Seldom has a car been introduced into a maelstrom of controversy the way the upcoming 2017 Audi A4 has. With one of its engines the notorious 2.0-liter TDI "clean-diesel" that has been the touchpoint of a global firestorm centering around circumvented emissions standards, the newest-generation A4 has a heavy millstone hanging from its neck even before it comes to America next year. But perhaps that is a blessing in disguise, because we have to believe that by the time the car arrives the dirty diesel controversy will be just a fading memory, and then we can concentrate on the new A4 itself. The good news is there is so much to like about the upcoming version that it is a bit of a shame that the emissions scandal has intruded upon it. And given the tenor of the times we expect a substantial portion of the coverage will concentrate on how much driving the car can do all by itself. Yes, the dawn of fully autonomous driving is a "thing," but the fact is with a car that offers this much driving pleasure, why let the car's electronic systems have all the fun?

Impressive levels of driver-assistance

Okay, we broached the subject, so let's get the driver-assistance stuff out of the way, because the ability of the new, ninth-generation A4 to drive itself in some situations is truly impressive. For example, if you hate the repetitive tedium of commuting in heavy traffic, Audi has a solution that enables the A4 literally to drive itself in those situations. When you combine Audi active lane assist to keep you between the white lines with Stop&Go active cruise control, you have a system that accelerates, brakes and steers without driver input. In stop-and-go traffic on streets and highways with distinct lane markers, the A4 does a remarkable job of responding to the ebb and flow of traffic with appropriate applications of accelerator and brake all while keeping itself in the chosen lane without requiring steering input from the driver. The system will take the A4 all the way down to a full-stop if necessary without manually applying the brakes, and when traffic allows the car will accelerate up to a proper speed while maintaining an interval between it and the car in front of it. All it asks is that you touch the steering wheel occasionally to let it know that you haven't left to buy a sandwich. 

To accomplish its magic the system takes into account a variety of inputs such as road markings, street signs, the traffic ahead and the speed at which you would like to proceed should all others things be equal. (Sadly, they rarely are.) The system relies on the signals from two radar sensors, ultrasound sensors and the front camera to guide the car using the lane markings and other vehicles on the road for orientation. When the A4 climbs to 40.4 mph, the traffic thins out or a sharp curve looms ahead, the driver is required to take over the steering duties with ample warning, but the adaptive cruise control can maintain speed and interval all the way up to 155.3 mph, the A4's top speed.

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Safety systems that include collision prevention

While we expect the traffic-minder system to be optional (some aspects only are available with automatic transmission), we expect every A4 available in America to feature Audi pre sense city as standard equipment. This safety feature uses the windshield-mounted camera to scan the scene in front of it for vehicles, pedestrians and objects. If it detects something untoward within its range of 100 meters (328.1 feet) indicating an imminent collision, the driver receives a rapidly escalating series of warnings. If he or she doesn't heed those alerts the car will take over and apply its brakes at 100-percent braking force. That's probably harder than you would hit the brakes, and the result is that at speeds under about 25 mph the collision will most likely be avoided. At higher speeds, there is a strong possibility of a crash occurring, but because the car decelerates rapidly before impact it won't be as bad as it would otherwise.

Happily, there is much more to the 2017 Audi A4 than just a car that will help mitigate accidents and nearly drive and park itself. (Yeah, it does that too.) First of all, it looks great inside and out, continuing in what has become a long tradition of beautiful but purposeful designs from Audi. The car is a trifle longer, a bit wider and about the same height as the previous version, and that contributes to its visual appeal. The exterior is also freshened with redesigned headlights and a well-chiseled face. The decision to drop incandescent headlights enabled Audi designers to bring down the size of the exterior lighting significantly with positive aesthetic effects. Bi-xenon is now the low-level headlight with LED headlights more widely available across the line.

Virtual cockpit brings configurability

Inside the A4 offers a well-polished design that works as well as it looks. Headlining the interior is the Audi virtual cockpit that features a 12.3-inch high-res (1,440 x 540 pixels) LCD monitor with graphics so good that it is hard a first glance to grasp that the traditional-looking tach/speedometer instrument array is an electronic display rather than real, discrete instruments. To those who say, "Why didn't Audi just use real instruments?" the answer is the virtual cockpit video screen offers scores of combinations and permutations so you can customize what you want to see and, to an extent, where you want to see it. And, mind you, the virtual cockpit refers to the screen in front of the driver. That screen is supplemented by a more traditional display center-mounted on the dashboard and a head-up display.

Audi's infotainment system, MMI, goes to a new level of sophistication in the A4. Three different TFT displays feature bigger icons than before, and navigation can be accomplished via a rotary controller and/or touchpad on the console. The heating/ventilation/air conditioning system features capacitive touch switches that respond more like mechanical switches for more feedback and response. It is relatively easy to set up pre-sets and then toggle through them. MMI Navigation adds two card readers, voice control and a navigation function. The top-o'-the-line MMI Navigation plus with MMI touch includes 10 gigabytes of flash storage, a DVD drive, Audi connect services for three years, a more sophisticated voice-control system that understands those with vocal challenges, plus a 8.3-inch monitor.

The interior has exceptionally comfortable and adjustable front seats and a back seat that is excellent for two adults. For both sturdiness and light weight, the sporty steering wheel is constructed over a magnesium frame, and if you are a fan of mood-lighting the interior offers up a palette of 30 interior colors, one which will probably make you look younger and better-looking.

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Possesses a fun-to-drive nature

You probably wouldn't choose Venice (yes, Venice, Italy) as a prime driving location -- the roads are a bit, shall we say, damp -- but that is where Audi decided to show off the new A4. And odd as it sounds, the country roads and Autostrada on the mainland adjacent to that magical city were indeed excellent places for us to put the A4 to the test. The autonomous-drive features we sampled were truly remarkable, but we have to admit our favorite portions of the drives came when throwing the new A4 with its 2.0-liter TFSI turbocharged gasoline engine and heavily revised suspension around narrow corners on the Italian country lanes. In those situations the car was truly in its element, providing old-school feedback while attaining a level of road-holding previous versions couldn't match.  

While we applaud the A4's future-think driver-assist safety array, we would also like to believe that human-piloted vehicles with the A4's capabilities to respond quickly to human-initiated inputs will continue well into the Brave New World. We look forward to driving the 2017 Audi A4 -- versus having it drive us -- when it comes to these shores after the first of the year.

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