Audi's A4 Rates an A-Plus on Two Fronts

TIMES STAFF WRITER

We were sloshing through a Bavarian cloudburst, listening to oldies but guten on the eight-speaker Bose with Mrs. Dean singing along, verbatim so help me, all the words to "Venus In Blue Jeans."

My thoughts were locked on loftier but duller.

On realizing that true appreciation of German cars comes only when pushing them in their wet, slick natural habitat. On the critical need for a stern stance and weighty poise in sedans expected to cruise dead straight roads all day, across three nations at insane speeds in absolute safety.

On the security of honking around Alpine hairpins in high altitude slush without one omigawd because a wide track and multi-link suspension, anti-lock brakes, big wheels, broad tires and all-wheel drive are performing perfectly as designed.

And on how this 1996 Audi A4, which replaces the Audi 90, just might heal an old sore--and recover the prestige Audi once held in the Americas as a builder of cars in close contention to BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

When Audis first rolled off U.S. docks in 1970, it was onto a solid beachhead. The company--Germany's second-oldest car builder, senior to everyone but Mercedes--had roots reaching back to Auto Union and Rickenbacker. Audis were Alpine tough, had survived baptisms by track and endurance trial, and nobody doubted their quality and quickness.

Then along came "60 Minutes." Ten years ago it reported a series of fatalities when drivers started their Audis, shifted from park and mysteriously plowed through garage walls, oleanders, crowded intersections and unlucky bystanders. It didn't matter, said the report, that drivers had feet flattening their brake pedals.

Or so they thought. Government investigations in Canada and the United States later proved the problem to be a deadly combination of pedal positioning and driver error. When supposedly standing on the brake, agreed Ottawa and Washington, owners were actually cramming gas pedals to the carpet.

But explanations fell on closed minds. Audi sales crashed and burned. It didn't help that when the sky caved in, Audi was still an import in search of domestic standing; an oddball car clinging to a customer base stuffed with mathematics professors and ex-GIs once stationed in Weisbaden.

So by the mid-'80s, Audi sales in the United States plopped from 75,000 to 59,000, then headed to 22,000 and 12,000. Most Audi 5000s were sold for scrap and recycled into Faberware. Some owners drove their cars into the desert and shot them.

The greatest charm of America, however, remains its ability to forget.

Television crusaders shifted attacks to Suzuki Samurais, GM trucks with exploding gas tanks, AK-47s and chewing tobacco. Audi picked up its pieces, soldiered quietly on and hoped times would change, time would heal.

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They have. Although U.S. sales remain pallid, current numbers are showing a sizable improvement over last year.

And the new A4--less expensive than entry-level Mercedes or BMW sedans, but with parallel luxuries and performance--is almost certain to advance the arithmetic.

Yet expect no duplication of the Audi's European ecstasy where the A4 is burying Mercedes' C-Class. Sales also are running wheel-to-wheel with BMW's 3-Series.

No wonder. In more than 2,000 miles of rapid transit through Europe with all its foul weather moods, our five-speed A4 with Audi's tried and agreeable 2.8-liter V-6 neither quivered nor faltered. It tracked firm and flat at 130 m.p.h. on a lonely dawn run from Epernay to Mannheim. It clambered on sure feet up two-laners through the Swiss Alps and wild September snows to a white sausage breakfast for two at Gstaad.

Margins of passing torque, braking power and suspension grip went safely beyond whatever little savageries we might have inflicted due to impatience and fatigue.

That multi-link, forged aluminum front suspension removed all the tugs and twitches associated with most front-driving cars. Steering is neutral with a gentle progression toward understeer, a most civilized bias for mountain driving.

Sure, tires squealed and the body rolled a bit when travel got downhill and feisty on really twisty bits. But try as we might, the capabilities of Audi's traction system were much stronger than our courageous attempts to break the car loose on public byways. Credit Quattro IV, Audi's all-wheel drive with electronic sensing that distributes power side to side, front to rear and always to the wheels with the most Polygrip.

The A4's combination of clutch, throttle and manual gearbox, may be praised by three little words: Absolutely, bloody memorable.

Shifting is smoother and quicker than Honda, once the best there has ever been. Add perfect modulation of clutch, brakes and precise on-off response from the throttle and Bart Simpson becomes Fangio.

Similarly, the subtle requirements of intercontinental touring--catchall cubbies and holders and nets for Orangina and maps, ample room alongside the clutch pedal for stretching cramping left legs, well-positioned trays for toll monies and tickets, enough trunk space for chronic over-packers--perform like silent butlers.

Seating is posture perfect; adjustable enough, sufficiently comfortable that even long overdue rest stops did not begin by crawling to the gas pumps on hands and knees.

In short, the A4 does what any quality automobile must do: protect the lives, habits and ease of its occupants.

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Externally, this is a very tasteful, refined car from its unfussy, five-spoke, 16-inch alloy wheels to chrome frames slenderized to accents around the grille and side windows.

At first, even second glance, a lowered hood (thanks to a shorter V6 replacing last year's in-line and longitudinal five) and bobbed rear with an integrated, reverse lip spoiler brings a touch of BMW 325 to the silhouette.

Internally, after marathon spells at the wheel, we're still not sure which button made what heating-cooling-demisting system perform to our bidding. And knowing the A4 claims more trunk space than its competition is to suspect that the extra cargo room was at the expense of space for rear passengers' knees.

Yet at a base price of $26,500 for the sedan--with a cabriolet and station wagon on their way--the A4 certainly is a high-value item. It costs $6,000 less than a comparable Bimmer, and $10,000 less than the competing Mercedes.

The magic of Quattro all-wheel drive, now available on A4s with automatic transmission, is a $1,550 option. Add leather seating, remote locking, an eight-speaker Bose sound system and power sunroof and you'll still come in under a BMW 325i and the Mercedes C280. And beneath the Lexus ES300, Acura's new TL twins, Mazda Millenia, Infiniti I30, Oldsmobile Aurora and others snuffling in the $30,000 cabbage patch.

Base price of the A4 includes automatic air, tilt and telescoping wheel, two air bags, one-touch down and up windows, cruise control, anti-lock brakes, remote locking and alarm system, acres of real walnut trim, and power driver's seat as standard equipment.

If Audi were really smart, they'd toss in a CD of the best of Jimmy Clanton. Including "Venus In Blue Jeans."

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1996 Audi A4

The Good: High-value package of solid, safe, comfortable German construction. Satin-smooth driving experience with Super Glue traction of Quattro all-wheel drive. Audi's best shot at regaining lost audience.

The Bad: Confusing climate controls, reduced rear seat room.

The Ugly: Nothing visible.

Cost

* Base: $26,500. (Includes two air bags, anti-lock brakes, automatic climate control, power driver's seat, mirrors and windows, 16-inch alloy wheels, walnut trim, cruise control, alarm and 60 / 40 split folding rear seats.)

* As tested, $31,150. (Includes $1,500 Quattro all-wheel drive, $1,280 leather seats, $640 Bose sound system, $990 electric sunroof, $190 remote locking.)

Engine

* 2.8-liter V-6 producing 172 horsepower.

Type

* Front-engine, mid-size luxury sedan with optional all-wheel drive.

Performance

* 0-60 m.p.h., as tested, with five-speed manual, 7.9 seconds.

* Top speed, as tested, and electronically limited, 130 m.p.h.

* Fuel economy, EPA city and highway, 19 and 27 m.p.g.

Curb Weight

* 3,228 pounds.

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