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Motornet: Audi And The Power Of Four

Audi expect big things from their new A4 and it’s landed with a bang. But have they done enough to keep up with the shifting goal posts of the mid-sized sports sedan market?

"You won't want to give this one back," said the ever friendly Audi man at Wellington's Team European. "I can guarantee it," he added, somewhat conspiratorially. Grinning, I slipped behind the wheel of Audi's latest offering in the medium sized sporting sedan stakes. Why was it that car dealers couldn’t ever see the irony in such statements? Don't they realise they all say that? As it turned out, it wouldn't take long for me to appreciate his point of view.

But first, some background. The all-new A4 is an important car for Audi. It is a volume seller for the company and replaces what was arguably the vehicle that really put Audi on the map as a serious competitor to BMW. Initially, the car arrived in New Zealand in just two variants. A five-speed multitronic CVT two litre version, weighing in at $67,900, and a 1.8 litre turbo quattro model, in manual only, at a pricier $78,500. It was the turbo quattro I was to get to spend time with. As you read this though, 2.4 litre and 3.0 litre V6 versions are arriving in Audi showrooms across the country.

So, how does it stack up from a design point of view? Visually, it is less 'pretty' than its predecessor. Where the old A4 was curvy, this model is edgy. From some angles it can appear almost snub-nosed, and I suspect that many will feel on initial acquaintance that it too closely resembles the bigger A6. But rest assured, its looks grow on you, and make no mistake, this car appears much more purposeful on the road than the old car ever did, a quality that can't be easily overlooked.

But, more importantly, how does it drive? Put simply, bloody marvellously! I was somewhat fortunate to have a couple of days leave owing to me when I had the Audi, and what better way to use it than to undertake a road trip. Wellington to Taupo and back seemed manageable, and it's a route that incorporates some great scenery, not to mention varied roads.

Believe me when I say the Audi handles brilliantly * thanks in no small way to the permanent four wheel drive. In fact, it inspires such confidence, that drivers will quickly find themselves blaze about even the most tricky corners. You simply aim the Audi where you want to go and it takes you there, no fuss, no hassle. Under steer is virtually undetectable and the steering provides plenty of feedback to the driver. In fact, what most drivers will struggle with is overcoming the instinct to slow down!

This was demonstrated to me amply during the trip, but none so visibly as when I was heading back down the island. Out of Taupo, and just before the beginning of the Desert Road gully section, I was overtaken by some young guys driving an early nineties model Subaru Legacy Turbo. You know the type, backwards baseball caps and all that.

I didn't expect to see them again, but as I got into the Gully proper, I came up behind them, driving perilously close to the rear of a very large truck. I figured I would be behind them for a while, but unbelievably, as we approached a very tight blind corner, the driver gunned the engine and overtook, much to both the truck driver’s dismay and mine. Incredibly, nothing was coming and they burned off into the distance.

About five minutes later, a straight opened up and the truck driver waved me past. Without consciously thinking about it, I decided to see if I could catch the Subaru. On this stretch of road, handling is everything. The Audi literally sings through the corners. The four-wheel drive ensures that the A4 has ample grip while the sports suspension (standard on the turbo) is brilliant, not harsh on poor quality roads, but quite firm enough for everything else. Suffice to say, I caught the Subaru, much to the surprise of its occupants, and there were no 'white knuckle incidents' either.

Of course, great ride and handling doesn't amount to much without an equally good power plant. And believe it or not, it's the power plant that is the most unique thing about this turbo variant A4. Equipped with a 1.8 litre four-cylinder engine it develops 138kW at 5700rpm or 305 Nm at 3200 rpm. Everywhere else in the world, and I mean everywhere, this model develops only 110kW, so if you have read reports from overseas that the turbo model is underpowered, rest assured, it's not. Not that it’s going to set any land speed records, but it certainly feels as quick or quicker than the 0-100k/ph of time of 8.9 seconds Audi claim for the 110kW model.

Surprisingly, neither is the Turbo especially thirsty. Equipped with a 67-litre tank I managed to get 700 kilometres from a single tank on more than one occasion. Admittedly, this was during mostly highway driving but I was in no way trying for an economy run.

Equally impressive is the equipment list. The Audi comes with standard leather upholstery (including leather steering wheel), trip computer, remote central locking, alloy wheels, dual climate air conditioning, CD player, sports suspension, ABS and more airbags than you can shake a stick at. Front sports seats are extremely comfortable, while ergonomics are excellent while rear seat passengers fair almost as well, though leg room in the back is only adequate, rather than generous.

Build quality is excellent, though I was a little surprised to find that the top of the gear stick was a little loose. In saying that, motor noters can be pretty rough with cars so I suspect this was a problem confined to the test car. For all that, the transmission itself was probably one of the few chinks in the Audi's armour. Generally, it did the job well, but at times achieving a smooth gearshift proved difficult.

The new A4 weighs into a very crowded market. It must contend with the likes of Mercedes’ C-class, the BMW three series and Jaguar's exquisite new X-Type. The same money will also buy bigger and often better equipped Volvos, Saabs and Alfas not to mention what's on offer in the Japanese camp. Have Audi done enough to get to the top of the heap? The answer, depending on your preferences, is yes. The slightly austere quality of the Audi may not be to everyone's taste, but nobody can deny that in this case, driving is believing. And if you're wondering, I did in fact, reluctantly return the A4. It seems at Team European, as punters line up at the door, it's the salesmen who can't wipe the grin from their faces....

Specifications
Price – Audi A4 Quattro Turbo $78,500
Engine – 1.8 litre four cylinder turbo charged engine producing 138kW at 5700 rpm and 305Nm at 3200 rpm.
Weight -
Performance – 0-100 k/ph 8.9 seconds (claimed figure for A4 with standard 110kW engine)

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