Do German cars make good used buys? Sure, they’re a moveable feast for the eyes, they coddle their occupants and provide a great driving experience for the most part, but do the vaunted German brands hold up after the warranty expires?
Consumer research firm J.D. Power lately has been tracking problems reported by vehicle owners in Europe, and this month’s release of the 2017 Germany Vehicle Dependability Study may surprise those who believe German engineering is somehow superior.
Consider this: the most dependable automotive brand sold in Germany is Kia, followed by Hyundai and Toyota. All of the hallowed German luxury badges are ranked below the industry average (and after Dacia): Mercedes-Benz is 16th, Audi is 21st and BMW is 23rd. Porsche was not ranked due to insufficient sample size.
J.D. Power defines “problems” as any irritants ranging from fussy navigation systems to excessive road noise to fast-wearing upholstery, as well as mechanical faults such as defective transmissions and bad batteries. Researchers noted that premium models have more stuff in them that can go wrong.
And that brings us to Audi. Some owners here in North America have had a hard time keeping oil in their 2.0T gasoline engines, among other issues.
“Three days after driving the car from the dealership the oil low alarm came on,” posted the owner of 2009 A4 online. “We have replaced the motor and turbo – and the oil consumption increased to a quart of oil with every fill-up of gas.”
The cornerstone of its product line since 1996, the compact A4 is Audi’s answer to the BMW 3 Series sports sedan. The third-generation car, released in 2009, was built on the same MLP front-drive platform that underpinned the all-new A5 coupe.
The A4 arrived from Germany as a four-door sedan and Avant wagon; the previous-gen convertible soldiered on for one more year before being replaced by the A5 cabriolet. The sedan was cast significantly larger at 12 cm longer and 5 cm wider than the outgoing model.
Only a fraction of the 16-cm-longer wheelbase was used to improve rear seat legroom. The remainder was assigned to the front end, allowing the front axle to be shifted forward 15 cm in an effort to improve weight distribution and address the A4’s notoriously nose-heavy handling.
As comely as the A4 was outside, the story inside was even more inviting. The wider cabin allowed the MMI interface to move to the console between the seats and give the dashboard a more upscale look similar to that of the A6 and A8 cars. Materials and finishes were top-drawer, illustrating why Audi is considered the industry benchmark by interior stylists.
New was a pair of direct-injection engines: the familiar 2.0-L turbocharged four-cylinder, revised with variable lift to churn out 211 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, and an optional 3.2-L V6 that made 265 hp and, uh, 243 lb-ft of torque (the V6 was unceremoniously dropped in 2010).
The base A4 2.0T sedan was a front-drive-only loss leader that used a continuously variable (CVT) automatic transmission. The 2.0T Quattro – Audi’s all-wheel-drive system – worked with both a six-speed manual gearbox and an optional six-speed conventional automatic transmission. The latter was replaced with a new eight-speed automatic for 2011.
The A4 got a well-earned refresh for 2013 with revised headlights and grille resulting in a more aggressive face. The hydraulic power steering was updated to electric assist, and the MMI controller was simplified with fewer buttons. The Avant was replaced by a new Allroad wagon, essentially Audi’s take on the Subaru Outback.
The A4’s 2.0T engine produced 220 horsepower for 2014, and a few more standard features were added inside, including Bluetooth and an iPod interface. Beyond some trim and options changes, the A4 remained largely unaltered through its 2016 production run.
Remarkably, Audi had managed to market the third-gen A4 for eight model years with few substantive changes, which says something of the car’s enduring appeal.
Audi’s 2.0T turbo four is a surprisingly robust engine and here’s why: its 258-lb-ft torque peak arrives at a diesel-like 1500 rpm, barely north of idle. And its all-wheel-drive system – which favours the rear wheels by dispatching 60 per cent of the torque there – allows the A4 to sprint off the line with little slip.
The result is good acceleration from a relatively paltry 211 horses: zero to 97 km/h came up in 6.4 seconds with the manual transmission, while the V6-equipped Quattro took 6.2 seconds. The switch to the eight-speed slushbox in 2011 allowed the 2.0T Quattro to zip to highway velocity in 5.6 seconds.
Looking for more scat? The S4 performance variant uses a supercharged and direct-injected 3.0-L V6 to make 333 eager horses and 325 pound-feet of torque, sufficient for a 0-97 km/h time of 4.9 seconds.
Despite Audi’s best efforts to rebalance the car, more than 55 per cent of the vehicle’s weight remained over the front wheels. So the A4’s front end continues to plow in the corners, albeit predictably and without drama. Equipped with Quattro, the A4 really finds its groove.
“I’ve never been in a car that feels more connected to the road in the dry, and in the wet or snow the thing tracks like a billy goat. On snow-packed roads I’ve had a hard time getting it to break loose, even intentionally,” reported one happy pilot online.
Steering feel and feedback are good, although there are a few sports sedans that are even more talkative. Ride quality remained taut, but bumps are expertly managed by the multilink suspension – just stay away from the harsh, low profile 19-inch tires.
The A4 is Audi’s bread-and-bratwurst car, or at least it was until the current compact sport-ute craze took hold. Owners praised the sedan’s performance, refinement, sumptuous interior, cavernous trunk and surprising fuel efficiency, too.
It does everything well and it looks good doing it. The A4 might be the ideal automobile for most people – until maintenance and repair issues come up.
As noted earlier, the 2.0T engine loves to quaff pricy synthetic oil. Lots of owners have complained online, including some who criticized Audi’s insistence that it’s “normal” to burn a litre of oil every 1,000 miles (1,600 km) – that’s 10 litres before the manufacturer’s oil-change interval.
VW recently settled a U.S. lawsuit that alleged 126,000 Audi vehicles have defective 2.0T turbocharged engines that caused the vehicles to guzzle oil. The affected vehicles are the 2009-2011 A4 and A5, and Audi Q5 crossover with the engine code CAEB. Unfortunately, the complaints still linger.
“My 2013 Audi A4 2.0T burns about 1 quart of oil every 2000 miles. I had read about this issue with older A4s, but the dealer had sworn that the problem had been resolved.
On this point Consumer Reports doesn’t dither: “Any engine that burns oil between changes should be repaired under the powertrain warranty.” (CR cites BMW and Subaru as other problem manufacturers.)
Another commonly reported problem involves a timing chain tensioner that can fail and destroy the engine due to its interference design. A proposed U.S. class-action lawsuit lists many affected VW and Audi models from 2008 through 2012, including the A4.
The change to electric steering in 2013 introduced some driveability concerns: “My new 2014 Audi A4 Quattro has a severe and extremely hazardous steering issue where the car drifts left to right and right to left at all speeds, but is more pronounced at highway speeds. This car is a hazard to drive.”
Beyond these three serious problems are various other mechanical faults including: clunking CVT transmissions, failed ignition coils, faulty fuel and water pumps, bad engine mounts, and malfunctioning power sunroofs and door lock actuators.
Driving a German car is largely an act of faith. Sooner or later, it will end up in a repair bay and, without warranty coverage, the toll will be high. Components are very expensive and labour is dear. Buying a used German automobile is not for the squeamish.
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