A1!

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Following in the footsteps of the A8 and A6, the new A4 is probably the most important of all the new generation Audis. If there is a market sector the company must crack by virtue of potential sales, this is it. Mercedes, with the 190 and replacement C-class, and BMW, with the 3-series, have tediously hogged the top end of the medium and large executive saloon classes for too long. The plain Audi 80s never had the prestige of the Mercs, and they lacked the driveability of the Bee-Ems.

To an extent, Audi has redressed the balance in the larger classes. The aluminium bodied A8, in particular, has stunned some of the marques detractors. Conventional galvanised steel cloaks the A4’s chassis, but the car is no less striking for it. To my mind, it dates its immediate rivals at a stroke. Wonderfully proportioned, it has matchless elegance for a car of this size, no mean achievement when you consider that it is both shorter and taller than its predecessor.

Not only has specification been boosted and weight shed, but Audi has become more aggressive with its pricing policies. The 2.6 V6 tried here is £744 less than the 80 2.6E it replaces, at £19,755. That’s bang on target to give its immediate rivals serious cause for concern. Complex four-link front suspension (first seen on the A8) heads the spec sheet, and is designed to reduce the pitch and dive we’ve been accustomed to with previous Audis. Twin-tube shocks and coils with additional polyurethane springs and progressive bump stops absorb shocks without sacrificing ride quality.

The rear suspension also differs significantly from its forebear, to similar effect, and ABS with EBD (Electronic Brake Pressure Distribution) allows optimum braking by unevenly distributing brake pressure depending on road conditions and chassis attitude.

In parallel with EBD, ASR (Anti-Slip Regulation traction control) uses the same sensors to apply the brakes to the wheel with least grip in slippery conditions, while simultaneously reducing engine revs via a signal to the management system. Now that Audi’s five-cylinder motors are being phased out, power output for the A4 2.6 comes from a reduced capacity version of the V6 that powers the A6 quattro. Audi

claims that its 150 bhp and 166 lb ft of torque will propel the car to 62 mph in 9.1s and to a respectable 137 mph max. Needless to say, the unit is catalysed and continues Audi’s environmentally considerate principles.

The A4 is much the same to sit in as any other Audi. Its cabin is rather austere, though more inviting than hitherto, with its comfortable, supportive seats, neat, clear instruments and a large glass area. It is all quite beautifully put together, and well equipped.

A better than average driving position can be attained via the height and rake adjustable steering wheel.

But the most appreciable difference between the A4 and the outmoded 80 is its road manner. Gone are the horrible squat and dive, despite the suspension’s softness, and the rubbery gearchange and clutch have almost been eliminated. The aural satisfaction of a five-cylinder motor is no longer there, but the A4 is a more refined beast altogether.

Chucking it around is now fun, as the chassis actually responds faithfully to driver inputs. Feedback from the steering could still be better but turn-in is sharper and understeer much reduced. It is composed and fun, in roughly equal measure. And it becomes all the more remarkable when you appreciate just how good the ride is.

And at a small cost to rear passenger space, increased boot volume has increased overall practicality.

There is a vitality about this Audi which few, if any, have possessed since the demise of the great Quattro. The A4 2.6 could never pretend to be the best ‘driver’s’ saloon, but it actually provides stiff competition for its rear-drive counterparts. Taking account of its looks and price, it’s a surefire winner.

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