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by Tony Whitney

2009 Audi A4

New Audi A4 on the way for 2009.

Every now and again, a new vehicle comes along which prompts the question “do we really need a new one of these - the one we can buy right now is about as good as it can possibly be?”

So it is with the latest incarnation of the popular Audi A4, which was introduced to the world’s media in late fall. It came almost as a surprise that the time had rolled around when a complete update was needed, but despite reportedly widespread customer satisfaction with the current model, Audi has completely re-worked its sports sedan, inside and out.

There will be a certain amount of controversy among Audi-philes when the new A4 shows up here during the fall of 2008 as a 2009 model. Most of this will almost certainly revolve around the car’s size, which is larger than that of the old car in most dimensions.

Quite possibly, the buzz around the A4 will split aficionados into two camps - those who like their sports sedans as compact as possible and appreciated the trimness of the old car and those who appreciate the 2009 version’s greater shoulder and leg room that’s been achieved without any loss of agility or “feel.” Even so, the A4 has edged a little closer to its A6 sibling in size and also boasts a level of luxury and convenience which is more “A6-like.” As an example, trunk capacity is 480-litres - larger than anything offered by its direct competitors.

In its presentations at the international media launch in Italy, Audi was proudly touting the car’s larger size and roominess, so clearly the Ingolstadt automaker has no fears of market resistance at any level. It’s longer than its two main rivals - the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class - and slightly lower. It’s related under the skin to two other Audi products of recent vintage - the S5 and A5 coupes.

The old A4 was 4586 mm long and the new car measures 4703 mm. The new model is also 50 mm wider, but the height is just about unchanged. The wheelbase has been upped to 2808 mm, longer than its competitors. Front overhang has been reduced, giving the car a nice “aggressive” stance on the road.

It’s certainly a handsome automobile and has lots of interesting detailing around the bodywork - including the now-familiar massive black Audi grille, spoiled to some extent by the need for a front license plate in most provinces (and in its German homeland).  You’ll spot an A4 in your rear-view mirror by its “necklace” of LEDs arrayed across each headlight unit to serve as daytime running lights. This is a very distinctive feature - at first glance this Audi has the look of some kind of predatory beast bearing down on you. The rear of the car is especially well done with its faired-in trunk spoiler and slimmer taillights than last time around.

  In Europe, where the car has already been launched, buyers have a choice of five engines - two gasoline and three diesel. A 1.8-litre turbocharged 4-cylinder gas engine has 160-horsepower and a 3.2-litre gasoline V-6 boasts 265-horsepower. The three oil-burners include a 3.0-litre TDI, a 2.7-litre TDI and a 2.0-litre TDI. Horsepower ratings are 240, 190 and 143 respectively. I managed to get one of the diesels to try in Sardinia - the 3.0-litre unit - and the amount of torque available when booting it out of a tight corner on a mountain road made it a more enjoyable drive than its nearest gasoline equivalent. The 3.0-litre TDI has a whopping 500 nm of torque on tap and will tag the speedo at 100 km/h in just a shade over six seconds. Some of this diesel’s prowess comes from a new turbocharger design with variable turbine geometry. According to Audi engineers, this makes for a turbocharger that builds up power freely and spontaneously.

Indications are that initially, we’ll only get the 3.2-litre V-6 in Canada, but the 2.0-litre TDI may follow later.

In Europe, of course, if you don’t have diesel variants, you don’t have a proper vehicle range, but to have a choice of three must be a delight to drivers who prefer this type of power unit. If only our US friends would stop thinking of diesels as smokey, noisy, truck-like powerplants, maybe we’d get a choice of three diesels for our new Audi too. In some European countries, diesel vehicle sales are now topping 70 per cent and rising.

Across the range, there are several transmissions available in Europe - including (truly outstanding!) new 6-speed manual boxes, 6-speed Tiptronics and a Multitronic continuously variable unit. Naturally, Audi’s almost legendary Quattro four-wheel drive system is available. In Europe, it’s optional on entry-level models and standard with the larger engines. North American A4s will all be Quattro-equipped, at least initially. As before, station wagon and high-performance RS versions of the new A4 will reach us at some time or another.

As with any Audi regardless of sticker price, the interior is right up there in the “benchmark class” with superb fit and finish, intelligent design and placement of controls and a general feeling of well being for driver and passengers. Looking around the cockpit of the A4, it’s hard to believe that cars like this owe their origin to the good old BMW 2002 of the 1970s, which is now almost crude by comparison.

On the road this new Audi proved to be an assured, confidence-inspiring drive with exceptional handling given its increase in size. Impressive throttle response and very accurate steering added to a rewarding experience behind the wheel. The freeway ride seemed almost as refined as that of the car’s large A8 sibling - even at very high speeds.

Whether the A4’s increased size and higher level of sophistication hints at a new Audi small sedan for some time in the future remains to be seen. No prices will be announced for quite a while, but think in the 30’s somewhere and you’ll be in the ballpark for an entry-level A4.

For those who don’t want to wait for the 2009 car, the existing A4 remains an outstanding example of its class and is very competitively priced.