The compact premium sedan segment is an interesting one. In the segment, there used to be three main players – the Audi A4, Mercedes-Benz C-Class and BMW 3-Series, but they’ve recently been joined by Audi’s stable-mate Volkswagen as well with the Passat CC, and competition, which has always been keen, has been getting more intense.

Comparisons between what car to buy in this segment has always been pretty interesting too, because of the significantly different timing of new model model launches in this segment. The difference in model launch times are more apparent because of the longer seven-year model life-cycles.

So there was a time when the B8 looked so modern and big compared to an aging E90 3-Series, but now the tables have been turned and BMW has the brand new F30, while the Audi A4 B8 that was first unveiled in August 2007 soldiers on, having just been given a facelift earlier this year.

The B8 played a huge part in starting the daytime running light craze in Malaysia and helped paved the way for a surge in Audi popularity here with the grey importers. It had the spirit of Tony Stark’s cool car, but in a practical sedan form, not to mention far more affordable than an actual R8.

Exterior cosmetic changes include a reworked bumper, which features new look angled air inlets and fog lights, restyled headlamps as well as a redesigned grille and bonnet, fringed by updated LED daytime running lights. The LED daytime running lights represent the second-generation in Audi’s DRL design. When Audi’s DRL first made its debut, it was merely a series of individual LEDs arranged in a line or whatever shape that the designers picked for that particular model.

While immensely popular, I felt this was a pretty lazy way of implementing DRL. After all, anyone could simply line individual LEDs in a row, and this technique had already been used in tail lamps for a really long time. Audi daytime running lights then evolved, and what you get now is basically like a solid tube of light, which to me is a sleeker and more mature implementation that takes more effort. It’s also far less glaring than the individual LEDs of the last generation of Audi daytime running lights.

Audi’s implementation is also a bar above its competitors because there’s minimal ‘leakage’ of light along the light tube – the lighting is consistent. Certain car manufacturers that have also implemented light tubes have light leaking from the source, which leads to an inconsistent look, much brighter at the light source and fading away to more subtle lighting further away from it.

At the back, the tail lamps reflect the shape of the headlights and the bumper, and the diffuser insert has also been redesigned to give the A4 a wider look. All in all, the A4 looks a lot more grown up now, which also causes it to look tamer than the pre-facelift model, especially in this version without the RM25,000 S-Line exterior package. If anything, it looks like a mini A6.

Inside, revisions to the refined interior include new choices of trim material and colour schemes. There’s a new paddle shift steering wheel design as well, one that feels very good in the hands. Audi Drive Select is now controlled by a single button that cycles between modes – Efficiency, Comfort, Auto and Dynamic. On the whole, there are a lot of subtle changes that uplift the interior’s ambience and perceived quality, and the interior still feels up to date.

The model on test here is the baseline 1.8 litre TFSI model, which uses a Multitronic CVT gearbox that drives the front wheels. The price tag starts at RM235,000, but the car we took out is from a batch which includes uprated Milano leather trim. The usual price for the Milano upgrade is RM8,500.

The kit list is good – six airbags, ESP, ISOFIX points, electric seats including electric lumbar support for both front seats, paddle shifts, three-zone air conditioning, an electric rear blind, xenon plus headlamps with LED DRL, Audi Symphony radio with a 6-CD changer, a six-channel 180 watt amp and 10 speakers, Bluetooth handsfree, Audi Drive Select, light sensor, rain sensor, cruise control.

If you think what’s changed on the outside is not much, you’ll be glad to hear that there’s significant changes under the hood. The Audi A4 is one of the first cars to get a motor from the third generation of the EA888 engine family.

This new 1.8 litre TFSI engine gains Audi’s Valvelift system to refine the torque curve, and an additional exhaust camshaft adjuster has been integrated. Other technical changes include a reduced main bearing diameter, balancer shafts that are in part roller bearing mounted, an optimised pressured oil circuit including a revised control oil pump as well as a weight optimised crank shaft to help reduce weight.

The third-generation EA888 1.8 litre TFSI engine also gains a completely new cylinder head that now features an integrated exhaust manifold and a water-cooled exhaust gas recirculation system fully integrated into the turbocharger. Because the engine’s exhaust gases flow through a water-cooled manifold, exhaust gas temperatures are about 158 degrees cooler by the time they reach the turbo.

The engine block itself is now casted from the conventional flat pouring to upright pouring. The block is so optimised that block wall thickness is as low as 3mm, while similiar engines can have a minimum wall thickness of about double that figure.

There is also a dual fuel injection system which allows the engine management system to switch between FSI direct injection and port MPI injection as needed. The ability to use MPI injection when necessary should ensure the valves are kept clean, as the fuel injected by the MPI injectors will help wash over the valves. Direct injectors inject directly into the combustion chamber, so the valves do not benefit from the cleaning properties of fuel.

The result is a 1.8 litre that makes 170 peak horsepower from as low as 3,800 rpm all the way up to 6,200 rpm. It’s a 10 hp bump over the old 1.8 litre. That’s an incredibly low RPM to achieve peak horsepower, which speaks of the whole package’s efficiency. Of course, there’s definitely some room for aftermarket tuning here to unleash more horsepower.

Peak torque is 320 Nm from 1,400 rpm to 3,700 rpm, which is a significant bump over the outgoing 1.8 litre’s 250 Nm – there’s only a 30 Nm gap between the 1.8 and 2.0 engines now.

However, you don’t really feel it during the driving, as Audi has used the engine’s new versatile powerband and increased torque for a more optimised CVT shift programming – the engine now keeps its revs lower for better fuel efficiency. Cruising along at 100 km/h has the rev needle pointed at below 1,500 rpm.

When all you want to do is just amble along smoothly, the CVT gearbox performs like just any other CVT, keeping the revs locked at the sweet spot of efficiency, thanks to the virtually unlimited ratio span. It feels a little weird if you haven’t driven a car with a CVT gearbox before – there’s never a real gearshift for you to perceive. And even with this being one of the best of CVTs, it somehow isn’t able to fully eliminate the rubber band effect that you get on take off.

Nudge the gear lever downwards and you can switch the gearbox into S mode, which I assume means Sports mode. It could also mean Stepped mode – this is where the CVT gearbox locks itself into eight virtual gear ratios, so you can feel it shifting along.

The feeling still isn’t really the same though. There’s no ‘kick,’ and there’s a lack of raw mechanical feel to it. I’d much prefer if Audi just gets rid of the Multitronic CVT gearbox altogether and equips its front-wheel drive models with the S Tronic gearbox that the higher end Quattro models get.

More efficiency measures include the aforementioned Efficiency mode in Audi Drive Select. In Efficiency mode, the air conditioning compressor works minimally, and gearshifts are kept to as minimum as possible. There’s also an auto start/stop system, which while just two years ago was almost non-existent in Malaysia now seems to be a feature that’s standard now across all models in this segment.

The Audi A4 is smoother when restarting than some other models, which tends to jerk forward. The A4 rocks a little when the engine restarts, but at least it doesn’t surge forward, perhaps because of the CVT on hand as opposed to a regular automatic. Last but not least, the power steering system is now powered by an electric motor instead of being driven off the crank.

The result – an average rated fuel economy of just 5.8 litres per 100 km compared to the pre-facelift model’s 7.4 litres per 100 km rating. You typically won’t be able to get paper ratings in real world, but I’m guessing the large margin of difference in even the average ratings mean the A4 has made great strides in efficiency.

I only had the car for two days and a night during the weekday, so I only travelled about 80 km in total. The average economy was about 9.5 litre per 100 km on mixed driving, with bouts of spirited driving thrown in between efficient highway runs.

The Comfort and Dynamic modes of Audi Drive Select switches the throttle, gearbox, suspension and steering mappings – the idea is to give the A4 two different personalities, according to your intended driving style. The suspension is a little firm even in Comfort setting, and I found the steering wheel to be way too light for my liking in Comfort.

Switching to Dynamic mode made the steering wheel heavier, but the suspension became too firm. I would say an acceptable sweet spot would be the steering of Dynamic, but the suspension of Comfort.

Highway stability is very good, and the car tackles corners in a pretty planted manner. While the A4 is technically competent, when it comes to the more subjective side of ‘handling’ an F30 still slices it better at feedback while on the twisties.

All in all, the update to the Audi A4 is welcome, and the car doesn’t feel too outdated next to the F30. What I don’t like about the A4 is the suspension setup that feels like firm and firmer instead of comfort and dynamic, a steering that’s too light, CVT gearboxes in general, the low screen resolution of the MMI screen that feels even more low res when you compare it to the higher resolution multi-info display screen in front of you, the cumbersome manner in which you have to adjust the aircond blower speed (press a button to toggle between temp and fan, then turn a knob) and the inability to use a generic iPod cable instead of having to purchase a special cable to hook it up to the sound system.

Things that stand out about the A4 is the high perceived interior material and build quality, a smooth turbo engine that’s very quiet thanks to pretty good NVH proofing in general, one of the better auto start stop systems, and good looks. In general, there’s nothing about the interior that makes you complain and say “aiyah, Audi is cost cutting” and that’s a very good thing, rare in fact, in this day and age.