cobizmag.com.

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