David Motton

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Excellent mainstream rivals make it harder to justify compact executive cars, but David Motton thinks the new Audi A4 may be worth the extra – read on!

I have a problem with compact executive cars. To my mind, the BMW 3 Series, Jaguar XE, Mercedes-Benz C-Class and their ilk are upmarket family cars by another name. Because of the posh badge on the bonnet they are forgiven their high price, small boot and modest rear-seat space.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoy driving a good compact executive and have found cars like the 3 Series and the XE to tow very well, but I'd rather spend my own money on a car with more space and practicality, and a less expensive price tag.

Last week, though, I drove a compact exec which I might, at a pinch, consider spending my own money on if I had the means – the Audi A4.

I liked the Audi a lot when I drove it last autumn in Italy, but I've only just had the chance to drive the Audi on more familiar roads here in Britain. And if anything I enjoyed it even more.

It's certainly a contrast to the Jaguar XE. Most of my colleagues, including those whose opinions I value, have given the new Jag rave reviews. But when I drove the XE I found the ride too firm for comfort, the new Ingenium engine excessively vocal, and the rear-seats and boot too cramped. In other words, the Jag is the classic compact executive – you get the badge, the looks, and the rear-wheel-drive handling balance which enthusiasts crave, but you pay a hefty premium and sacrifice practicality.

The A4 is rather different. Park one next to the Jaguar, and the Audi will probably be ignored. Despite being a new car it looks more like a mild facelift, and those conservative looks really undersell the work that has been put into the Audi beneath the skin.

Refinement is the A4's most obvious strength. It's very quiet at speed, and the familiar 148bhp 2.0 TDI engine sounds more distant than in most other VW Group products. Wind and road noise are kept in check, too, although the optional acoustic glazing (£450) fitted to our test car will have helped. Motorways are this car's natural habitat – it really eats up the miles in great comfort, with a driving position that's much improved compared with right-hand-drive versions of the previous generation A4.

The 2.0-litre diesel may be quiet, but it has enough punch for brisk overtaking. Maximum torque of 236lb ft is pretty much par for the course for a diesel of this size, but for some reason the Audi felt livelier than we expected. The relatively low kerbweight of 1505kg (including 75kg for the driver) must play a part. 

That gives an 85% match figure of 1279kg. Judging by the car's solo performance it should comfortably handle a caravan weighing that much or more. The legal towing limit is 1600kg, and the maximum noseweight is 80kg.

One of the plus points of a compact exec, at least in theory, has always been their sporty handling. Both the Jaguar XE and BMW 3 Series will appeal to keen drivers.

The Audi – certainly on the 'comfort' suspension of the SE model I drove – takes a different tack. It handles neatly enough and the steering is precise, although it doesn't have the agility of the Jaguar. What it does offer is a more forgiving ride. It might be nice to pretend that we spend all our time driving on deserted B-roads, but for most UK buyers most of the time I think the comfort-focused balance of the Audi's suspension is better.

Inside, the A4 is beautifully finished and its infotainment system is as easy to use as it is easy on the eye. In terms of space, there's more room than in the Jag. Get a tape measure out and the margin isn't huge, but the Audi feels considerably less claustophobic inside. Likewise the 480-litre boot may be just 25 litres bigger than the Jag's, but it's a worthwhile improvement and the Audi's squarer shape is easier to make full use of.

There should be relatively little between the A4, 3 Series and XE in terms of running costs. The A4 2.0 TDI ultra SE returns 74.3mpg and emits just 99g/km of carbon dioxide according to the official figures, matching the cleanest BMW and Jaguar rivals. In reality you'll struggle to get anywhere near 70mpg plus with any of these cars. I saw more like 50-55mpg in my time with the Audi.

As you'd expect, the Audi badge commands a premium. The SE spec car I drove has a list price of £29,150, although strong resale values should help offset that initial cost.

I still think compact execs are pricey when the best mainstream family cars drive so well and are much more spacious. But I prefer the subtlety and refinement of the Audi to the more dynamic and dramatic appeal of the Jaguar. If I didn't need more room (and if I had deeper pockets) I'd be very tempted.

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