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March 9, 2006

Review: 2006 Audi A4

As early as three years into its life, Audi was pressured to come out with a new A4.  When Audi engineers were already beginning to reach the same levels of driver satisfaction and build quality as the E46 3 Series, the new E90 3 Series was already on its way.  Knowing all too well that the goal post was once again moving towards BMW's direction, the folks at Ingolstadt had to work fast.  This was in 2002.

Last year, Audi introduced the fruits of their labor with the new A4.  Although it was still based on the previous generation model, there were a lot of changes done not just to freshen up the looks, but improve performance, comfort and practicality as well.  The most obvious change is the exterior with it gaping front grille that has been the focus of Audi's controversial styling.  Although it works well to distinguish the A4 from its lesser Volkswagen cousins (i.e. Passat), it does ensure that you'll confuse this car from the rest of the Audi line-up.  Being the entry-level saloon in their line-up, the A4 is predictably the sportiest to look at.  Though the styling is a bit on the bland side, it looks well-balanced and proportioned--again if you discount the I'm-going-to-eat-you grille.  The headlamp features an interesting kink adding some character lines up front.  The same design theme is echoed with the rear tail lamps.  From the side, there's no hard crease, thereby giving the illusion of size and girth.  This is magnified by the A4's rather small-ish looking 205/55 R 16 tires.

Although the A4 is available with a barrage of engine choices, the volume seller would be the 2.0 Multitronic.  As the name suggests, it's a 2.0-liter double overhead cam inline-4 that features Audi's trademark five-valve per cylinder technology.  Although on paper, it should produce modest performance (150 bhp @ 5700 rpm, 195 Nm @ 3300 rpm), in reality it's rather lacking.  Compared to the 320i or even the new Mercedes-Benz C180 Kompressor, the A4 lacks initial thrust from standstill.  This is probably because of the continuously variable transmission (CVT) that Audi dubs as Multitronic.  Although this kind of transmission does improve the A4's everyday driving comfort, it saps even more power from the already overworked motor (it pushes a not-so svelte 1,390 kilograms of curb weight).  Also, this state-of-the-art engine suffers a most un-luxurious case of engine vibration.

All weaknesses fade, albeit slowly, at speed.  Passing and climbing power with the A4 is good as long as you work the CVT transmission correctly.  Like the Honda Jazz/City, the A4 has 7 virtual gears that help bring back the sensation of a regular automatic.  Of course, Audi engineers have upped the ante by providing paddle shifters (right as up, left as down) as standard.  Sadly though, the virtual gear shift display is somewhat lost in the middle of the instrument panel.

The rest of the car suffers from the same mixed bag performance.  The steering and brakes are responsive, but the A4 can suffer from under steer and body roll more commonly associated with a Japanese saloon.  The steering feel is on the light side and the brake pedal a bit spongy, but it's not enough to ensue lack of confidence.  The standard Dunlop V-rated tires provide good levels of mechanical grip while keeping the ride comfortable and stable.

Despite the comfort oriented chassis and tires, the A4's ride is far from cushy.  In fact, it's fairly comparable to the 320i Sport, which has 45-series 17-inch run-flat tires as standard.

Inside, the A4 really shines with excellent fit and finish.  Although the overall look isn't creative in any sense of the word, everything is exquisitely finished, from the gear knobs to the switches, and even down to the minor controls.

In terms of seating position, the steering wheel and driver's seat easily adjusts to fit any sort of person.  It has a perfect driving position, but not as sporty as the 3 Series.  Though the seats don't look comfortable in person, they are agreeable.  The rear seats are less stellar, but are equally good considering the restrictive space.  Like any entry-level German car, don't expect to fit three adults in there--just two average sized adults will find it comfortable at the back.

But while the A4 is still in contention when it comes to cabin space, the overall look of the inside is beginning to date faster than the rest of the car.  For instance, the ventilation controls are a simple mess, with just indecipherable acronyms for guide.  At a time when everyone else is going rotary knob for easy tactile operation, the A4's sticking to tried-and-tested buttons.  The same goes for the audio system, which are equally confusing to use.

In terms of kit, the A4 actually quite generous.  For the same amount of cash, the A4 Multitronic already has leather seats, dual zone climate control, powered driver's seat and a CD changer as standard.  The equally-priced BMW 320i only has cow hide and a CD changer to match.

But it's never about the value for money, isn't it?  Given the numerous changes done inside and out in the wake of the E90, one would certainly expect that the A4 would give a good fight.  Fat chance.  More than anything, the BMW 3 Series has moved the benchmark beyond the reach of any of its rivals.  Although the A4 has excellent fit and finish and kit, it severely lacks in other areas to make it a convincing buy.  It doesn't have the same refinement and driving excitement commonly associated with cars in this segment.  Priced at P 2,650,000 you'd be expecting more.  If you're driving excitement, it best to go for a turbo-charged, Quattro-ed A4--the latter option of which isn't available.  As for other A4 variants, it does get an A for effort, but a C for achievement.

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