Germany’s other luxury brand pushes the right buttons but could have more

Creditable effort from Audi to come out of the shadow cast by Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Porsche but does not quite manage to outdo them

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 December, 2016, 6:27pm
UPDATED : Friday, 09 December, 2016, 10:13pm

“Vorsprung durch Technik”, as Audi’s celebrated television advertising campaign reliably and entertainingly informed us in the 1980s and beyond.

As everybody knows, this translates as, “Hello from the ugly sister of the Deutsche automotive industry! Thanks to our friends at Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Porsche, motorists sometimes look down on us and call us the poor Teutonic relatives of the autobahn, condemned to drive forever in the slow lane of public apathy while our shiny brethren throw down their towels on the sun loungers of life. And that’s terribly unfair, because we actually make some really good cars. So if you’d just give us a chance … Go on. Please.”

Only some of which, of course, is true. While it can hardly be denied that Audi is overshadowed by its more glamorous home-based rivals at both ends of the market and in the middle, and that any perceived image problem could have become a deep psychological crisis in light of parent company Volkswagen’s tangential relationship with the truth in the damning circus of last year’s emissions scandal, Audi models remain exemplars of engineering and astute design. They must be: they’re German.

And Audi has the historical bona fides to earn it a place in the most discerning garage. The, ahem, driving force behind the founding of Audi way back in 1910 was engineer August Horch. The four overlapping circles of the corporate symbol are not the Olympic rings minus one for guilt by Volkswagen association, by the way, but symbolise Audi and the three other car-makers who aggregated as Auto Union in 1932. Subsequent mergers saw the Audi name become prominent decades later, after Auto Union’s acquisition by Volkswagen.

But never mind the boardroom: out on the road, and track, the opposition has regularly eaten Audi’s dust. The first model of the Volkswagen Polo, the world’s workhorse hatchback, was in fact a rebadged Audi 50; and road and rally car the Audi Quattro was the first high-performance vehicle to feature four-wheel drive. Audi remains famous for fielding some of the most fearsome-looking brutes ever to contest annual blue riband 24-hour race Le Mans – and despite an outstanding 13 victories therein has announced it is to divert its motorsport resources to an eco-responsible future, and electric-car racing.

But that announcement didn’t prevent Audi taking the honours in heart-stopping style in last month’s FIA GT World Cup race in Macau, when Audi Sport Team’s Laurens Vanthoor drove an R8 LMS to victory, if not quite the chequered flag. Having thumped a barrier and smacked the car down onto its roof, Vanthoor, who later emerged intact, careered helplessly down a high-speed straight and into some sort of record book: the race was not restarted and final positions were based on the previous lap, when Vanthoor had been leading.

Most track Audis, however, remain upright rather than inverted and their racing pedigree has been uploaded to their road-bound cousins. You can forget the ugly-sister routine too: if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then behold futuristic concept car the Audi RSQ, as seen in 2004 movie I, Robot. And you can almost caress the graceful curves and flowing lines of the Audi Le Mans Quattro and the Audi TT.

Which brings us, finally, to the Audi A4 2.0 TFSI (S line). At HK$447,900 on the road, this sleek, two-litre, four-cylinder, turbocharged sedan (the “S” means “sport”) does exactly what it says on the tin – zero to 100km/h in 7.3 seconds, a top speed of 240 km/h and a wallet-loving 100km for every 5.1 litres of petrol – but not much more. If you’re looking for your Fast & Furious kicks you won’t find them here: the front-wheel drive, medium-sized, luxury-market, executive A4 takes the driver through the whole gamut of emotions from A to A and a half, cosseting the front-seat riders in leather-trimmed pews and giving them an artfully brushed aluminium fascia to look at.

That dashboard is dominated by a seven-inch touch screen, part of a standard “infotainment” feature accommodating a smartphone interface, digital radio, 10GB music hard drive, live traffic news and much else.

The roomily cabin’ed A4 rolls on 18-inch aluminium alloy wheels, its dynamic suspension system smoothing the journey and soothing the passengers to the point of somnolence. The power plant’s maximum output is 190 horsepower at 4,200 rpm but there’s a twinge of excitement to be had by flooring the accelerator, engaging the seven-speed transmission’s partial manual-drive mode and playing with the steering wheel-mounted gear paddles.

Other goodies include keyless entry and ignition, hands-free opening of the generously proportioned boot and tri-zone climate control, whatever that is. Being German and sensible the car also comes with improved safety attributes, including a “pre-sense” system that triggers autonomous emergency braking, blind-spot warnings and detection of pedestrians.

So the new A4 2.0 goes up against the established BMW 3-Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class and, well, it just might steal a slice of their market pie. But probably not the most thrilling slice.