Serious Opposition

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Audi makes its most telling assault yet on the medium saloon sector, wherein the 3-series and the C-class have reigned for so long

Audi management probably drew a collective breath of relief when they saw the final drawings for the new A4. They must have known that they’d hit the jackpot with this compact yet immensely handsome form, though it wasn’t necessarily blessed with the required dynamic attributes to pulp its primary opposition they, of course, being BMW and Mercedes.

While the Bavarian products seem effortlessly and ceaselessly to please customers (and motoring journalists), the three-pointed star has played safe to the extent that there are now some genuine dullards within its range.

Even so, in recent times Audi has had to apply aggressive pricing policies to keep up, despite some refreshingly interesting products the A8, A6 and latterly, the A4. it comes as no surprise to find that Audi UK sales for 1995 achieved record levels. It’s a corollary of the welcome creativity which the marque has proved it possesses, via a string of stunning concept cars over the past few years, including the instantly desirable Spyder and the polished aluminium Avus.

Regrettably, the Spyder shows no sign of becoming a production car, but some of its design principles are already being applied within the high volume ranges. Take the A4 flagship, for example, the 1.8T Sport. Small though it needs to be, as the 80 replacement, it shares the big wheel ideology of its conceptual relations. Retention of family identity by intelligent use of galvanised steel, fully integrated bumpers and an absence of shut lines help to make it, to my mind, the most handsome saloon in its class.

It’s difficult to see how the A4’s proportions could be bettered. Marginally bigger (except in length), and, therefore, more spacious than the 80 it succeeds, the A4 is nevertheless still compromised on interior packaging, despite its front-wheel-drive configuration. The longitudinally-mounted, turbocharged, 1.8-litre engine is hardly shoehorned under the bonnet, but it hangs back behind the axle line to optimise weight distribution.

All Audi A4s are higher in specification than their immediate antecedents but lower in weight. They are also well enough assembled to give both BMW and Mercedes-Benz food for thought.

Its £21,584 price tag should have both rivals quaking.

Having relaxed its pursuit of five-cylinder technology, Audi now prefers to deploy the five-valve-per-cylinder method on its turbocharged 1.8 straight four. Using a small spinner ensures that turbo lag is minimised and that the full 155 lb-ft of torque is available from as early as 1750 rpm and is sustained all the way to 4600.

Though not apparently as ‘newsworthy’ as Prince William’s latest ski fall, the A4’s 150 bhp will start making those single carriageway Gatsos a bit trigger-happy within 8s from rest, while the impressive aerodynamics assist it on to a theoretical maximum of 138 mph, which compares very favourably with the 150bhp Escort RS2000’s 129 (see New Cars).

One wonders why a manufacturer which produced such a giant as the mighty Quattro could not previously get its lesser models to match the opposition’s similar efforts. Only Audi knows why it has sorted its act at last. The A4 features new multi-link front suspension first shown on the A8, using four aluminium control arms designed to eliminate squat and dive.

The rest of the plot goes like this: use additional polyurethane springs with progressive bump stops to absorb large body movements without compromising ride quality, and lower the leverage forces of the steering pivot axis to eliminate the driveline effects on the steering wheel. At the rear, heavily revised trailing arms are connected by a V-section beam with vibration damper.

You can see that Audi desires to keep with the traditional Mercedes and BMW combination of sports handling and a limousine type ride. The fwd format naturally reduces Audi’s chances in this respect.

With this in (open) mind one is on the look-out for redeeming features and there are plenty. I cannot think of another car right now which offers a better driving position. Hallelujah for a steering column which simply has massive adjustment for both height and reach and a driver’s seat with an equally impressive range. The pedals may still be set a little high for some, but you won’t get another car to fit such a wide range of people.

So you’re completely comfortable; believe me, that’s half the battle won. Look around and you see an interior of such complete simplicity it almost brings a tear of relief to one’s eyes. A softly sculpted dash houses big conventional but oh-so-clear dials which no longer hide in BMW’s shadows Everything from the positioning and silken feel of the switchgear. to the utter suitability of Audi’s choice of materials and fabrics ensures that the cabin of the A4 always remains the right side of austere. It is devoid of frivolous touches, but can you think of any German cars interior that isn’t?

Audi has carefully avoided any irksome elements and allows you just to get on with the business of driving. Yes, there is a computer available as an option, but its operation is a model of simplicity and its display is discreet.

One of the great aspects to driving old Audis was the wail of the five cylinders. The downside was the way the nose lifted and dipped when accelerating. braking and even when changing gear with the knobbly gate which seem to have the engine revs hanging in the air for an eternity.

The benefit of losing the latter traits compensates for the reduction in aural stimulation. That’s not to say that the A4 I .8T no longer feels like an Audi. There are still traces of old habits, but only just enough to remind you the feel of the clutch pedal for instance. There’s a new, improved standard of communication fed through the steering wheel, and the car is quite simply easier to drive smoothly particularly in the depressing stop-start London snarls.

Press on and the Audi always feels solid, assured, and its true ride quality has not been sacrificed. And its handling is better than that of any previous Audi in the class. During the truly atrocious weather conditions of the test the only time the Audi was incessantly put to its limits there wasn’t a dry patch of tarmac. Despite a trace of understeer. the A4 1.8T could be driven faster than any other class rival that I can think of. Grip is not excessive, but it’s good enough to inspire confidence, even in such nasty conditions. Its poise and balance are right up there with the best attitude can be altered with the throttle, but never would it snap out of line, even when provoked by horrid undulations.

However, in the wet, everything is more progressive and limits are more easily reached (and controlled). Dry weather provides a slightly different story. The A4 now rolls more, understeers more and generally lacks that last degree of sharpness of a BMW 328i for instance. It is not quite as agile, nor as much fun. But it is just as user-friendly and comfortable.

The new I .8 turbo contributes significantly to the A4’s cross-country potential. The flat torque curve results in a power delivery so smooth you’d be forgiven for being unaware of the turbo’s presence. It is simply one of the most successful turbo installations on a car of this kind, fully justifying Audi’s decision to persevere with forced induction technology. A wealth of rallying and racing experience has not been lost.

The A4 can be booted out of hairpins without fear of eternal lag followed by a kick in the back. In this respect, it is probably less exciting than other turbo cars but it’s far more tractable.

On cruising ability the I .8T scores highly, too. With a 13.6 gallon fuel tank and a claimed touring consumption of 37.2 mpg, a range of around 500 miles is possible and all in complete serenity, for at those speeds the sound of the 1.8 motor is little more than a whisper, as are wind and road noises.

Adults in the rear could start complaining well before you reach the refuelling stop, however, and although the front seats are firm and supportive in true German fashion, they too gave cause for a little discomfort over a long period. On more of a sour note, the brakes, while strong enough to kill speed effortlessly, are massively over-servoed. This isn’t helped by the pedal which lacks feel.

Verdict

Audi has chosen perhaps an unusual route with the turbo installation of the I .8T — but it works. What’s more, with the A4 range BMW and Mercedes have their first genuine rival from Ingolstadt in this class. For those with superficial values, beware: such opposition can no longer be judged on the strength of its badge alone.

The A4 is possessed of minor flaws, but are they enough to detract from its handsome lines and its abundant aura of class? Somehow, I doubt it. R R B