Audi A4 review: driving digitally is its own kind of augmented reality (video)

17 Mar 201624 Shares

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We check out the new Audi A4, which is kitted out with a range of wireless gadgets and augmented driving capabilities. Photo and video credit: Connor McKenna and Luke Maxwell

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With autonomous, self-driving vehicles just around the corner, could the latest executive vehicles – equipped with all the latest wireless toys – be the last hurrah for petrol- and diesel-heads? I hope not.

Let’s start this review by making it very clear that we are not Top Gear and we are not motoring journalists. While we review cars from time to time, it is usually because they are electric or hybrid vehicles that represent advances in technology in their own right.

This review of the Audi A4 is based on its inclusion of nifty new wireless technologies and augmented, enhanced driving capabilities, so let’s get that out of the way before we offend the sensibilities of real motorheads.

But, while we are on the subject, because the car is 120kg lighter than its predecessors due to the use of lighter materials and new engine capabilities, Audi says it is the most fuel efficient in its class.

It comes in six engine types: two TFSI and four TDI engines conforming to EU6 emission standards. Power output ranges from 150hp to 272hp.

Audi says that, within these outputs, fuel consumption is down by up to 21pc on previous generations. The TDI Ultra version has a fuel consumption of just 3.7 litres of diesel per 100km, with CO2 emissions of 95 grams per kilometer.

Okay, now that the motor nerds are sated, let’s get onto the stuff that will excite the rest of us geeks – the digital stuff.

Look and feel

I drive an older generation Audi A4 and it is pleasing to see that, not only has Audi kept the appearance of the executive staple roughly the same, driving the newer A4 isn’t much of a learning curve, even though I had to admit being in awe of all the gadgetry surrounding me in the virtual cockpit.

The first thing I noticed was the silence. I understand that aerodynamic features in the form of horizontal lines around the wings and mirrors of the new A4 are designed in such a way as to deflect external noise.

Inside the virtual cockpit, it was, at first, a maelstrom of displays. The entire display behind the steering wheel is an LCD screen which shows you your dials, driving modes, fuel consumption and GPS as part of a Technology Pack that will set you back an additional €2,500 on top of the €35,800 starting price.

Audi HUD

The digital dashboard and HUD on the new Audi A4

A further €2,100 will get you a Business Package that includes driver assistance systems such as adaptive cruise control, Audi lane assist and front and rear parking sensors.

As if all this wasn’t enough, there is a central screen that pretty much does what the Technology Pack display does in terms of access to entertainment, mapping and various driving modes, including efficiency, comfort, auto, dynamic and individual, which you can adjust using the dial in the centre of the car.

At first, this was a little overwhelming, but it is surprising how quick you get used to it.

The major surprise was the head’s up display (HUD), which is beamed from a panel on the dash right onto the windscreen, providing you with vital information such as speed, positioning within lanes, different speed zones and – when working in concert with the navigation GPS system powered by Google Maps – gently directs you to where you are going.

The technology

AUDI-A4-virtual-cockpit

The virtual cockpit in the new Audi A4

Two days into driving the new A4, it dawned on me what a punishment I was setting myself up for once I returned to driving my own car. Without all the gadgets, I have to admit it was a little like stepping back into the biplane age after flying jets.

Suffice it to say, it is a testament to Audi cars that I felt my good old A4 could match the new one for sheer poke. But definitely, the steering felt much lighter in the newer A4.

But back to the toys. Already a big fan of the HUD, I found that, as I was driving, lane assist nudged me in the right direction in terms of positioning on the road. The car also features a Traffic Jam Assist technology that takes over distance control in heavy congestion, and Predictive Efficiency Assist, which reads the attributes of the road ahead and offers advice. The Xenon headlights were also intelligent, insofar as they automatically dimmed once they sensed oncoming vehicles while driving on country roads.

This was the first car I have ever driven that came complete with a wireless charging dock. There is also an iPhone cord if you are of the Apple persuasion.

The wireless charging dock was a departure for me. I used it to keep a Samsung Galaxy S6 charged up while driving. I can’t say whether it was a fault of the phone or the charging dock, but charging the device up was slow and the phone felt hot enough to fry an egg on at times.

But it is certainly a car designed with the smartphone in mind and, once you’ve synced a smartphone to the car via Bluetooth, call information and texts can appear on the screen or on the console behind the steering wheel and you can cycle through calls using the controls on the steering wheel.

Another cool feature was the ability to use a touch pad at the centre of the car to write out locations you are searching for, with Google Maps automatically throwing up suggestions based on predictive text.

Once you’ve decided where you want to go, the 3D Google Maps feature will interact with the central screen, the virtual cockpit console and the HUD to ensure you don’t get lost. I tried it a few times going to meetings, and the car was able to tell me precisely when I was going to arrive using real-time data.

One of the features I didn’t get to try out, unfortunately, was the onboard Wi-Fi hotspot, as I was driving most of the time, so Facebook and Twitter weren’t an option for obvious safety reasons.

Verdict: 3/5

Audi_A4_fuel_consumption

Fuel consumption view on the Audi A4’s digital dash

As I said earlier, moving temporarily from an older generation A4 to the newer model was effortless thanks to the responsiveness and intuitive controls and the overall familiarity of the A4.

The new A4’s wireless accoutrements – like the virtual cockpit, the HUD and 3D mapping – show exactly why tech companies like Apple and Google feel that cars are the next frontier of technology they want to conquer.

My verdict is that all of these features serve to augment a driver’s capabilities, advising on safe driving, the right speed and, of course, good efficient driving that won’t waste precious fuel.

Is this the last hurrah for drivers who prize ability? I doubt it. What would be interesting is to see how quickly features like HUDs, lane assist and 3D mapping will begin to feature in standard cars on the roads, not just in high-end vehicles.

It could be years before autonomous driving becomes standard, but in the meantime there’s no reason why perfect driving should not become an augmented reality.

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Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com