An appealingly affordable European. by Ray Thursby
Providing luxurious transportation in a tidy package has become a lucrative business for many manufacturers. A wide range of choices are available, with a price spread equally broad. European offerings in this realm are generally more expensive, but have their own special appeal. Although Volvo threatens to break out of its conservative mold with its new replacements for the 850 line, the BMW 3-Series and Mercedes C-Class sedans are the major players.
Audi has long contended in this niche, but none of its past entries have combined charm, style and value as desireably as the year-old A4. And U.S. buyers have responded to this sleek small Audi, pushing the company's sales up to levels it hasn't enjoyed for many years.
Like its German rivals, the A4 adds sporty flair to expected luxury trimmings in an effort to appeal to driving enthusiasts. And for 1997 a new model -- the 1.8T -- expands the A4's appeal even farther by combining existing features and virtues with an innovative powerplant at a lower price.
Few sedans can match the A4 for clean, distinctive styling. In profile, it displays a definite but neatly rounded wedge shape, minimal front and rear overhangs and large glass areas. Nose and tail are equally clean, dominated by lighting and, in front, a large understated air inlet. You won't see any extraneous trim; the designers have chosen to let a strong basic form speak for itself. Although it's executed on a small scale, we think this is arguably the most graceful design from Audi in decades, and a strong rival to the BMW 318i and 328i in appearance.
From the outside, there is little to distinguish the 1.8T -- the new low-price version -- from its more expensive (base price, including destination, $27,930) 2.8-liter V-6 sibling. Each model has its own wheel design, but that's about the only difference except for a single discreet badge in back. One small change made to all 1997 A4s is a slightly reshaped trunk lid, designed expressly to carry U.S.- and Canadian-size license plates. At present, the A4 is available only as a four-door sedan, though an attractive wagon version may arrive here in 1998.
The Inside Story
Four adequately sized doors allow easy access to a very appealing interior. The first thing that strikes a first-time passenger is the quality of materials and finish: from the leather-look dashboard to the fabric seats of our test car -- leatherette upholstery is a no-cost option -- every surface looks and feels durable and attractive. The feeling of general solidity in the A4 cabin is reinforced by the precision with which all controls operate. Experience with several A4s indicates to us that careful assembly is the rule rather than the exception.
The Audi interior is attractive and, for the most part, laid out with functionality in mind. In front of the driver, instruments monitor road and engine speed, fuel level, coolant and oil temperature and battery state. These readouts can be supplemented with an optional trip computer that displays fuel economy and other information. The only element that might be seen as a debit is the night lighting, which is a lurid red, a la BMW, but more so.
Radio controls are a little fussy (some time spent reading the owner's manual will help) but the climate control is easy to use.
Both A4 models carry an impressive list of standard features. Manual front seats have a height adjustment in addition to the expected fore/aft and backrest movements, and are thoroughly comfortable. The steering column is adjustable for both angle and reach. Power assists are standard for windows (the windows offer one-touch operation up and down, a nice addition) and door locks. A remote lock/unlock feature is optional, but we prefered using the key-in-the-door method, which also allows the operater to raise or lower the windows.
Cruise control is standard across the board, and the rear seat has a 60/40 split folding back allowing access into the roomy trunk. The 1.8T carries interior trim accents in aluminum (coated with an attractive "pixel" graphic surface); the 2.8 gets polished walnut.
Options are similar for both cars, though only the 2.8 can be ordered with leather seating ($1320). The 1.8T is available with an optional Sport package ($1000) that adds larger (16-inch) alloy wheels and tires, sport seats and steering wheel and special upholstery. Either version can be equipped with a power sunroof ($1190), All-Weather package (including heaters for the front seats, windshield washers and driver's door lock, $700)), a five-speed automatic transmission ($975) and, most desirable of all for anyone who expects to drive in less-than ideal traction conditions, the all-wheel drive "Quattro" system, a bargain at $1600.
Ride and Drive
Some people still consider the A4 a bit pricey for its class -- those who haven't taken a close look at the stickers on the competition, anyway -- but a few miles behind the wheel may change their minds. The A4's long suit is refinement, mile-eating smoothness and sure-footedness that make it a genuine pleasure to drive.
Price is the main appeal of the 1.8 Turbo. Use of a less-expensive four-cylinder powerplant has enabled Audi to reduce the bottom line without depriving the A4 of its important features. On paper, the new engine hardly seems a candidate for a cost-cutting model. With its turbocharger and unusual five-valve-per-cylinder configuration, the 1.8 looks to be more suitable for a race car than a family sedan.
In some respects, that's true. Though torque is good at low engine speeds, maximum power requires high rpm, something many U.S. drivers may find disconcerting in daily use, although we had little trouble adapting. The small powerplant is rougher and nosier than the existing V-6 as well.
That said, the 1.8 is still a nice alternative for buyers on a budget and those who like small, high-revving engines. It delivers good performance and fuel economy, and quiets down considerably at cruising speeds. For maximum refinement, it is best teamed with the optional automatic transmission, though some performance is lost in this configuration.
Nevertheless, we think most buyers will find the V-6-powered 2.8 more to their liking. It is commendably quiet in most driving situations and delivers good fuel economy. In typical European fashion, power delivery is biased toward sustained high speed rather than neck-snapping stoplight performance; even so, the 0-to-60 mph sprint takes only eight seconds or so, which isn't bad.
A five-speed manual transmission is standard equipment. While not possessed of the crispest shift linkage around, it shifts well and has gear ratios well-suited to the engine's power delivery. The optional automatic saps a little performance (adding about a half-second to 60 mph) but is otherwise an excellent alternative. Even buyers who usually choose manual gearboxes will want to check this automatic out; electronic controls adjust shift modes to suit driving conditions,
Driving pleasure in the European manner is another A4 plus. There's minimal body roll during cornering, and crisp variable-assist steering to keep the driver in contact with what the wheels are doing. Quattro models raise the enjoyment level a notch, increasing traction in situations where it's most needed, whether during brisk driving or careful motoring down a snowy lane. Despite the firm springs and shock absorbers, the A4 delivers a smooth ride. Rough pavement doesn't faze it; nor do highway expansion strips or small potholes.
In the face of formidable opposition, the small Audis continue to impress us. They are well-equipped, carefully-assembled cars that combine style, fine road manners, comfort and reasonable -- if not exciting -- performance in a reasonably priced package. If they're not the best buys in their class, either A4 certainly comes close.
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© 1997 New Car Test Drive, Inc.