An Audi A4 is the staple fare of a certain type of affluent middle manager with a status to protect. Perceived as less brash than a BMW 3 Series, an A4 should suggest discretion and subtle good taste. Fine, but there are snags with this argument.
SPECIFICATIONSModel: Audi A4 Avant 1.8 TFSI
Price: from £23,400, on sale now
Engine: 1,798cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, turbocharger, 160bhp at 4,500-6,200rpm, 184lb ft at 1,500-4,500rpm
Transmission: six-speed manual (Multitronic auto optional), front-wheel drive
Performance: 140mph, 0-62 in 8.9sec, 39.2mpg official average
First, today's 3 Series is quite demure by current BMW standards, but the latest A4 (the estate-car Avant), the subject of this test, is considerably more "styled" than its predecessor. So the two arch-rivals now meet in the middle as far as discretion is concerned. Second, previous A4s have generally been less satisfying to drive than their BMW rivals. Audi finally realised it needed something similar, as it changed its tack from apparent aloofness as regards the competition to trying to beat it at its own game.
In this Avant form, it is a handsome car, the so-called "tornado line" (the ridge just below the window line) curving artfully downwards as it reaches the load-carrying tail, mirroring the rising ridge just above sill level.
This Avant has, according to its creators, a bigger loadspace volume than any of its rivals, including the Mercedes-Benz C-Class estate and it has a reversible boot floor, useful if your dog enjoys muddy puddles. Increasingly, though, car-makers are fudging the way rear seats fold, leaving the cushion fixed and merely letting the backrest fold down on to it. That means, in this Audi and in others, that the load floor heads uphill where it is formed by the seats, and cargo-carrying ability is compromised.
But this is a posh, lifestyley estate car, not some sales rep's workhorse. It wouldn't do to consider a mere Mondeo estate as a rival, nor a new Citroë*C5 – both roomier cars – as they exist on the wrong side of the premium watershed.
But if any car is to reinforce premium notions it's an Audi. It exudes quality, expense, precision and rationality. The new A4 also gives rear passengers more space than in the old one.
A new version of a familiar engine, the Volkswagen Group's 2.0-litre turbodiesel, replaces the old pump injectors – and the result is a smoother, quieter engine with better pull from low speeds, a wider speed range and effortless overtaking ability. However, the brakes are a touch too sensitive, the accelerator's action is a touch unprogressive, the steering requires too little effort for the result you get.
The front wheels grip well and the new car also rides more smoothly over bumps than its predecessor did. But it's hard to feel a true connection with the A4 as you drive it. It's almost as if all the controls are drive-by-wire.
But my favourite new A4 is the 1.8 TFSI, with a new direct-injection, 160bhp turbo engine and regular front-wheel drive. It's an eager, punchy, sweet-spinning engine, light enough to make the most of the new drivetrain configuration, powerful enough to make a very brisk A4, efficient enough to be cheap to run. Here, the lightness of touch in corners feels totally natural and the whole car gels. An Audi which drives like a BMW? Not quite; it's still too aloof for that. But it's a big step forward.
BMW 318i Touring: from £22,325
Cheapest 3-series estate is a practical car with a separately-opening rear window. It's also a delight to drive, and lively enough with 143bhp.
Alfa 159 Sportwagon 1.8: from £19,655
It's overlooked but it's a handsome, well-made, capable car sold by a fast-improving dealer chain. Worth a look. This entry-level version has 140bhp.
Saab 9-3 Sport Wagon 1.8t: from £21,055
Scandinavian cool (including ice-block rear lights) and fine handling here. The 150bhp turbo engine is actually a 2.0-litre, despite the misleading name.