I recently had the pleasure of spending a day touring New South Wales at the wheel of a selection of Audi’s updated A4 and A5 models, and the experience has reminded me of one of Australia’s most inexplicable motoring enigmas.
But before we get into that, let’s recap on exactly what Audi’s mid-sized executive range can offer. While the pair of fraternal twins once represented simply a sedan, a coupe and a wagon, the 2020 A4 and A5 have evolved into a sedan, coupe, convertible, fastback, Avant and more off-road-oriented Allroad wagon.
Not only do you now have the choice of six mechanically related machines beneath the two umbrella models, add in the selection of engine and transmission variants, and you are spoilt with 12 choices.
It’s this incredible variety of sub-models and variants that puts a fresh perspective on a long-argued automotive point; why does anyone crave an SUV?
Building a case for the car
As the cards fell, my day with a tasting platter of Audi’s started at the helm of the A4 sedan in 45 TFSI, which bundles the company’s proprietary Quattro all-wheel-drive system into the bargain, along with the most potent version of the petrol four cylinders - a 183kW 2.0-litre with a decidedly diesely 370Nm of torque.
This particular example had a whole heap of options thrown at it, but regardless, the A4 continues to impress right from the crucial first contact in its cabin, with design and quality nothing short of stunning, all the way through the driving experience.
Tackling Sydney’s infamous traffic, which seems to be virtually unaltered despite thousands of people allegedly working form home by the way, there’s plenty of time to appreciate the serenity of the A4’s cabin, the likes of which were recently only possible with a much bigger spend than the Audi’s $68,900 asking price.
Once again though, I’ll point you in the direction of the options catalogue to match this one.
Sydney’s roads, which seem to be in a permanent state of disrepair or repair-in-progress, don’t seem to bother the Audi, thanks to exemplary low-speed road manners and a seven-speed automatic transmission that does crawling and stop/start better than a hearse.
Then there’s the technology. It's a little overwhelming at first with a screen bigger than the one in my living room, but with a little surfing of the sensitive touchscreen and haptic feedback controls, everything falls into place intuitively.
If Audi fitted any more screens into the A4’s cockpit, there would be no need for a dashboard. The Virtual Cockpit digital instrument cluster just keeps on getting better with each application, the resolution of all displays is incredibly detailed and even the climate controls have surprisingly beautiful ergonomic controls and displays.
A few twists and turns later through the Royal National Park and I’d started ticking the ride and handling boxes too, with body roll resistance that borders on stubborn and steering precision that's hard to fault.
On the open road, the ride continues to surprise with impressive comfort and low cabin noise even when driving more enthusiastically.
A5 Cabriolet and Fastback
Just as I was getting into the flow with Audi’s high-achieving sedan, it’s time to swap into a different model and one at the polar opposite end of the spectrum and with it, the complete reset of my driving parameters. After all, I’m going from a four-door sedan to a two-door without a roof.
Amazing, though, this is not the case. Chilly forest air aside, there is very little readjustment required to pilot the A5 convertible.
That in itself is amazing, as the previous-generation model had so much body flex and scuttle rattle that in fast corners I thought it was going to pop its entire dashboard out through the open roof like a shelled broad bean.
On the contrary, the latest iteration of the A5 Cabriolet is brilliantly composed. Although there weren’t enough opportunities to push it to the limit, there never are in a handsome drop-top when the sun is out.
Even a freeway blast didn’t bring feelings of regret for leaving the roof off, thanks to powerful seat heaters and neck-warming blasts of warm air that are as hot as a hand dryer.
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Later in the day, I would swap into the Fastback version of the A5 - a curious segment within a segment that caters for customers who prefer a more elegant coupe profile coupled with the convenience of four doors and a tailgate.
BMW has pulled the same trick with its series of Gran Coupe models while Mercedes-Benz has its own interpretation slotted in with all the sedans and coupes - and the design idea is even filtering into the SUVs of each brand too.
But back to coupe-esque A5 and guess what? It drives a lot like everything else I’d taken the helm of that day. Prodigious torque from the same 45 TFSI engine, beautifully balanced traction from the standard all-wheel drive, and five-star cabin accommodation. There’s a commendable pattern developing here.
After lunch, however, came the switch into the wagon models.
A4 Avant and Allroad
The wagon versions of Audi’s new A4 might have a big boot, but they do not handle like a loaded shopping trolley thanks to the shared MLBevo platform and the same sharp chassis as the other models.
It too also has the same excellent 45 TFSI engine as the other models (there’s a more affordable 35TFSI for the sedan and 40 TFSI for the A5) which means the same performance punch too.
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It wasn’t that long ago that an Audi Avant capable of blasting to to 100km/h from zero in about 6.0 seconds was outright RS territory, but now you can have it in mere S-Line trim.
The A4 Avant is fast and huge fun through the corners, yet when you send it back to the freeway (where it’s also very comfortable), it’ll return fuel economy in the low sevens per 100km.
Like everything in this delightful family of luxury models, the Avant is hugely impressive but that’s before you get to its unique selling proposition - that boot.
It’s only 35 litres bigger than the sedan luggage area at 495L, but that’s more a compliment of the sedan’s practicality rather than a criticism of the wagon. Fold the rear seats flat, however, and the Avant will swallow nearly 1500 litres of stuff.
And here’s the best bit. Forgive me taking page space to talk about something so subjective, but the A4 Avant is the best looking out of the lot. Yes, it's even more handsome than the A5 Coupe and convertible.
There’s something so fabulously cool and purposeful about a beautiful wagon that Audi got right with the very first A4 Avant in the early 2000s and has never lost the golden touch.
But like a daytime infomercial, there is more A4, and we’re not talking about a three-in-one peeler that will live permanently at the back of the cupboard.
The Avant’s standard Quattro four-wheel drive system will doubtless provide enough grip for the modest skirmishes away from the sealed road that most drivers only ever throw at their cars.
However, should you need a little more ground clearance and the more forgiving bodywork to go with it, the Allroad is the A4 for you.
It also has the option of the same hearty 45 TFSI petrol or a 40 TDI that seemed so frugal on my test drive I assumed it was actually making diesel rather than using it at some point. The official figure from Audi is 5.2L/100km.
Once again, despite the added ride height and heavier engine, the diesel Allroad version drives beautifully, turns crisply, rolls comfortably and keeps occupants happy. Sorry for the broken record.
It also has 400Nm of torque to offset the smaller power figure of 140kW - perfect for towing if you like that kind of thing.
So perhaps now you’ll understand why the whole notion of buying an SUV instead of the excellent A4 Avant or Allroad is utter madness. No?
SUV versus me
The A4 wagon is the clear favourite in the freshly updated A4 and A5 line-up but the strange truth is that, despite its incredibly comprehensive set of talents, you’re statistically far more likely to be fawning after its SUV stablemate, so let’s have a look how it compares.
Take the equivalent Audi Q5 45 TFSI Sport and you need only look at the figures before realising something isn’t making sense. The Q5 costs $73,500 or $2100 more than the A4 Avant.
It uses more fuel on the combined cycle to the tune of 0.2L/100km and, while the Q5 is undeniably one of the best SUVs from a driving perspective, it has nothing on the A4’s dynamics.
Want a diesel? Okay, how does the Allroad stack up with the SUV equivalent Q5 40 TDI Sport? Once again - more expensive, less economical, not quite as good to drive.
A blast in Audi’s resoundingly good updated A4 and A5 range provided the perfect example of passenger car versus the SUV comparison, but the same theory and analysis can be easily applied to so many brands and their comparable models.
Yes, SUVs have more space under their bodies for those times you’re never going to go off-road and, in some cases, they have marginally bigger boots, but they're demonstrably slower, less efficient and more ungainly, so the conclusion is simple.
If you insist on buying an SUV over the equivalent wagon, you are literally paying thousands of dollars for thin air.