ďI wish I would have driven this before I bought my BMWĒ announced my friend Catherine after a day in the 2001 Audi A4 1.8T quattro. Catherine readily admits she's not a car nut, so the technological subtleties that distinguish her 2000 BMW 328Ci from the Audi A4 are beyond her knowledge and, quite frankly, her interest.
Anyone who climbs into the A4 will recognize the sound of substance and quality when the door shuts behind them with a satisfyingly solid thud. Once they're settled into the sporty cloth-covered front seats and they gaze over the sculpted dash with its warmly glowing red displays, high-quality materials, thoughtfully-designed switchgear and polished aluminum accents, they'll be really impressed.
The A4ís cabin is surprisingly roomy up front (rear passengers are not treated so commodiously as thereís limited leg- and headroom), and every control and switch is illuminated. All the switchgear has pressure points, so you can easily gauge adjustments without ever taking your eyes from the road. The multi-level dial-a-setting heated-seat controls are among the best in the industry. Also pleasing is the fact that the grab handles and the doors for the ashtray cover and other little compartments are spring loaded so they operate with a precise, hydraulic motion that speaks volumes for Audiís attention to detail.
Next, when you start the car, you should notice its pleasantly muted engine note and whisper-quiet interior. Once in motion, you'll love how the four-wheel independent suspension smoothes out bumps, but also delivers a palpable feel for the road. BMW does this better, but Audi is not far behind.
This year, Audi increased the power output of the 1.8T engine. Additionally, the engine is now cleaner-burning, so it qualifies as an Ultra-Low Emissions Vehicle (ULEV). If you mashed the throttle, youíd no doubt be surprised that a 1.8-liter engine is capable of whisking a stocky (3,362-pound) car along with such spirit. The relatively small engine produces a decent 170 horsepower at 5,900 rpm (up 20 horsepower from last year). Some people might be disappointed to discover that the 1.8T isnít going to let them win many stoplight drag races. The engine doesnít really get going until about 2,000 rpm where torque is rated at 166 foot-pounds. Past that point, though, the 1.8T engine really shines. It may well be the best engine Audi makes.
When you consider that the A4 1.8T is thousands less than a similarly-equipped BMW 3 Series (for example, the 184-horsepower, 2.5-liter, six-cylinder BMW 325xi is more than $36,000) the Audi looks more and more like a bargain.
Our tester was also equipped with the optional five-speed automatic transmission with Tiptronic. Tiptronic allows drivers the option of sequentially selecting gears by moving the shift lever into a separate shift gate. Then, shifts can be made by moving the lever up and down (for up- and downshifts). The system is designed to allow the driver to operate the car as though it were a manual shifter.
In Tiptronic mode, you can hold gears longer or downshift earlier for more aggressive acceleration, or you can downshift on corners to use the engine as a brake and facilitate a faster exit from the corner. You will appreciate this system as it allows you to choose between effortless automatic shifting in stop-and-go traffic and spirit-lifting manual shifts when you find yourself on a twisty country road. Itís a lot of fun.
And anyone who encounters poor road conditions in the A4 will immediately appreciate the quattro all-wheel-drive system with the new-for-2001 optional Electronic Stabilization Program (ESP). Quattro is a full-time all-wheel-drive system designed to ensure maximum traction and power regardless of road conditions or speed. When it detects slippage at any wheel, it directs power to the other wheels with grip. Audi brags that if only one wheel has traction, a quattro-equipped Audi will still move forward. To the driver, quattro is imperceptible, as is ESP, which takes readings from the ABS and traction control systems to detect over- or understeer and then it adjusts the brakes and engine power to help prevent potentially dangerous skids and spins. What is noticeable, however, is that the A4 holds a true course on snow, water, loose gravel and bare pavement. The result is a comforting sense of confidence that your Audi will get you from point A to point B, regardless of road conditions.
Still, no matter how confident you are in the carís ability, you still need to worry about other drivers. Audi thought of that and has equipped the A4 with a plethora of safety features, including antilock brakes, dual front and side airbags for front occupants and head protection airbags for all outboard occupants. These curtain-style safety devices are being highly touted by organizations such as the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety for their ability to prevent severe head injury. When triggered, the side airbags cover nearly the whole side window area, helping prevent the carís occupants from hitting the A-pillar or the window with their heads. Of course, this is vastly preferable to what occurs in a vehicle with no side airbag at all.
From the exterior, the A4 is equally impressive. Our tester was finished in silver, which nicely complemented the 15-inch eight-spoke cast alloy wheels. We also thought the optional xenon high-intensity headlights distinguished the A4. Much brighter and therefore safer than conventional headlamps, the white beam of the xenon lights not only provides greater illumination, but looks way cool, too.
Catherine is now considering trading her Bimmer for the A4. Itís a lesson learned ó depending on your needs and wants, sometimes second best is the best choice for you. We think this is especially true if you're shopping for an entry-level sport sedan and trying to decide between the 3 Series and the A4. The 3 Series is quite possibly the best sedan on the planet, but the A4 isnít far behind.
We don't want to make your decision any more difficult, but, in 2002, Audi is unveiling an updated version of the A4. If itís a success, its price might go up. That makes the 2001 model an even better deal, so you'd better make up your mind soon.
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