Audi has long been involved in the mainland car industry. In 1988 it signed an agreement with First Automobile Works to make the 100 model under licence. Since then, Audis have become a common sight over the border. On the official government buy list, the A4, A6 and imported A8s have become Party officials' cars of choice, usually in black.
Last year Audi introduced the B8 (fourth-generation) A4, and for the mainland, a unique stretched A4L model. The wheelbase is 61mm longer than European versions, and 60mm overall.
Longer versions of cars are nothing new on the mainland, where both Audi and BMW offer stretch versions, and taxi companies often employ Citroen Elysees (largely a modernised saloon version of the ZX) complete with an ugly sheet-metal extension between their front and rear doors. Even the mainland version of the Ford Mondeo is 10mm longer than the European model.
Mainland surveys have shown a demand for a medium-sized luxury car with ample rear leg space, Audi says. This makes sense when you consider that cars on the mainland are often used for transporting elderly parents and are also sometimes driven by a chauffeur. Therefore, Audi had a longer version for China in mind from the outset of the new A4's development.
Mainland A4L versions are offered with a choice of a two-litre TFSI unit, front-wheel drive, or a 3.2-litre FSI powered quattro. We drove the top-of-the range luxury trim 2.0 turbo, which has an aggressive presence in red and LED daytime running lights. Its look is evolutionary rather than a complete departure from its predecessor.
Inside, our car was decked out with tasteful black leather seats and a black dashboard. At the top of the central console is the LCD display that can show menu options such as GPS, track information for the entertainment system and gives distance read-outs when reversing. Underneath are the stereo system and controls for the air conditioning.
There is a small central electronic display that gives a digital speed readout and information about gears, temperature, and an odometer reading in motion, but when stationary shows which doors are open. Flanking it are traditional dials, with the rev counter to the left and the speedometer to the right.
The driver's door has a blind-spot warning indicator plus selector buttons for the electric controllable seats' memory function. In the glovebox there is a link for an MP3 player using a proprietary cable. SD memory cards can be directly inserted into the stereo system and there is also provision for Bluetooth-enabled phones.
Rear-seat passengers get their own air vents, a 12-volt power supply and a fold-down armrest that incorporates pop-out drink holders. There are also pull-out blinds for the windows. While legroom is as good as can be expected in a stretch, taller passengers may have problems with the car's sloping roofline. The rear bench has mounts for child seats.
Boot space is cavernous, with a small side net and securing hooks for luggage.
Entry to the car is with a keyless fob which is then inserted to the right of the steering wheel before pushing the engine-start stop button next to the buttons for the electronically-controlled handbrake.
There is little interior noise on the road and the the sound from the Bang & Olufsen speakers is excellent.
There is no manual version of the 2.0TFSI for all mainland models use Audi's multitronic automatic gearbox. On the highway to Pudong Airport the Sport mode reveals a tightening in responses. Mounted behind the steering wheel are paddle controls that provide a sense of control when the gearbox is switched to a semi-automatic mode. All gear changes appear seamless and the unit is smooth.
The steering wheel has a solid feel and while the steering is quite light, confidence is always maintained. Roadholding is good, with a smooth ride, even on more bumpy surfaces.
Drivers have fine all round visibility, but distances can be hard to judge in reverse. Audi has perhaps done too good a job in producing a refined car. On paper this A4L is quite powerful but with a performance you never really feel. You can't hear the turbo kick in. There is no discernable turbo lag and while there is the feel of some power under your right foot it never really strikes you as much of a performance car. Indeed the British A4 has a 15km/h higher top speed, possibly due to being 140kg lighter.
Nonetheless the A4 is a convincing and far more spacious alternative to the locally produced BMW 3 Series. However, the less badge-conscious might also want to check out the 2.0T Buick Regal or the 1.8T Roewe 550.
AT A GLANCE: Audi A4L 2.0 TFSI
What drives it? A turbocharged two-litre delivering 132kW to the front wheels. The eight-speed multitronic automatic gearbox is imported from Germany.
How fast is it? It can reach 225km/h and do the 0-100 dash in 8.4 seconds.
How safe is it? The European version has attained a five-star Euro NCAP and mainland versions have between eight and 10 airbags.
How thirsty is it? Audi claims 5.7l/100km at 90km/h.
How clean is it? No carbon dioxide figures are quoted for the mainland version, but the British model emits 167 grams per kilometre.
How much is it? Prices for the two-litre range from 298,800 yuan (HK$338,700) to 388,600 yuan and the quattro 3.2 litre V6 is 538,800 yuan.