Audi A4 takes high-tech route Has the charm to take on the best

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Designing a replacement for a lousy car is easy; you can't lose. Replacing a good one; now, that's tough.

Designing a successor for Audi's A4 "was a great challenge," said design chief Peter Schreyer. "It had to fit into the Audi family, it needed an individual appearance and it had to make a decisive step forward." The original A4 was — and is — a lovely thing. Unlike most cars, its sales didn't peak, then start to slide as newer competitors joined the fray. The A4 has enjoyed unprecedented sales increases in North America ever since its 1995 launch.

But it was starting to age, especially with respect to interior room and structural rigidity.The 2002 model, which arrives in North American Audi stores in October, addresses these issues and adds a bunch of world-beating technology.

Schreyer got the family resemblance thing down pat — the new A4 looks a great deal like its big brother, the A6. A bit pudgy in spots, maybe, but still handsome.

Rigidity is up by a whopping 45 per cent, suggesting the magnitude by which the outgoing car lagged in this area. It's also larger — 59 mm longer, 33 mm wider, 13 mm taller, 33 mm greater wheelbase.

But gains in interior space don't sound proportionally impressive. For example, the 33 mm extra wheelbase yields only 4 mm more legroom in the front and 22 mm more in back. Total interior volume is up by about 57 litres, to 2,945 litres.

Thanks to more barrel-shaped doors and more toe room under the front seats, the rear seat feels much larger than before, and than the numbers suggest.

Interior design, materials and execution are unsurpassed, as in all Audis these days. Equipment levels are high, too. There's the usual stuff — air, power everything — plus a few things that are unusual in this class, such as one-touch up and down for all four windows, heated windshield washer nozzles, dual-zone temperature settings, an automatic recirculation switch that activates should a sensor sniff polluted incoming air, and a 10-speaker sound system with cassette, RDS (radio data system) feature and in-dash six-CD changer.

Cloth upholstery is standard on all models. You can opt for vinyl at no charge or pay for full leather on up-level models.

The base engine is the 1.8 L, four-cylinder turbo used in several VWs and Audis, including the last A4. In this application, it produces 170 hp at 5,900 rpm and 166 lb-ft of torque between 1,950 and 5,000 rpm.

The one-up choice is a new, aluminum, 3.0 L V6, also used in the soon-to-arrive revised A6. It makes 220 hp at 6,300 rpm and 221 lb-ft of torque at 3,200 rpm.

Four transmissions are on the roster. Four-cylinder A4s with front-wheel drive and four-wheel quattro drive start with a five-speed manual, while the V6 quattro has a six-speed manual as standard. Four-wheel-drive quattro A4s with either engine offer a five-speed automatic with Tiptronic.

The big news is the availability of the same continuously variable transmission (CVT) used on the bigger A6. It's an option with the front-drive 1.8 L four and is the only transmission offered with the front-drive V6. We detailed this unit in the June 30 Wheels.

Audi is far from being first with a CVT, of course. But this is the first CVT that can accommodate engines as powerful as the new V6.

The redone A4 has a further development of Audi's four-link front suspension, with more parts made of aluminum to reduce weight. At the rear, all A4s get a fully independent set-up.

Brakes are four-wheel disc with ABS and electronic brake force distribution, which makes sure each wheel is operating at optimum retardation before ABS kicks in. You also get electronic brake assist, which automatically applies maximum braking force if you hit the pedal fast, but not necessarily hard enough.

A4 also comes standard with ESP (electronic stability control), which reduces engine power and/or applies one or more wheel brakes to help drag the car back on line if the system senses an incipient skid.

The Berkshire Mountains in the northwest corner of Massachusetts aren't easy to get to — fly to Albany, N.Y, and drive east for an hour or so. The twisty, two-lane mountain roads here are a fine place to try out sports sedan. And this is a fine sports sedan. The cabin is airier and, if anything, the trim materials are even better.

The seats are comfortable, and the storage spaces, underseat trays and the like make it an easy car to travel a long distance in.

It's easy to tell that the new A4 is much stiffer than the old. On bumps large or small, its solidity can be readily detected.

The steering has more heft, more feel to it than before, yet is easily light enough for parking lot manoeuvres. The handling is nimble and confident, while the ride is firmer than before but still compliant.

All of that, incidentally, is an offshoot of a stiffer body.

If you don't have to compensate for the body flexing under harsh conditions, you can make the suspension work harder and still not upset the comfort level.

As in the A6 tested a few weeks ago, the "multitronic" tranny, as Audi is inexplicably calling its CVT, is a treat. The engine revs as hard as it needs to, to accelerateas hard as you want it to, then settles down into a relaxed rpm level when you just want to cruise. Of course, all the ratio changing is done completely seamlessly.

A few of my colleagues found the perceived mismatch of engine revs to road speed a bit disconcerting, but that is all historical and cultural. Audi has it right.

In Canada, the A4, in quattro form only, will be launched this October. Front-wheel-drive models will be saved until spring, 2002. Audi has plans to increase front-drive sales, which to date have accounted for only 5 per cent of the mix.

But the business is virtually all quattro in the winter months, so the firm will focus on the obvious first. (In the U.S., front-drive sales start in November.) Initially, only the four-door sedan will be available. An Avant wagon is inevitable.

With the recent demise of the Audi Cabriolet, based on the predecessor to the previous-gen A4, don't be surprised if there's a new one of those within a year or so as well.

Audi was slow to field the higher-performance S4 version of the old car. I expect a shorter wait this time.

Prices won't be released until closer to launch date, but don't expect much movement.

The current range is from $33,785 for a front-drive, 1.8 turbo manual to $45,450 for an automatic, V6 quattro. Optional packages and stand-alone options can push the latter to more than $50K.

With new entries in the entry-luxury market such as Lexus IS 300 and Jaguar X-Type, plus continuing competition from Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Volvo S60 and the perennial champion, BMW's 3 Series, there are no easy victories.

To me, though, the A4 has the style, performance, technology and, most of all, charm to go mano a mano with any of them.

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