By: Michael Cooney
Once upon a time, it almost went without saying that if you wanted the premier small sport sedan, you picked the BMW 3-Series. Well, times change. With the introduction of the redesigned 2002 Audi A4, the playing field was considerably evened. As always, there are pluses and minuses in weighing each competitor, but dollar for dollar, the A4 will come out on top for many satisfied owners.
As with BMW’s 3-Series, Audi’s A4 is available in varieties to please a wide range of buyers. Choose from a 1.8L turbo 4-cylinder, or a 3.0L V-6. Each has 5-valves per cylinder. Next, pick front wheel drive, or all wheel drive, known in Audi-speak as “Quattro”. Finally, you can choose between 4-door sedan, convertible (“Cabriolet”) or station wagon (“Avant”).
The 1.8L four is rated at 170 hp, while the V-6 puts out 220 hp at 6,300 rpm, and 221 lb/ft of torque at 3,200 rpm. My test unit was a front wheel drive 4-door with V-6 and the impressive new CVT automatic transmission. Standard tires are an all-season type in 215/55x16 size.
Sharp-looking, tasteful exterior styling highlighted by body creases that flow along the sides and on through the tail lamps gives the new A4 a freshened appearance that is downright handsome. A higher beltline and flush-fitting tail lamps, door handles and headlamp clusters add to the modernized look. The end result is a sporty sedan presenting a solid, businesslike stance.
Inside, the word again is “tasteful.” With light beige leather, rich wood trim and nicely textured vinyls, this unit’s interior gives the Jaguar X-Type’s a run for the money in this class. Thanks to the considerable seat height adjustment range, effective adjustable lumbar support and, of course, tilt wheel, I was able to get a comfortable, absolutely-perfect-don’t-change-a-thing driving position. Those who enjoy tackling winding roads with gusto, though, will wish for more substantial seat bolsters.
Other nice touches abound, including aluminum interior door latches, gear shift surround, and shift lever, and both one touch up and down on all four windows. Side head airbags are standard for both front occupants.
With such handsome interior and exterior styling creating high expectations, I was pleased to discover that the driving experience did not let me down. The A4 is a highly competent performer. Handling felt precise and secure in all but the most intense corner carving. When exploring cornering limits, the physics of front wheel drive came into play and the A4 wanted to push a bit wide in the corners.
For those wanting higher capabilities, a sport package is available for $750 that offers a firmer suspension and stickier tires. For the ultimate in handling, though, consider the AWD option with either 6-speed stick or 5-speed automatic.
Straight-line performance is good, with 0-60 times around seven seconds flat. Audi’s Multitronic CVT allows for two driving modes. Leave it in “D” and it’s a continuously variable transmission (CVT) that by design always keeps engine speed at the most optimal level for better acceleration and an edge in fuel consumption. Or, if you like to shift your own, move the lever to the side and then push it forward to upshift, or pull back for each downshift. You have, in essence, a 6-speed auto to play with. Switches on the steering wheel duplicate the action of the lever, so you needn’t take your hand off the wheel to shift through the gears.
The Audi A4 CVT is EPA rated at 19-city, 27-highway mpg. My typical mix of driving on freeways, city streets and mountain roads yielded an average of 21.5 mpg. My test unit was optioned with metallic paint ($450) and a Preferred Luxury Package consisting of a power glass sunroof and leather seating ($1,800) for a total, including destination fees, of $34,285. If you prefer all wheel drive, add $1,750.
Now to answer THE question, how does the A4 stack up against BMW’s 3-Series? Quite nicely, as it turns out. In racetrack extremes, the BMW’s rear wheel drive and wee bit sharper reflexes hold a slight edge, although Audi’s AWD option may cancel out that advantage. In the real world, though, the A4 is a strong performer with tons of standard equipment and arguably the most beautiful interior in its segment. On price, it’s more than competitive. You’ll find the A4 to be a most enjoyable place to spend “drive time,” and well worth a closer look before you decide.