Audi A4 Quick Review

Critic's Notebook takeaway: Audi's Bauhaus used to feel like my house.

Audi A4 Review
Brett Berk/TheDrive.com

When Audi first showed its new, programmable, color, all-LCD dash last year on its TT roadster, I immediately proclaimed it the first real instrument advancement of the 21st century. The dash has since been installed in other niche Audi vehicles, but with the release of the all-new A4, it finds its way into one of the brand’s top-sellers. It’s still spectacular—crisp, accessible, eminently usable—especially the Google-sourced maps integrated into the navigation unit. But, unlike in the TT, the A4 also includes a separate, dash-mounted LCD screen that essentially mimics the features of the dash. Somehow, instead of doubling down on the fun, it reduces it.

Maybe it’s just force of habit. I’ve become conditioned to look away from the dash and toward the center stack for my information. And instead of reveling in having all of the information I needed right in front of my eyes, I found myself seeking it out in the less-convenient secondary screen. Even when I ran into patches of horrible traffic on a 800-mile round-trip visit to my father-in-law, in Virginia, I sought escape routes not from the clever binnacle, but from the tacked on iPad mini. Worst of all, unlike in previous Audis, you can’t make this flat screen retract into the dash like a turtle's head. You can turn it off, which I did on occasion. But then I discovered that, with this screen turned off, Apple’s Car Play system didn’t function. This is the one feature that cannot be displayed in the dash (likely due to some regulation or another). I remember when I had a DVD player and a VHS player, and an old TV that required some fumbling to switch between the two. I just wanted to watch my Bring it On tape. This was like that.

The rest of the new A4 is lovely, an extremely comfortable and sporty sedan with crisp, unadorned design. It’s quiet, commodious, and refined inside and out. But while Audi’s Bauhaus used to feel like my house, now that Mercedes has done away with it’s baroque and dated interior and exterior styling on the superb C-Class, and the junior league-priced Audi S3 is so good, I had a harder time imagining or rationalizing the universe in which I would pick the Audi, especially at $51,500, and especially when this price doesn’t even include adaptive cruise control or any of the other suite of semi-autonomous features one finds on the Benz (and the Q7), a boon for long highway drives like the one I just did.

Audi won for years based on being the underdog, the tech-forward play, the understated style leader in interior and exterior design. Now that Mercedes is eating from that trough, I’m feeling less attracted to their offerings. I’m still rooting for them, and hoping to be further persuaded by future models. (Such as the R8 I’ll be driving in a couple weeks.)