Despite retracting market conditions, Audi has launched the latest incarnation of its key journeyman model, the A4, locally.
The new A4 is larger than the car it replaces, and features sophisticated suspension design in the face of its fierce Munich and Stuttgart rear-wheel drive competitors.
Engines have not seen significant increases in power, yet keeping in tune with rising fuel costs and climate warming imperatives, there have been impressive efficiency gains without a sacrifice in driveability.
Bolder outside, bigger inside
With a characteristically oversized Audi grille and neatly styled rear, the larger dimensions have not diminished the proportions of the A4. Perhaps the most striking design cue is daytime running lights on all models.
Within the standard halogen headlights 13 W bulbs provide the illumination strip effect whilst the optional mercury-free Xenon Plus units utilise 14 white light-emitting diodes, with a total consumption of less than 9 W.
The R22 000 optional S-line package adds modified front and rear bumpers as well as side radiator grilles. Colour coded side sill panels and a diffuser insert on bumper in platinum grey finish round off the S-line package.
Mad wheels sizes - up to 19-inches - can be accommodated too thanks to revised axle positioning.
Beyond the larger dimensions, a lengthened wheelbase renders an interior which is 20 mm longer and 10 mm wider than the previous A4. This tallies up to a 29 mm improvement in rear legroom, whilst yielding an impressive boot capacity of 480 litres.
Diff and clutch swap places
The improved interior packaging owes much to a design imperative that has seen the differential move to the front of the driveline, swapping positions with the clutch or torque converter.
Although it appears a very clever bit of engineering, it loses some of its ingenuity in right-hand drive markets, where the pedals have been offset to accommodate the bulbously intruding clutch or torque-converter in the left side of the driver footwell.
Beyond this little right-hand drive packaging faux pas, the interior is superb. Detailing is simple yet stylish, with logically grouped controls and impressive levels of perceived build quality.
An electro-mechanical handbrake - which now occupies the space of a single switch - frees up additional space on the centre console for the very user-friendly MMI multi-media interface system, which is now standard across all models.
Three trim levels - Attraction, Ambition and Ambient - are available, with Attraction constituting entry-level status.
Attraction 'must-have' options are R13 000 for leather trim, R9 500 for electric seats, and R1 800 for multifunction steering wheel capability - multitronic multifunction steering wheels are R3 320. Rear side airbags are a very worthwhile R3 500 Attraction level option too.
Efficient power across the range
Initially only two models will power the local A4s, a 1.8-litre, four cylinder petrol and 2-litre four cylinder diesel, both turbocharged. All the engines have been design optimised for efficiency, attempting to blend driveability and low fuel consumption.
The 1.8-litre petrol is a completely new unit, featuring a 'grey' cast iron crankcase sub assembly that weighs only 33 kg. Featuring direct injection via six-hole injectors whilst additional compressed air is supplied by a Borg Warner Type K03 water-cooled turbocharger.
All up it produces 118kW at 4 500r/min - 6 200r/min, whilst a peak torque figure of 250Nm is achieved at between 1 500 - 4 500r/min.
Audi claims a consumption reduction figure of 7.1l/100km. An even more frugal option is the 2-litre turbodiesel, which features modern piezo injectors and eight-hole injector nozzles allowing as many as five injection strokes per operating cycle.
With only 105kW on tap, it's hardly the most powerful diesel in its class, yet 320Nm of torque is available from 1 750r/min and claimed average consumption is 5.5l/100km.
Both engines drive through either a six-speed manual or eight-speed multitronic transmission. Five other engines will flesh out the A4 line-up in the last quarter of the year.
Three of these will be 2-litre units, two of which will be petrol evolutions of the current Golf GTI engine, producing 132kW and 155kW respectively. The sole 2-litre turbodiesel upgrade is worth 125kW.
Flagship engines for the A4 will be two V6s. Of these the petrol version displaces 3.2-litres, features an aluminium-silicon alloy block and produces 195kW and 330Nm, whilst consuming 1.2l/100km less than the 188kW engine it replaces.
The other flagship V6 is a 3-litre turbodiesel. Producing 176kW and 500Nm of largely lag-free torque - thanks to variable turbine geometry - with claimed consumption figures of only 6.9l/100km, is promises a heady blend of performance and frugality.
Dynamic front-wheel drive?
Featuring a contemporary interior design and advanced engines, the only issue with the new A4 is whether it has the ride/handling balance of its German rivals - who are all rear-wheel drive.
In the past it has been near on impossible to replicate the stability and turn-in response of German rear-wheel drive sedans in a front-wheel drive car.
Sure, the quattro all-wheel A4 versions will have nearly infallible levels of mechanical grip and peerless road-holding in atrocious weather, but can a front-wheel drive Audi really mix it with a rear-wheel drive 3 Series or C-Class?
As previously mentioned the car has a significantly longer wheelbase in proportion to its overall length. The front axle has been moved as far forward as possible too (154mm), aiding equal front/rear axle weight distribution as much as possible. Steering geometry is the other key dynamic design principle of the new A4.
With the steering box located under the engine, and in front of the axle, steering forces can be applied more directly to the front-wheels, yielding better steering feedback and response. A sophisticated five-piece multilink front, and trapezoidal-link rear suspension set-up only have to suspend 1 410kg in 1.8-litre petrol and 1 460kg in 2-litre diesel trim.
On the mountain passes outside Oudtshoorn the result of this was superb body control - thanks to the low kerb weight - and uncannily dynamic steering feel for a small Audi.
Despite hardly wearing low profile performance rubber, the cars tracked chosen cornering lines with dogged determination, and were unflustered by mid-corner undulations; the multilink front suspension enabling very neutral dynamic driving behaviour.
The new A4s feature Audi Drive select too, which enables you to toggle between comfort, auto and dynamic settings as well as a laboriously set-up personalised setting. In essence, steering, damping and throttle response is tailored in accordance to the aforementioned settings.
In comfort mode the steering too light - in typical Audi fashion - for overly dynamic driving. Flick the centre console mounted switch to dynamic and the steering immediately loads up in your hands, yielding an uncannily heavy, responsive feel for a small Ingolstadt sedan - although ride quality suffers a bit.
It's a compromise, select comfort for the long straits and dynamic for the mountain passes. Call it democratic dynamics if you like.
The two engines are both entry-level units, and although not particularly swift they are frugal and refined, especially when combined with the brilliant 8-speed multitronic transmission.
Comfortable, stylish, spacious and dynamically engaging like no small Audi sedan before, the latest A4 provides a compelling argument to buy down in current market conditions without sacrificing that resolved 'big' car luxury feel or styling presence.
With five engines still waiting to be introduced, as well as Audi's fabled all-wheel drive Quattro versions, first impressions hardly cast doubt on Audi's conservative 600 unit a month sales forecast. Pricing is keen too, yet the options list is long, with many open boxes to tick.
1.8T FSI Manual Attraction: R269 000
1.8T FSI Manual Ambition: R285 000
1.8T FSI Multitronic Attraction: R284 000
1.8T FSI Multitronic Ambition: R300 000
2.0 TDI Manual Attraction: R289 000
2.0 TDI Manual Ambition: R305 000
2.0 TDI Multitronic Attraction: R304 000
2.0 TDI Multitronic Ambition: R320 000
2.0T FSI Manual Ambition (132kW): October 2008
2.0T FSI Manual Ambiente (155kW): October 2008
3.2 FSI quattro Tiptronic Ambiente (195kW): August 2008
2.0 TDI manual Ambition (125kW): October 2008
3.0 TDI quattro Tiptronic Ambiente (176kW): October 2008