The time when cars will routinely drive by themselves creeps ever closer – probably in the next five years, definitely in the next ten.
But prestige brand Audi is heralding a system in its new generation A4 compact executive model that the company says is “just one step back from autonomous driving”.
It’s called Traffic Jam Assist, is part of the vehicle’s adaptive cruise control set-up and operates at speeds up to 38mph.
Activate it and the system takes over by scanning the area around the car with sensors, gauging what’s ahead, behind and to the side of you and even steers itself round obstacles like parked cars.
Technology like this, which comes as part of an optional Tour package on the new A4, is a key feature in Audi’s quest for even more sales in one of the automotive scene’s fiercest battlegrounds.
And the good news is that the new model comes with a shedload of standard kit, though you have to pay extra for delights like the Audi Virtual Cockpit – used in the TT and R8 sports cars – with its pin-sharp 12.3-inch LCD display.
The A4 isn’t all about driver aids and creature comforts though, and while it looks uncannily like the previous model, Audi insists that everything has changed bar the name.
There’s definitely a bit more aggression up front with a lower singleframe grille, and the car’s stylish profile is maintained even though there’s now better headroom and extra legroom, without affecting boot space.
When it hits UK streets on November 21 the newcomer, now in its ninth generation and with 40 years of development in the bag, will cost from £25,900.
Beneath the bonnet is a choice of seven engines – three TFSI petrol and four TDI diesels, plus three trim grades in SE, Sport and S line.
Their power output has increased significantly and ranges from 150PS to 272PS, but fuel consumption is cut and CO2 emissions dip below 100g/km in the 2.0 TDI ultra SE saloon at £29,150.
The powertrain and the chassis of the new A4, and its Avant estate stablemate, have been redeveloped and in the case of the cars’ automatic transmissions there’s now a fuel-saving freewheeling function.
An appreciably lighter weight also makes the saloon up to 21 per cent more fuel efficient.
We drove a 190PS 2.0-litre TDI diesel model in top grade S line trim and with 7-speed S tronic auto transmission on a test route that took in the best part of 100 miles of A-roads and country lanes around the Cotswolds.
This variant, which costs £33,345 before options – of which there were many – is likely to prove among the most popular, and it’s easy to appreciate why.
Sweet, agile and relaxing to drive, the car handles beautifully, is well sealed acoustically and also feels wind resistant.
Standard kit on every car includes 17-inch alloy wheels, xenon headlights with LED daytime running lights, a new smartphone interface which supports Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, keyless go, Bluetooth, Audi drive select, a 7-inch MMI colour display and three-zone climate control.
The bar may be set higher than ever, but with its style, build quality and sensors working overtime, the new A4 is ideally placed to raise it another notch.
Prices are from £25,900 for the A4 1.4 TFSI 150PS 6-speed manual SE saloon rising to £38,950 for the 272PS 3.0 TDI quattro 8-speed tiptronic.