Audi A4 2008

Neil Vorano test drives the A4 at the Abu Dhabi Golf and Equestrian Club as Audi swing their luxury compact car into the mix.

ABU DHABI. 21st June 2008.ROAD TEST. The new Audi A4. FOR ARTS AND LIFE . Stephen Lock  /  The National.  *** Local Caption ***  SL-audi-008.jpgSL-audi-008.jpg
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I've never been all that good at golf. I really want to be. The idea of strolling around a lush, green lawn with a few friends, enjoying cigars and knocking a ball around really sounds like a nice way to spend a weekend. But when you measure your score by how many balls you lose, it's easy to feel a little frustrated, so I tend to avoid golf courses altogether. But I recently spent an evening at the Abu Dhabi Golf and Equestrian Club, and I finally had a great time on the course. Well, in the car park to be more accurate. Audi had set up a small obstacle course there to show off the handling prowess of its all-new A4 compact sedan. Why there? Not sure exactly, but showing off this new, stylish model to golfers who show up in their BMWs and Mercedes wouldn't hurt.

Whatever the reasons, I'm glad they did. Both the 1.8T and the 3.2-litre FSI Quattro versions were there to thrash around. Tests were set up to simulate emergency lane changes with and without heavy braking, as well as a longer obstacle course for handling at lower speeds. It was all good fun, but more importantly, it showed what Audi's bread and butter can do. With traction control, electronic brake force distribution and an electronic stabilisation programme, the A4 tracked stable and straight, no matter how quick the steering input was with the lane changes on that dusty pavement. And stopping both cars was equally impressive, with no loss of control under braking in a sharp turn. The kind of things you'd want your mother's car to be capable of, just in case.

Indeed, the previous-generation A4 was no slouch in handling, but Audi has really raised its game with the new version, and not just in its road manners. Now with a wheelbase 165 millimetres longer than its predecessor, and a more sculpted body that follows the family lines of the A5 and A6, the new A4 seems to have more presence on the road than the last one, and it compares well in looks against its German competition - though I still think Mercedes has the edge there. It also gets the aggressive, gaping grille and LED running lights that come on the rest of the Audi line, which definitely adds to the A4's cachet.

Inside, the materials used are second to none. The interior of my tester, a 1.8T version, was completely black save for a few swipes of polished aluminium - a bit dark for my taste, but the feel of the leather and switchgear made up for the lack of colour (though I'm sure a swatch of burgundy or beige wouldn't hurt). But at night, the warm glow of the red-lit gauges was soothing. The Symphony radio was top-notch and, as every luxury car maker seems to think they need, Audi has its all-encompassing central controller system. Called the MMI (Multi-Media Interface), the dash-mounted joystick and buttons look after the climate, stereo, navigation and mobile phone interface. It takes a while to get used to, and it hasn't made me a complete fan of these kinds of systems, but it works reasonably well. In fact, BMW seemed to have emulated it somewhat by adding more buttons to its iDrive, like the MMI has, just to reduce the number of screens you have to filter through on the dashboard display.

What impresses the most from this new A4 is its handling. As I had the 1.8T, a turbo-charged four-cylinder model, it was front-wheel drive, not the Quattro all-wheel drive the 3.2-litre has. But you'd never know the difference on normal roads, even under quicker driving. With a weight bias that slightly favours the front, understeer was almost non-existent. The car tracked flat and true around corners, and the feel through the wheel - which is connected to a variable steering box - was very informative. In fact, during the car park tests, I favoured the 1.8 over the 3.2, which felt much heavier (mind you, it got up to a higher speed, but still ...). Perhaps the Quattro would be the vehicle of choice where bad weather means ice and snow, instead of blazing heat.

The engine, however, was a contentious issue for me. First off, I like turbochargers - what a great way to extract more power from a smaller engine. At speed, the 160- horsepower rating Audi gives this four-cylinder seems to be a low figure, as the car doesn't seem to run out of power. There is no problem keeping up with or passing traffic, a prerequisite when you're entering the luxury car market. The engine's relatively tiny size makes it fantastic on fuel, too.

But accelerating from a standstill is another story. Perhaps its best to actually get out of the car and push it up to a rolling start, get in and take off - that's how sloth-like it is from a stop. In fact, a couple of times I wanted to make a quick lane change from a stalled queue of cars, but aborted mid-attempt because it wasn't quick enough to avoid the oncoming vehicles behind me. For many people, this might not be a big deal - they might value the frugality over performance - but I'm not sure I could live with it.

But it's the biggest bugaboo about a car that, in every other department, deserves more respect than it gets. BMW and Mercedes get all the glory in this field, where Audi is still the "alternative choice". But the more people who try this A4, the sooner their attitudes will change.