Michael Booth: Et tu, Audi?

The new uglified A4 is well, OK, but if, after 2,000 yearsof civilisation, you were hoping for a giant leap forward, you'll be disappointed. Perhaps the Romans' sacking of the library at Alexandria is to blame


They say that, if the Romans (or whoever it was, for no one knows for sure), hadnot sacked the library at Alexandria in ancient times, the Normans would have invaded England with nuclear weapons in 1066, so detrimental was its loss to the progress of human civilisation. Could that explain why the new Audi A4 is so underwhelming, I wonder?

You see, I have an A4 myself. It's 10 years old, with the über '90s aubergine paint and a turbo with a mind of its own, but I have grown very fond of it, in much the way that one grows fond of an old, incontinent labrador. I've learned to ignore the bad smells, strange stains and the mess it leaves on the drive, and appreciate its loyalty and character. And I have to say, though the new A4 is a little faster, a bit more refined, and ever so slightly more efficient (the 1.8 litre manages 3mpg more than mine), it isn't outrageously better than mine. Not 10 years better, any road – and it's considerably uglier, I might add.

This set me thinking: where are the great automotive advances of the past decade? Diesel engines are a bit smoother but even the best still sound like Arthur Smith with a cold. Hybrids remain a minority pursuit, and hydrogen power is no closer a reality than it has ever been. If anything, cars don't ride as well as they used to, and, thanks to safety legislation, they're invariably bigger and heavier. You would be hard pushed to find a new car that could be described as graceful these days, and, if you do, the chances are they will have had to have made it as big as Ayers Rock (yes, I mean you, Maserati GranTurismo).

True, we have rain sensors and paddle shifts, but you still get cars with no left foot rest, and some aren't even iPod compatible. And, no, giving us all a superfluous sixth gear doesn't make up for it.

Corporate timidity is as much to blame as Caesar pyromania for our technological tardiness, I suspect, and Audi isn't the only offender. Next month's Paris show will very likely bring cars with joystick steering and engines in each wheel, but when it comes to production all mention of these things will mysteriously vanish. Which is how we end up with cars such as the A4 – a familiar formula, gently tweaked, smoothed, titivated and incrementally improved, but no quantum leap.

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