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Car reviews - Audi - A4 - 2.0 sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Strong stance, interior redesign, engine performance, the new Multitronic auto, excellent refinement
Room for improvement
Steering vibration, some ride harshness, lack of standard equipment

25 Oct 2001

THE raw data tells no lies. Despite numerous alternatives from rival manufacturers in recent years, the spinning propeller on the nose of a BMW 3 Series has remained the badge of choice in the compact luxury market.

But how long can it last? How long can BMW, and in particular its 318i sedan, hold the gaze of those who aspire to own a European prestige sedan?

Forevermore is the answer BMW and most aspirants would give. Yet we have reason to be not so sure, for the sales charts indicate a second German marque has begun to make a strong impression on people who have $50,000 to plough into a prestige car.

And it's not Mercedes-Benz.

Long considered a viable alternative to the 3 Series and Mercedes C-class, the Audi A4 (nee Audi 80) has now entered its sixth generation and, in 2.0 Multitronic form tested here, brought with it enough excellence and innovation to start changing the status quo in the segment.

Of course the interlocking rings lack the allure of a three-pointed star or rotating blades against a blue-and-white sky. And Audi has left a trip computer, electric front seats, steering wheel controls, lumbar adjustment and rear side airbags off the standard features list.

But there is much more to this entry-level A4. A beautiful, modern appearance. Contemporary, functional cockpit. Improved space for bodies and bags. An advanced 2.0-litre engine. And technical feats such as the Multitronic continuously variable transmission (CVT).

It is a brave move, disregarding a conventional auto for front-drive A4s in favour of a CVT that requires a fair degree of familiarisation.

But like no other CVT before it - and least not in this writer's experience - the Multitronic responds with smoothness and precision to every whim of the driver and brings out the best from the 2.0-litre engine, itself no slouch with five valves per cylinder and variable valve timing.

Together, the engine and auto provide an excellent turn of speed that would cream the BMW 318i or Benz C180 autos from a standing start - and it can even run doorhandle to doorhandle with the manual version of the A4 2.0.

On a winding road, the CVT shows great adeptness in maintaining engine rpm at the desired point. On open stretches, it allows the car to cruise comfortably at just over 2000rpm, and as soon as the driver demands it, spins up to an appropriate amount of revs.

There's no noise of dissent, no hunting for gears, no thrashing, no sharp or unanticipated kickdowns - the perfect environment for the driver to appreciate the smooth and strong four-cylinder engine characteristics exhibited right across the rev range.

And there's more. A sequential manual shift selection also allows the driver to choose between six programmed gear ratios, although ultimate control rests with the car. Upshifts transpire when the tacho needle hits the 6500rpm redline and downshifts take place with a large application of right-foot pressure.

The ride and handling package is less remarkable but nonetheless well sorted.

Levels of roadholding and grip are high, however, the A4 lacks the more precise handling of its rear-drive rivals and front-end adhesion soon disappears when the driver pushes hard into a corner.

The steering, too, has good and bad moments - it's accurate but gives rise to some rattle through the rack when bumps are encountered in a turn. Ride comfort also deteriorates in circumstances such as these, though most of the time the suspension does a good job of absorbing road irregularities.

Among the highlights of the drive is the degree of refinement. Noise, in all of its manifestations bar the engine note, is kept a good distance from the occupants.

The interior is an inviting place to rest. The cabin is modern, elegant, well put together and, on the whole, cosseting and comfortable.

Tall people will find some difficulties with available space in the rear compartment, however, no such problems exist up front. The driver is particularly well catered for with a steering wheel that adjusts for reach and height, a useful seat height adjuster and a vast amount of seat travel.

The dashboard presentation is appealing, the instrument cluster simple enough to decipher speeds at a glance - at night the gauges turn white, rather than red like some other Audi instances - and the various controls on the centre console, driver's door and dash are unproblematic.

Controls mounted on the tiller would be welcome, along with other aforementioned features. But there are redeeming aspects, too, such as standard fitment of dual-zone air-conditioning, a curtain airbag extending to protect rear seat occupants, smart storage solutions up front (the CD changer stored in the glovebox, for example) and a 60/40 split-fold rear seat.

In the case of the latter, only the seatback will fold and as a result rules a flat floor from the boot to front seats out of the question. But at least the split-fold, a feature not often standard among the prestige set, is there in the first place.

True to form for most Euro constructions, the cupholder count ends at one - and this particular item includes a warning not to use anything other than soft cups and cold liquids. Wise counsel.

While rear seat space is unremarkable, the boot is impressive in its proportions and appointments such as lining, lighting, storage and provision of a full-size spare wheel.

The bottom line is there is enough here to wipe Audi off the list of also-rans at this end of the compact luxury market. Indeed, the "other German" is now "the German" to beat.

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