Audi’s first-generation A4 (1996-2001) was a milestone car for the German automaker. The A4 entered a crowded segment and distinguished itself with style, substance, and value. The second-generation A4 had a tough act to follow, but after our yearlong test of the new A4, we’d say that Audi can add efficiency and innovative technology to the list of A4 attributes.
Our Four Seasons Audi A4 3.0 had only a few options. The Preferred Luxury package, which brought leather upholstery and a glass sunroof, cost $1800. To this, we added xenon headlights ($500) and silver metallic paint ($450). We made do without heated seats or a Sport package. One important option, which happened to cost nothing, was Audi’s Multitronic continuously variable transmis-sion (CVT).
We specifically chose the Multitronic transmission to see how its complex link chain, which is capable of providing an infinite spread of ratios, would hold up to a year of brake torquing and full-throttle acceleration. What immediately surprised many was how transparent the CVT’s operation was. When driven with restraint, the CVT felt like the world’s smoothest conventional automatic transmission. Associate editor Joe DeMatio’s brother borrowed the A4 for a road trip, and when questioned, he confessed that he never realized it was anything but a conventional automatic transmission. If Audi’s goal with the CVT was to fill our logbook with the word smooth, it has succeeded.
When the car was driven more aggressively, the CVT’s personality changed entirely. Once under way, flooring the throttle past the kickdown switch elicits an rpm run that stops just short of the redline. Speed rises as the tachometer sits at 6000 or so rpm. Back off the throttle, and the CVT goes into a high gear without the slightest hint of drama. One staffer slipped in some aviation terminology when describing maximum acceleration with the CVT: “Hammer it, and the needle reaches, and maintains, a position just below the redline until you reach a comfortable cruising altitude.” The aeronautical reference is apt because the CVT gives the engine a jetlike personality with its uninterrupted stream of power. The A4 hurtles forward, seemingly forever, at the perfect ratio for maximum acceleration. One downside to the CVT was that we started to notice that Audi’s 3.0-liter V-6 is a bit rough at high rpm. In a conventional gearbox, the engine usually only touches on the redline, and the ever-changing revolutions sing a melodic tune. With a CVT, the engine can maintain high revolutions, and the constant high rpm can sound a bit coarse. Audi’s torquey, five-valve-per-cylinder V-6 is sonorous at more reasonable speeds, but BMW’s in-line sixes sound good at all revolutions.
Additionally, Multitronic CVT incorporates six preset ratios that allow the transmission to behave like a conventional gearbox. Slip the shifter into the Tiptronic gate, and six ratios are yours for the taking, either via the shifter or by up- and downshift buttons on the steering wheel. Upshifts are fast and transparent; downshifts are unnoticeable except for the change in engine revs. The downshifts are on par with perfect heel-toe footwork and never upset the chassis-very satisfying.
Complaints regarding the CVT centered on the A4’s behavior when accelerating from a stop. As DeMatio put it, “The chirping from the front wheels that occurs with even the slightest aggressiveness in acceleration is not in keeping with this $35,000 German car’s character.” The problem seems to lie in the CVT’s ultra-low lowest gear and the multiplate clutch that engages and disengages the transmission. The A4 creeps away from a stop like a car with a conventional automatic transmission, but when you first depress the throttle, nothing happens, so you continue pushing the pedal. Then, suddenly, the multiplate clutches, which provide the slippage that exists in a torque converter, lock up the lowest of the CVT ratios and, coupled with the torquey engine, spin the front wheels until the traction control restores the A4’s dignity. This minor quibble found its way into several logbook entries early on and became a staple of later entries. One solution to the wheelspin would be Audi’s Quattro all-wheel-drive system, but Quattro is not yet available with the continuously variable transmission, so CVT owners must be gentle when creeping away from a stop.
Once rolling, the annoyance of chirping wheels subsided, and the highway prowess of the A4 emerged. The A4 turned out to have a vagabond spirit. Several staffers took cross-country trips in the A4 and filled the logbook with rave reviews regarding the extraordinary efficiency of the sedan and its CVT. The CVT’s large spread of ratios allows for a tall top gear that converts to a relaxed 2500 rpm at 80 mph. Turning so few revolutions helped the A4 achieve excellent fuel economy on the highway. New York bureau chief Jamie Kitman called the fuel economy “perhaps its most thrilling feature.” At highway speeds, 28 to 30 mpg was not uncommon, and a range of 500-plus miles on a tank of gasoline made the Audi an enemy of the urethral sphincter. Overall, the A4 achieved a commendable 27 mpg during its yearlong stay.
Entries about handling were notably absent from the logbook, but the ride did get its share of comments. Editor emeritus David E. Davis, Jr., praised the A4’s highway demeanor but complained that around town the ride was let down by impact harshness and underdamped body motions. However, most drivers of our A4 had only accolades for the ride, including one editor who, after a 750-mile trip, declared the ride quality to be “just about perfect.”
Interior design and quality have long been Audi strengths, and the latest A4 is no exception. The A4’s interior sanctuary is the envy of the automotive industry. “The detailing is exquisite,” remarked executive editor Mark Gillies, “and the interior makes the Lexus ES300 and the Saab 9-3 look pretty homely.” Compared with the previous-generation car, the plastics are richer, and the design is skewed more toward luxury than sport. Editor-in-chief Jean Jennings gushed over “the integrity of our optional platinum leather interior after 25,000 miles.”
Taking the A4 for a scheduled maintenance appointment was a rare inconvenience. While in our custody, the A4 required a total of five dealer visits, three scheduled and two unscheduled. Six-cylinder A4s have 10,000-mile service intervals, which are free for four years or 50,000 miles. The first unscheduled stop came at the two-month mark, when a whine from the climate-control vents finally annoyed us enough to require a visit to the dealer. The culprit turned out to be a noisy blower motor, which was replaced under warranty, and the new blower motor restored serenity to the A4’s cabin. The second unscheduled visit occurred just after the A4’s year had concluded. The standard Audi Symphony radio with integral six-disc CD changer suddenly stopped working, and the display began to glow red. A new radio was installed. Several other owners reported the same problem and had either the fuse or the entire radio replaced.
We expect small luxury sedans such as the A4 to provide a luxurious, trouble-free experience, and our A4 did indeed treat us like royalty. One expects to pay dearly for such a privilege, but the A4 doesn’t ask for much beyond its sticker price. What’s more, for 2003, a comparably equipped A4 costs $210 less than our 2002 model. Fuel economy in a luxury sedan is a rare treat and one that sets the Multitronic A4 apart from its competition. Luxury and economy used to be opposing entities, but in the A4, they are linked by the chain of the ingenious CVT.