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The Audi A4 ain’t no Apple

I’m fascinated by cars, and while I barely have enough cash to put petrol in my own one (an increasingly knackered Saab) it doesn’t stop me from daydreaming. Hmmm, a BMW M5 or an Audi RS4? That kind of thing. So there’s nothing I like more than being able to help someone who really isn’t into cars look at cars. I get all the fun without having to actually stump up the cash to buy a car, and I can persuade Mrs Bigmouth that the money I spend on car magazines is actually for a reason. Result!

So recently I’ve been comparing mid-range saloons – BMW, Lexus, Audi, Saab, that sort of thing. And by any sensible criteria the choice came down to two cars: BMW 320d and the new Audi A4 TDI, both of which cost roughly the same for the right spec (metallic paint, leather, some toys but not too many, etc). Given that I’ve always hated Beemers and loved Audis, the answer was obvious.

Until I looked at them.

The new Audi A4 is a cracking-looking car, but it’s trying just a little bit too hard. The word that kept popping into my mind was “PlayStation”. Electromechanical parking brake? PlayStation! Unncessarily jutting front spoiler? PlayStation! LED running lights? PlayStation! And so on. There’s something very fourteen-year-old-boy about it. It’s a good-looking car for sure, but it just feels as if it’s trying too hard. It feels like a top-end Dell. Lots of bells and whistles, but still a bog-standard PC (well, Volkswagen) underneath. Nothing wrong with bog-standard PCs (or Volkswagens), but when you’re paying the big money you want to feel a bit special.

And the BMW? It’s a Mac. Where the Audi’s interior is overdesigned, the BMW is designed. The former is a bit “explosion in Dixon’s” while the latter is much more restrained. Where the Audi exterior screams “look at me! Look at me!” the BMW doesn’t try too hard to attract your attention. Where the Audi has a high-tech handbrake, the BMW has a normal one. And just like a Mac the BMW is a little bit smug, and a little bit pricey, but you know that if you had one you’d be delighted that you’d bought one, and when you start mucking about with engines, options and the like you realise that actually, with the BMW you get more car for your money, and it’ll cost you less in the long run.

Nobody will ever let you out of a junction, mind you, but at least you’ll be happy sitting there.

40 replies on “The Audi A4 ain’t no Apple”

We were looking at the A4 2.0 TDi when I sold my old heap and found it to be too expensive for what it is. Same with the VW, and we didn’t like the BMWs in our price range.

We got a 2 year-old Seat Leon 2.0 TDi sport instead. Kind of the budget option but the interior is nicely understatedly attractive, it pulls like a bastard in mid-range and looks pretty nice too. The ride’s a bit hard though – sports suspension, but it goes around corners like it’s on rails.

Love the look of the Audi though. Just wish it wasn’t so overpriced (plus the shitty interior doesn’t help).

There’s one thing you forgot to take into account in your calculations, Gary: the cost of the personality transplant that I believe is compulsory if you purchase a BMW.

I want a Mercedes B-Class.

Skoda Octavia – Not much different to an A4 underneath, a fraction of the price and *everyone* lets you out at junctions. :-)

Although of course if you slow down in cities, people jump in and demand to be taken to the airport…

the cost of the personality transplant that I believe is compulsory if you purchase a BMW.

Oh, I know. I hate BMWs as a matter of principle but I… really… want… a… 3… series

*shoots self*

Actually, I have a theory that there are BMW drivers and people who just happen to be driving BMWs. I’ve known quite a few people to drive BMWs who aren’t tossers, and have even been given lifts by them and they’ve driven sedately and considerately. But I reckon they’re not BMW drivers. Not really. They went out and bought a car that they liked, and it happened to be a BMW. But they’d have been perfectly willing to buy some other brand if it had been a better buy; their desire for a BMW does not define them. Then, on the other hand, I have known people who are completely obsessed with BMWs but can’t afford one just now. Their lack of an actual BMW does not change the fact that they are BMW drivers to the bone. And drive like cunts.

A lot of BMW drivers drive buses in and around Glasgow.

By the way, I couldn’t agree less about the electronic hand brake. In this day and age, why are we still using bloody great levers to control cars?

See this?

Why doesn’t Apple make a car?

The fact of the matter is that the established car makers are timid and afraid of change. They think the mini MPV is a revolution and that the Smart car can be mentioned in the same breath as penicillin. This means they never think outside the box.

Why, for instance, does a car have a steering wheel? Or pedals? Or a dashboard? No, really. As anyone under the age of 15 will tell you, the handset for a PlayStation can be used to steer, accelerate and brake a car. And there are still spare buttons on the handset that can be used to fire machineguns.

And, of course, without a steering wheel or a dashboard, there’d be a lot more space in the cabin, and no need for expensive, weighty airbags. And that’s just me, thinking off the top of my head.

I feel fairly sure that if Apple were asked to make a car, it would come up with an automotive iPod, and within weeks we’d view the current alternatives in the same way that we now view the cassette tape, the LP and the 8-track.

In this day and age, why are we still using bloody great levers to control cars

Because it’s tried, tested and fixable-with-a-spanner technology? There have been all kinds of attempts to come up with alternative systems – I recall a joystick-controlled car (a saab maybe?) being demoed a few years ago – and while Clarkson’s right that you can use a PS2 controller to play racing games, proper racing gamers shell out for… a steering wheel and pedals.

And it is much, much harder to twang your car into a tree with a steering wheel. Ever sneezed while playing a console driving game?

I think he was making a general point about interface design and innovation, rather than advocating the use of actual Playstation controls.

> Because it’s tried, tested and fixable-with-a-spanner technology?

And electronic switches aren’t? They’ve been around a while now. The starter handle was tried, tested, and fixable-with-a-spanner technology, and we happily replaced it with the not-so-tried, not-so-tested, terribly innovative ignition key system, which hardly ever breaks your arm. And we now use electronic switches to control the horn, rather than squeezing a rubber balloon. When was the last time you saw a manual choke control? And so on.

Besides, if car manufacturers really cared about how easy it was to fix stuff with spanners, they wouldn’t be doing half of what they do. The engine is full to the brim with little electronic bits and pieces that are completely user-unserviceable and cannot be repaired in any way even by a qualified mechanic except by replacing them. To say that the brakes, throttle, and steering are sacrosanct and must be immune to this trend seems a little arbitrary.

A bloke in Sweden invented a new pedal that handles both brake and acceleration a few years ago. The Swedish authorities did some tests and have authorised it for use on public roads. Users claim it takes a few minutes to get used to it and then it’s great. And you have a spare foot, to do something-or-other with.

And electronic switches aren’t?

But is a handbrake button *better*? Mercedes and I think the big Lexuses have had weird handbrakes for ages, and IMO they’re a pain in the arse. The lever’s simple and works.

To say that the brakes, throttle, and steering are sacrosanct and must be immune to this trend seems a little arbitrary.

I didn’t say they were, though. Various technologies deal with all of those – electronic brake force assistants, ABS, electronic throttles, traction control, variable power steering, radar cruise control, etc etc etc. Lately we’ve seen start-stop engine management systems and other goodies. And they’re all fine, they make something better. If they can overcome some of the issues with the stop-start pedal I’m sure that’ll be embraced too. I’m just not convinced that an electromechanical handbrake falls into that category because i’m not convinced that it’s better than what it’s replacing.

Incidentally, VW’s doing interesting things with its UP! concept, which will apparently be the next Lupo. Assuming it makes production.

I’m just not convinced that an electromechanical handbrake falls into that category because I’m not convinced that it’s better than what it’s replacing.

According to the Audi web site: “The parking brake is released automatically when setting off. It does not have to be released manually even when performing a hill start.”

So it is better — people who don’t know how to drive should buy Audis and then they won’t roll back into our BMWs when they’re trying to do a hill start ;-)

> Various technologies deal with all of those – electronic brake force assistants, ABS, electronic throttles, traction control, variable power steering, radar cruise control, etc etc etc.

No, they’re not what we’re discussing at all: they all happen post-interface. There’s still this fierce resistance to changing the way people actually have to arrange their limbs in order to control a car. Every single link between the steering wheel and the steering, the manufacturers are willing to tinker with, but the wheel itself? No way. Why the hell not? It’s not that good. And clutch pedals are downright crap.

> I’m just not convinced that an electromechanical handbrake falls into that category because i’m not convinced that it’s better than what it’s replacing.

Well I’ve tried both (there’s a handbrake buttony handly thing in a Renault Megane that I once hired), and it is my considered opinion that conventional handbrakes are utter shite. And I know at least one person who actually can’t drive because of them — she has arthritis and bad shoulders and finds it physically painful to pull a handbrake as hard as is needed, so gave up on driving lessons. Even for those of us whose shoulders are fine, isn’t this absurd? The whole point of a car is that it’s a labour-saving device. Whenever any of the controls involve significant physical effort, it has failed its design brief.

And you have to pay a mechanic to tighten the bloody cable, every single year.

> people who don’t know how to drive should buy Audis

I know plenty of people who had to learn double-clutching to change gear when they learnt to drive. That skill is now obsolete due to the invention of the clutch. That doesn’t mean that you don’t know how to drive.

No, what I mean is that what you think of as part of knowing how to drive is going to be made obsolete by technology. Someone who had to learn double-clutching in their day could, if they wished, say that cars with clutch pedals are for people who don’t know how to drive. That would be (a) silly and (b) no different from saying that cars with electronic auto-releasing parking brakes are for people who don’t know how to drive. Also no different from the popular claim that automatic gearboxes are for people who don’t know how to drive. I don’t get it. If drivers want to feel they’re doing all the work themselves, why not just get out and run?

It is my considered opinion that conventional handbrakes are utter shite.

Handbrake turns! Handbrake turns! Heh.

Every single link between the steering wheel and the steering, the manufacturers are willing to tinker with, but the wheel itself? No way. Why the hell not? It’s not that good. And clutch pedals are downright crap.

But surely if there were big money in changing it, they would change it? You mention the clutch pedal, but there are all kinds of alternatives to that – yer basic automatic transmission, F1-style paddle shifts etc. And yet (in the UK at least) most of us prefer manuals, partly because they’re more fun, partly because they’re cheaper, and partly because they usually cost less and deliver better performance and fuel economy. And while I don’t agree that autos are for people who don’t know how to drive, I do think they take a lot of the enjoyment out of driving. Great in traffic jams or if back pain makes using the pedals difficult, rubbish on back roads in the wee small hours.

>>but the wheel itself? No way. Why the hell not?

If there are better alternatives to the steering wheel and pedals then why has motorsport (especially f1) not implemented them?

partly because they’re more fun

That’s a good point. There’s loads of technology to make driving less effort, but that does sometimes take out some of the fun, too. I suppose it depends on what you want a car for — to get you from A to B as efficiently and easily as possible; or to get from A to B and have fun doing so.

I don’t get it. If drivers want to feel they’re doing all the work themselves, why not just get out and run?

I guess there’s some snobbery in being able to master archaic or complicated systems — just as some Linux users look down on Mac/PC users because Mac/PC users don’t have to compile their own kernel. Whatever the hell that means.

> But surely if there were big money in changing it, they would change it?

Well, that’s why I thought Clarkson’s talking about Apple was particularly interesting. Surely if there were big money in making computers some colour other than beige, the PC manufacturers would be doing it? Yet they weren’t.

> Handbrake turns! Handbrake turns!

Exactly. A prime candidate for automation if ever I saw one. There should be a button on the steering wheel for that.

> because they’re more fun

So I’m told. Can’t see it myself. The pedal fucks up my hips. I love modern automatics. Personally, I think it’s great fun when you floor the gas and the engine just suddenly leaps.

> If there are better alternatives to the steering wheel and pedals then why has motorsport (especially f1) not implemented them?

Not sure that’s a great example. For them, any advantages from a change in interface have to be offset against the disadvantage of retraining all their drivers — or, worse, of discovering that their drivers aren’t particularly good with the new interface. There’s no reason to suppose that the people who have risen to the top of the turning-a-wheel-and-stomping-on-peddles profession would be the same people as would rise to the top of the joystick-in-one-hand-throttle-in-the-other (or whatever) profession. They’re completely different skills. If you’re desperately trying to win every single race, that’s an issue. If you’re just trying to drive to work, less so.

>>For them, any advantages from a change in interface have to be offset against the disadvantage of retraining all their drivers

But as Gary already pointed out – the flappy-paddle gearshift came from F1 so they aren’t against changing the interface quite drastically. Steering wheels are still quite common in planes and boats too. For steering large objects I can’t think of a better interface. For things that need extremely quick changes in multiple dimensions (like jet fighters) a joystiq is more efficient though.

Also, the handbrake is also the emergency brake: a manual cable that operates the brakes on the rear wheels regardless of the condition of the normal braking system. I’d prefer that to be left as simple as possible…

>>I’d prefer that to be left as simple as possible…

It is really quite failure-prone, however. A single high-tension steel cable that is rarely put under major strain.

Well, it’s regularly put under sufficient strain to prevent the car from moving.

Anyway, returning to the main point: I have never liked Audis. They have all the design appeal of a kitchen appliance. Even the TT is a pretty simple-minded effort (take a protractor, draw around it…). BMWs have always had much more complex yet subtle design. I’m not that taken with the new 5, but the 3, and especially the 3 coupe, are just miles ahead of the A4.

I think BMW make horrifically ugly cars, myself.

When I was about five, I broke the handbrake on my mum’s car by the simple expedient of pulling it. I was not an unusually strong five-year-old. Like David says, they’re failure-prone. You want real security, leave your car in gear.

Thinking about steering wheels… it occurs to me that F1 drivers don’t have quite the same interface as we do. Their steering wheels don’t need to be turned right round twice to get round sharp bends. The ratios are completely different. I put it to you that there is a fundamental difference between a device which allows you to control the car simply by holding it and moving it and one that requires you to keep changing your grip on it. Hmm.

If you like mucking about with engines, stay away from a Mac. The simile sort of falls down at that point…

A car review written by a guy who knows nothing about cars. Audi and VW are under the same umbrella, but an Audi is not a VW with more “bells and whistles.” For one the platforms are different. Also the suspensions on Audis are largely constructed from aluminum. Parts quality is higher, and the cars are built to a higher standard.

BMWs, while good cars, are nothing “special.” But their marketing seems to have done a good number on you.

It’s not a car review, it’s a blog post.

> an Audi is not a VW with more “bells and whistles.” For one the platforms are different.

You’re right. I didn’t realise that the 2008 A4 was a new platform. I thought it was the same as the outgoing model, which was on a tweaked version of the Passat platform.

To be honest, I don’t really care.

BMWs, while good cars, are nothing “special.” But their marketing seems to have done a good number on you.

Heh! The same could be said, with more justification, about Audi. The whole “vorschprung durch technik” thing is pure marketing spiel, especially considering that Audis do share tech with VW, despite what you seem to desperately be telling yourself, over and over.

@you idiot – Nice to see that you have both an apt name and choose to stay anonymous.

>>For one the platforms are different.

Bollocks. Occasionally the platforms are different, but usually not. As an example, up to a year or so ago, the Audi A3, TT, Skoda Octavia, Skoda Suberb, Skoda Yeti, Seat Altea, Seat Toledo, Seat Leon, VW Golf, VW Eos, VW Scirocco, VW Golf, VW Jetta, VW Tiguan, VW Touran and probably others used the same chassis.

All manufacturers try and limit the platforms. That’s why the current Saab 93 uses the vectra chassis, the mondeo and jag XF use the same mondeo chassis. The new A4 will use the new Passat chassis. If it didn’t then they would be stupid.

Also, as an current owner of both a Skoda Octavia and an Audi A3 Sportback (2005 and 2007 models respectively) both with the same 1.9Tdi PD 105Bhp engine, I can say from experience that the Audi is not built to a higher standard. If anything I would say that the Audi is built to a lower standard. That is something that really pisses me off. I used to love Audi (I had a big thing for the original quattro), my Dad had the S2 and I had an early A3 – all of which I loved. The current A3 is such a disappointment and, other than in looks, the Skoda beats it in every category.

We are currently looking at replacing the A3 but Audi and BMW aren’t even a consideration. If you compare any other VAG car you can get a fantastic car for significantly less money than the Audi. The BMW is ridiculously expensive for what you get (and becomes useless as soon as it gets cold) They are also designed with a similar philosophy to the Audis – basically all melty – and look shit and more like toyotas.

I’ve never really liked Audis much but I must say that the A5 is really beautiful. The S5 version would do me very well, apart from the fact that I’ve basically agreed not to buy another two-door car. (Oh, and the trifling matter of being able to spend only about a tenth of its purchase price on a car, if that!)

I have to agree about the design of the A5, especially the sporty trim ones. Starts at £24k though for the really, really basic one. For that you could get a high-end VW scirrocco or an A3 quattro, for that matter.

You can get an early-Nineties Mercedes C-class for between 500 and 800 quid. They’re dead comfy, pretty-much bullet-proof, cheap to fix, drive forever, and go very very fast.

Is that the old 190E? I love old Mercs. There’s a real presence to them. If I could stomach the running costs I’d buy an old S-Class and pretend to be a dictator.

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