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1998 Audi A4

Didn't we already do a road test of the Audi A4 sports sedan?

Yes, on April 12, 1997. Liked it a lot, too.

The ink was barely dry on that issue of Wheels when Audi

announced that the V6 was getting the twin-cam,

five-valve-per-cylinder treatment too.

A fine idea, I must say.

Power is up from 172 horses at 5,500 r.p.m. to 190 at 6,000.

Torque, a concern with the old motor, rises from 184 footpounds

at 3,000 r.p.m. to a substantial 207 footpounds at 3,200.

These numbers map almost exactly onto the six cylinder BMW's

3-Series, the A4's, most obvious competitor.

A product planner for BMW sniffed that the 30-valve A4 isn't

that much faster than before.

True, the factory-supplied 0-100 km/h times aren't hugely

different. A manual transmission four-wheel drive A4, for

example, now does the sprint in 7.1 seconds versus 7.8.

Actually, 7.8 seconds wasn't that bad. But few of us drive

around with stopwatches.

What really matters is subjective performance feel. Every time

you stabbed your foot at the old engine, especially from rest,

it felt like you were stomping on a bowl of porridge. You got

that "Huh? You talkin' to me?" reaction.

The 30-valver may not be quite as eager as the BMW six — which

is still one of the all-time great powerplants — but it has much

crisper throttle response, and it's much more flexible.

Part-throttle work, which represents the majority of

real-world driving, is far more pleasant, and while you can

massage the lovely gearbox if you wish, you are no longer

required to do so in order to make decent headway.

I haven't tried a 30-valve A4 V6 with the optional ($1,230)

five-speed automatic with Tiptronic manual control yet, but I

can only imagine it'd be a considerably more entertaining

proposition than with the previous motor.

Everything else about the A4 2.8 30-valve is pretty much as

the 1.8 Turbo. To save you from looking up back issues of Wheels

(you do keep them, don't you?) I'll recap the key features:

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 $2,670 standalone

option.

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. Since the beam gets in the way of a rear

propeller shaft, quattro A4s have a fully-independent rear

setup. Coil springs and gas-charged shocks apply in all cases.

Variableassist power rack and pinion steering and four-wheel

disc brakes with Bosch's latest ABSV anti-lock control complete

the chassis specs.

My test car was a manual quattro, with the optional ($550)

sport package, consisting of stiffer springs that also lower the

car by 20 mm, firmer shocks, seven-spoke alloy wheels with

205/55 ZR16 tires and a lovely three-spoke steering wheel.

A note on the tires. My test car was an early-run vehicle,

shod with Michelin Pilot XH skins which are nothing short of

spectacular. You can attack corners at what seems like

impossible speeds, and these things just hold on, with no

squeal, excellent transient response and road feel.

The sport package normally includes Dunlops. Since I didn't

try them on this car, I can't comment one way or another, except

to add that usually, I wouldn't trust a Dunlop nailed to my dock

to keep my boat from getting scratched.

Overall, the dynamic qualities of this car are unmatched in

its class. A BMW 3-Series may be a trifle more involving, but

the Audi's superior ride and quietness will more than

compensate.

The A4's sport suspension firms the ride up a little, but not

to the point where it's ever uncomfortable. The steering is

light and fluid, yet communicative.

The only time you notice the four-wheel drive system — other

than when you're going when everyone else is stuck — is in very

tight corners on pavement, when you can sometimes sense a wee

bit of sluggishness in the steering, caused by binding in the

driveline.

It's a very, very small price to pay for the absolute

confidence and composure this car exudes.

The A4 seats ,are spectacular a bit short in cushion length,

perhaps, but firm, supportive and comfortable. Handsome Jaquard

cloth upholstery is standard. If you insist ,20 on four-season

discomfort, leather is an option.

The 2.8 model adds eight-way power adjustment for the driver,

and stays with four-way manual for the front passenger.

The manual tilt-and-telescope steering wheel gives just enough

range of movement to clear the top arc of the gauges.

The rear seat is snug but usable. The trunk is spacious. A

standard splitfolding seatback and optional ($210) ski sack

increase loading flexibility.

My tester had the clever preset power sunroof — flick the

dial-shaped knob to the degree of opening you desire, it slides

just that far, then stops. It also tilts on demand. Neat. It's

packaged with the desirable remote central locking for a

reasonable $1,420.

In the minor quibbles department, the A4's left sideview

power mirror still does not pivot far enough outwards to

completely expose the blind spot, and the right-side mirror is

square, rather than rectangular, resulting in a smaller field of

view.

The A4 2.8 five-valve starts at $38,440, just a $900 hit over

the two-valve 2.8 engine — a huge bargain. (Mind you, that's

over six grand more than the still-delightful 1.8 Turbo.)

With the options already noted, plus six-function trip

computer ($340) and "Cool Shades Pelican Blue" paint ($630), my

test car totalled $44,260.

At $2,600 cheaper than a base BMW 328 four-door sedan, this is

unparallelled value. I'll leave the nitpickers to

"equipment-adjust" the two prices, but no matter what, the BMW doesn't

offer four-wheel drive. The Saab 900 doesn't have the universal

appeal of the Audi, and none of the Japanese contenders offer

anything close in style, dynamics or driving pleasure.

The only flaw in the A4's value story is that depreciation on

Audis is still terrible.

The used car market is unforgiving, and has a long memory.

The A4 may be a good car to negotiate a favorable three-year

lease on the everything-but-the-gasoline warranty, plus

10-year rust-through protection, limits your day-to-day

exposure, and you can let the dealer and carmaker put their

money where their mouths are on the resale risk.

But the A4 is no longer a surprise to anyone. The car has what

the movie guys refer to as "buzz."

Buyers know it's out there, and sales are strong.

If the long-term quality proves as good as it appears today,

your dealer will be delighted to take your car back off lease.

I doubt you'll be willing to let it go.

Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie prepared this report based on

driving experiences with a 1998 Audi A4 provided by the

Volkswagen Canada Limited. You can catch Kenzie each Saturday on

Talk 640 Radio at 4 p.m.

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