What was Audi thinking when it jammed an anaesthetised gearbox into one of the market's best prestige mid-size cars, its latest A4? Crossing a busy intersection with this gearbox - a CVT than Audi calls Multitronic - asleep under your right foot is one of the scariest manoeuvres I've done in 35 years of car testing.
More on that later. The 2012 A4 is a honed and buffed version of previous models. It is a superb car - possibly the perfect upmarket family car. The chassis is as tight as a drum so the ride is firm but impressively confident, the steering inputs communicate perfectly with the front wheels and the hard seats surprise with their support and long-distance comfort.
It seats four adults in comfort and has a huge boot. Even the quality is a step up on the impossible standard Audi already sets for its rivals. Close any door and you hear the air gasp as it struggles to squeeze past the seals. But that bloody gearbox.
Not bad. Don't expect discounting here - though Audi occasionally lures the indecisive with low-interest rate finance - and you'll see it's $55,500 is aligned to rivals from BMW and Volvo. The price buys quality. The A4 is an upgrade for 2012 - though looks the same as before - and built like a safe. Cabin treatment is typically restrained Audi but it's overwhelmingly functional, subdued in its design simplicity and so easy to use.
Standard fare is modest, but it gets a top-notch eight-speaker audio, leather upholstery, rear park sensors and dual-zone climate airconditioning. You have to pay $5300 for a pack containing sat-nav, xenon headlights, LED daytime running lights and front park sensors. Personally, for $9000 more you'll get the all-wheel drive 2-litre version with a proper eight-speed automatic gearbox.
Some say bland, some say elegant. The latest A4 sedan doesn't look much different from the old one, but offers a bit more body muscle and rejigged tail and headlights. The body seems more tightly stretched over its frame and that's evident when bigger wheels (19-inch are optional) are fitted.
Inside it's all Audi with familiar controls. The central function system is a console-mounted knurled knob circled by four master buttons for audio, ventilation, sat-nav and car settings. Very simple. The rear seat splits and folds down, rear access is very good compared with many in this class and driver visibility is generally good though the windscreen pillars are wide.
Did I mention the bloody gearbox? The continuously-variable transmission (CVT) is a very basic, yet effective drive system. Its efficiency at providing the right ratio at the best torque output of the engine makes it more economical than conventional automatics. But it's sluggish in operation. The 125kW/320Nm 1.8-litre turbo-petrol is all new. It replaces a similar-spec engine with 118kW and betters the old unit’s fuel economy by 18 per cent.
Audi claims a 5.8 L/100km average but I got 8.8 L/100km. Stop-start is standard. The basic car is unchanged but new bits include a driver-select program to change the characteristics of the engine, transmission and power steering - the latter available because the A4 now has electric-assist steering.
No contest here. The five-star crash rating is matched by eight airbags, the full suite of electronic chassis and brake aids, and helpful things like rear park sensors, auto headlights and wipers. The spare is a space-saver.
For those readers who came in late, I don't like this CVT gearbox. First up: Starting on a slope, particularly with the nose pointing downhill. There's no hill holder - Audi wants another $200 for that - so because the CVT slips so bad, and even though you may be in reverse gear, be prepared to roll forward a metre or so.
Which could put you into a wall or a fellow motorist. It's not just the box. The turbocharged engine takes a while to spool up and deliver its best so in combination with the elastic-band feel of the gearbox, you go nowhere for quite a while. Then, when it figures out you want to accelerate, the power hits in. That makes the front wheels try and spin but the electronic anti-wheelspin and stability control system leap in and retard the engine's power delivery. Which means you're not going as fast as you may want.
That aside, it's a very accomplished package. The electric steering is so good - and can be firmed up at the press of a button - that you'll never miss the old hydraulic system. The engine needs to be kept in its power band but is certainly willing and, unlike the BMW 3-Series, is quiet and smooth. Handling is good, with the inherent understeer noticeable, and hence another reason to pay the extra for the all-wheel drive version.
Buy the 2.0 TFSI quattro.
Audi A4 1.8T
Price: from $55,500
Warranty: 3 years/unlimited km, roadside assist
Resale: 55 per cent
Service interval: annual
Safety: 8 airbags, ABS, EBD, EBA, TC
Crash rating: 5 stars
Engine: 1.8-litre 4-cyl turbo-petrol, 125kW/320Nm
Transmission: CVT auto; front drive
Thirst: 5.8L/100km; 95RON; 134g/km CO2
Dimensions: 4.7m (L), 1.8m (W), 1.4m (H)