When we saw the first Audi A4, the 1996 model, it was clear that Audi had not only retreated from the abyss but had shouldered its way to the top of the mountain. It was a sparkling jewel of German engineering, and a paragon of style eventually revealed to be just the beginning of an Audi parade of gorgeous shapes and haute couture interiors. We rewarded its brilliance by naming it a 1996 Automobile Magazine All-Star.But we didn't say, "Don't ever change."
Thank heaven it finally has. For some, the change from the current A4 to this more wedge-shaped 2005 model hasn't been enough, keeping as it does the same basic platform, the same upper structure above the windowsills, and, in the case of the S4, almost everything under the skin. (Not that anyone here is complaining about the explosive 339-hp S4.)
For others, the remodel is a little too extensive, especially when it comes to the controversial, massive grille. It's hard to miss that chrome snout barreling toward you. In fact, not a single hot-blooded young male on the mean streets of Palermo failed to stare and point as we passed. The A4's going-away presence is equally buzz-worthy, with jigsaw-puzzle-piece taillamps taken from the Nuvolari concept.
The A4's interior (with optional wood trim) is more traditional, so form-fitting it looks as if it were blown in. Audi's superior radio-navigation system is a snap to decipher with no drama and no owner's manual help, the way it should be. Each major function has its own push button, fine-tuned by a rotary knob surrounded by four buttons, each with a single task related to the chosen function. A six-disc CD changer is standard, as is a multifunction steering wheel, a center console with an extra power outlet, and cup holders redesigned so as not to spill coffee on the radio. OnStar is out of the picture due to lack of interest, but you can choose either Sirius or the twice-as-popular XM Satellite Radio.
We get the best new FSI (fuel straight injection) gasoline engines from a palette of no fewer than ten-five gasoline and five diesel-A4 engine options in Europe. The base engine is a 2.0-liter turbocharged in-line four making 197 hp, a fat bump from the current base A4's 170 hp. Torque also jumps, from 166 lb-ft to an estimated 207. Sixteen-inch wheels are standard. The front-wheel-drive model comes with a new six-speed manual transmission, or you can choose a CVT. In Quattro form (the choice of 85 percent of U.S. A4 buyers), a new six-speed manu-matic is available in place of the manual.
That manu-matic is the sole transmission if you choose the very fine, 252-hp 3.2-liter FSI V-6 (up 35 hp and only available with Quattro). The V-6 is fitted with seventeen-inch wheels. That would be our choice. It might even be our choice over the S4 Quattro's 339-hp V-8, if only because the day-to-day ride quality is so much less jarring than the slam-bang-pow ride offered by the tightly wound S4 boy racer. All three engines put the A4 back in the game.
Both the S4 and the A6 have contributed to the revised A4 suspension. Front upper and lower links are carryover, but upper bushings are S4-sourced, and lower bushings come from the A6. Dampers are carryover but newly tuned. The rear uses the S4's trapezoidal links and antiroll bar, while the dampers have the same dimensions as those of the A6 but are specifically tuned for the A4. Brakes have an automatic "squeegee" feature that is cued by the use of the windshield wipers.
Those who are unhappy with the changes to the A4 still have time to act. The new cars don't arrive until March (A4 sedan and Avant wagon), April (S4 sedan and wagon), and fall of '05 (S-line version of the A4, with performance suspension and design mods). As for us, we're happy to see change, even to one we love.