BOLZANO, Italy — For all the iPhone’s annoyances — the obscene prices, the cracked screens — there is one thing Apple does exceptionally well. The Cupertino company makes it very easy to figure out when to fork over more cash for the latest model. Like clockwork, Tim Cook presents a new Best-iPhone-Ever each September.
If only car companies were so predictable. In theory, the new-car schedule works like this: all-new vehicles usually roll out every seven years, with a major update — a “refresh” in industry-speak — halfway through that lifecycle.
In recent years, this orderly schedule has gone out the window. New engines arrive in between major updates. New styles — four-door coupes and fastback SUVs — arrive seemingly at random. It’s mayhem, especially in the hotly-contested luxury market.
Early in 2020, a refreshed Audi A4 will arrive in sedan and Allroad (wagon) versions. It’s a major update of the A4 that debuted as an all-new model in 2015. More on this car in a moment; first, some context about its rivals.
For 25 years, the A4’s chief nemeses have been the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes C-Class. The C-Class is on a similar schedule to the Audi, having just received a refresh of its own. The 3 Series is all-new this year: bigger, and stuffed with more of the latest tech. Left-field contenders like the highly competent Genesis G70, Volvo S60 and Jaguar XE are good enough to warrant consideration as well. Of course, each of those cars are on different lifecycle schedules too.
“The rivalry keeps us pushing,” said Christopher Mohns, product manager for the A4. “We see what our competitors are doing. We can’t make an all-new car now, but we have to [compete] with the 3 Series. That was one of the challenges we faced, but I think we’ve done a good job.”
Despite tastes shifting to SUVs, the A4 range still accounts for one in five Audis sold globally. In Canada, it’s the second best-selling model, according to a company spokesperson. The A4 is a cash cow, a core product that Audi really can’t get wrong.
So, in the face of fresh competition, Audi has changed more than just the usual headlights and bumpers for this A4 refresh. The whole exterior design is technically new, although you’d have to be eagle-eyed to spot the changes. There are new streaks above the wheels, a lower beltline and a bigger grille. It looks different, rather than better, but that’s often enough to boost sales. It works for the iPhone.
Bigger changes are on the inside, where Audi has added a touchscreen display to its infotainment system. The graphic design is slick, with easy shortcuts to navigation and music always visible. The screen itself is snappy and responsive, and buzzes with haptic feedback. It’s excellent, but there’s a problem. The touchscreen is now the only physical way to interact with the navigation and infotainment system. You can still try your luck with the voice-control, but the usual physical control wheel and buttons on the centre console are gone.
“Touch is now the most popular thing, influenced from outside the auto industry by products from Apple and Samsung,” explained Mohns.
In cars, however, touchscreen-only systems ask drivers to look away from the road more frequently and for longer. Audi’s key rivals Mercedes and BMW still offer physical infotainment controls, in addition to touchscreens, and it’s an advantage.
Performance and handling of the refreshed A4 are par for the course. Where this sedan stands out against its competitors is in the cabin. The dashboard design looks cleaner, simpler and more modern than either of the German alternatives.
As for the A4 Allroad wagon, it’s almost in a class by itself. As a do-it-all vehicle, we prefer it over most SUVs in this price bracket because of its handling and unique style; only the Volvo V60 Cross Country can really compete.
With the various compact luxury contenders one-upping each other on an almost monthly basis now, choosing the right time to upgrade is tricky. If you’re sold on the A4’s minimal design ethos, is this refreshed, early 2020 model the one to get? Well, probably not. According to Mohns, the 2021 A4s will get a (slightly) upgraded engine and more features.
At least when choosing a car, you don’t have to worry about planned obsolescence.
Model: 2020 Audi A4
Base Price: $39,800 sedan; $48,500 Allroad
Engine: 2.0-litre turbo I-4
Transmissions: 7-speed automatic
Fuel economy (l/100 km): 6.8 combined (European testing)
Drive: all-wheel drive
Alternatives: Mercedes-Benz C-Class, BMW 3 Series, Volvo S60 and V60 Cross Country, Cadillac GT5, Lexus IS, Genesis G70, Jaguar XE, Infiniti Q50
Looks: Always sharp, the minimalist A4 is now a little sharper. Look ma! New LED lights!
Interior: Excellent for long commutes. The ride is reasonably cushy. The materials feel good. Cabin quality is up there with the best.
Performance: Not the A4’s main selling point. It’s not exactly sporty. The steering feels springy and slightly vague. Power output from the 2.0-litre engine is the same as the outgoing model. Sounds gruff, but it’s not slow: 0-100 km/h takes 5.8 seconds.
Technology: New for 2020, a 12-volt mild-hybrid system reduces fuel consumption by a claimed 0.3 l/100 km. The new central touchscreen is nice, but we wish Audi had kept the physical infotainment controls as its rivals have done.
Cargo: The Allroad will haul 495-litres of stuff, or 1,495-litres with the rear seats folded. It makes an excellent SUV alternative.
Score: 7.0 /10: A solid update to a perennial contender, shame about the touchscreen
You’ll like this car if… your condo is full of Bauhaus furniture