Audi A4 3-2 FSi Cabriolet Quattro

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Description: Fed up with playing second fiddle to BMW, Audi has launched an all-out assault with the latest A4. The 3.2-litre FSI quattro model is one of the more impressive variants as Andy Enright discovers

Fed up with playing second fiddle to BMW, Audi has launched an all-out assault with the latest A4. The 3.2-litre FSI quattro model is one of the more impressive variants as Andy Enright discovers

There's a lot to be said for smoothness. Panache, polish, refinement, call it what you will, but it's often the very last piece in the jigsaw that maturing car manufacturers slot into place and it's what separates the very good from the excellent. Those final few per cent have often eluded Audi, the company bringing some beautiful design only to be let down by so-so chassis dynamics. With the latest A4, the Ingolstadt company thinks it has all the fundamentals in place for a full frontal assault on a compact executive car market dominated by BMW's 3 Series. The A4 3.2 FSI quattro does smoothness extremely well.

The old A4 never quite had the measure of its rivals. Plot a graph of its high points and they would only very sporadically peak above the low points in the 3 Series and Mercedes C Class curves. The current A4 has to work a good deal harder but, most importantly, not be seen to be doing so.

The 3.2-litre engine uses Audi's Le Mans winning Fuel Stratified Injection (FSI) system to develop a hefty 262bhp of wallop but that's still a few horses short of a BMW 330i saloon. A bigger and heavier car, the Audi never feels quite as nimble either, despite a chassis that features a revised position for the engine to improve weight distribution and agility. This A4 is no slouch though, knocking over the sprint to 60mph from rest in just 6 seconds. Introduce an element of dampness to the surface and the quattro all-wheel drive transmission would knock the BMW into next week when it came to stepping off the mark. With a top speed electronically limited to 155mph, it's more than autobahn capable.

Ride quality is much better than previous generation cars as long as you resist the temptation to fit giant optional alloys. Transmission choices are a six-speed manual or a six-speed auto, Audi working on a revised version of the DSG gearbox for this car. The steering feels a little synthetic and the manual gearboxes doesn't appreciate being rushed, but there is masses of lateral grip and the quattro transmission rather sportily sends power rearwards when powering out of corners. It's not overly tactile but it's undeniably effective.

The other headline feature of this latest A4 is the fact that it sits on the longest wheelbase in its class. Audi took action to try and solve the problem of the appallingly small boot space suffered by the MK1 A4 when it came to launching the second generation car at the turn of the century and here, they've turned their attention (at last) to the poor old rear seat passengers. The lengthened wheelbase enables a 36mm increase in rear leg room, with the added bonus of a 20-litre boost in boot capacity, making this car easily the most spacious in its sector. This, in turn, means that buyers now no longer have to choose between the prestigious badge and low residuals of a compact executive car like the A4 or the larger cabin of a cheaper medium range model like, say, Ford's Mondeo or Volkswagen's Passat.

Audi would contend that the wheelbase change was about promoting the A4 as a driver's car as well as improving its cabin space. It entailed the repositioning of the front axle 154mm further forwards than in the MK2 model. Complemented by a new state-of-the-art suspension and steering configuration, this more stable foundation allows improved handling balance and agility.

Get a little excitable with the options tick boxes and it's easily possible to send your putative A4 3.2 FSI quattro purchase the wrong side of £40k. The on-the-road list price of £29,680 for an SE specification car includes niceties such as 17-inch alloy wheels, a CD stereo with MP3 capability and 6.5-inch colour screen, ESP stability control, rear parking sensors, automatcic lights and wipers, brushed aluminium inlays, exterior aluminium package and an automatic opening boot lid.

It's when you start looking at the options list that your resolve could start to wane. How is it possible to resist the beady glare of R8-style LED daytime running lights? These have the effect of scattering fast lane traffic as effectively as a juggernaut with burnt out brakes. There's also a 505-watt Bang and Olufsen stereo offered, so they'll hear you approaching too. Audi lane assist and Audi Drive Select are two options that respectively alert the driver when straying from a lane and sharpen up the car's steering, dampers, accelerator response and transmission shift points.

For a premium of around £1,200, you can also opt for an estate 'Avant' version. Here, space in the back is rated at 490 litres with the rear seats in place and 1,430 with the rear bench folded.

There are any number of cars that seem great but when you get down to figuring out how well they stack up financially to their nearest rivals, prove to be a bit of a loser. The Audi A4 3.2 FSI quattro plays a very good hand. For a start, the upfront purchase price is less than rivals from Mercedes and BMW. Couple that with residual values and fuel economy figures that are better and you have relatively low running costs for what is likely to be £30,000+ car when options are taken into account. A combined fuel economy figure of 30.7mpg is an excellent return for a model of this potency and even the urban figure of 20.9mpg is a fair return for a big petrol engine. The 3.0-litre TDI diesel is a better all-rounder if you're looking at minimizing ongoing running costs or benefit-in-kind taxation, but if you want a car that uses the green pump, this Audi isn't far off the best of its rivals.

A carbon dioxide emissions figure of 219g/km is by no means the best in class and may deter some corporate buyers but worth remembering that the A4 is a bigger car than the compact executive template. In fact, it's not too far off the dimensions of the old A6 which changes the relative value proposition somewhat.

If Audi's aspiration with this latest A4 was to offer a driver's car to rival the BMW 3 Series, the result remains Munich 1, Ingolstadt 0. That said, the gap has closed and the A4 is an enjoyable car to hustle along a well-surfaced, twisty road. Where this version scores is in offering a very refined petrol engine that's coupled with a 'bigger is better' philosophy to result in a genuinely quick and practical not-so compact executive saloon.

The 3.2-litre FSI powerplant isn't the most impressive engine in the A4 line-up (that would be the 3.0 TDI) and it's not even the best petrol engine offered, giving best to the 2.0T unit in terms of effectiveness but it does give Audi a presence at the higher echelons of this sector where it offers a compelling alternative to BMW and Mercedes products. Audi predicts great things for the A4 and if this car can contribute a few per cent in terms of overall sales it'll only be a matter of time before there's a new incumbent on the top step of the sales podium.

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