Audi's A4 is a smart car that your phone doesn't put to shame

If smart is the new sexy, the 2017 Audi A4 is a finely-tuned bombshell

In 2016, intellect is the most valuable trait a car can have. More than horsepower, torque, style, or luxury, intelligence is what connects our vehicles to the other aspects of our lives, ensuring we don’t miss a single text or tweet while we’re behind the wheel. Smart cars are safer cars, too, and they allow us to reach our destinations quickly and more efficiently. That’s why for the 2017 A4, Audi put technology and innovation front and center.

I may be making the car sound like a bit of a dweeb, but the A4’s lightweight skeleton, reworked engine, and handsome styling add up to quite the opposite. After driving the sedan through San Diego, California for a full day, I found it to be sharp, controlled, and despite its techie attitude, actually quite fun. At the vehicle’s launch event, the brand was confident it had struck the right balance.

“It may have taken us nine generations to get here, but this is the best we have to offer,” said Scott Keogh, Audi USA President.

Thankfully, it was time to put that to the test.

For 2017, the Audi A4 sets new benchmarks in terms of available technologies, reaching into a price bracket some $17,500 higher than its own in pursuit of digital enrichment. Specifically, the A4 offers Audi’s vibrant Virtual Cockpit for the first time (a donor from the Q7 SUV), meaning it displays Google Maps, media settings, and vehicle info in full color at 60 frames per second.

In addition to the Virtual Cockpit, the A4 features a second screen mounted on the dashboard, which measures in at 7.0 or 8.3 inches depending on trim level. Just below that, Audi’s updated MMI system gets a slick new scroll wheel with fewer buttons and a touchpad on top for handwritten inputs. MMI has been one of the most intuitive and easy-to-use options on the market for some time, but the revamped menus act more like Internet search engines than bumbling automaker alternatives, using reduction algorithms to predict driver inputs and streamline the whole process. In the sea of sluggish compromise that is automotive infotainment, Audi’s MMI system stands out. If you’d still rather use your phone, though, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay come standard.

As if the A4’s interior needed a cherry on top, the whole cabin looks and feels fantastic. It’s admittedly easy to say that after riding around in a fully-loaded $53,550 Prestige model, but the horizontal dash looks clean and well-proportioned, and the bright colors from the screens and head-up display contrast the material sharply. The optional sport seats are epic as well, and the interior is full of cool gizmos like functional chrome trim that can be used to adjust the climate control. Overall, the aesthetics are inspired by the much pricier A8, as and we saw with the Virtual Cockpit, borrowing from your seniors isn’t a bad thing.

The young professionals and affluent hipsters that buy the A4 should get a pretty good buzz from its infotainment setup, but as we all know, intelligence applies to more than one facet of the automobile. For the 2017 model year, Audi’s best-selling car features a bounty of autonomous driver assistance features, including some that have never been offered in the segment before. It’s not a self-driving car, mind you, a fact that was summed up perfectly by Artur Burczyk, Audi’s Driver Assistance Project Manager.

“If you want to crash this car, you can,” he joked through his thick German accent. “These systems are just here to help.”

Audi certainly hasn’t made crashing the A4 easy though, as its army of electronics is always watching for the inevitable human mistake. The brand’s Pre Sense City safety suite — which can detect obstacles and automatically stop the car below 25 mph — comes with the standard car’s $37,300 base price, but options like Traffic Sign Recognition, Rear Cross traffic Alert, and a 360-degree camera are available as well.

The A4 also offers two segment-first systems called Turn Assist and Exit Assist. When making a left turn at an intersection, Turn Assist detects the approach of oncoming traffic, determining whether you have space to go or not and provides brake pedal feedback in response. Exit Assist, by contrast, uses radar to spot vehicles and cyclists approaching from behind as the doors are opened, using warning lights to prevent passengers from getting clipped.

The pinnacle of the A4’s driver assistance offering, however, is its Adaptive Cruise Control system. The basic functionality is there — the car manages distance well and keeps itself in the center of the lane better than most — but it also uses navigation data to slow itself down around sharp turns. With Traffic Jam Assist activated, I was pleased to find that the sedan effectively drives itself from 0 to 37 mph, even bringing itself to a complete stop and setting off again if the car ahead moves within three seconds. These are the perks of intelligence, people.

Impressive gadgets aside, perhaps the best part about the A4 is you don’t need to use any of them to enjoy the ride. At the end of a long day, you can hop in this car, fire up the 252-horsepower 2.0-liter engine, and blast through country backroads without fiddling with a single menu.

Related: Stop! Or your next car will for you, thanks to automatic braking

0 to 60 mph comes in 5.7 seconds with Quattro all-wheel drive, and as most small Audi’s do, the A4 feels very precise and linear through the bends. You can thank the redesigned five-link suspension setup for that, however there is a Sport Suspension option that lowers ride height by 23 mm for even better handling.

My chariot, however, came fitted with the range-topping Adaptive Damping Suspension, which tailors itself to your driving style through the Dynamic Select menu. Steering torque, pedal characteristics, transmission shift points, and damper tuning can all be adjusted with this feature, and the result is the most refined yet flexible vehicle in its class. One minute, the A4 is a buttery smooth luxury vehicle, and the next, it’s a torquey sports sedan hungry for apexes. All you have to do is flip a switch.

That said, you can thumb through all the settings you want and you won’t find the level of personality exhibited by a BMW 3 Series or Cadillac ATS. Audi’s Quattro system can send up to 85 percent of torque out back if needed, causing very subtle rotation from the rear, but folks hoping for a truly excitable tail or a wailing exhaust will probably be left disappointed. It’s just not that type of car. There’s still a bit of a disconnected feeling through the steering wheel at low speeds in addition, but if you put the hammer down, the electromechanical rack tightens up nicely.

Cars designed for mass appeal tend to play it a little safe, and given that the A4 is Audi’s best-selling vehicle, there are no big surprises here. The 2017 model is a people-pleaser through and through, one crafted to do everything competently and age well with the passing years. I happen to identify as people, however, so I found driving the A4 to be a thoroughly pleasing experience through and through.

Sure, the Mercedes-Benz C-Class is likely cozier and more aesthetically stimulating, and the BMW 3 Series will raise more hairs on the back of your neck, but for my money, the A4’s intelligence and finely-tuned reflexes make it one of the most accessible and well-rounded machines on four wheels. It’s been that way for decades, why change now?

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