Audi A4 provides insight into the frustrations of advanced systems

By Christoper A. Sawyer
The Virtual Driver

(June 3, 2018) Allow me to set the scene. It’s midday. The sun is shining and the roads are dry. Temperature is in the mid 60s. I am driving in one of Detroit’s many suburbs, having just turned left to travel east down another two-lane road. There are houses on either side of the street, with a single story school administration building just ahead on the right.

As I near the old admin building, I notice that there is a man on a bike up ahead riding on my side of the road, but toward me. Instead of using the semi-circular drive in front of the building, he pops out into the street, trying to keep from crossing the solid white line that separates the shoulder of the road from the lane. He’s about 30 feet ahead.

In the oncoming lane is a crossover doing the posted 40 mph. That vehicle is further up the road, but will be near my car and the rider soon. Based on the speed of all the moving parts of this equation, the crossover won’t be on top of me until I have passed the bicyclist, making it possible to get close to the double yellow line running down the center of the road. This will give the bicyclist more room, reduce the chance of hitting him should his path change, and still give the oncoming crossover room to pass. It’s such a mundane situation that the front seat passenger is half paying attention.

As I steer to move the A4 to the left, things begin to happen in rapid succession. A loud gong goes off as the driver information screen is filled with red letters saying “Audi pre-sense!,” and the breaks begin a full-ABS stop.

Somewhat surprised and startled buy the commotion, I steer back toward the center of my lane as planned, having cleared the bicyclist and still clear of the oncoming vehicle that I was never going to hit anyway. Noticing (sensing?) that we were no longer on a collision course, the brakes are released before the car closing from behind has a chance to hit the A4, while the passenger in the front seat lets out a full-throated “WTF?,” and questions the safety of advanced safety systems.

Welcome to the automotive equivalent of 1984, Winston Smith. You have been warned.

Two days later, I run the A4 though the car wash before taking a few quick photos. The electronic shift lever is a real treat, popping into reverse then back to drive before a deliberately gentle touch finds neutral. Inside the car I’m treated to a series of tones as the bumper-mounted sensors track the movements of the wash crew as they run soapy soft-bristle mops over the front, rear and lower sides of the car before it is pulled into the whirling maelstrom.

Now the tones are stronger and longer, and supported by a graphic showing multi-color bands at each corner as the machinery moves toward and away from the car. Even the lights on the side mirror housings, the ones meant to warn of vehicles in your blind spot, get in on the action. Once past the wash rack, the sensor overload calms down as it follows the young man hand drying the A4.

It must be what it’s like going from a bad acid flashback to a gentle buzz. The only things missing are the sitar music, incense, and posters from the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival.

You could play the sitar music on the Bang & Olufsen 3D sound system, but it’d be a waste of an excellent audio unit. And the posters wouldn’t go at all well with the handsome interior’s muted red contrast stitching, the black leather surfaces of the optional sport seats, and the various piano black inlays. Nor would those still stuck in the “Flower Power” decade know what to do with the MMI touch infotainment unit that allows you to enter information into the navigation unit by tracing it out atop the oversize rotary input dial.

About the only thing this flashback to the 60s might understand is Audi’s annoying e.e. cummings-like insistence on using lower case letters for its technology and equipment names.

He also would be non-plussed by the dual-clutch automatic gearbox — a real jewel — and the 252 hp/273 lb.-ft. available from the 2.0-liter turbocharged four. This is the VW Group’s equivalent of the Chevy small block in that it is found in just about everywhere, and is surprisingly powerful and efficient. The combination makes the A4 a joy to drive, and using the steering wheel-mounted paddles for downshifts gives a satisfying braa-brap! every time you drop down a gear.

Acceleration isn’t a problem, the engine producing prodigious torque from down low and carrying it through the midrange. Again, the paddle shifters come into play in that they allow you to hold the gears longer, choose your downshift points, and default to automatic control without having to consciously choose it.  Even the mileage is surprising, returning 26.8 mpg in mostly around-town driving, and seemingly capable of meeting the EPA’s estimated 34 mpg highway.

Trunk room is more than acceptable, with the split-fold rear seatbacks giving you the ability to carry more than you thought reasonable in a small sedan. You don’t have to run home to get the SUV should you stumble upon a garage sale. Full size adults can sit in the back seat if those in the front cooperate by giving up a little leg room. But the big problem, in both the front and rear compartments, is getting in and out due to the low roof and, in the case of the front seat passengers, the heavily bolstered sport seats.

You have to thread your way under the roof rail, and into an opening partially blocked by the A-pillar and seat bolster. This requires placing your inner leg into the footwell while turning your upper body away from the interior and dropping into the seat. It sound more complicated — and difficult — than it is, but points out one of the main reasons sedans continue to fall out of favor.

The front seat passenger mentioned earlier loved the A4, but was a bit put off by the price. The A4 quattro S tronic (damn you e.e. cummings!) has a base price of $40,500. To this our test car added the $3,200 Premium Plus package (18-in. Dynamic design wheels with all-season tires, high-gloss aluminum window surrounds, Bang & Olufsen 3D audio, auto-dimming heated outside mirrors with power fold feature, alarm system with motion sensor, Sirius/XM, Audi advanced key, eight-way power front seats with memory, LED headlights, Parking system plus, a color driver information system, and Audi side assist with rear pre-sense), the $3,000 Navigation and Telematic package (Audi MMI Navigation plus with MMI touch, Audi connect Prime & Plus, Audi connect CARE, and Audi virtual cockpit),

The $1,450 Black optic plus package (18-in. 10-spoke wheels in high-gloss black, red brake calipers, black optic exterior mirror package, high-gloss black sill blades and rear spoiler, a flat-bottom three-spoke steering wheel with S badge, piano black inlays, red contrast stitching, and leatherette-covered console and door armrests), the $800 Black optic 19-in. wheel package, and the $750 Sport package (front sport seats with four-way power lumbar, black cloth headliner, and sport suspension). Add in the $950 destination charge, and the MSRP is $50,675.

It wouldn’t be too tough to pare that down an bit without seriously affecting the A4’s look or feel, but the point was made. Personalization isn’t cheap, neither is the A4. However, apart from the preservation sensibilities of the pre-sense unit, it’s a very nice sport sedan.

The Virtual Driver