Much of the past six months or so since lockdown began just seems to have disappeared into the ether, with days, weeks and – recently – months just blurring into each other.
And I think that’s one of the reasons why, when our A4 35 TDI Technik long-termer returned to Audi a couple of weeks ago, our loan of the car seemed to be over too soon. However, the bigger reason has been just how much I enjoyed my time with the car; I would have been delighted to run it for longer.
It’s an enormously accomplished competitor in the premium car sector. It has the inherent classy Audi looks, both outside and in, with the cabin offering the quality, feel and technology expected from a car in its segment.
A good example of this is its Audi Virtual Cockpit Plus digital instrument panel. Using a 12.3-inch TFT screen, it replaces the traditional dials for speed, rpm and other information with a display which can also be used to show navigation, media and driver assistance systems.
It looks modern, is clear to read, easy to operate and provides a feel-good factor to the driver. The infotainment system matches this quality, which further enhances the car’s technological feel.
The A4 is also accomplished on the road. With 17-inch wheels, it is not a particularly sporty drive, although the 163PS diesel engine provides plenty of power for overtaking, but, instead, delivers a comfortable, cosseting ride.
One of my final journeys was a 200-mile roundtrip from my home in Norfolk to near Milton Keynes, and the miles just disappeared with no fuss.
It proved to be efficient too, with the trip computer regularly reporting average fuel economy of between 65-72mpg for journeys. The official WLTP combined fuel economy is 54.3mpg.
The only issue I can see is that the premium sector is a competitive one, with BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo offering strong products too, but anyone opting for the A4 is unlikely to be disappointed.
MMI system impresses
I have a set routine when I get ready to start a journey: if the car has Android Auto (which our Audi A4 does, along with Apple CarPlay), then I plug in my phone and use the Google system.
This allows me to listen to podcasts and use Google Maps for navigation. For me, it’s a tried and trusted method, but on one recent trip (because I forgot my phone) I, instead, used Audi’s built-in MMI Navigation Plus infotainment system.
It really opened my eyes as to how impressive it is. Displayed and operated through an excellent 10.1-inch touchscreen at the top of the centre console, it works in a similar way to a smartphone, with clear icons representing different functions.
These allow you to select features such as sat-nav as well as access a range of other functions such as the radio, media, vehicle information, news headlines and weather forecasts, which – brilliantly – it reads to you.
The sat-nav is particularly impressive as it is easy to programme and follow, and it uses real-time traffic updates to plot the optimum routes as you go along.
As our car is fitted with the Audi Virtual Cockpit, a map is also displayed in the digital instrument cluster, further increasing its usability.
The infotainment system allows you to personalise a number of the car’s characteristics, such as driving mode, efficiency assist and interior lighting. For me, this is a particular highlight and offers a rainbow of colour choices. My choice is Caribbean (cool blue).
It’s a relatively minor feature, but being able to personalise the cabin in this way has made me feel more emotionally attached to the A4, of which I was a big fan of anyway.
Golf bag test: pass
Many years ago, it was common for motoring magazines to demonstrate the size of car boots by putting a golf bag in them.
While this practice been phased out in recent years in favour of suitcases and other items which relate to more people, it’s still a consideration for me: as the saying almost goes, I enjoy spoiling a good walk (with golf).
The easing of the coronavirus lockdown has seen me return to the links and the A4 saloon has been ideal transport for this.
Saloons always suffer in terms of practicality compared with hatchbacks or estates – and an Avant version of the A4 is available to those wanting more versatility – but that hasn’t been an issue for me.
At 480 litres, the A4’s boot is identical in size to that of the BMW 3 Series and 45 litres bigger than the Mercedes-Benz C-Class.
My bulky golf trolley, when folded, slides nicely under the rear windscreen and into the furthest recesses of the boot, while – with the longest clubs taken out – the bag fits sideways across the front. The remaining clubs sit diagonally across the top of the load, and the boot can close with room to spare.
This practicality only enhances the overall appeal of the A4 and, for me, you would have to go a fair way to top it in the premium sector.
Suspension is commendably comfortable
As the lockdown eases, the distance I’ve been driving the Audi A4 has steadily increased.
And the more miles I do, the more impressed I am. On the road, it’s exceptionally refined with minimal noise from the 163PS 2.0-litre diesel engine, while the S Tronic automatic gearbox shifts smoothly.
But, perhaps its stand-out attribute is the ride quality: my routes have taken me over some fairly broken-up road surfaces, but the A4 has remained commendably comfortable and unruffled throughout.
Part of this is due to its standard 17-inch wheels. Over the past few years, the trend for wheel size has been bigger is better, as larger wheel sizes tend to fill wheel arches out more and give cars a sportier appearance.
The downside is the shallower tyre sidewalls also detract from the ride, so there is a price to pay for looking good.
This is not to say that our A4’s looks suffer from having the standard wheels: it remains a classy, handsome car, and the comfort benefits outweighs any potential perceived gain in appearance.
The A4’s early fuel economy has also impressed. Over the longer round-trips – between 60 and 80 miles – the trip computer has reported averages of between 68mpg and 72mpg. Its WLTP figure is 54.3mpg.
Another highlight of the past month has been our test car’s reversing camera system, which has been fitted to the A4 as part of the £1,395 comfort and sound pack.
I’m a long-term fan of reversing cameras, so was pleased to see one fitted to the A4 – particularly as it’s a saloon – but the included overhead view has been an unexpected bonus.
It makes it easier to park neatly in bays, but the local wildlife has also benefited: on one occasion I was about to reverse out of a parking space when I noticed a pair of ducks waddling about behind my car.
I couldn’t see them in my mirrors or rear-view camera, but as they weren’t showing up on the overhead view, I knew they had moved to safety before I started reversing.
In-car technology impresses
There is an expectation – and a need in a competitive sector – that premium cars not only feature plenty of advanced technologies, but that they are easy to access and use.
Our long-term Audi A4 certainly hits the mark on both these counts. An example is its digital instrument panel – Audi Virtual Cockpit Plus. Using a 12.3-inch TFT screen, it replaces the traditional dials for speed, rpm and other information with a display which can also be used to show navigation, media and driver assistance systems.
The display is sharp with classy, clear graphics and provides a real feel-good factor to the driver. It also sets the tone for the rest of the cabin and the technology on offer.
This includes the infotainment system. Research by What Car? ranked Audi’s system as the fourth least distracting to use (the top three, in order, were BMW’s Live Cockpit Professional, Mercedes-Benz’s MBUX and Porsche’s Connect Plus), and I’d agree that it is intuitive to operate.
However, it was another item of technology which pleased me the most in the past month: the electric hands-free boot opening system, fitted as part of the £1,395 Comfort and Sound pack. This allows you to open the boot through a kicking movement below a sensor in the rear bumper.
I’ve driven cars fitted with this feature before. They tended not to work when I wanted them to, but when I didn’t, the bootlid seemingly popped up all the time.
The Audi system has been far more consistent. For example, on a recent visit to pick up a click-and-collect order from a local garden centre, I walked back with a bag of compost cradled in both arms with plants balanced on top. Usually, I would have the inconvenience of grounding them and opening the boot manually. However, two kicks under the bumper and the boot opened as intended.
This feature is far from a must-have, but shows that, as with the Virtual Cockpit and infotainment system, the technology is great when it works properly and, so far, the range and usability of the A4’s systems have been impressive.
Costs align with key rivals
The premium car sector is one of the most competitive for aspirational company car drivers.
Analysis of the latest generation of models – including our A4 35 TDI Technik – shows this remains true as far as cost to both employee and employer goes.
With CO2 emissions of 134g/km, our 163PS diesel A4 sits in the same 33% benefit-in-kind tax band as the 190PS BMW 320d SE, while the RDE2-compliant 194PS Mercedes-Benz C220 2.0d is subject to 31% BIK despite emitting 143g/km.
This means that in the 2020/21 tax year, a 20% taxpayer would face a monthly BIK bill of £192 for the A4, £1 less than the driver of the 320d and £3 more than an employee with the C220.
The cost to the employer is similarly close. They would pay monthly Class 1A national insurance contributions of £133 for both the A4 and the 320d, and £130 for the C-Class.
According to KeeResources calculations for wholelife costs – which covers depreciation, SMR, and fuel – the 320d does eke out an advantage over its rivals.
Over a four-year/80,000-mile cycle, it has running costs of 44.79ppm, compared to the A4’s 47.30ppm and the C220’s 50.29ppm.
On paper, the difference between the three cars is small, with no model having a significant advantage.
On the road? The coronavirus pandemic has meant that since the A4 arrived on our fleet in March, it has barely been used so our driving experiences have been too limited to form any meaningful view.
Early impressions have been very positive, though, and hopefully we’ll have plenty of opportunities in the future to find out more.
Audi A4 35 TDI Technik joins our fleet
It’s time to say hello to the newest addition to the Fleet News long-term test fleet, and it’s a very handsome one at that.
Audi’s A4 is perennially popular with company car drivers and, after only a handful of miles in its latest iteration, there is no reason to feel this will not continue.
We’ve opted for the A4 35 TDI Technik model, which – with a P11D price of £34,975 in standard trim – offers WLTP combined fuel economy of 54.3mpg and CO2 emissions of 135g/km.
Standard equipment includes LED headlights, Audi parking system with rear view camera, MMI Navigation Plus with MMI Touch and Audi Virtual Cockpit, heated front seats and digital radio.
On top of this, we’ve added Navarra Blue metallic paint (£995), a larger, 24-litre Ad Blue tank (£60), black leather interior (£995) which also includes black carpets and grey headlining, and the comfort and sound pack (£1,395).
While the latest addition could appear slightly extravagant, the pack does add a lot of equipment for the outlay and further enhances the A4’s already premium feel.
This includes keyless entry and start, an electric hands-free boot opening system which allows you to open the boot through a kicking movement below a sensor in the rear bumper and a Bang & Olufsen 3D Sound System which features 19 speakers.
Also featured in the pack are a 360-degree camera to give a ‘bird’s eye view’ of the car while manoeuvring and an extended LED interior lighting pack, which includes coloured ambient lighting in door trims, door storage areas, cupholder, centre console, and footwells front and rear.
First impressions of the A4 are overwhelmingly positive. It looks and feels classy while, riding on standard 17-inch alloy wheels, it’s really smooth and comfortable to drive.
Will it live up to its early promise over a longer period? We’ve got six months with the Audi to find out.