When the ninth-generation Audi A4 was revealed back in September, at the Frankfurt Auto Show, it was a bit of a shock. The platform the previous-generation A4 was riding on was approaching a decade of service, which led to the idea that Audi was taking their time and cooking up something big for this A4. What the public ended up getting was a new car that was hardly distinguishable from its predecessor. No extreme makeover. No groundbreaking design language. After eight years and a brand-new car from the ground up, what sat on the Audi stand at Frankfurt looked like a mild refresh. Some may say that’s boring, lethargic engineering. The 2017 A4 is anything but. The understated evolution on the outside only serves to highlight the revolution in tech and design on the inside.

Understated luxury: it’s what Audi aims for and takes pride in. And in the inevitable pissing contest where the equivalent BMW and Mercedes line up on either side, “understated luxury” is Audi’s strangest argument. At first glance, a Mercedes C-Class, with all its swoops, flowing lines, even the massive tri-pointed star on the grille, exudes luxury. And if you’ve ever driven a Mercedes, it follows through on its promise of a rich experience. The outside advertises the inside. A BMW 4-Series’s sharp, brash cuts, fins and side vents imply lightweight, focused performance. Whether that’s what you get — well, that’s a discussion for a different day. In direct contrast, the 2017 A4’s evolutionary design does more of what Audi does best. The simplicity of design is refreshing — a breather, even. New for 2017, Audi moved the hood-shut line down onto the fender to meet with the now-sharper crease that runs the length of the car, camouflaging the panel gap and cleaning up the hood’s surface. It seems simple but having a clamshell-style hood meet a body line like that takes incredibly precise engineering (especially on a mass-produced car).

2017 Audi A4 Specs

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Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-four
Transmission: Seven-speed S-Tronic; permanent all-wheel-drive
Horsepower: 252 brake horsepower
Torque: 273 lb-ft
0-60 mph: 5.7 seconds
MPG: 22/30, city/highway
MSRP: $45,900 (as tested)

And it’s that attention to detail on the finer attributes that translates to the interior. But actual cabin experience — the driver-car interaction — leaves you with a sense that you should have this level of luxury all day, every day. To frame it better, a Mercedes’ interior is fantastic, but it’s almost too opulent and feels more like a treat than your day-to-day standard. The A4’s interior doesn’t shout anything at you. Your reward comes in noticing how ergonomically perfect the cabin is; how extra “ambient air vents” were added to the passenger-side dash so there were no unsightly breaks in the line; how the brushed aluminum or wood door trim is frameless on the leather (another feat that takes absurdly precise engineering). Where Audis of old were seen as boring and dull, the new A4 is a designer’s car, full of smart lines and clever detailing.

Whether it’s design, handling or in-cabin luxuries you want, the A4 takes care of you

One of the biggest changes to the new A4 stares you right in the face, quite literally. Audi’s new virtual cockpit rids the dash of physical dials, instead offering a versatile 1440 × 540, 60-frame-per-second display that offers multiple screen setups allowing the driver to choose its priority. It made navigating the serpentine backroads of Southern California much easier with minimized dials and an enlarged 3D map. But the biggest advancement for the A4 is the plethora of driver assists brought down from the mighty Q7. Adaptive Cruise Control with Traffic-jam Assist, Active Lane Assist, automatic high beams, traffic-sign recognition (it uses cameras to detect and read speed limit signs, adjusting the cruise control accordingly), Turn Assist which warns you if you’re turning left at a light and there’s oncoming traffic, and Vehicle Exit Assist which uses cameras to warn you if there is a cyclist or a car approaching from behind as you exit the car — all top-level luxury tech handed down from Audi’s upper echelon.

For as driver-focused as the new A4 is, I still wouldn’t call it a driver’s car though. Make no mistake, being down a couple hundred pounds from the previous generation, ditching the slow CVT transmission for the S-Tronic, all rooted through Quattro AWD, the A4 can take a corner, and well. It’s an Audi, so of course it’s going to handle well. What they’ve been able to do with Quattro AWD and traction management systems beggars belief. But a driver’s car provides subtle tactile feedback. The A4’s steering felt numb and the throttle seemed detached; suggestions rather than direct inputs. It was hard to tell exactly where the car was on the road, yet it always seemed to be where it needed to be. Which is why Audi makes great-handling cars that can be driven by everyone: they know better than you or I do. Just let the car do its thing.

Whether it’s design, handling or in-cabin luxuries you want, the A4 takes care of you. A theme of subtle class and refinement runs throughout the car. With sheet metal and crisp interior design, the A4 quietly rewards its driver. After all, you’re the one who bought the car, so why should all the best bits be on the outside of the car?