Perhaps the most appealing Audi ever.

by Tony Swan

Audi's TV ads portray the slick new A4 sedan as some sort of road rocket.

We'd say that's a bit of a stretch.

When it comes to pinning occupants against the seat backs, it's not quite in the hunt with a car like the new BMW 328i, its prime competitor.

Nevertheless, this is a compelling little sport sedan, strong in the other virtues that still set German cars apart from the rest of the herd -- decisive handling, superb high-speed stability and terrific brakes.

And in the case of our test car, there's the Audi Quattro extra of all-wheel drive, with an electronic locking center differential.

Although Subaru also sells all-wheel drive cars, Audis are the only sedans in the luxury end of the spectrum to offer this feature, and it's a big plus. Yes, two-wheel drive traction control systems are closing the gap in this area, but when the going gets slick we'd still rather have all four wheels making the most of whatever grip there may be.

Walkaround

All this and good looks, too. BMW's beautifully proportioned 3-Series cars are still the design pacesetters in this realm, but the A4 is a graceful piece of work, with a distinctive presence of its own -- not quite as aggressive as the Bimmers, but smoothly purposeful nonetheless.

In fact, this strikes us as the best-looking design to come out of an Audi studio since the radical aero look of the Audi 5000 back in 1985.

One area where the A4 does run neck and neck with the BMW is price.

Even though Audi has been fighting its way back in the U.S. market with pricing rollbacks, you still pay a premium for that German pedigree and Autobahn breeding.

The A4's $26,500 base price isn't the sort of number that would make you clutch your heart, but when you start adding goodies like the $1550 Quattro system -- it's now available as a free-standing option on all Audi cars -- the bottom line inflates quickly.

You could get better straight-ahead performance and more room behind the front seats in a number of less expensive cars -- the Pontiac Bonneville SSEi, Pontiac Grand Prix SE, Oldsmobile LSS and Nissan Maxima SE, for example.

But people obviously don't buy Audis and BMWs strictly on a basis of value. There's that old prestige intangible involved here, and when you look at competing makes that factor prestige into their pricing -- BMW, Mercedes, Cadillac, Lexus, Infiniti and so on -- the A4 stacks up as a pretty good buy.

So let's talk nuts, bolts and floorpans.

Introduced late last year, the A4 is the direct descendant of the Audi 90, a car that never quite caught on here, due in part to its high price.

Direct descendant doesn't mean freshened-up in this application. Although a few Audi 90 components found their way into the A4, this is basically an all-new car -- redesigned exterior, interior, suspension and chassis.

The A4 is a bit shorter than the 90, and it's also an inch and a half wider, lending a more aggressive look to its stance, and its much stiffer chassis lends real authority to its reflexes.

Suspension tuning is a trifle softer than the 328i, and even though BMW has also taken some of the suspension starch out of its recent sedan offerings, the A4 gets the edge in ride quality.

The Inside Story

Like its exterior, the A4's interior design suggests a little less preoccupation with sportiness and more with comfort. It doesn't convey that fighter plane cockpit feeling that's common to BMWs, even though the instruments and secondary controls glow a lurid red at night.

Similarly, the seats don't have quite as much of the race-ready side-bolstering you find in BMWs.

But the other side of this is outstanding comfort, short hauls or long. The A4 seats are among the best, and during a recent cold snap the nether regions of our anatomies told us the optional seat heaters are indispensable.

They're part of a $450 all-weather package that also includes heaters for the windshield washer nozzles and driver's door lock -- well worth the money, in our opinion.

Elegant as it is, with its tasteful strip of walnut across the lower dash, the Audi's interior does have its weak points.

Tops on this list is wind noise, which seems to emanate from the outside mirrors. It gets distinctly audible at about 50 mph or so, and it's a surprising flaw from a company that's put so much work into aerodynamics.

The cupholders, consisting of two abbreviated vertical supports with elliptical inner edges, are another source of irritation. They fold down into the housing that surrounds the gearshift, and from a cosmetic point of view it's a slick piece of design work. Unfortunately, they don't hold cups very well -- too close together, no lateral support for the cups.

Another element that's sure to draw gripes is rear seat leg room. Although the A4's extra width provides extra elbow room fore and aft, the rear seat is otherwise cramped.

However, the same can be said, in varying degrees, for most cars in this size class, including the 328i.

Small irritations notwithstanding, the A4 is a very appealing sport sedan with a high level of fit and finish quality. It's not inexpensive, but it's competitive for this class and there's plenty of comfort-convenience equipment baked into the base price, including power windows with a one-touch feature both down and up. One-touch up is a nice little extra we wish American manufacturers would add.

At $31,760, our test car may seem a trifle dear. But trimming the option list -- the leather seats ($1280), sunroof ($990) and premium Bose sound system ($640), for example -- gets the bottom line under $30,000 and still includes the Quattro system.

And that adds up to a better-than-average buy in a small luxury sport sedan.

Ride & Drive

On the road, you can still feel the underlying Teutonic firmness, but there's enough resilience to iron out most of the nasty little lumps and bumps that can make routine driving unpleasant. The plus that goes with firm suspension is reduced body roll and weight transfer in quick maneuvers, which adds up to good control.

Precise steering enhances a driver's sense of control in any car, and the A4's power rack and pinion steering gear is better than most.

Like so many power steering units offered today, it has variable assist -- the amount of power assist decreases as speed increases, enhancing the driver's sense of road feel.

Unlike most variable assist setups, however, the A4's level of steering assist at low speed doesn't overpower feel. The driver still gets tactile information from the steering wheel even at parking lot speeds, and it's devoid of on-center numbness.

The action of the five-speed manual transmission doesn't get the same kind of marks. Engagements are generally crisp and positive, but getting the car into reverse requires the driver to squash down on the top of the lever before making the throw, and the whole mechanism feels stiff on winter mornings.

Audi offers an optional five-speed automatic in the A4, and it's a dandy. Although a manual transmission will always make the most of available engine power, the tradeoff with this automatic is minimal. It even delivers an extra mile per gallon in highway cruising.

Which brings us to the subject of available engine power.

The A4's 172-hp 2.8-liter single overhead cam V-6 engine, which is also used in the bigger A6 sedan, is long on manners with its smooth, quiet operating traits.

But as suggested at the top, it's not the kind of engine that sends a driver's pulse rate soaring when he or she wants to make a quick exit. Real urgency doesn't seem to occur until the tachometer needle hits 4500 rpm.

Audi will add a neat little 20-valve four-cylinder turbo -- that's right, five valves per cylinder -- to the A4's North American powertrain inventory late this year, but its main impact will be to lower the car's base price rather than its zero-to-60 times.

Even with a turbocharger, the four-cylinder engine makes only 150 horsepower, so the V-6 will continue to be the hottest setup, and zero-to-60 will continue to take about eight seconds, which is not exactly sluggish.

Final Word

The A4 is a key player in Audi's effort to revive its fortunes in the North American market, and that TV ad calls it a "stunning achievement in German engineering."

Again, that's a little bit of a stretch. But even so, the A4 looks very much like a winner.

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© 1996 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

Copyright © 1994-2009 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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