The Audi A4 competes against the BMW 3-series and to a lesser extent the Mercedes-Benz C-Class.
The third generation A4, produced from 2002 to 2008 was offered in three different body styles — a sedan, wagon (known as the Avant) and a convertible (named Cabriolet). Each variant had a choice of engines and drive trains, including Audi's well-known quattro all-wheel-drive system.
Although Audi does not yet enjoy the cachet of BMW in the US, it competes on a more equal footing in Europe, where it enjoys similar sales volume to BMW and Mercedes-Benz.
Like so many cars, the A4 has gradually grown in size with each new generation. In fact the A3, Audi's entry-level car that has only been on sale in the US since 2006, is not that much smaller than an A4 from the 1990s.
The A4 featured here was the first model in this near-luxury segment to offer a continuously variable transmission (CVT) on the Cabriolet and the front-drive sedan with the 3.0-liter V-6. It was an option on the 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine. The CVT "shifts" more smoothly and delivers better fuel economy than a traditional fixed-ratio automatic transmission. However, it takes some getting acquainted to, as it feels as though the transmission is slipping when accelerating hard. This probably explains why owners have complained of the four-cylinder A4's being slow off the line.
Quattro versions of the A4 came with a manual transmission or a regular six-speed automatic transmission. The high-performance S4, powered by a naturally aspirated V-8, first appeared in this generation body style in 2004. It was later joined by an even more powerful (and very expensive) limited edition RS4 in 2006.
Halfway through the 2005 model year, the A4 received a facelift, and the four-cylinder engine capacity was upped to 2.0 liters. The V-6 also increased in capacity to 3.2 liters.
Audi had a mixed reputation until a few years ago, but every indication is that A4 models from this period were above average in reliability. Indeed in 2008, when auto manufacturers saw their US sales plummet, Audi fared better than almost every company, resulting in an increase in its market share in the US.
An all-new A4 entered the market, as a 2009 model, in the latter part of 2008. As you would expect, it is slightly larger and has more powerful engines than the preceding version.
1. 2003 Audi A4 1.8T
Automatic, 57,000 miles
Approximate value: $14,500 (Dec. 2008)
Owner: Oscar, male, age: 18
This clean A4 had just been purchased from a nearby Honda dealership by Oscar, a 19-year-old college student. He paid $14,000 for it, which was a reasonable retail price for a car from a dealer, especially as it included a limited three-year warranty. The car had leather seats and Xeon headlights but was only a front-drive not a quattro model.
Within a couple of weeks, he found the car was sometimes difficult to start when cold and had a rough idle at times. He planned to take it back to the dealer to have it checked out. Other than that he was pleased with the car. "I'd rather have more power, but the fuel economy is good." One downside to buying this car from a non-Audi dealership was that there was no history available as it had not been serviced there.
Overall, the car was clean, and apart from a small, barely visible, dent in the left rear fender, the car was blemish free. It drove well, without any noticeable squeaks. It felt tight despite its mileage. I had to agree with Oscar that the CVT (continuously variable transmission) sapped much of the fun, especially when accelerating from a stop. Having driven an A4 with a manual shifter, it is much more satisfying, if you don't mind doing the shifting.
2. 2006 Audi S4
Automatic, 46,000 miles
Approximate value: $32,000 (Dec. 2008)
Owner: Travis, male, age: 19
The S4 is a high performance version of the A4 that is revered by car enthusiasts. It was therefore a bit disconcerting to find this example in pretty poor shape for a two-year old car. Travis, a young student, said the car had been in the family for 18 months, and his mother had been driving it before he took over ownership when he moved away to college.
The V-8 engine delivers tons of power, so even with an automatic the car has plenty of get-up-and-go. Mechanically the car appeared fine — the steering was tight, the car tracked well, and the brakes stopped the car swiftly.
The car's poor shape was more a cosmetic problem, as there were several dings on the body, and the wheels were scuffed from hitting curbs. The front seats were badly stained, as were the carpets. It would take a considerable amount of work to tidy up the car and make it look the way it should.
This was not the sort of car I would recommend to someone who would take pride in ownership. On the other hand, this could be a good deal, when it comes on the market, for someone looking for a bargain performance car that had not been mechanically beaten. That's as long as they do not mind renovating it with new seats and maybe even a re-spray. In the long term, a car like an S4 should become a classic with some inherent value beyond that of an ordinary A4.
3. 2004 Audi A4 Avant 1.8T quattro
Automatic, 48,000 miles
Asking price: $17,000 (Jan. 2009)
Owner: Monique, female, age: 40+
Although the Avant (station wagon) version of the A4 is fairly rare, it makes a lot of sense as a used car buy as it is a very practical car that loses none of the handling or performance characteristics of the sedan.
Monique, a 40-something executive in private education, agrees. "It has a luxury feel, it is easy to drive, it fits my body, it's functional, elegant, sturdy and solid. I love my wagon." A neat person, she had stuff carefully arranged under the cover in the trunk when we saw the car.
Although the car had not been driven for a few days, it started instantly and sounded good. A drive showed that it retained its solid feel with no mechanical squeaks or rattles. There was, however, some rattling of the rear cargo cover, and Monique said that occasionally the sunroof cover squeaked.
The car was in good condition, with no signs of wear except for some buttons on the dashboard where the matte black finish had worn off. Externally there were some small scratches on the bumper in the rear, and a couple of the wheels had scuff marks from where she had touched curbs. It's almost unavoidable on cars like this, where the wheels are as wide as the tires.
Overall, she had been very pleased with the Avant, which she had owned since new. She had no major problems with the car although some electronic components and the driver side window motor had been replaced. The glove box hinge had also broken. Everything was covered under the original and extended warranty — she praised her local Audi dealer who had taken care of her without fuss.
In case you're wondering why she was selling the car — it was because she was driving less and could not justify the monthly payment in today's economy. She planned to downsize and buy a small used economy car. Her loss would be someone else's gain.
Audi was the company that popularized the idea of equipping cars with permanent all-wheel-drive systems for increased traction in dry, as well as inclement weather, conditions. Audi certainly changed the face off rallying with the original Quattro. While Subaru is the only company that fits all its cars with all-wheel-drive, Audi offers it as an option, and it is taken up by over 80% of buyers of the A4.
Subaru sales tend to be strongest in snowy areas of the country, but Audi's sales are more evenly spread, and they seem to be especially popular in cities with universities and colleges.
The sedan was by far the most popular A4 body style, with 80% of sales during this period. The other 20% was fairly evenly split between the Cabriolet and the Avant. Half of the A4s sold during this period were powered by the four-cylinder engine and just over a third with the V-6. The S4 represented around 14% of sales. As far as transmissions go, it was pretty much a three-way split between manual, CVT and automatic.
Thanks to Audi's improved image and reliability, newer A4s depreciate more slowly than older Audi models. They still don't tend to hold their value as well as BMWs, which makes an Audi less expensive than a BMW to purchase on the used car market.
The Audi A4 has improved, as well as grown slightly larger, with each generation. It is now more than ever worthy of consideration alongside a BMW 3-series or Mercedes-Benz C-Class.
Like a BMW, the A4 tends to appeal to those who enjoy driving. As most A4s come with the quattro all-wheel-drive system, they are a very practical sporty car for use in areas of the country subject to bad weather.
Aside from fuel economy considerations, the base A4 with a four-cylinder engine and the CVT is the least desirable model. If you can afford it, the S4 is a fabulous sporty sedan. The RS4 even more so, but it is a rare beast.
Reliability issues appear to be largely a thing of the past with this generation A4, as it has performed well in consumer surveys.
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