I recently had a warranty repair completed on my 2002 Audi S8. That car, which I purchased used in 2005, originally sold for right around $80,000. It has Audi's 4.2 liter 40-valve V8 specially tuned to crank out more torque and horsepower than the same basic engine in other Audi models. While my S8 spent a few days stuck at the dealership service center, I was given a 2006 A4 2.0T to driver as a loaner. I expected to enjoy driving a brand new Audi--even a much more modest A4--but I did not expect to enjoy it as much as I did--especially the smallest engine option.
Given what I am accustomed to driving, I knew that the small engine A4 would be a bit slower and would lack some of the extravagant luxury features on my S8, but I was extremely impressed with how upscale the roughly $34,000 A4 looked, felt and drove. Nothing about this car makes you feel like the smallest engine forces you to be stuck with economy car features, looks, or performance.
The 4-cylinder engine sounds less substantial and idles less smoothly than a V6 or my V8, but it is surprisingly potent. I have owned a turbo Audi 5-cylinder years ago, and I am familiar with turbo lag and the low-end torque tradeoff that usually accompanies a small engine with power output boosted by a tubocharger. The new A4 has nearly eliminated turbo lag. This trick seems to be accomplished through a combination of a low 1st gear (which is easier to do with six speeds available) and an uncommonly broad torque curve, which allows this engine to crank out its full 207 pound feet of torque at a scant 1,800 rpms. From a stop, the engine produces a satisfying rush of power within a small fraction of a second of punching the accelerator. Beware of substantial "tip-in" that takes a little getting used to. The car practically leaps off the line until the driver adjusts to the throttle. When revved high, it sounded like a motorcycle compared to the baritone of a V8, but it doesn't sound anemic. It's an engine and a car that really beg to be driven in a spirited manner. Since it was a loaner, that is exatly what I did for about 500 miles over the course of five days.
In addition to a low 1st gear, the six-speed automatic has a high 6th gear, which should produce extremely economical highway cruising. My S8 has a 5-speed transmission, and it is deliberately geared low in 5th to keep lots of available power. The low revs on the A4 actually made me less sensitive to high speeds in the A4 than in the higher revving S8. On the sparsely populated interstate between my home and the city where I was having my car serviced, I cruised at 85 to 90 mph, and I hit 105 mph briefly a couple of times when there was no traffic anywhere. On a different drive in a remote rural area, I briefly hit 120, at which speed the car was still remarkably composed--and did not strain to get to that speed. While I am definitely a person who can appreciate knock-your-socks-off power that this engine cannot produce, it does not disappoint. If I drove my S8 the way I drove the A4, I would get fuel economy of 13 or 14 mpg. Driving the A4 consistently like a bat out of hell still got me just over 20 mpg in mixed driving.
I was jealous that Audi discovered how to design and install real cup holders in its cars **after** mine was produced. This has long been a weak point for German carmakers. The A4 has a well designed and large capacity cup holder between the front seats. There is a second identical holder, but it requires raising the armrest to access it. The design grips cups of various sizes very securely--better than any of the German or Japanese cars that I have owned in the past.
Handling was crisp and responsive. The 235/45/17 all-season performance tires gripped impressively. Steering is nearly perfect. My S8 has uncommonly light steering at all speeds. This new A4 required a more appropriate amount of driver effort on the wheel at highway speeds, which I like better than the S8. Braking was grippy--almost too much so with light pressure. Overall handling--like the engine--begs for spirited driving.
The audio system interface is virtually identical to my S8, sans the Bose speakers. Bass is actually more responsive in the new A4 than in the much more expensive optional Bose system in the S8, but mids and highs were less crisp in the A4. The audio system "remembers" tone settings separately for CD, AM, and FM, which is very handy, since you can turn bass down on the AM dial to keep voices from sounding unnaturally boomy, while preserving music settings for FM and CD.
Backseat seems predictably cramped, but perfect for kids and usable for adults on short trips, so long as the front seats are not all the way back. (The front seats, by the way, can adjust back almost to the point of touching the back seat, so if you are not carrying passengers, even a giant could get plenty of room in front.) The backseat folds down with a 60/40 split--something I wish my S8 had. The trunk is a very usable size and shape.
Once again, Audi has done an impressive job of packaging this car, managing to get the added hardware necessary for all-wheel drive while maintaining proportions equal or superior to the competition. Unless you are an absolute performance junkie, in which case you should be dropping $50K on an S4, you should seriously consider the 2.0T before dropping extra money on the thirstier V6.