Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Revisions keep this a standout in its class.
Audi's A4 remains one of the best cars in this class. It combines clean looks, excellent handling, a brilliant interior, and granite build quality. For 2001, the 1.8 T turbocharged engine gets a big boost in power.
There's also a boost in safety: An electronic stability program is available to help keep you on the road during those moments we try to avoid, along with Audi's superb quattro all-wheel-drive system. Curtain-style side-impact airbags with rollover protection are standard.
A4 is available in sedan and wagon body styles. The wagon is called an Avant.
Two engines are available, a turbocharged 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine now rated at 170 horsepower (up 20 horsepower from the 2000 model), and a 2.8-liter V6 rated at 190 horsepower. All A4s come standard with a five-speed manual gearbox. A five-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission ($1,100) is optional.
The A4 1.8T sedan starts at $24,540, while the 2.8-liter version retails for $30,340. The A4 1.8T Avant quattro wagon starts at $27,290, while the A4 2.8 Avant quattro wagon goes for $31,990.
Standard upholstery is a choice of cloth or leatherette. Leather upholstery is optional on the 2.8 Sedan ($1,320).
Audi's fantastic quattro all-wheel-drive system comes standard on Avant wagons. Quattro is a $1,750 option on the sedan models; Audi's sophisticated traction control comes standard on front-wheel-drive sedans not equipped with quattro. Anti-lock brakes are standard on all models.
New for 2001 is an optional electronic stability program, or ESP. Like similar systems from BMW and Mercedes, ESP monitors vehicle dynamics during aggressive driving or emergency situations and intervenes to help keep the car pointed in the intended direction whenever it senses the driver is beginning to lose control.
Audi's Sideguard curtain side airbags are now standard on all models. The airbags cover the entire side window area to protect occupants in both the front and rear seats; unlike standard airbags, they remain inflated for about 5 seconds to provide protection if the vehicle rolls over. Xenon high-intensity discharge low-beam headlights ($500) improve visibility on stormy nights.
Other notable options include sport front seats ($500) and a sport suspension package that includes performance wheels and tires ($750 on the 1.8T, $500 on the 2.8). Also available is a Bose premium sound system ($650), a six-disc CD changer ($550), a navigation system ($1,280), and an integrated hands-free mobile telephone ($495).
The A4 has always been a great-looking, understated vehicle in both sedan and wagon formats. Though the current design is more than five years old, it still works. The A4 looks the part of a sophisticated European sports sedan. Few competitors can match its clean, distinctive styling. Its dimensions have enough heft to hint at sporting intentions without being flagrant, yet the car also looks classy and timeless. Audi has a lock on subtle elegance, and the A4's graceful design presents a strong rival to the BMW 3 Series. From the outside, there is little to distinguish the 1.8T from the 2.8 except for unique wheels and a badge in back.
For 2001, the design is unchanged. (An update is in store for 2002. The newer car will borrow visual elements from the larger A6 sedan. Most notable will be a new horizontal crease running the length of the car and more modern trapezoidal taillights. Upfront, the headlight shape gets massaged, and the bumper will incorporate a chrome-lined lower grille that mimics the main grille up above.)
The Avant wagons are just about the slickest small haulers ever conceived. In some ways the Avant is more eye-grabbing than the sedan. While most U.S. manufacturers have turned their backs on wagons, Audi has demonstrated that light cargo capability and svelte sheetmetal are not mutually exclusive concepts. It's not quite an inch taller than the sedan, and its sloping tailgate lends the same graceful touch as the sedan's curved rear roof pillars.
The instrument cluster includes a digital clock with date, plus an ammeter and oil temperature gauge in addition to the usual array of instruments. Gauges have white lighting with red pointers. Like the more expensive A6, the A4's buttons are illuminated and offer improved feel.
Air vents on the dash panel have illuminated markings to simplify operation at night. The climate control system automatically adjusts according to the season by sensing the angle of the sun. Auto up and auto down power windows in front, with auto down power windows in the rear are among the standard features that show this is a luxury sports sedan. The center console got a complete redesign in 2000. Storage cubbies are padded to keep small stuff from rattling. Cup holders have been redesigned.
The spacious, comfortable interior transports occupants in understated elegance. Audi's 'Atmospheres' allow customers to select coordinated interior schemes to match their personal tastes at no extra cost. I love the Ambiente with its lighter, bolder colors and Sycamore wood in the Mediterranean-style, with fine, supple materials. The front seats are comfortable. Optional sport seats add side bolstering for additional support. A large dead pedal is one of the many indicators that Audi views driving as an active, rather than a passive, activity. Optional leather upholstery is a high-quality treat.
It is still possible for three people to sit in the rear, but it's more comfortable with two.
Audi's attention to detail is impressive. The latch for the trunk lid (or hatch on the Avant) is automatically covered when the rear hatch is opened. Doors close with a solid 'thunk.'
The Avant wagon offers 63.7 cubic feet of cargo capacity with the seats folded down. It won't hold as much cargo as many sport-utilities, but it holds quite a bit of stuff. And it stops, goes and handles far better than any SUV. Like the sedan, the Avant comes with a new lining for the cargo area and a luggage net is standard. Avant also includes a 12-volt power socket in the rear.
My first impression of this car was of its smoothness -- not softness -- but the smoothness of fine engineering. Everything melds with everything else. The engine is silky, the car accelerates urgently but with linear throttle response. The gearbox shifts effortlessly through the gears. Braking and steering are fluid.
As mentioned, two engines are available. Both feature Audi's five-valves-per-cylinder technology.
The 1.8T model comes with a 1.8-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine that generates 170 horsepower. The engine emits a distant purr that, like the gearbox, conveys a feeling of highly engineered, precision machinery. It revs so freely that it isn't difficult to rev it past the redline and into the rev limiter. The low-pressure turbocharger has a linear power delivery that produces quick acceleration. It develops 166 foot-pounds of torque at just 1950 rpm and that power carries all the way through 5000 rpm, so there isn't any appreciable turbo lag. (Torque is that force that launches you away from intersections and propels you up steep hills.) The 1.8-liter turbo is a great engine, and an excellent choice for enthusiasts who will team it up with the five-speed manual gearbox. It's also an excellent choice for anyone who wants a top-quality, safe sedan that offers a lot of value. The 1.8-liter engine gets about 6 mpg better combined fuel economy than the 2.8-liter V6.
Boasting 190 horsepower, Audi's V6 lends more urgency to forward progress. It's a highly tractable engine with 207 foot-pounds of torque. In other words, it provides the car with instant response when driving around town. Neither you nor the car has to work as hard with this engine as you do with the 1.8-liter turbo. While the V6 isn't a high-revver, it does hustle the Avant down the road in a quicker-than-ordinary hurry, zipping from 0 to 60 mph in less than 7.5 seconds, and 100 mph in 21 seconds. The engine emits a bit more intake noise than we'd like when pressed hard, but in most normal operating conditions we found the interior to be reasonably quiet. The V6 is perfect for those willing to spend a few more dollars for smoother, more relaxed motoring around town and when cruising on the highway. It works better with an automatic than does the 1.8-liter turbo.
Audi's 5-speed manual transmission feels like silk. Taking off from a dead stop and going up through the gears feels seamless to your passengers. The shift action lacks the precision of some of the competition's best gearboxes, however. The optional automatic is a Porsche Tiptronic, which allows drivers to operate it as a semi-manual. It lends a little more variety to automatic driving than the garden variety automatic and can make commuting more entertaining. When left in D, it's an excellent automatic transmission.
This car feels extremely stable. The suspension is firm. Steering is direct and accurate, allowing smooth transitions on winding roads. The A4 provides exceptionally good balance and response in quick side-to-side maneuvers.
The optional Sport Package makes a discernible difference in controlling weight transfer, which lends a significantly higher level of precision to quick changes in direction. The flip side of this is slightly firmer ride quality. The Sport Package makes the A4 more sensitive to tar strips and small bumps than models with the standard suspension setup, but it's a long way from harsh and the tradeoff is worthwhile to enthusiasts for the heightened sense of control. The Sport Package ($750 for 1.8T, $500 for 2.8) lowers the car 20 millimeters and adds slightly stiffer springs, more aggressive shock damping, a thicker rear anti-roll bar, and 16-inch alloy wheels with high-performance P205/55R16 tires along with a leather-wrapped steering wheel. We prefer it. The standard suspension allows just a little too much up and down motion and body roll for this sports sedan and the optional sports suspension offered acceptable ride quality on southeastern Mi.
Audi's A4 is a high-quality sedan with posh furnishings and comprehensive features. It comes loaded with character and refinement. With its seamless operation, it is a joy to drive and ride in, and it's a lot of fun to drive fast.
The A4 Avant wagon is truly special. It will outperform most sedans in this size class, and its sleek styling makes sport-utilities seem clunky, boring, and clumsy.
Having served with honor, this first-generation A4 will soon be replaced by an updated version for 2002 that incorporates some of the visual edginess of the Audi A6. We can only hope that it's as good as this one and, knowing Audi, it will likely be better.
1.8T ($24,540); 2.8 ($30,340); 2.8 quattro ($30,990); 1.8T Avant quattro ($27,290); 2.8 Avant quattro ($31,990).
Options As Tested
quattro IV all-wheel-drive system ($1,750) includes Torsen center differential.
A4 1.8T ($24,540).
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