What I'm Driving At: Audi-Do

My late great-uncle (by marriage) was famous for an amiable habit of greeting friend and stranger alike with a gravelly, good-natured "Hidee, hidee, hidee," to which he automatically appended, "Fine, fine, fine," whether or not you were in the process of asking him how he was doing. So much for the small talk. The generalities didn't matter; what mattered was how you played at gin or golf or, in business, how shrewd was your last deal.Now, generally speaking, Uncle Webb wasn't a particularly notable car buff (although his mad-dash, Mr. Toad driving style is a persistent family legend). But he certainly would have applauded the recent restoration of Audi's allure in the national automotive consciousness as an especially shrewd business story. After suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous publicity in the mid-'80s, Audi's reputation and sales dropped like a stone to the murky depths of quirk-car status. But from the nadir of '91, sales have rebounded almost 125 percent, with two-thirds of that gain attributable to '96 alone. Audi prowess is currently dominating the racing venues where it selectively stoops to conquer; its pioneering Quattro all-wheel-drive system, developed for grueling international rally competition, is an acclaimed case of race-on-Sunday-sell-on-Monday technology transfer. Nevertheless, to consider the general outlines of Audi's plucky corporate behavior during the last few years is to miss the point about its new A4 1.8T sedan. Specifically, this car is Audi's bid to lower the typical admission fee to the Eurocar Club. Intentionally or not, however, the car also raises the skill standards required to manage--let alone exploit--a sophisticated and perhaps overcomplicated power train. What I'm driving at is the hoopla-heralded appearance in '97 of Audi's four-cylinder, twin-cam, five-valve, 1.8-liter, turbocharged engine. Compared to the $26,500 base price of Audi's "standard" A4, with its 172-horse 2.8-liter V6, this new turbo-model achieves an attention-arresting base price of $22,990. But even though the engine size is more than a third smaller, the horsepower deficit is only 13 percent. A gee-whiz automatic five-speed transmission boasts more than 200 preprogrammed "shifting strategies" in a well-meaning attempt to be all things to all drivers. That option (for $975), combined with the fabled Quattro all-wheel-drive system (for $1,600), stickers up to $26,065 after a delivery charge is tacked on. For this class of car, that's simply phenomenal. Imagine: Euro style, Euro feel, and Euro class for the price of a well-equipped Ford Taurus. Even so, the deal gets better. Audi provides no-charge routine service for the full term of its three-year/50,000-mile warranty and guarantees corrosion protection for 10 years.But...an Everyman price (or one reasonably near it) does not necessarily mean that every man or woman will hold Audi's new afforda-car in equally high esteem. Ironically, its technology is a large part of the reason why: Here we have a turbocharged engine, which harnesses exhaust gas pressure to amplify combustion pressure and therefore horsepower. But turbos suffer traditionally from "lag"--that is, a delay in delivering full power when the accelerator foot requests it. It's a feedback-loop sort of problem, like the echo that answers the yodel. Turbos also deliver peak power within a relatively narrow band of the engine's RPM curve--in the parlance, they're peaky. A transmission, particularly of the manual variety, can exploit a peaky engine if the driver knows how to select the gear that maintains the engine's RPM level in its "sweet spot." But in the case of the A-4 Turbo, we have an automatic transmission that, with its 200 potential shift patterns, trips on its own shoelaces all too often. In purported deference to driver comfort, the transmission is constantly hunting and pecking through its five-speed range for a "relatively appropriate" gear. But in response to the transmission's computational migraine, I finally just slapped the thing into "obviously appropriate" third and left it there for all but top-end Interstate travel.And with that simple accommodation, it's simply a matter of "learning the lag" by driving ahead of yourself--that is, accelerating a moment or two before you need your kick in the pants. Which is all fun and good for a sport-oriented driver willing to fine-tune his driving style to match the idiosyncrasies of the conveyance in question. But too many Europhiles, I'm afraid, will be dismayed by having to "work the ride" in order to extract its full benefit. Having been lured by an attractive window sticker on a car that's every measure of the Mercedes and BMWs it vastly underprices, many A4 Turbo buyers may resent having to contribute a modicum of their own skill in exchange for an enjoyable driving experience.That would be a shame, because in every other consideration this car is such a conspicuous success. A super-trick "four-link" front suspension combines with exotic "virtual steering axis" geometry to deliver one of the nimblest tracking feels this side of the raceway. The accomplishment is all the more remarkable in light of the Quattro's seamless power distribution to all four wheels.The interior is natty and precise in every detail. In recognition of the car's autobahn pedigree, perhaps, the A4 Turbo has grab handles over all four windows--a welcome concession (finally) to the driver's desire for long-distance comfort. But alas, it has no center armrest up front. (After all, one can just imagine lounging the right elbow on the armrest and suspending the left arm by its grab handle while steering, presumably, with the knees.) Only the radio, with its flat, cryptic controls, truly irks.For better and worse, Audi's new A4 1.8T is a driver's car in a world where a passenger mentality too often slips behind the wheel. But if the cost-conscious aficionado should ask, "How does the Audi do?" then the automatic reply simply must be, "Fine, fine, fine."

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