We drove a $54,000 Audi A4 and a $46,000 Acura TLX A-Spec to see which luxury sedan we liked better — here’s the verdict

Our Audi A4 2.0T quattro test car.

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Our Audi A4 2.0T quattro test car.
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Hollis Johnson

With the rise of the crossover SUV, the market for compact luxury sedans isn’t what it once was. Even as the segment shrinks, competition within it remains red hot. Of all the cars we’ve driven from this segment over the past couple of years, the Audi A4 2.oT quattro and the Acura TLX A-Spec SH-AWD stand out as two of our favorites.

The A4 was the runner-up for Business Insider’s 2016 Car of the Year award while TLX A-Spec nearly finished in the top five of our 2017 awards.

The current, fifth-generation A4 was all-new for the 2017 model year. It’s the latest in a long line of successful compact luxury sedans from the Ingolstadt, Germany-based automaker.

The Acura TLX debuted in 2014 as a replacement for the compact TSX and the midsize TL. In 2017, Acura gave the sedan a mid-cycle refresh which included a brand new front end, updated infotainment, and the addition of a performance-oriented A-Spec trim level.

We recognize that the TLX A-Spec is a performance trim with V6 power while the A4 2.0T is Audi’s mainstream trim level with a turbocharged four-cylinder engine. However, both vehicles are similarly priced and with similar capabilities.

So, which one is better? Let’s find out.


First up is the Audi A4. The Audi A4 starts at $36,000 while our top-spec Prestige model carries a starting price of $45,500. A heavy dose of optional goodies pushed our all-wheel-drive test car to $54,275.

Our Audi A4 2.0T quattro test car.

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Hollis Johnson

Styling-wise, the new A4 is elegantly understated. It’s the latest evolution of the modern design language that has come to define the brand in recent years.

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Up front, Audi’s trademark hexagonal “Singleframe” grille has grown in magnitude to become even more prominent. It’s flanked by a pair of Xenon headlights with LED daytime running lamps.

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The rear end of the car is highlighted by a tastefully executed, integrated deck-lid spoiler along with LED taillights and dual exhausts.

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While the exterior of the A4 may best be described as handsomely restrained in its execution, the cabin is a high-tech masterpiece.

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Hollis Johnson

Overall, the A4’s cabin is as quiet, refined, and plush as one has come to expect from a top-line Audi product.

The black leather seats in our test car felt soft to the touch and offered more than adequate bolstering for both leisurely jaunts down the highway and dynamic drives on twisty country roads.


In front of the driver is Audi’s award-winning virtual cockpit digital information display. The 12.3-inch high-definition LCD is controlled via steering-wheel-mounted buttons located to the left of the Audi logo.

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The Virtual Cockpit is fully configurable and presents the driver with all of the requisite telemetry along with a massive navigation map and multimedia menus. Powered by an NVIDIA quad-core processor, the system’s presentation is crisp, and the operation is seamless.

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The center stack of our test car features an optional 8.3-inch touchscreen running Audi’s MMI Navigation Plus infotainment system. The A4 comes standard with a 7-inch screen.

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The center screen can also be operated using Audi’s trusty rotary controller with an integrated script pad along with a voice-command system designed to mimic the control logic of a smartphone.

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The system also features Android Auto and Apple CarPlay integration.

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Hollis Johnson

Our test car was also equipped with 4G-LTE connectivity, an optional head-up display, and a premium 19-speaker, 755-watt Bang & Olufsen sound system.

In addition, there’s a top-view camera system, adaptive cruise control, active lane-keep assist, and traffic-sign recognition.


Under the hood is a 2.0-liter, 252 horsepower, turbocharged four-cylinder engine. The A4 is also available with a 190-horsepower version of the same motor.

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The 2.0-liter turbo four is a staple across VW Group’s family of brands. The 252 horsepower engine is also found on the Audi A6 sedan as well as the Audi Q5 and Porsche Macan crossover SUVs. In our test car, the turbo four is hooked up to Audi’s terrific S tronic twin-clutch gear box that delivered near seamless shifts in all driving conditions.


So, what’s it like to drive?

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On the road, our A4 felt powerful and confident. The 2.0-liter motor delivers its 273 foot-pounds of twisting power at an easily accessible 1,600 rpm. As a result, the Audi accelerates off the line with great urgency, taking advantage of the little engine’s broad power band. According to Audi, the Quattro-equipped A4 is capable of sprinting to 60 mph in just 5.7 seconds and can reach an electronically limited top speed of 130 mph.


Next up is the Acura TLX A-Spec.

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Hollis Johnson

The base Acura TLX starts at $33,000 while the V6 all-wheel-drive A-Spec variant starts at a pricier $44,800. Since all of the car’s optional goodies came standard as part of the A-Spec trim level, our TLX had an as-tested price of $45,750 once you factor in a $950 destination fee.


Acura refreshed the TLX’s styling in 2017. And the biggest change is a new front end that replaces the company’s controversial “beak” design that defined Acura for the past decade. The new styling is interesting and a welcomed change, but far from beautiful.

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The new A-Spec trim level also features special body trim and darkened accents as well as new 19-inch wheels. The A-Spec also comes with stickier wheels and performance-tuned suspension.

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Out-back, the A-Spec receives new 4-inch dual exhausts, a decklid spoiler, and a diffuser.

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Inside, the TLX A-Spec’s performance treatment continues with well-bolstered sports seats as well as generous swaths of leather and Alcantara. The TLX is also loaded with tech.

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The TLX comes standard with autonomous emergency braking, forward collision warning, adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist, and road departure mitigation technology.

Our test car also came equipped with optional goodies like a rear cross traffic monitoring system, blind spot indicators, and a 10-speaker ELS premium audio system.


In its mid-cycle refresh, Acura made significant upgrades to the TLX’s infotainment system to give it greater functionality and improved responsiveness. The TLX’s infotainment system comprises two screens. An eight-inch top screen is controlled using a rotary dial and …

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… There’s also a seven-inch touchscreen located in the heart of the center stack. According to Acura, the touchscreen is now 30% more responsive.

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The system now features Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration which appears on the top screen. It’s a rather elegant arraignment in that you still have access to Acura’s infotainment system while using CarPlay or Android Auto.

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Our test car came equipped with a stout 290 horsepower, 3.5-liter, naturally aspirated V6 engine mated to a nine-speed automatic transmission and Honda/Acura’s trick Super-Handling All-Wheel-Drive (SH-AWD) system.

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Acura

Lower-tier TLX models come equipped with a 2.4-liter, 206 horsepower, naturally aspirated inline-four-cylinder engine mated to an eight-speed twin-clutch transmission.


So, what’s it like to drive?

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Hollis Johnson

The Acura TLX A-Spec was the sleeper hit of 2017 for us, and it’s the driving experience that won us over.

But before we go any further, I would like to clear up any misconception that the A-Spec is a track-focused road rocket like the BMW M3 or a muscle-bound four-door beast like the Infiniti Q50 Red Sport 400. It just isn’t.

The 290 horsepower under the hood is solid, but not spectacular. While its 0-60 mph time of around 6.0 seconds is quick, it’s nothing to write home about.

So why do we like it so much?

The TLX A-Spec is just plain fun to drive.

The steering is well weighted, providing good feedback, while the suspension tuning feels sporty without being so stiff that it’ll shake fillings loose on rough roads. Its torque vectoring technology sends power to the wheel that can make the best use of it. As a result, the TLX feels confident and unperturbed in corners.

And then there’s the engine. It’s not overly powerful, but it has enough juice to make things interesting.

“I thought I had more than 300 horses the entire time, testament to how that V6 in combination with a 9-speed automatic does a passable imitation of a small V8,” my colleague Matt DeBord wrote in his review of the car.

To top it all off, the exhaust system delivers a wonderfully delightful rumble when you floor the gas pedal.

Put it all together and you get a car that’s greater than the sum of its parts. A sports sedan punches above its weight.


Our verdict.

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Hollis Johnson

And the winner is…the Audi A4!

Even though the TLX A-Spec is more fun and engaging to drive than the A4, the Audi is just a bit better all around.

While we admit the Audi is less powerful and a lot more expensive than the Acura, the A4 is actually quicker to 60 mph and, in our opinion, handled a little better than the TLX.

The A4’s cabin also delivered a more premium and refined experience. And there’s the infotainment system. Even with all of the improvements, Acura’s twin-screen infotainment system still can’t run with Audi’s industry-leading MMI. The functionality, ease of use, and beautiful presentation make for a joyful experience each and every time we have come across an Audi test car. (The system is a two-time winner for our Infotainment System of the Year award, and we’ve only handed out the trophy twice.)

Overall, both cars were terrific. But to us, the Audi was virtually flawless. It really doesn’t have any real weaknesses when you look at its styling, comfort, performance, driving dynamics, technology, and ease of use. It just feels like a cohesive unit firing on all cylinders, at all times.

The Acura performed well, but apart from delivering a really fun and enthusiastic driving experience, it couldn’t overcome the A4 in any of the other categories.


One more thing …

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Hollis Johnson

With that said, the TLX is still a favorite of ours. The Acura TLX A-Spec really snuck up on us last year. It’s a terrific car. It’s fun to drive, comfortable, and exudes that rock-solid Honda/Acura build quality we have come to love. It’s also a great deal at $45,000.

After years of trying, looking for direction, we believe Honda’s premium brand has really found its niche as the purveyor of high-tech performance oriented premium automobiles. In fact, we were so impressed with the company’s NSX hybrid supercar that we give it our 2016 Car of the Year prize over the Audi A4.