Audi A4 S line 35 TDI S Tronic review - Calm and predictable

Updated: March 22, 2023

The compact executive car class is a tricky one. It aims at the middle-aged executive, AKA someone with a relatively stolid lifestyle and just enough spare cash to indulge in some moderately luxurious extras, but without going over the top, or stepping too deeply into the sporty saloon territory. In other words, we're looking at a buyer who wants comfort, speed and perks all in one. The obvious choice for such a buyer would be Audi A4. Or is it?

Just recently, I had a chance to drive the aforementioned sample for two days over roughly 500 km of road, covering ordinary large urban setting, ultra-narrow old Mediterranean city lanes with just enough width not to scrape your side mirrors, and then, some lofty highways. Let me elaborate on this experience.

Teaser

Image courtesy Audi Media Center.

Car specifications, engine

My A4 came in a (predictably) boring gray, with some extra chrome trimming that's part of the S line package. Indeed, Audi's premium mark has its value, but you should go for higher levels of equipment if you want to truly enjoy yourself. In practice, this translates into 10.1-inch MMI infotainment system, three-zone climate control, adaptive cruise control, LED lights, and leather/dinamica sport seats (with a special logo). However, for some reason, the car was equipped only with 17-inch wheels (as on the Technik version), and there was no parking camera. Le mystery shrug.

Wheels

Not the most exciting set of wheels I've seen.

For me, though, the engine is the crucial part of the equation. The vehicle was powered by a 2.0-liter TDI engine, rated at 163 HP and 370 Nm of torque, which ought to translate into a plenty of mid-range grunt. This also means a pretty decent top speed of about 230 km/h and 0-100 km/h acceleration in 8.3 seconds. Decent numbers, but not as punchy as I expected (or like). I don't know if this is a consequence of the emission scandal, cars getting bigger and heavier, or just smart marketing positioning (as there are stronger engines, quattro drive and such).

Engine

You can't really appreciate modern engines anymore. But the good stuff is there, yup.

However, it will still be quite interesting to see how the numbers apply in real life, i.e., road fun, especially since I had a chance to drive a few other diesels recently. Specifically, we're talking about a 190HP BMW X3 and a 150HP Volkswagen T-Roc, both powered by 2.0-liter engines. Well, onwards then. Oh, you can also read my somewhat older Passat review, but it comes with a similar spec to what we have here.

Exterior

While stylish and sleek, Audi A4 sure won't draw any second looks. It is a car designed to be inobtrusive, practical and perhaps even conservative. If I compare to the previous model, I think the front end isn't meaty enough. In general, most new Audis have that platypus feel, with the hood somewhat too low for my taste. This could also be a safety feature, but I really don't know.

On the other hand, the rear quarter is spot on, with a visual setup that reminds me of Maserati. You also get twin exhaust pipes on the opposite ends of the bumper, which definitely add a sporty feel, but which might not accurately reflect the car's driving nature. More on that later.

Side back view

Exhaust

You expect a lot of thunder from them pipes. But it ain't so. You get the diesel grunt.

Interior, gadgets, touch, and privacy

Inside, it's typical Audi. Elegant, high-quality stuff everywhere. Understated gray (here it ain't boring) with hints of passion in the form of red color and white stitching. The A4 has a fabulous interior design, and you kind of want to sit down and just appreciate the driver's workspace.

Interior

I found the layout to be superb. The seats are beautifully sculpted, and they hug you ever so dearly. The driver's position is excellent. While the seat had manual controls only, it still allowed me to figure out the finest reach and range for optimal driving. Everything has a premium, supple feel.

Dashboard, wide

Dashboard

Infotainment. So what should be said here? Okay. Recently, I find that more and more car manufacturers are slowly, gently, quietly giving up on the idea of all touch consoles and controls, after years of pointless touch craze. Infotainment as touch makes sense, but the rest? Absolutely not. Much like on computer desktops, no matter how hard you try, you can't really beat the basic laws of ergonomics. Simple maffs.

Having things like aircon managed by touch is not only pointless but also dangerous. Without tactile feedback, with touch-only controls, the driver must look away from the road, which reduces overall safety. Plus, over time, the touch screens, no matter how fancy, tend to get all smudged, which doesn't add to the overall feel of class, now does it. I shall rant on this separately. The touchification nonsense in cars is still happening in parallel to strong customer backlash, and there's a lot more to be done before we go back to sanity.

Well, Audi A4 has a nice balance of touch and touch, so to speak. You manage the infotainment using a large, bright screen, but the three-zone climate control (two front, one back), Start/Stop, Drive mode, and a bunch of other important functions are all governed by REAL buttons. However, there are a few small issues here, which are rather surprising for a vehicle of this grade.

One, the buttons are angled and thus positioned for downward presses, but you actually need both up and down to make changes, and so, if you need to "up" anything, the finger motion is quite awkward. Two, the Traction Control button is too close to the Start/Stop button, so you can accidentally press that. And since I hate Start/Stop, I don't want to need to have to worry about turning off an essential car function when I just want to prevent my engine from needlessly going to sleep.

Furthermore, if you do use Start/Stop, and you do stop, and you want to finish your journey and turn the car off, quite often, you may find yourself in the following silly scenario. You stop the car, the engine shuts itself off (temporarily). But then if you press the ignition button to actually switch the engine off completely (for a proper stop), the engine will then turn itself on at that moment. Effectively, you need two ignition presses to get to the desired state. The whole Start/Stop nonsense needs to stop.

All in all, this left me rather surprised. I wasn't expecting this level of trifles in such a nice, elegant vehicle. But then, I guess this is what happens when technologies that don't actually serve a real purpose get added into cars for the sake of "modern" trends. The issues outlined above stem entirely from there.

Privacy is another (big) thing. When you turn the car on, the infotainment system will tell you about its telemetry functions (you can suppress the message if you like). My first reaction was, WTF. I wanted to drive a car, not fiddle with it like it's a second-rate Android phone. But hey, there's an entire section around Privacy, where you can enable or disable various privacy-affecting things like online services, personal data collection, and even vehicle position. Again, wut.

Privacy

Use personal data, share vehicle position? What? What is this? A phone or a car?

Here, I got extra angry. So this expensive car, S line trim and all, didn't have navigation enabled, because I guess the car manufacturer expects you to use your phone (paired or mirrored or whatever) for that, and the owner didn't specifically purchase the option. But why would I want to ruin the impression and experience of a luxury vehicle by adding a crap mobile phone into the equation? Why do I need to care about having my phone being available, or anything like that?

It gets better. You don't get navigation shown or enabled in the main screen, but I guess the functionality is one toggle away, because the "online data services" thing can use and share your location. So my immediate reaction was: data grab? And if you use your mobile device, doubly so. And thus is the premium brand of Audi cheapened by the lowest common denominator of smartphone nonsense.

Moreover, Audi A4 isn't exactly a car for youngsters. People who drive the likes of Passat or Audi A4 are older, more sensible people. The kind of customers who will not necessarily use smartphones as their primary device. Nor will they want to worry about mobile data plans, roaming, network coverage, battery, or any crap like that. Not having navigation in a luxury car turns the driver into a hostage of their own choice of phone, which sounds ridiculous. But hey.

Yes, you can buy navigation as an optional extra. That goes without saying. But when the infotainment has EVERYTHING but navigation, when you have the S line trim but no GPS (supposedly) enabled, but then you do have this whole online data nonsense right there in the menu, well, then, I cannot not feel insulted.

Last but not the least, what happens with your data once uploaded? Or better yet, what guarantees your data will not be used whichever way? In other words, if you drive a modern car with a similar setup, and you allow telemetry (or perhaps it's enabled and you have no choice), you effectively give the car company the exact data on your movement, your actions and everything else implied at every second of your journey.

Here, you can turn it off. But why it be an option to begin with? Now, I don't know how strong Audi's data privacy mechanisms are (I heard they are quite good actually), and to what length they go to anonymize data and uphold user privacy, but that's the thing. I don't want to know. I want ZERO telemetry, and then there's no need for this question to be asked, ever.

Don't get me wrong. I have used and enjoyed navigation systems with real-time traffic updates in a variety of cars before. That's not the issue. The issue is the deliberate phone-like approach to this matter, and the fact your driving privacy can be impaired, by mistake, a buggy update, deliberate decision, or other methods, all remotely. I don't like that, and I don't want that. Is this the inevitable future of the automobile industry? Perhaps. Do I need to agree with this approach? Definitely not. What does that mean about my future car purchases? Not sure yet.

Anyway. The rear bench is spacious enough, and it can comfortably seat two tall adults, although leg room is nowhere near as generous as say either Skoda Octavia or Superb. The boot is flat, and has enough room for two large suitcases, or an assortment of smaller ones. Under the false bottom, you will find a space saver spare.

Rear seats

Boot

The driving experience

I've driven a range of Audis in my life, and they have all been pretty good. Well, the experience ranged from just okay for an old S4 to punchy and vivacious like the A1 and raw and spaceship-like for the A6. With this A4, the fun factor is, perhaps once again predictably, somewhere in the middle.

The experience is classy. The car is precise, refined, there's plenty of grip. The drive is smooth, quiet, and the chassis swallows undulations and holes in the road without a fuss, even in the Dynamic driving mode, the equivalent of the Sport mode of yore (but which I guess sounds less appealing to executives and also discloses the overall intended modus operandi for the A4). We don't want to get too exciting and mistake this vehicle for a raunchy wannabe racer, now do we.

What surprised me is the somewhat sluggish engine response. I was expecting more mid-range kick, and it wasn't there. On the highway, during overtakes, I had to manually paddle-shift into M5 or M6 to get the Audi moving fast enough for my taste. The other problem was, the car feels big and heavy, no matter what. If you recall my A6 review, I mentioned the car getting "smaller" when you go into Sport mode, but this spatial sensation isn't present in the 2022 A4. I was always aware of its lofty dimensions and considerable weight, even on the open road.

Driving

Serene; no heart-pumping exciting here. Image courtesy Audi Media Center.

The steering is precise, but the brake has quite a bit of travel, which is not something I've encountered with any other VW Group model. You need to push the pedal fairly deep to get enough bite, especially if you're slowing down from highway cruise speeds. I guess the car is tuned for a comfortable drive for middle-aged folks, which can explains the overall softness.

The fuel consumption was relatively modest - about 6 liters/100 km, and we're talking aggressive driving, Dynamic mode used for about 15-20% of the time, aircon on, two adults, and some city driving thrown into the mix. On the highway, the A4 will do 130 km/h without any fuss. The handling is linear and utterly placid. In the city though, you will manage, but that really isn't the 4's natural environment. However, visibility all around is quite good. But you can't ever forget the car's size, especially its width. The parking sensors will kick in at low speed, to help you avoid body damage while crawling through narrow streets or into parking garages.

All in all, I found the 163 horses more than adequate, but in comparison, the BMW X3 (with 190 of them) was way nimbler and more responsive. If anything, the A4 is more akin to the T-Roc when it comes to mid-range ballistics, although the drive is far smoother and more ship-like. That explains the yacht-like gear lever. Indeed, I find it way too chunky. It perhaps looks "classy" and appeals to the average 52-year-old, but to me, it looks ungainly, it does not sit well in the hand, and the operation is a bit heavy.

I guess the A4 needs the top-range engine to fully realize its potential. Or perhaps, it's not meant to be driven in an aggressive manner, and any such approach leads to disappointment. This would mean two out of two for the *4 models. Neither the old S4 nor this new A4 left me awed. For that matter, the Passat would also classify as a car that doesn't try too hard to impress its passengers. Reasonable mellowness seems to be the defining theme.

But I can't really complain. After several hours of non-stop driving, I was feeling totally fresh. It was as if I hadn't sat in the car at all. The comfort level is great, the seats are fabulous. The A4 does not toll your mind or body, and you waste zero energy conforming to its driving dynamics. I guess if that's what the manufacturer had in mind, then they've nailed the executive formula to the letter.

Some small problems

I've outlined a few issues earlier. Now, I must add another one. I hate electronic parking brakes. They are so not fun. This is another example of reducing driver's control for the sake of gimmicks. With a tiny button used to activate the brake, you need to look down, which feels stupid. With a real handbrake, you can do everything by touch, and you have full control over how much braking force you want to apply. With this button on/off thing, there is no control, no sensation, no finesse. Annoying.

Conclusion

Let me begin the end of this article with a little complaint. Audi A4 TDI is a pretty nice car. But I am really surprised by some "plebeian" choices added to the vehicle, most notably the infotainment slash navigation thing, the position of the T/C button, the Start/Stop function, the parking brake, the data collection. All very weird choices for an expensive, luxury brand. All this, in my mind, stems from one cardinal problem, the race to the bottom. Audi should never compete with the lower-end vehicles and their user experience choices. It shouldn't be all about the lowest common denominator or the fads or the tiniest of profit margins. Adding low-cost options to a premium brand kills the vibe, cheapens the whole deal.

Now, that said, yes, the A4 is a very nice car. It's a bit boring, but it's also precise, elegant, well equipped. It drives well, it's comforting, cosseting, and fairly luxurious. I wouldn't necessarily buy it, as there are sportier and livelier choices in the executive range (like say BMW 330d), but I can totally understand those who would. You get an all-rounder that combines class, power and finesse. But it doesn't thrill the heart nor makes your blood pump. I'd say 8/10. If you'd like one, and you can spend a bit more, go for the top-range engine and quattro drive. That way, you will surely add thrill to the refinement equation. And we're done.

Cheers.