Generally acknowledged as the

benchmark (and instigator) of the genre is BMW's 3-Series, which first came

under attack from Audi's A4 before Mercedes-Benz shook off its conservative

image and gave us a new, more sporting, C-Class. The latest Threes have been

around for a while now, and the C-Class is becoming a more common sight, but

the second-generation A4 has only just arrived with an, initially, limited line-up.

The first one we received for testing gave us a double whammy: the new model

powered by Audi/VW's state of the art (pump jet

injection to you) 1,9-litre turbodiesel.

Turbodiesel: start getting used to the idea of including one - or more - when

next drawing up your short-list for another car. Despite the reservations of

some local manufacturers and importers about the quality and consistency of

diesel fuel available throughout the country, the German big three - Audi, BMW

and Mercedes-Benz - have all got turbodiesel models included in their popular

model line-ups, which is a comforting show of faith. Far from being "smelly

old oil burners", diesels are fast emerging as the engines of the future as

the technology appears to be moving if not faster than, then certainly apace

with, that of petrol engines. Economy, torque and longevity have long been givens

for a diesel but, with the aid of turbocharging and advanced fuel injection,

we are now getting performance and acceptable emissions control as well. So,

new car, new engine - but do they set new standards?

Logically, let us start with the car, and if you took the heading picture to

be of an A6 then do not feel foolish. The similarity between the two is surprisingly

close - far more so than, say, a 3- and 5-Series Beemer. Although the A4 is

physically slightly smaller than the A6 (but longer, wider and taller than the

previous A4), from half a field away you need to look for details to identify

which is which. Having a "family look" is commonplace with premium motor makers,

but it is unusual - and, it has to be said, disappointing - to find oneself

opting for a styling critique against a stablemate rather than a rival. The

A6 has been around for a while and opinions on its appearance are still polarised,

so the new A4 does not make an entrance on a wave of universal accolades. One

of our team maintains the general profile is "dumpy", while another reckons the A4's looks are "classy and better-balanced

than the A6". A third was suitably impressed yet underwhelmed. Techno-buffs

will be pleased with the car's drag coefficient of 0,28, and impressed with

the smooth low-drag underbody, but unless you are a devotee of the marque, the

new A4 is not likely to excite the senses.

There is an Audi-ness and conservatism about the interior, too, albeit in the

nicest possible way. Audi cabins have long been a rewarding place to be, offering

comfort, quality and enough controls technology to make the driver feel part

of the modern world but without having sacrificed some old-fashioned elegance.

There is nothing flashy about the new A4's interior, but bright edging surrounds

the instruments and highlights the steering wheel boss and the facia's control

panels. Patterned satin-aluminium inserts run across the facia and along the

doors just below window level, and the leather upholstery is lightly textured.

Thankfully, grey (or blue) environment colours are available as options to the

usual Teutonic favourite, black. At night, the familiar display of red-lit instruments

and controls creates a flight-commanding air, and contributes to an overall

effect of well-being.

 

Creature comforts include side-to-side climate control air-conditioning with

a dust and pollen filter, and regulated according to the position of the sun.

However, only by selecting the lowest temperature setting could we get cold

air from the test car's system. Other features include a superb Audi Concert

150W radio/CD sound system with 10 Bose speakers, one touch up and down electric

operation of all windows, courtesy/maplights front and rear, courtesy lights

in all of the footwells, a cellphone mounting attached to the passenger side

of the hangdown console, and an illuminated vanity mirror behind each visor.

Driver aids include a rake-and reach-adjustable leather covered steering wheel,

electrically operated and heated exterior mirrors, three-position headlamp beam

height adjustment, trip computer, left-foot rest, and call-up buttons for the

vehicle service indicator with an auto-check of important components and functions.

There is a centre foldaway armrest/cubby in the floor console, but it gets in

the way of both the handbrake and (for many people) operation of the gearshift

- an annoying design flaw.

The seats are comfortable and both front chairs have an excellent range of electric

adjustment: fore/aft, cushion height/angle, and lumbar in/out plus up/down.

Front head restraints are height and tilt adjustable, and the upper seatbelt

mounting point can be raised or lowered. The new A4's bigger body suggests that

interior space has been improved, which it has, in all dimensions. But somehow

the on-paper liberation of space has not created the visual impact of spaciousness

one would expect.

A 41 mm gain in kneeroom in the back has overcome a major complaint of the previous

model, but the increase is lost if the front seat's generous travel is taken

up. One journey with four-up left one tester feeling a bit cramped, so while

A4 may not be a paragon of space utilisation, it is better than before and,

as we have said, the furnishings and fittings are of the highest order.

The rear seat backrest is asymmetrically split and can be folded down to increase

the car's huge 400 dm3 of boot capacity into 1 072 dm3 of utility space through

a large and unrestrictive bulkhead opening. Loading height is 730 mm. In the

upright position, the backrests can be key-locked for security. The foldaway

centre armrest contains a first aid kit. There was a time when the prospect

of powering a 1,5-ton premium saloon with a sub two-litre diesel engine would

have been considered the height of folly, but the distinctly undersquare 1 896

cm3 turbocharged and intercooled four-pot under the A4's bonnet is something

else. We experienced the basic motor in the VW Golf TDI tested in December 1999,

and reckon it is probably the engine of choice in the Golf range. But the German

engineers have breathed some pumpe-düse technology into its workings to raise

peak power output from 81 to 96 kW at 4 000 r/min, and increase maximum torque

from 235 to a steady 285 N.m from 1 750 to 2 500 r/min. These are dramatic increases

- the max torque is claimed to be a record for a four-cylinder - that transform

what is already a capable powerplant into something of a barn-stormer.

Rather like BMW's two-litre turbodiesel, the A4's motor can stumble at low revs,

even stall, if the driver is not concentrating fully on throttle/clutch coordination,

but once past 1 400 r/min it delivers like a rocket. It will spin past the red

line at 4 500 on to a soft-limited 5 000 revs, but using 4 000 as a max change

point (where there is around 225 N.m on tap) keeps the engine right on song.

The boy-racer benchmark 0-100 km/h time of nigh on 10 seconds is no mean achievement,

and the A4 will sprint past the kilometre marker in 31,64 seconds at 164,7 km/h

before running on to a top speed of 207 km/h. Look through the CAR Guide at

the back of this magazine and you will see those figures are up with the best

in the class, diesel or petrol.

The fuel injection system's extremely high pressure (up to 2 050 bar) prevented

us from hooking up our test equipment, but based on consumption achieved during

the test period, we have calculated a fuel index (ie overall consumption) of

6,05 litres/100 km. From a 70-litre tank, that suggests a range in excess of

1 100 km from a single fill-up.

Dynamically, the new A4 also impresses. Aluminium has been used extensively

in the suspension components with the benefit of light weight and consequent

low unsprung mass. A four-link set-up is used at the front, with a self-tracking

trapezoidal link arrangement (developed from that used on Audi's quattro 4wd

models) at the back. The result is a ride that is firm but without jarring over

most road surfaces, and handling that is reassuringly composed. Cornering quickly,

the body does tend to lean a little before settling down and allowing the front

wheels to pull the car through the bend without any sign of the pitching that

afflicted some of the previous generation A4s. In adverse conditions, ESP (Electronic

Stability Programme) traction control acts as a guardian angel.

Some of the credit for the benign handling can be attributed to the grip of

the chunky 205/55 ZR-rated tyres, which are wrapped around attractive 16-inch

alloy wheels (there is a full-sized spare under the boot board). Steering is

power-assisted rack and pinion with a comfortable 2,8 turns lock to lock, and

the turning circle is 11,1 metres. All disc brakes, ventilated at front, with

ABS and EBD plus brake assist provide powerful stopping ability in all conditions.

A4's safety and security features include selective central locking, an immobiliser

and an alarm, front passenger airbags complemented with Sideguard, Audi's own

head and neck protection airbag system that covers almost the entire side window

area. The pedal box automatically decouples in the event of a frontal crash.

A4 achieved a high four-star rating in Europe's NCAP crash test.