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Car reviews - Audi - A4 - 2.0 Multitronic sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Transmission, build quality, equipment, price
Room for improvement
Rear legroom, dark interior, manual seat adjustment

24 Apr 2003

IT'S been long way to the top for Audi, but the German company is getting perilously close with its latest A4.

With its finely honed style, increasing use of aluminium in engine and suspension and - most importantly - what is arguably the best automatic transmission in the world, the A4 is something of a standout in a market segment that is not short of impressive cars.

It competes with the likes of Mercedes-Benz C-class and BMW 3 Series and, along with these, stands pretty well clear of the rest - except, arguably, for the A4's close relation, the VW Passat.

The A4 is a nicely honed, compact prestige saloon with a sporting bent. In base form, it is front-wheel drive where the two major German contenders are rear-wheel drive but, unlike Benz and BMW, it offers a choice of all-wheel drive further up the model chain.

The base A4 uses a new, aluminium-blocked 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine that makes up for a deficit in kiloWatts with decent torque output.

The cylinder-head layout uses the familiar Audi five-valve configuration, with continuously variable timing on the inlet camshaft. It is also arranged differently to most front-drive engines in that it's located north-south in the engine compartment, making for easier adaptation to four-wheel drive because the rear drive can be taken straight off the back of the gearbox.

But the standout feature of the A4 is the new Multitronic transmission.

It's a continuously variable transmission (CVT) using tapered pulleys and belts to seamlessly slide between the lowest and highest ratios, ensuring that exactly the right ratio is selected at all times.

CVTs are far from new and they are not yet universally accepted, but Audi's is the first to have the capacity to cope with relatively high torque figures (up to 300Nm) and, as a result, is also available with the A4's 3.0-litre V6. It is not yet specified for all-wheel drive Audis, however.

Combine this technology with the A4's sportily-inclined chassis, responsive steering and a relatively light, slick aerodynamic body (the Cd figure is a low 0.28) and it's not surprising that Audi has finished up with an eminently driveable four-door.

The transmission always colours any overriding impressions of the A4.

Considering it is always able to find the perfect ratio for the occasion, and there's no gearchange to create any pause in the rate of acceleration, it's no surprise that Audi says it will actually outperform the manual version.

The Multitronic simply sets the engine speed to match what's being asked by the driver. If it's full-bore acceleration, the tacho swings up to the sweet spot where the engine is delivering its best power and torque, and stays there. It feels like constant clutch slip, except there's nothing slipping at all as the belts work their way along the tapered pulleys.

And if the driver wishes to exert some control, say when descending a long downhill gradient, it's possible to manually select and hold any one of six artificially created steps that emulate the characteristics of a conventional gearbox.

The whole operation is always beautifully smooth, whether gently nudging the car along, or digging deep into its power and torque. And, if the Multitronic overwhelmingly defines the car, at least the rest of the package is a suitable compliment.

The latest A4 was introduced mid-way through 2001 and adopted the crisp, aerodynamic theme employed in the bigger A6 model. The Audi, compared with Passat, errs more towards German utilitarianism, towards a more sporting character.

The Passat was once seen as a cheaper equivalent to A4 because it used essentially identical running gear (except the rear suspension), but the A4 has stepped clear of these comparisons through the adoption of alloy components in its fully independent suspension, as well as increased use of magnesium and plastics.

Audi says the proportion of steel and iron in the new car has been cut by up to 7.5 percent compared with the previous A4, all of which is reflected in the 2.0-litre's skimpy 1310kg.

The A4's cabin offers more knee room for both front and rear passengers, as well as better head and shoulder room, and boot capacity has increased to a decent 445 litres. But the wheelbase remains shorter than that of the Passat, meaning rear-seat legroom is not class leading.

The cabin tends to be presented in a more austere fashion than that of the Passat, which is in keeping with the slightly clinical approach. The instruments glow red at night and there are plenty of dark tones and matt black where the Passat tends to favour lighter colours and the odd splash of stainless steel.

The quality seems impeccable and there's a responsible approach to safety with dual front airbags, front side airbags and full-length headbags standard on all models.

There's also no lack of equipment, with climate-control air-conditioning, cruise control, CD stacker, heated rearview mirrors and trip computer all standard, as well as a split-fold rear seat to maximise use of that 445-litre boot. The front seats are manually adjusted, however.

If the A4 driver wants to take things further it's possible to specify bigger, 17-inch alloy wheels, 20mm lower sports suspension and sports seats that locate and hug driver and passengers more snugly. The firmed-up sports suspension and larger, low-profile tyres sharpen up the handling without overly detracting from ride comfort.

In standard form (the base A4 comes with 6.5 x 15-inch alloy wheels using 195/65-section tyres), the A4 is a quite handy, responsive performer with accurate steering, very good ride quality and strong, four-wheel disc brakes.

Brake Assist, which adds more oomph to braking in emergencies, is standard, as is Electronic Brake-force Distribution. This apportions effort between front and rear wheels according to weight transfer and distribution. The ABS system is, of course, four-channel, meaning each wheel reacts individually according to the available road grip.

On top of that, all A4s come with Electronic Stability Program, which does its best to keep the vehicle on track in the case of a driver misdemeanour it will automatically correct an oversteer of understeer situation.

The A4 is a rewarding car to drive and the rewards become more enticing as you move towards the top-end of the range, where constant four-wheel drive and a new all-alloy 3.0-litre V6 demand a price nudging $90,000.

Considering this, the 2.0-lire Multitronic version at around $50,000 is something of a bargain. In fact, it keeps Audi at a price point quite comfortably below its German opposition.

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