WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Vermont has a strange effect on visitors — and we’re not just talking a predilection to don Aran sweaters and snuggle over non-Starbucks coffees. Once we crossed the border from this tiny Massachusetts burg, home to Williams College and TCC’s own Sue Mead, we were possessed to visit every pay phone we could.
We weren’t looking for spare change. We were looking for contact with the outside world beyond the Green Mountains. They’re pretty spectacular, but they also swat down cell-phone signals with antediluvian glee. Technophobes, here’s your nirvana.
On the other hand, the Vermonters we passed showed some appreciative glances for the new A4 we flung across the hilltops during a recent press drive. It wasn’t only the cosmopolitan weekenders that noticed the ’02 model’s lithe shape as our train of vehicles mamboed through Bennington; the locals were throwing looks of amiable envy, too.
And for good reason. The A4 is a sensual treat, even more affirmation that Audi’s tough times are behind it and that confident, car-loving engineers are being given uncharacteristic free rein somewhere in southeastern Germany.Strong footing
The 2002 model moves the needle yet again, in some interesting ways. If the last A4 summed up neatly what Audi was all about, this vehicle is about expanding its envelope to bring in some others who think more interior room and innovative transmission technology aren’t addressed by the ilk of BMW and Lexus and Acura.
2002 Audi A4
Audi expects people to cross-shop against the 3-Series, C-Class and X-Type and IS300. They’re expected close to 40,000 units to be sold each year. And the company thinks it will sell 100,000 cars in the U.S. this year, after seeing sales crater in the early 1990s.
Offhand, we’d think those numbers could be conservative.Changing gears
The team responsible for this Audi duty had one of the tougher tasks in the auto world — improving the A4’s quality while increasing interior room and penning a new V-6 engine.
Continuously variable transmissions have a bad reputation, mostly because of the Sixties DAFs with rubber-band technology, or the funky Subaru Justy CVT, complete with a non-charming three-cylinder engine that shook more than Otis Redding running a martini bar.
2002 Audi A4
2002 Audi A4
In mixed-use driving, the Multitronic doesn’t feel like a rubber band at all, either. Audi says they’ve chosen to modify the power curve so the gearbox (if you can call it that) doesn’t zing up to redline and sit there, waiting for you to let off the gas. It massages the curve to raise rpms to a less objectionable level, and responds quickly to part-throttle inputs. The double-word score here is that, due to its innate efficiency, the Multitronic is expected to get better gas mileage and be quicker than a comparable automatic-equipped model.Vroom with a view
The Multitronic — and to an equal degree, the manual and Tiptronic gearboxes — mate well to the two engine choices. Both are upgrades from the existing powerplants. The four-cylinder engine jumps 20 hp to 170 hp without losing its timely midrange power come-on. The V-6 is a new five-valve, aluminum design with a 90-degree valley and a balance shaft to smooth out some inherent vibration. It makes 220 hp and 221 lb-ft of torque available down low, a lesson Audi was late to learn but shows mastery of now. Both engines are certified as Ultra Low-Emission Vehicles (ULEVs).
2002 Audi A4
The suspension continues to impress, with Audi’s now typical four-link design in the front, and a new multi-link independent in the rear. In any of the A4’s configurations, the resulting handling is a benchmark combination of poise and capability. The steering winds and tells the truth about road surfaces, while the suspension does a noticeably better job of absorbing big pavement scabs without too much joggling. Ride damping is firmer than the former sport suspensions and feels right on target for an enthusiast ready to rave through the country.
After its near-death experience in the late 1980s, Audi learned that safety sells. The A4 is awash in acronyms like standard ESP (Electronic Stability Program) and BA (Brake Assist) to accompany dual front and side airbags and anti-lock brakes. Rear side airbags are optional, as is GM’s OnStar service and a navigation system that puts the entire country’s worth of maps on one DVD.Rolling artwork
If it were possible to frame the A4, many buyers would. Examine its skin and you’ll see attention to detail rivaling Bangkok’s Oriental hotel, with slim and few cutlines and wind-tunnel perfected curves. Even the now-cliché wheelhouse arches are subdued enough to not remind you of the VW Beetle. Every carmaker claims 45 percent more rigidity for new models, it seems, as does Audi. Frankly it’s difficult to tell how much stronger it is until driving, just that its ingot-like structure doesn’t squeak or twist untowardly.
2002 Audi A4
2002 Audi A4
The cockpit it gloriously Audi, another benchmark that offers up subtle textures and well-conceived controls. The AM/FM/CD changer’s a black hole of flat buttons, but the gauges are lovingly framed in metallic rings. Four-cylinders get mod-looking textured aluminum trim, while six-cylinders sport wood. The tilt and telescoping steering wheel and multi-adjustable seats create a good command position, but the tunnel for the driver’s legs is a little narrow. And novices will have some learning to do: the base seats have more cranks and levers than Willy Wonka’s factory.
The 2002 A4 already has four variations, and soon enough, we’re certain to see an Avant wagon, an S4 performance edition, and if our crystal ball hasn’t gone back in hock to Miss Cleo, we see an allroad quattro version of the wagon, too. Expect the Multitronic to grace more Audis — even quattros — and Volkswagens as well.
Starting in October, you’ll have the chance to savor a car that no matter in which level of trim, feels as solid and sophisticated as anything on the market.
Models: A4 1.8T, A4 1.8T quattro, A4 3.0, A4 3.0 quattro
Price: $28,000 (1.8T) - $33,000 (3.0 quattro) (est.)
Engine: 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, 170 hp; 3.0-liter V-6, 220 hp
Transmission: Five-speed manual (four-cylinders); six-speed manual (six-cylinders); five-speed automatic with Tiptronic (quattro models); Multitronic CVT (front-drive, V-6 model)
Wheelbase: 104.3 in
Length: 179.0 in
Width: 69.5 in
Height: 56.2 in
Curb Weight: 3252 – 3627 lb
EPA (city/hwy): N/A
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, front-seat side airbags, anti-lock brakes with Brake Assist
Major standard features: Air conditioning, cruise control, power windows, locks, and mirrors AM/FM stereo with in-dash six-CD changer and ten speakers, trip computer (both models); dual power front seats, wood trim (six-cylinder)
Major options: Homelink garage door opener, Xenon headlamps, rear side-impact airbags, OnStar telematics service, Bose 200-watt premium audio system, sunroof (both models); Parktronic parking assist, leather trim, power seat and mirror memory, navigation system (six-cylinder)
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles (including scheduled service)
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