Tested: Audi’s new BMW 3 Series rival

Just as the Golf is central to Volkswagen and Porsche wouldn't be itself without the 911, Audi says its A4 represents "the core of the brand".

The mid-sized prestige sedan and wagon designed to take on BMW's 3 Series and the Mercedes-Benz C-Class faces increasingly tough competition from a raft of prestige SUVs, upstart challengers and the likes of Tesla's Model 3.

Audi won’t bring the diesel-powered S4 to Australia.
Audi won’t bring the diesel-powered S4 to Australia.

Instantly familiar to behold, the A4 nevertheless benefits from an uncommonly comprehensive midlife update. The head and tail-lights are new, as are all side panels. A new grille takes inspiration from Audi's latest A8 limo and R8 supercar.

Bigger changes are found inside, where a physical control pad and buttons for the central infotainment unit have been replaced by a revised touchscreen and simple cubby hole that smacks of cost-cutting.

Audi is adamant this is not the case, and that customers familiar with the latest smartphones and tablets expect to interact with the vehicle via touchscreens as opposed to rotary controllers.

The brand's outstanding 12.3-inch digital dash with high resolution satellite maps pinched from Google remains in place, as does the easy-to-operate climate control aircon.

Keeping a wary eye on the balance sheet, engineers elected not to replicate the stacked touchscreens of more expensive models such as the A8.

The A4 has new side panels among other cosmetic updates.
The A4 has new side panels among other cosmetic updates.

In its place, the impressively thin central screen fits the cabin well, mirroring consumer technology by allowing motorists to tap, swipe, scroll or use multiple fingers.

At the model's European launch, the touchscreen proved distracting and frustrating - it's not as effortless as the best-in-class Mercedes-Benz MBUX.

A brand that once stood head-and-shoulders above rivals for cabin design and execution, Audi is at risk. The A4's interior is beautifully finished but the buttoned-down greyscale palette and formal materials of our test cars sparked precious little joy or curiosity.

The A4 can store individual preferences for up to 14 users, with access gained by conventional keys, a credit card-like NFC key or new digital keys beamed to the phones of trusted friends and family.

The A4 is loaded with safety tech.
The A4 is loaded with safety tech.

Practical touches include wireless inductive charging up front and twin USB-C chargers in the rear. Sedans get 460L of cargo space and the wagons, the Avant and high-riding Allroad, get 495L.

Available safety tech includes adaptive cruise control with traffic jam assistance that can help steer for you at up to 65km/h.

Traffic sign recognition, autonomous emergency braking, self-parking and 360-degree camera also feature. Car-to-car communication that can warn other road uses of crashes and hazards is also a possibility - Audi wants to wait a couple of weeks before explaining exactly what it can do in Australia.

We'll miss out on tech that tells you when the next traffic light turns green and advises the right speed to drive for maximum efficiency.

Audi’s infotainment isn’t as functional as some rival’s tech.
Audi’s infotainment isn’t as functional as some rival’s tech.

Australia also goes without on the most alluring engine in the range, a 3.0-litre V6 diesel with fuel-saving 48V mild hybrid tech and walloping 255kW/700Nm outputs.

Audi's local arm looks likely to skip diesel power altogether in favour of 2.0-litre turbos making between 110kW/270Nm and 180kW/370Nm. These are said to feature "mild hybridisation", storing braking energy in a small battery to keep electronics such as steering, lighting and climate control going while contributing to a 0.3L/100km improvement in fuel economy.

Even so, these engines are hard to fault, crowned by the A4 45 TFSI. It claims 6.5L/100km to serve up the same 180kW/370Nm outputs as VW's sporting Golf GTI.

The A4 is a comfortable car to drive but lacks the engagement of some rivals.
The A4 is a comfortable car to drive but lacks the engagement of some rivals.

The smart dual-clutch auto and adaptive all-wheel drive endow impressive purchase in the dry. Comfort suspension on our circa-$70,000 test car was impressively composed on alpine roads damaged by harsh winters, feeling more accommodating than BMW's sports-minded 3 Series.

That said, the A4 feels unremarkable to drive. Composed, mature and no doubt polished, it lacks the flair of the new BMW or Alfa's Giulia, feeling a little cold and soulless as it dispatches journeys with competence if not brio.

Light and slow steering, a slightly high driving position and planted if inert dynamics left us a little cold on first impression. Hopefully the core of the brand will show a little more warmth when it arrives locally in the first half of next year.

Want a fast one?

Audi's S4 sports sedan also gets the mid-life burnish but European examples get a hybridised 3.0-litre V6 turbo diesel with 255kW and an eye-popping 700Nm. Claiming 4.8 seconds for the 0-100km/h sprint, this remarkable version drinks just 6.2L/100km. Australian S4s will use a different engine, taking on a revised 3.0-litre turbo V6 - it uses more petrol but wins bragging rights by being 0.1s faster to 100km/h. It can't match the V8-like effortlessness of the diesel, which has a charming character similar to that of the original Audi SQ5 - a smash hit in Australia and beyond. No surprise, it's a much more engaging drive than the regular A4.

Pay as you go

Audi is experimenting with allowing customers to add features after taking delivery of the car. Dubbed "functions on demand", the service represents a subscription model for smartphone connectivity, along with digital radio connectivity and advanced navigation. Customers can try features for free, then pay by the month, sign longer contracts or have the gear fitted permanently. The brand says owners in future may be able to go further and customise factors such as engine performance, also paying monthly.

Audi A4 45 TFSI Quattro

Price: About $70,000 plus on-roads

Engine: 2.0-litre 4-cyl turbo, 180kW/370Nm

Transmission: 7-spd dual-clutch auto; AWD

Thirst: 6.5L/100km