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1997 Audi A4

Two times nothing is nothing. So a car company starting from

Ground Zero can't let triple-digit sales increases go to its

corporate head.

But Audi is convinced its recent turnaround is built on a

solid foundation, consisting largely of the A4 compact sedan.

And why not? The A4 is gorgeous, well equipped, beautifully

built, extremely capable, and decent value. The only drawback

has been a less-than-brilliant engine, the 2.8 litre V6 seldom

reaching anybody's all-time great-motor list.

Audi has addressed this in an unusual way with the A4 1.8T,

offering a better engine at a lower price. From a marketing

point of view, a 1.8 litre four-cylinder may rate below a 2.8

litre V6. But from technical interest and performance

perspectives, the 1.8 is the better choice.

Technical interest? The iron block, twin-cam alloy head mill

has five — count them, five — valves per cylinder, three intakes

and two exhausts, an extremely rare configuration. The theory is

that if four valves are good, five are better, especially for

high-r.p.m. breathing. Peak output is 150 horsepower at 5700

r.p.m.

Lowend torque is well taken care of by an intercooled

turbocharger. How well? It's hard to beat a torque peak (155

poundfeet) that arrives at 1750 r.p.m. and stays there until

4600 r.p.m. That's not a torque curve, that's a torque plateau.

And because boost comes in so early, there is never a sense of

turbo lag stick your foot in it, at any road speed, and the

car leaps to life.

You don't think a carmaker would cheat on claimed performance

measurements, just to put a positive spin on their more

expensive motor, do you? (So cynical, for one so young.) Audi

says both do 0-to-100 km/h in the eight-second range, with the

2.8 quicker by a tenth or two.

But the 1.8 Turbo feels stronger in realworld driving, with

better off-the-line grunt and excellent midrange power for

passing or onramp merging.

(To be fair, Audi has just announced a five-valve 2.8; until I

drive it, I'll stick with my preference for the 1.8 Turbo.)

The only hint you're driving a turbo is that the relatively

low compression ratio gives little engine braking. This is

compounded by the fact that engine revs don't drop immediately

upon lifting your right foot. You really have to be conscious of

getting out of the gas pedal before declutching, or your

upshifts will be clumsy.

The 1.8 gets better fuel economy too, its Transport Canada

ratings besting the V6 by about one litre per 100 km.

The 1.8 Turbo was initially offered only with a five-speed

electronic automatic, with multiple shift programs selected by

the transmission computer depending on the driver's driving

style. A five-speed manual is now available too.

Front-wheel drive with an electronically locking differential

(EDL) for low-speed traction assistance is standard; Audi's

full-time four-wheel drive quattro system with TorSen centre

differential and the EDL at the back end is a standalone

option, with either transmission.

The chassis includes Audi's unique and effective four-link

double wishbone front suspension. Front-drive A4s use the twist

beam rear axle that's been a feature of VW Audi products since

the '70s it must work.

Since the beam gets in the way of a rear prop shaft, quattro

A4s have a fully-independent rear setup. Coil springs and

gas-charged shocks apply in all cases.

Variable-assist power rack and pinion steering and four-wheel

disc brakes with Bosch's latest ABS V anti-lock control, which

includes electronic rear brake pressure modulation, complete the

chassis specifications.

My test car was a manual quattro, with the optional Sport

package, consisting of larger wheels and tires (five-spoke

alloys with 205/55 HR16 Goodyear RSA rubber, essentially what's

standard on the 2.8 V6 (versus eight-spoke alloys with 195/65

HR15s on the base 1.8 Turbo), sport seats done in a "Jaquard

satin" cloth upholstery, and a lovely three-spoke steering

wheel.

The seats are spectacular: a bit short in cushion length,

perhaps, but firm, supportive and comfortable. The manual

adjustments for reach, rake and height are so simple you wonder

why anyone bothers with the weight, complexity and cost of power

adjustments. Ditto the manual tilt-and-telescope steering wheel.

(Okay, the multisetting memory function you often get with

power seats is nice.)

A common beef about the A4 is a cramped rear seat. Hey, it's a

compact sedan, not a stretched limo. Getting in requires some

care (although not as much as a Ford Taurus). But I could sit

behind myself comfortably, with limited headroom being the only

concern.

The trunk is large, although the short decklid means you won't

be loading any 27-inch TV sets in there. The rear seat back

splitfolds, and a ski sack is available.

I've never understood the appeal of leather seats, especially

in a sporting sedan when you want the grip only cloth provides.

So Audi's decision not to offer leather even as an option on the

1.8 Turbo makes perfect sense to me. (It is optional on the 2.8

V6.)

But North Americans seem to like the all-season discomfort of

cowskin under their bums. I know at least one potential customer

who won't buy an A4 1.8T because he can't get leather. The

closest he could come is the no-charge option of "leatherette",

an uptown word for "vinyl".

The interior decor is typically Teutonic black. The wood trim

of the 2.8 is replaced with "pixel-graphic" aluminum, which

still looks pretty black. Some will find this oppressive; Audi

does offer brighter interiors in Germany, and I wonder if

they'll offer those here someday.

The A4 1.8T is well equipped, including such market-mandated

items as cruise; theft alarm; eight-speaker sound system; power

mirrors, locks, and windows with one-touch up and down for the

fronts, one-touch down for the rears. Heated seats, mirrors,

driver's door lock and washer nozzles comprise a cold weather

package that's standard in Canada (optional in the U.S.).

The standard CFC-free automatic air/con, with pollen filter

and solar-load compensation, is marred only by its all-push

button controls. I've given up hope this will ever change, but I

can't stop whining about it.

Remote locking, power sunroof, six-disc CD changer and cell

phone are among the options.

The A4 1.8T straddles the line between luxury and sports

sedan, and makes a good case for either designation.

The exhaust note at normal if not technically legal speeds is

perhaps a little more evident than some luxofans might like.

It's a distant thrum with a four-cylinder character that most

driving fans don't enjoy as much as a six or even a

five-cylinder.

The engine revs sweetly, though, and the car is otherwise

impressively silent.

Ride comfort is sensational, and the handling lovely, with

light, direct steering and complete composure under any level of

duress. Initially in my test, however, I felt the car was being

let down by Audi's choice of tires. The RSA tire set seemed to

howl early on in spirited driving, although on subsequent days,

this didn't recur. Also, during the first scary moments of a

rain shower after a long dry spell, they didn't seem to exhibit

very high levels of grip. These sorts of things are tough to

evaluate, since those exact same road conditions will never

occur again. In the damp-road instance, the pavement was

undeniably greasy, and subsequent wet-weather behavior was fine.

In the minor quibbles department, the left sideview mirror

cannot be adjusted far enough outwards to expose the blind spot,

while the right-side mirror is square, rather than rectangular,

resulting in a smaller field of view. There must be a reason for

this; Mercedes used to do it this way too, but has seen the

light — or perhaps the Kenworth in the adjacent lane.

The A4 1.8 Turbo starts at $31,600. Quattro adds $2,670, and

the Sport package $1,360. My tester also had trick "Pelican

blue" paint ($630) and a Bose radio upgrade ($1,000) for an

astested total of $37,260 before taxes.

Compared to such European or Japanese competitors as BMW's

318, Acura's TL or Saab's 900, the Audi A4 is already a very

intersting proposal.

Then there's Audi's unique Advantage warranty: three years,

80,000 km, including 24-hour roadside assistance and free

scheduled maintenance, plus 10-year corrosion coverage.

All this, combined with the esthetic and dynamic qualities of

this delightful car, rockets the A4 to the top rung of the small

sports sedan ladder.

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