Audi A4 1.8T Avant (1999)

Loved it! Audi A4 Station Wagon(1999)

We liked Audi's A4 a great deal. In fact, we've decided to give it ourofficial "wrench up" and put it on our recommended list. The A4 iscomfortable, sure footed and a nice car to drive, and it gives one theimpression that it was carefully engineered and constructed. In short, itexudes a veritable aura of high quality. It has the solid feel of a bigcar, even though it's a small car. The A4 is based on the same platform asthe Passat, but, among other things, it's all-wheel-drive, has a differentsuspension and has lots more stuff on it.

Interior

Comfort is the A4's strong point. Ray had the opportunity to drive the A4from Boston to Cape Cod, a drive of about two hours--and one that, in mostcars, would certainly have left him with a sore butt and an aching back.Ray found the A4 to be extremely comfortable, however, and reported noaches or pains. The front seats are fully adjustable, so, no matter whatyour size and shape--it seemed, you can get the seat into a comfortableposition.

Raymond's trip down to the Cape was on a very cold day, during which theA4's heated seats proved their value. Most cars with heated seats have an"on" or an "off" position, so your tuchus is either freezing cold or onfire. Not so with the A4, however, which has--get this--a six-stepadjustment. And those heating elements in the A4 are not to be takenlightly. They're so powerful, in fact, that Ray insists his pants startedto smolder, caught fire and had to be torn from his body by the younghitchhiker in the passenger seat. (Note to Ray's wife--Not to worry, thehitchhiker's name was Fred.) A final, medical warning: If you use Metamucilor like to eat bran muffins, you may find yourself sprinting into the woodswhen you turn on the heaters in these seats.

Driving Experience

Ray's return trip was in torrential rain, and proved to him that that A4 isexceptionally surefooted in rain and high wind. Even at 55 or 60 miles anhour, with rain coming down in sheets, Ray claims he felt very safe drivingthe A4. The feeling of safety in the A4 derives from a combination offactors, including very good handling, fulltime all wheel drive. (Optional,and recommended), excellent visibility, good tires, and a great set ofwindshield wipers.

The A4 comes with one of two possible engines. There's a 2.8-liter V6, andout test car has the 1.8-liter four-cylinder with a turbo. The 1.8 with theturbo provided plenty of power, in our opinion, and is quite a bit cheaperthan the six-cylinder A4.

We noticed that the clutch on the A4 seems to engage pretty high--notunlike Volkswagens and other German cars. If you're not used to this, itmight take some time to get accommodated to the clutch. (The clutch isself-adjusting, so there's no chance to change the level at which itengages.) The clutch did engage smoothly, however, and it was very easy toshift. There's no learning curve with the manual transmission on the A4--wedidn't stall the car once.

The shifting was okay, though we thought the gearshift had a little toomuch "throw" in it. We'd like it more if the gear positions were a littlecloser together. Also, the angle of the shifter relative to the driver isdifficult to get used to, with the armrest in the way from time to time.

While the A4 is wonderful on the highway and on curvy roads, we noticedthat it doesn't take bumps all that well and feels like a small car in thatrespect. Of course, one has to remember, it *is* a small car. This is theflip side of having a tight, good-cornering suspension: you feel more ofthe road than sometimes you'd like.

The engine inside the A4 is mounted longitudinally. (This means the "front"of the engine is in the front of the car, unlike most front-wheel-drivevehicles, which have "transverse"-mounted engines (i.e., the front of theengine faces the side of the car.) It appears to be fairly easy to servicefor most ordinary repairs. Interestingly, because it's not transverselymounted, it actually has a fan that's driven by a fan belt. (When was thelast time you saw a fan belt? You'd have to take a look at any old Chevy tofind one!) The A4 also has an auxiliary fan that comes on when you turn onthe air conditioning.

Maintenance

If you're a do-it-yourselfer, you probably are not going to like working onthe A4. Even routine maintenance, such as changing belts, is best done on alift. Most of the basic servicing and components are more accessible fromunderneath than from the top of the engine compartment.

If you're planning on buying an A4 and keeping it for more than a fewyears, we'd recommend you live near a major city...and keep a few pesos atthe ready. Audi parts have the unfortunate dual distinction of beingexpensive and difficult to acquire, even if you're fortunate enough to havean Audi dealer nearby. (To be fair to Audi, part of that problem may justbe the local dealer here in Boston, with whom Ray has had someless-than-ideal experiences.)

Because it's a wagon, the A4 has plenty of storage room in the back.There's enough room in the A4 for you, your spouse and two kids. When youadd that third kid, though, you'll start to find the A4 cramped...at whichpoint it's probably time to bite the bullet and get an A6--or forget aboutminor concerns like comfort, styling and performance...and get a minivan.

Audis have a reputation for being great in the snow, and that's certainlybeen our experience with the A4. The all-wheel-drive Quattro should be agreat advantage. It's not an off-road vehicle, however, because it's low tothe ground, but the Quattro system should be great in the rain and snow.

Ergonomics

The ergonomics are challenging in the A4, to say the least. It's all formand no function in this car. The radio has a pretty little display, with100 little buttons...and printing that's so small that you can't readit--and certainly not while you're driving. The window controls are hard toget at, because the seat is in the way. The heater and fan controls areconfusing and require looking for tiny, lit arrows and buttons. By way ofcontrast, Volvo uses a big dial, which can be easily found and adjustedwithout taking one's eyes off the road. The Germans who designed this A4were simply trying to make the controls look cool. What the hell are theythinking? Shape up, consarn it!

Want another ergonomic nightmare? Audi has completely switched around thedoor controls, so that the handle is forward of the controls for thewindow...which is exactly the opposite of the way it should be. The wayit's positioned, it's difficult to reach the controls, and, further, youwant more leverage when you're closing the door. Some German designer namedDietrich obviously thought this was the fashionable way to do things, butwe think it's stupid.

Having complained about the ergonomics, we should admit that we probablywould have gotten used to some of these odd designs if we had driven thecar for a longer period of time. Overall, however, we think the Germans dotend to unnecessarily complicate their ergonomic design. What's wrong withlarge, easy-to-reach knobs with obvious settings that can be adjustedeasily while one is driving? Let's hope that, the next time around, Audidecides to put function over form.

Overall comments

With a list price of $26,440, the A4 is a nice wagon and a reasonably gooddeal. No one will ever call the A4 a "spectacular" car, but it's anexcellent compromise for someone who needs a wagon and all-wheel drive butwants to drive a sporty car. It's certainly fun to drive and easy to livewith.

View a cars.com model report on this vehicle.


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