Audi A4 2.0T Ul­tra VS. Honda Ac­cord 2.0T Tour­ing

WHO BUILDS THE BET­TER LUX­URY FAM­ILY SEDAN?

Motor Trend (USA) - - Contents - Chris­tian Se­abaugh

Who builds the bet­ter lux­ury fam­ily sedan?

Lux­ury, like pornog­ra­phy, can be hard to de­fine. In the case of au­to­mo­biles, lux­ury is not as much about de­mo­graph­ics or data as it is about the holistic feel­ing a pre­mium ve­hi­cle gives you. Su­pe­rior driv­ing dy­nam­ics might be a ma­jor in­gre­di­ent in the lux­ury ex­pe­ri­ence, but de­sign, build qual­ity, and in­te­rior ma­te­ri­als also are sig­nif­i­cant fac­tors. Tech­nol­ogy—chiefly in­fo­tain­ment and driver-as­sist hard­ware—is in­creas­ingly im­por­tant, as well.

But in the past decade, there’s been a wrin­kle in the lux­ury con­tin­uum. Main­stream mar­ques have added high­zoot trim pack­ages to their vol­ume mod­els to earn more profit and amor­tize costs across broad vol­umes; mean­while, lux­ury brands have moved down­mar­ket to in­crease mar­ket share. Things have be­come es­pe­cially heated among fam­ily sedans in the neigh­bor­hood of 40 grand.

Sedan buy­ers should be pretty fa­mil­iar with the Honda Ac­cord as a prac­ti­cal fam­ily hauler and work com­muter. Af­ter all, it’s been the best-sell­ing car to in­di­vid­ual buy­ers (not count­ing rental fleets) for years. And Honda has made its mid­size pack­age even more im­pres­sive with the 10th gen­er­a­tion.

Case in point: the top-spec 2018 Honda Ac­cord 2.0T Tour­ing. It comes loaded with all that lux­ury buy­ers ex­pect, such as leather and amaz­ingly life­like im­i­ta­tion wood in­side, Honda Sense driver-as­sist tech, and a hot-rod­ded en­gine un­der the hood—all for $36,690 out the door.

On the lux­ury end of the spec­trum is the 2018 Audi A4 Ul­tra. With lux­ury

sedan sales tak­ing a nose­dive and fuel econ­omy reg­u­la­tions tight­en­ing, Audi in­tro­duced the more af­ford­able and ef­fi­cient A4 Ul­tra when the fifth-gen model made its de­but in 2017. Start­ing at $36,975, the A4 Ul­tra is one of the most in­ex­pen­sive ways to get a lux­ury-brand fam­ily sedan into your garage.

The A4 Ul­tra’s start­ing price cov­ers the lux­ury ba­sics with LED lights, a sun­roof, and leather seats. How­ever, most mod­els on show­room floors are typ­i­cally specced up like the zero-miles loaner we bor­rowed from a lo­cal Audi deal­er­ship. Our tester added op­tions such as gray paint for $575 (only black or white paint is free) and the Con­ve­nience pack­age, which adds key­less en­try, a color in­stru­ment clus­ter dis­play, and a few other fea­tures for $1,000. A hand­ful of other good­ies brought the as-tested price to $39,110. That makes the two com­pet­ing cars’ monthly payments within $40 of each other.

The two are closer me­chan­i­cally than you’d think. Their wheel­bases are within 0.4 inch, and curb weights are within 34 pounds. Un­der each hood sits a 2.0-liter turbo-four driv­ing the front wheels.

With a lower cost of en­try and im­proved fuel econ­omy be­ing the rea­sons for the A4 Ul­tra’s ex­is­tence, its en­gine makes less power than it does in other A4 trims (190 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque com­pared to 252 and 273 for the 2.0T Quat­tro lineup). Power is routed through a seven-speed twin-clutch au­to­matic to the front wheels—audi’s fa­mous Quat­tro all-wheeldrive sys­tem hav­ing been omit­ted on the A4 Ul­tra for fuel econ­omy rea­sons. The trade-off would ap­pear to be worth it, as it achieves an im­pres­sive EPA rat­ing of 27/37/31 mpg city/high­way/com­bined on pre­mium gaso­line.

Honda takes a tra­di­tional lux­ury car ap­proach with the Ac­cord Tour­ing 2.0T’s en­gine—over­pow­ered and un­der­stressed. The Ac­cord Tour­ing 2.0T’s pow­er­plant, a de­tuned ver­sion of the Civic Type R’s 2.0-liter turbo I-4, pro­duces 252 hp and 273 lb-ft of torque and is paired with a 10-speed au­to­matic. The combo is good for 22/32/26 mpg on reg­u­lar gas. This is the up­graded en­gine from the base 192-hp 1.5-liter turbo I-4 paired with a CVT—A combo also avail­able on the Ac­cord Tour­ing. The dif­fer­ence is im­pres­sive.

One of the worst things that can hap­pen when buy­ing a lux­ury car, par­tic­u­larly one on the lower end of the spec­trum, is the ob­vi­ous rev­e­la­tion to both you and oth­ers that you got “the cheap one.”

In the past decade, there’s been a wrin­kle in the lux­ury con­tin­uum, and the Ac­cord and A4 are closer me­chan­i­cally than you’d think.

Al­though some base-trim lux­ury fam­ily sedans have some pretty ob­vi­ous tells, the A4 Ul­tra hides its rel­a­tively af­ford­able sticker price well. The A4 Ul­tra’s trim looks sharp even with its slightly smaller wheels and Eastern Bloc–apart­ment gray paint. From its LED sig­na­ture head­lights, down its sharply creased flanks, to its se­quen­tial tail­lights, ev­ery­thing about the A4 screams, “I’ve made it!”

In­side, the A4 makes a good first im­pres­sion. “The de­sign vibe is a smart­phone on wheels,” ex­ec­u­tive edi­tor Mark Rechtin said. Slip into the in­te­rior, and you’re greeted with real leather seats (though they are on the grainy and thin side), neat me­tal­lic-look­ing trim along the dash­board, and Audi’s MMI in­fo­tain­ment sys­tem mounted front and cen­ter atop the dash. The plas­tic switchgear feels soft and satiny, and the metal­lic­tipped HVAC con­trols and MMI knob are cool to the touch and look pricey. The knobs turn and but­tons press with a sat­is­fy­ingly damped click.

“Audi does a su­perb job of us­ing the in­te­rior de­sign to mask the ma­te­rial se­lec­tion,” as­so­ci­ate edi­tor Scott Evans said. “The de­sign is hy­per­mod­ern and looks pre­mium, and the tex­tured sil­ver plas­tic stands in well for fake wood.”

But dig a bit deeper, and you’ll find some dis­ap­point­ing de­con­tent­ing to hit the price point—start­ing with the fancy tech Audi is most known for. With the cheaper trim pack­age, the game-chang­ing Vir­tual Cock­pit is miss­ing, as is any driver-as­sist tech­nol­ogy. (Honda Sens­ing is stan­dard on even the cheap­est Ac­cord.) MMI has a nav­i­ga­tion se­lec­tor, but when you press it, you’re ca­su­ally re­minded

From LED head­lights to se­quen­tial tail­lights, ev­ery­thing about the A4 Ul­tra screams, “I’ve made it!”

that you didn’t ac­tu­ally pay for GPS. MMI is at least friendly with Ap­ple Carplay and An­droid Auto, which lessens the blow.

Some of the ma­te­rial choices are dis­ap­point­ing in a tac­tile sense. The arm­rests aren’t leather, and nei­ther is the dash topper, which is a sort of squishy rub­ber. There are also a lot of hard, un­sat­is­fy­ing plas­tics hid­ing be­low your belt­line.

The ma­te­rial choices are pretty easy to over­look con­sid­er­ing this A4’s sticker price, but the back seat’s short­com­ings aren’t. The lack of legroom means tall pas­sen­gers will find them­selves with their legs pressed against a hard plas­tic seat back in­stead of the softer sur­faces found on higher-spec A4s. Cuphold­ers are also con­spic­u­ously ab­sent in the back seat, though there are at least bot­tle hold­ers in the door pock­ets. The Audi claws back a few points by of­fer­ing HVAC con­trols to rear-seat pas­sen­gers.

As for the Ac­cord, if a main­stream au­tomaker is to put up a cred­i­ble al­ter­na­tive to a lux­ury car, it can’t just beat the lux­ury maker on price and value. And Honda ap­pears to be tak­ing the chal­lenge se­ri­ously. The Ac­cord Tour­ing oozes curb ap­peal, with a Mercedes Cls-es­que stance and wheel arches filled by at­trac­tive 19-inch wheels.

“Get in­side, and the ef­fect is fa­mil­iar Honda yet fu­tur­is­tic,” Rechtin said. The leather-lined cabin is an­chored by comfy seats, rich-look­ing LCD dis­plays on the in­stru­ment panel and on top of the dash, and both “wood” and satin me­tal­lic trim. Honda sweat the details, too. Its in­fo­tain­ment sys­tem has a larger screen than the A4, and it’s more user-friendly, too, with big icons and an eas­ily nav­i­gated user in­ter­face. Even its HVAC con­trols are nice, its knurled metal knobs spin­ning with a sat­is­fy­ing click. As an en­gag­ing bonus, the knobs are back­lit ei­ther blue or red, depend­ing on whether you’re crank­ing the heat or A/C.

“The but­tons and stalks all have that tac­tile de­tent cush­ion­ing, a lit­tle hint of el­e­gance that makes you think Honda spent the over­time to get the prod­uct just right,” Rechtin said. The fea­ture-rich cabin is rounded out by heated seats front and rear, a limo­like back seat, and USB out­lets spread through­out the cabin. The loaded in­fo­tain­ment sys­tem works with Carplay, as well.

For all the ex­tra at­ten­tion to de­tail, the Ac­cord’s cabin does have a few mi­nor flaws. The sim­u­lated wood trim looks nice but doesn’t feel like wood. And as Evans puts it, the light gray leather seats “high­light how pla­s­ticky some of the dash and door parts are, par­tic­u­larly in the cor­ners where the dash and door meet, where there ap­pears to be a sheen and color dif­fer­ence be­tween the two neigh­bor­ing pan­els.”

Those nit­picks can be eas­ily for­given once you hit the road. The Ac­cord is a sweet­heart to drive. “This driv­e­train is a win­ning com­bi­na­tion,” Evans said. Honda’s 2.0-liter en­gine and 10-speed au­to­matic are a fine pair­ing, the for­mer seem­ingly al­ways in its power­band and the lat­ter shift­ing seam­lessly. The en­gine purrs un­der gen­tle throt­tle but re­sponds with a sat­is­fy­ing snarl when you ask more of it. Said Rechtin: “Shift qual­ity is whis­per smooth; even down­shifts are han­dled with­out much of a jolt.”

The Ac­cord is an ele­gant han­dler with one of the most re­fined front-drive sus­pen­sions on the mar­ket. “It goes around a cor­ner re­ally well for a mid­size fam­ily sedan,” Evans said. “It doesn’t roll much, and steer­ing is ac­cu­rate and pre­cise.” The Ac­cord rides nicely over poor pave­ment, too, iso­lat­ing the cabin from all but the harsh­est bumps. How­ever, the cabin could be con­sid­ered on the nois­ier side un­der hard ac­cel­er­a­tion, reg­is­ter­ing at 38.7 sones with our test gear due to the en­gine’s pleas­ing growl, but it qui­ets down to a rea­son­able 16.9 sones while cruis­ing at 65 mph.

Our test data would seem to back up what we learned on the road. Here are the high­lights: The Ac­cord is prop­erly quick from 0 to 60 mph, need­ing just 5.8 sec­onds, and thanks to its quick-shift­ing trans­mis­sion, it also doesn’t suf­fer from no­tice­able turbo lag, need­ing only 2.8 sec­onds to com­plete a 45–65-mph pass.

In com­par­i­son, the Audi A4 Ul­tra lacks the grace of the Ac­cord. Hav­ing spent plenty of time be­hind the wheel of MT’S long-term all-wheel-drive A4 Quat­tro (priced at $52,325), it al­most feels like Audi spent less time en­gi­neer­ing the front-drive ver­sion. Throt­tle tip-in on the Ul­tra is rather ag­gres­sive, and it’s dif­fi­cult to pull away smoothly from a stop. This makes the A4 feel faster than its 7.0-sec­ond 0–60 time would in­di­cate, es­pe­cially when the A4’s front left tire peels out as it strug­gles for trac­tion.

Once cruis­ing, things im­prove. The en­gine makes good midrange torque, but the Audi’s trans­mis­sion can be re­luc­tant to down­shift. We can’t shake the feel­ing that the A4’s 3.7-sec­ond 45–65 time will in­crease ex­po­nen­tially with four pas­sen­gers and their lug­gage on board. The A4 Ul­tra goes around a cor­ner well, how­ever. Steer­ing is a bit numb due to the stock tire choice, but body mo­tions are con­trolled, and the sus­pen­sion is well-damped when rid­ing over poor pave­ment.

The cabin is quiet, too, with our me­ters reg­is­ter­ing 19.6 sones at full-throt­tle, al­most 50 per­cent qui­eter than the Ac­cord, and 14.6 sones at 65 mph.

Cost, no mat­ter the seg­ment, is al­ways a pur­chase con­sid­er­a­tion. Al­though it’s tempting to com­pare as-tested prices, we need to be more nu­anced than that.

Sur­pris­ingly, the A4 Ul­tra might ac­tu­ally be cheaper up front than the Ac­cord 2.0T Tour­ing, thanks to gen­er­ous in­cen­tives on the Audi’s hood. How­ever, once we break costs out over 60 months, the A4’s ad­van­tages dis­ap­pear. That lux­ury badge means lux­ury ex­penses, with the A4 cost­ing more in just about ev­ery cat­e­gory but es­pe­cially in re­pairs, where the Honda solidly pulls away.

We un­der­stand: A lux­ury car is al­ways go­ing to strug­gle against a main­stream model when it comes to per­ceived value; your dol­lar would seem to go fur­ther at a Honda dealer than it does at an Audi one. So the ul­ti­mate ques­tion when it comes to Ac­cord 2.0T Tour­ing ver­sus A4 Ul­tra is sim­ple: The Audi’s $2,420 price pre­mium over the Honda and the ex­tra fea­tures the Ac­cord has that the A4 doesn’t aside, is the Honda a bet­ter lux­ury car?

Ver­dict: It’s close, but at this 40 grand price point the Ac­cord Tour­ing is a more con­vinc­ing lux­ury car. “Audi does a su­perb job of dress­ing up the A4 to keep your eyes away from the cost-sav­ing mea­sures,” Evans said, “but when you dig even a lit­tle bit, you find them.” That, cou­pled with its im­per­fect road man­ners, sinks the Audi. The Ac­cord, on the other hand, makes a strong ef­fort at defin­ing the lux­ury ex­pe­ri­ence. It’s not per­fect, but it does just about ev­ery­thing a lit­tle bet­ter. It’s nicer to drive, more so­phis­ti­cated, and more re­ward­ing to spend time in. Is lux­ury worth it? Some­times. But in this case, the main­stream is lux­ury. n

FIRST IM­PRES­SIONS The Honda Ac­cord and Audi A4 wel­come their driv­ers in dif­fer­ent ways. The Honda (top) is open and airy, and the Audi feels like clas­sic Ger­man cool.

SLEIGHT OF HAND Audi does a killer job at keep­ing your eyes on the ex­pen­sive parts of the A4 and away from the cheap bits be­low the dash. The vis­ual tricks are less ef­fec­tive in back.

BIG SPENDER Honda does a re­mark­able job of mak­ing the Ac­cord feel up­scale. The three high-res dis­plays—the in­fo­tain­ment, in­stru­ment clus­ter, and Hud—add to that im­pres­sion.

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