- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 26, 2005

Like a racer caught in the pack, Audi needs to find a way to break out. The German manufacturer of luxury sedans, wagons and sports cars is something of a mentor to its competitors, who sometimes look to Audi for inspiration.

It was a pioneer in the now-burgeoning phenomenon of all-wheel drive — celebrating its silver anniversary as a producer of cars with quattro, Audi’s name for its sophisticated mechanical system. It also has been a leader in the use of aluminum — and not only for body panels and engines, but everywhere else in the car as well.

In addition, the company is widely admired for its skill in designing classy interiors and driver-friendly controls.

With all that, you’d think that Audi would be regarded as a top-tier luxury manufacturer. But that label has been elusive. For all of its capabilities, it is not perceived as on a par with its major competitors — BMW and Mercedes-Benz of Germany, and Lexus of Japan. One reason has been quality problems that diminished Audi on customer satisfaction indexes. Audi says it has rectified those problems, and points to new assessments that place it on a par with Mercedes and BMW.

But it takes time for public perceptions to catch up. Meanwhile, all Audi can do is to maneuver as adroitly as possible out of its also-ran position in the pack.

The best way to do that, as anyone in the car business can testify, is to overwhelm the customers with new, high-quality products. The latest of these is what Audi considers to be the locomotive of its train of high-performance luxury automobiles — the 2005 A4.

The A4, a compact sedan or wagon, competes against the likes of the BMW 3-Series, the Mercedes C-Class, the Volvo S60, the Cadillac CTS, the Jaguar X-Type and the Lexus IS.

Reflecting Audi’s penchant for engineering, the redesigned A4 can be ordered as a four-door sedan or a four-door wagon, which Audi calls the Avant, in front-wheel drive or quattro all-wheel drive, with either of two engines, and with a choice of three different transmissions — a six-speed manual, a six-speed automatic with a manual-shift mode, or a CVT (continuously-variable transmission), also with a manual-shift mode.

Moreover, the options list also includes a sport suspension system for drivers who want even sharper handling, although it does compromise the ride quality. With the sport suspension, a $750 option, the A4 feels as if it steers almost by thought control, with the front wheels taking a quicker bite and reacting instantly to the driver’s slightest steering input.

Much of that has to do with the higher-performance tires that augment the tauter suspension settings. But the standard suspension is no slouch.

Nor are either of the two engines — both brand new and both featuring Audi’s FSI system, which injects a fuel-air mixture directly into each cylinder for more power and better fuel economy.

Combined with a turbocharger, the system delivers 200 horsepower from the 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, which is good for a zero-to-60 acceleration time of just over seven seconds. If you want to knock off half a second, you can order the 3.2-liter V-6 engine, which is rated at 255 horsepower.

The test car was the version expected to find the most favor with customers: the quattro sedan with the 2-liter four and the six-speed automatic transmission.

The CVT, which is a lot of fun because it operates without shift points in automatic mode but also can be shifted manually with a rapidity that is astonishing, is available only on the front-drive models.

The test car had a suggested sticker price of $31,370. That included the automatic transmission, as well as stability and traction control, antilock brakes, dual-zone climate control, heated outside mirrors, a six-disc CD changer, side-curtain air bags and remote locking with a security system.

Options, including a premium package with a sunroof, leather upholstery and a garage-door opener, brought the bottom-line price to $35,320.

One neat — and rare — feature is that the A4 comes prewired, with a factory-installed antenna, that allows the owner to choose either of the two satellite radio providers — XM or Sirius. It’s simply a matter of plugging either unit into a receptacle in the trunk. The dash-mounted radio display shows program information for whichever is chosen.

As expected, the Audi interior has a look of classic functionality, with quality materials and an elegant simplicity of design. There’s comfort for four.

Handling, even with the standard suspension, is flat and true, with little hint of body lean in the corners, and it soaks up road irregularities with aplomb.

Audi’s new U.S. executive director, Johan de Nysschen, is rueful when he speaks of Audi’s also-ran status among luxury car buyers, and says his top priority is to change that perception.

The new “locomotive” enhances the quest.

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