Pros: Fuel economy, capable and predictable handling, fun acceleration, PERCEIVED quality
Cons: ACTUAL quality - squeaks & rattles, road noise, engine noise.
So why do I qualify 'fun car' with 'to lease'? Because everything I have learned of Audi over the years even before I leased this car pointed me toward Audi being a relatively unreliable car manufacturer. My experiences thus far have caused me to believe my case may be no different.
Audi is a 'luxury' subsidiary of Volkswagen, a company which also owns Bentley and Lamborghini, and has close historical ties (though does not own) Porsche - a company with which they often times collaborate on more mainstream projects, such as the VW Touareg and the Porsche Cayenne and also the new Audi Q7, which all share the same basic platform.
In the 2006 JD Power and Associates Vehicle Dependability Survey, a ranking of the average number of problems reported by the owner of each brand of vehicle within the first 3 years of ownership, Audi averaged 2.79 problems, and its parent company Volkswagen averaged 2.99 problems. The industry average was 2.27 problems, and Lexus lead the pack at 1.36 problems.
The A4 is a car that historically has been a 'warmed over' Volkswagen Passat, however, as of the 2002 model year, it received its own unique platform (the B6), and this trend continued to the 2005.5 model year where it was redesigned again and became the "B7" chassis. This design places it squarely in between the Jetta and the Passat in size. While the A4 hasn't exactly shrunk since the pre-2002 model, the Passat has increased in size and the A4 stopped following it. The B7 chassis is mostly just an improved version of the 2002-2005 B6, but now incorporates some upgraded and sportier suspension design and components from its much sportier (and much more expensive) S4 cousin.
OK, thats enough of the history of this car and the company that builds it. Lets talk about the car itself.
Interior: There is absolutely no mistaking this is a German designed and built car. Most of the controls and layouts are no-nonsense and very uptight. The interior is not exactly 'warm' or 'inviting' to me, but rather strictly business. I am not a huge fan of this layout, but it is livable for this type of car. Most of the materials controls have a very quality feel to them, and excellent tactile feedback.
My car is equipped with the 6-speed manual transmission, and the shifter is very easy to use and is relatively low effort and short in throw. The clutch tends to be a bit 'long' in travel but I got used to it quickly. Trying to shift quickly from 2nd to 3rd seems to have me occasionally hitting the shift fork in between 2nd and 3rd gear, but I've gotten used to this as well.
The leather used in the interior is all business as well, in fact it's not even real leather. Real leather is optional but the feel isn't that much different, either. The material used in this car is 'leatherette' and offers the same construction and most of the same feel as leather, without the need to worry about wrinkling, cracking, fade from the sun, and constant conditioning treatment. Again - this interior is all business.
The standard/non-Bose stereo sounds great to my ear - it took a bit of tuning for me to get a little more 'warmth' out of it, but overall it has great full range response with the factory free air subwoofer in the rear deck and the tweeters in doors next to the A-pillars. It won't impress any audiophiles with its neutral response curve, but then again I don't think I've ever seen an impressively neutral response curve from a car stereo - factory or otherwise, and most listeners would never know the difference or care as they'd just crank up the bass and treble the moment they got in anyhow.
Cabin noise in this car is one of the most disappointing points of this car. It's too noisy for an entry level luxury vehicle. The Lexus IS and ES, Acura TL, Caddy CTS, and so on are all considerably quieter in my experience. Even our 2005 Toyota 4Runner is quieter with the exception of highway wind noise.
What kind of noise? Everything. The 17" wheels and tires make a muted howl on most kinds of pavement, the engine is very noisy both inside and outside the car - turbo whine is relatively subdued, but the motor itself sounds almost like a diesel at times, especially when accelerating. I'd expect this kind of engine noise out of a 12 thousand dollar ultra economy car, but not an entry level luxury sport car.
Then there are the squeaks and rattles. I admit I am somewhat OCD about squeaks and rattles in cars, but because of that I feel that I am observant enough to say that this is, short of a Camaro z28 I once owned, THE most squeaks and rattles I've ever heard out of a 1 year old vehicle. The seat track squeaks loudly when I shift my weight (the dealer has seen the car twice for this reason, on the second time they made it much better, but I still get it from time to time), and the various plastic pieces make a symphony of shifting and banging around whenever rough roads are encountered.
Here's the fun part about this car. It's about 90 to 100% as great of a driver's car as a 3-series depending on who you ask. Opinions were less favorable of the A4 in this regard a generation or two ago, but this latest revision with its shared S4 suspension components seems to have done the trick. This car is not only very capable in corners, but is very confidence inspiring as well. You can almost always tell how close you are to the limit, and if you do cross over that line, the electronic stability control system works very well to keep the car pointed where the steering wheel is aimed. (it has saved my butt on a couple of times where I got a little bit too excited in a corner). The suspension is very hard to upset and tends to rebound and flatten out from bumps and twists almost as soon as its given the chance to without any drama.
The 2.0 liter turbo charged 4-cylinder with direct injection (Audi calls this "FSI" but it is essentially the same as many other manufacturers are releasing), makes the car feel faster than it is. I ran the car at the 1/4-mile track and only managed a 15.1 seconds @ 93 mph, however this car feels solidly faster than my last vehicle which ran a best of a 14.7 seconds @ 98 mph. This feel can be attributed to the beautiful pull of the turbocharger that accumulates right around 2000 rpm and spins upward from there.
Unlike typical turbocharger designs, this turbo is designed to provide a relatively even amount of boost from 1800 until 5500 RPM, and the torque rating of this car reflects that exactly. Audi states that the 200 horsepower rating is accompanies by an ultra flat and impressive (for a small 4-clinder) torque output of 207+ ft-lb of torque from 1800 until 5500 RPM. That means when I'm doing 50mph and am in 6th gear, I have almost no need to downshift for moderate acceleration. I step on the gas, keeping it in 6th, and for about 1 second not much happens, until the turbo gets a chance to spool up and push me along my way. It does take some getting used to driving a car where the difference in acceleration is dramatically increased about a second after the pedal is stepped on. This delay is all but non-existent if you are already at a high RPM range. I'm speaking mainly of cruising RPMs (under 2500 or so). Being that my car is the Front-Trak model and not the AWD model, it is impossible under any conditions for me to floor it in first gear and not invoke a severe throttle cut-back from the traction control system. Disabling traction control will just result constant wheel spin. Second gear is usable at wide open throttle so long as the car is not turning or on a wet road. Either of those two conditions will also cause guaranteed wheel spin in second gear. The front wheel drive model is still listed, by Audi, as being a one or two tenths of a second faster to 60mph and in the 1/4-mile, but this is likely due to the FWD model's lighter weight and lower drivetrain loss helping it to make up the difference after first gear. I have no doubt that first gear is a whole lot more fun in the AWD manual transmission models.
For the crowd who likes to modify their vehicles, there are several vendors that make aftermarket programs that can be uploaded to your car's ECU that will give you anywhere from 40 to 90 extra horsepower and 60 to 90 extra pounds of torque on standard 93 octane gas (only a 2 octane increase from the factory 91 octane requirement). This will void your warranty, but is very inexpensive at only 500-600 dollars, and typically will only decrease the life of your turbo and motor a very small amount assuming you don't constantly beat on your car.
Gas mileage on the car has been the #1 pleasant surprise for me. It's very rare for me to fill the 18.5 gallon tank before the 500 mile mark, and that's with plenty of fuel to spare. To date the worst fuel economy I have ever calculated out (done the 'real' way and not relying on the economy meter in the car's information center) was 29.5 MPG. I typically average around 30.5-31 MPG, and to date have achieved a best of 33 MPG - these numbers reflect relatively spirited driving, around 25% highway, 75% city and seem to almost make a lie of the 23 city/34 highway rating that came on my window sticker. But that's why I called it a pleasant surprise. My best highway mileage to date has been 38 MPG, and that was achieved with 1200 pounds of people and gear in the car and trunk, 75mph average speeds, and relatively under inflated tires (considering the weight the car was carrying, I was under by about 6psi per tire). I will be interested to see if I can touch the magical 40 MPG mark with just me in the car and lower speeds, but will have to wait for my next road trip, and they do not come often these days.
Whats the most pointless feature in this car? Heated headlight washers! They charge you an extra couple hundred bucks for them, too, but include them on most of the cars on the dealer lot, even where I live in Memphis, Tennessee. Mine stopped working at some point and I have no intention of getting them fixed since they serve me no purpose, and I am only leasing the vehicle.
I could bore you by repeating all of the details on the manufacturer spec sheet, but my intention with this review was to cover all the bases, yet give you some information you are unlikely to read at Audi.com or in your favorite car magazine. I hope this did the trick.