No one can deny the effect of SUVs on our car-buying habits, with seemingly endless iterations of the family-friendly load-luggers selling fast and filling every niche imaginable. They may be practical, comfortable and loaded with gadgets, but the truth is, with their ride height and extra bulk, SUVs will never drive as nicely as a finely honed saloon on road. I was reminded of this while spending time behind the wheel of the new Audi A4, which proves you can carry a family with all their luggage and still enjoy the experience of driving a car that was purpose-built for on-road touring.
It might be a surprise to us in the UAE, where we have more justification for an all-wheel drive off-roader, but Audi's best-selling model globally is the A4 and not its SUV cousins, the Q5 and Q7. To keep the A4 fresh against its main competitors, an all-new Mercedes-Benz C-Class and BMW 3-Series, the 2019 model has received a facelift that at first appears mild, but then hints at bigger improvements beneath the skin. Most notable is the adoption of a mild hybrid system comprising of a 12-volt unit for the mainstream models and a bigger 48-volt installation for the sportier S versions. Three hybrid engines are offered here with the emphasis on reducing carbon dioxide emissions rather than returning big petrol savings at the pump.
There will be four turbo engine options available in the Middle East with 150bhp generated in the A4 35 TFSI with its 12-volt mild hybrid and 350bhp in the flagship S4 that features the 48-volt system. Mixed throughout the range will be the choice of seven-speed or eight-speed paddle shift-operated automatic transmissions, as well as front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive options.
When the first models begin to arrive in the region early next year, the performance-oriented S4 will house a diesel engine because Audi's flagship sports range is moving towards clean-burning diesels. It's an odd move, given parent company Volkswagen's well-publicised sensitivity towards the oil burners, but supports a growing theory that the latest generation of clean diesel technology remains one of the most efficient and cleanest fuels when viewed from a "well-to-wheel" perspective.
My time on the road in an A4 was spent mostly amid hilly terrain driving the TFSI, before a brief spell behind the wheel of the three-litre V6 turbo-diesel S4, which reminded me of how welcome the torque you can only find in a diesel engine is. It comes on tap from 2,500rpm to whack you with 700Nm, which incidentally is the same as the four-litre, twin-turbocharged V8 AMG sledgehammer of an engine that is used in the Mercedes-AMG C63 S range.
But as the vast majority of sales are expected to be for the TFSI engines, I remained loyal to the petrol option for the majority of my drive and it was as smooth and refined as I've come to expect from Audi with this new generation of powertrain.
Mated to the seven-speed S-Tronic box, it was enthusiastic above 2,000rpm, but below that, and especially on the steep Alpine passes dotted through northern Europe, it wasn't quite as willing. To an extent, that's to be expected, because this isn't a high-priced luxury barge or a sports car and, as soon as it taps into its torque band from 1,350rpm, things start to hustle along.
Its overtaking ability is best described as progressive rather than punchy, but it gathers pace steadily to make short work of long hauls. After 500 kilometres of driving in one leg, it was stress-free and, more importantly, pain-free when climbing from the driver's seat.
The steering is well weighted and, even though it still lacks a bit in feedback, the progress made with electric power steering in recent times is phenomenal. The Audi is easily the best among its German competitors in this area.
Helping with the ride and handling are two adaptive options in the suspension, depending on the model, with one being for comfort, which reduces the ride height by 10 millimetres, while the other is a sport setting offered with or without damper control and lowers the car by 23mm. Both are integrated into the Audi drive select dynamic handling system. This calculates up to five profiles combining steering, transmission patterns and engine management into the equation to find an optimum setting based on the driver's preferences. The information comes up on a new 26-centimetre TFT display instrument panel in the centre console that's now slightly tilted towards the driver.
In what is otherwise a clean interior dominated by horizontal lines to emphasise width and complemented by earthy tones, the centre display stands proud. It includes acoustic feedback in the touch display in place of the previous rotary and push button controls and also includes an optional Bang & Olufsen 3D premium sound system.
Externally, the changes to the A4 are subtle, with a single frame grille that sits lower and wider to emphasise the car's width. The side profile is defined by distinctive blisters above the guards with a lower shoulder line in between to give it some badly needed proportions that were missing from earlier models.
Flanking the big new grille at the front are a pair of LED headlights for the mainstream versions, while the top-range A4 and S4 are fitted with the new-tech Matrix LED lights with automatic high beam. That uses a camera to see ahead to dip and avoid affecting the vision of oncoming drivers or pedestrians.
Amid a sea of high-riding SUVs clogging shopping mall car parks, it's easy to overlook the humble saloon. But after spending a few hundred kilometres behind the wheel of the capable new Audi A4, I was reunited with genuine driver enjoyment that didn't sacrifice family comfort or space, and that also thanked me with better fuel consumption.