True, at first glance, it's difficult to tell the new A4 from the four-year-old one. A more prominent grille, new fog lights and modified tail-lights, ellipsoidal headlamps, revised door handles and reshaped wing mirrors are the external clues, but the model and engine line-up is unchanged, with no fewer than 36 variants to choose from.
There are seven petrol engines: a 1.6 101bhp, 1.8 125bhp and turbocharged version with 150bhp, a 2.4 165bhp and 2.8 193bhp, and the flagship S4 265bhp quattro. Diesels range from the 1.9 TDI 90 or 110bhp to the 2.5 V6 150bhp. Most models are available in base or SE trim (typically adding £2,000 for the higher spec), except the 1.8T branded 'Sport'. Four-wheel-drive quattro can be specified on the 2.5 TDI, 2.8 petrol and S4, and all models are available as saloon or Avant, the estate body style adding considerably more space for a premium of about £1,000.
Prices range from £17,465 on-the-road for the base 1.6 saloon, rising to £37,715 for the S4 Avant. The most popular 1.8 SE saloon costs £21,100 on the road, a small increase over the old model, and on a par with the 318i SE at £21,045. But the new A4 is better value, with electronic climate control now standard on all but the base 1.6, and all models have improved safety equipment. The standard kit list now includes alloy wheels, electric front windows, ABS, EBD (Electronic Brake Force Distribution) an alarm and immobiliser, plus twin front and side airbags, with a switch in the glovebox to deactivate the passenger bag allowing a child seat to be carried.
This makes an already safe, tasteful and comfortable cabin an even more pleasant place to be, in with cosseting height-adjustable seats for both passenger and driver and a reach and rake adjust steering wheel. Driving comfort has also been enhanced by retuned shock absorbers and the car's body reinforced to cut suspension noise intrusion.
These changes really show on the road, where a sporty ride complements the A4's precise handling. And though it may still fall a little short of the BMW on out-and-out dynamic appeal, the average driver would find little to choose between the two. Our only gripe would be an intrusive thrum from the 1.8 between 65 and 75mph. Put your foot down and it disappears, though the boys in blue may not accept this as a good excuse for speeding.
The other engine tweaks and refinements are barely discernible, but that's not such a bad thing. Value for money, styling and driveability have all been improved, but without making the old A4 look dated: good news for RVs which stand at £9125/45% for the old 1.8 SE after three years/60,000 miles according to CAP Future Residual Values . This trails the BMW 318i SE's untouchable £11,100/53%, but in all other areas, the A4 is closing the gap, and both cars come with the reassurance of a three-year/60,000-mile warranty, German kudos and build quality. Perhaps the most significant difference is fleet buyers will only have to wait eight-12 weeks for an A4. Definitely food for thought.
Fleets will account for 80% of new A4 sales, and benefit from competitive prices thanks to the Volkswagen Group's shared platform philosophy. David Ingram, Audi's product marketing manager, says: 'Eighty per cent of new A4s will be 'company assisted purchases', with saloons outnumbering Avants by about two to one. This is the same as for the previous model, though where 40% of sales used to be SE, extra equipment means we may see a slight change here.
'Prices for the 2.4 SE, 2.8 SE and S4 are unchanged; others have risen by about 1.7% but given the enhanced spec, they're really the same. We've been able to cut costs within the group thanks to common platform and components, and we can now pass these savings on to customers.'
Dealers will start taking orders for the new A4 now, and the first models will hit the roads in March. Ingram continues: 'We sold 21,000 A4s in the UK in 1998, and anticipate selling 20,000 new models this year as we've effectively missed a quarter.'
He asserted that Audi would be watching volumes carefully to maintain RVs and change the marketing stance to focus on Audis generically, both new and used.