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BEHIND THE WHEEL

Audi's A4 Rates an A-Plus on Two Fronts

October 13, 1995|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HEIDELBERG, Germany — We were sloshing through a Bavarian cloudburst, listening to oldies but guten on the eight-speaker Bose with Mrs. Dean singing along, verbatim so help me, all the words to "Venus In Blue Jeans."

My thoughts were locked on loftier but duller.

On realizing that true appreciation of German cars comes only when pushing them in their wet, slick natural habitat. On the critical need for a stern stance and weighty poise in sedans expected to cruise dead straight roads all day, across three nations at insane speeds in absolute safety.

On the security of honking around Alpine hairpins in high altitude slush without one omigawd because a wide track and multi-link suspension, anti-lock brakes, big wheels, broad tires and all-wheel drive are performing perfectly as designed.

And on how this 1996 Audi A4, which replaces the Audi 90, just might heal an old sore--and recover the prestige Audi once held in the Americas as a builder of cars in close contention to BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

When Audis first rolled off U.S. docks in 1970, it was onto a solid beachhead. The company--Germany's second-oldest car builder, senior to everyone but Mercedes--had roots reaching back to Auto Union and Rickenbacker. Audis were Alpine tough, had survived baptisms by track and endurance trial, and nobody doubted their quality and quickness.

Then along came "60 Minutes." Ten years ago it reported a series of fatalities when drivers started their Audis, shifted from park and mysteriously plowed through garage walls, oleanders, crowded intersections and unlucky bystanders. It didn't matter, said the report, that drivers had feet flattening their brake pedals.

Or so they thought. Government investigations in Canada and the United States later proved the problem to be a deadly combination of pedal positioning and driver error. When supposedly standing on the brake, agreed Ottawa and Washington, owners were actually cramming gas pedals to the carpet.

But explanations fell on closed minds. Audi sales crashed and burned. It didn't help that when the sky caved in, Audi was still an import in search of domestic standing; an oddball car clinging to a customer base stuffed with mathematics professors and ex-GIs once stationed in Weisbaden.

So by the mid-'80s, Audi sales in the United States plopped from 75,000 to 59,000, then headed to 22,000 and 12,000. Most Audi 5000s were sold for scrap and recycled into Faberware. Some owners drove their cars into the desert and shot them.

The greatest charm of America, however, remains its ability to forget.

Television crusaders shifted attacks to Suzuki Samurais, GM trucks with exploding gas tanks, AK-47s and chewing tobacco. Audi picked up its pieces, soldiered quietly on and hoped times would change, time would heal.

*

They have. Although U.S. sales remain pallid, current numbers are showing a sizable improvement over last year.

And the new A4--less expensive than entry-level Mercedes or BMW sedans, but with parallel luxuries and performance--is almost certain to advance the arithmetic.

Yet expect no duplication of the Audi's European ecstasy where the A4 is burying Mercedes' C-Class. Sales also are running wheel-to-wheel with BMW's 3-Series.

No wonder. In more than 2,000 miles of rapid transit through Europe with all its foul weather moods, our five-speed A4 with Audi's tried and agreeable 2.8-liter V-6 neither quivered nor faltered. It tracked firm and flat at 130 m.p.h. on a lonely dawn run from Epernay to Mannheim. It clambered on sure feet up two-laners through the Swiss Alps and wild September snows to a white sausage breakfast for two at Gstaad.

Margins of passing torque, braking power and suspension grip went safely beyond whatever little savageries we might have inflicted due to impatience and fatigue.

That multi-link, forged aluminum front suspension removed all the tugs and twitches associated with most front-driving cars. Steering is neutral with a gentle progression toward understeer, a most civilized bias for mountain driving.

Sure, tires squealed and the body rolled a bit when travel got downhill and feisty on really twisty bits. But try as we might, the capabilities of Audi's traction system were much stronger than our courageous attempts to break the car loose on public byways. Credit Quattro IV, Audi's all-wheel drive with electronic sensing that distributes power side to side, front to rear and always to the wheels with the most Polygrip.

The A4's combination of clutch, throttle and manual gearbox, may be praised by three little words: Absolutely, bloody memorable.

Shifting is smoother and quicker than Honda, once the best there has ever been. Add perfect modulation of clutch, brakes and precise on-off response from the throttle and Bart Simpson becomes Fangio.

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