German automakers are often seen as a serious bunch. Stoic in their resolve for outstanding engineering and firmness, it seems they never allow room for fun.
But once in awhile, they let their hair down and get loose with a wild little model that’s just heaps of fun.
Here are two, the Audi A4 Quattro and BMW 318ti California.
The Audi A4 has been out for about a year, doing battle with BMW’s 3-series and the Mercedes C-class, not to mention a few Asian competitors. The advantage it has over them all is a lower base price and the availability of an all-wheel-drive Quattro model.
Volkswagen’s upscale division has fielded a car that not only is a dream from a marketing standpoint, it’s just plain fun to drive.
Like many European automobiles, you’ll feel every bump and tar strip. The trade-off is superb handling. Steering is quick and communicative, and cornering attitude is flat. The firm buckety seats hold one in place in the twisties, but lack give. The all-wheel drive doesn’t just come into play during sloppy weather. It adds a great deal of handling ability when it’s dry.
The 172-horsepower V6 has good power, especially at highway speeds. But the five-speed automatic seems to hold it back. Better opt for the five-speed manual. The anti-lock brakes worked quickly.
Inside, it’s all business, with somber black leatherette accenting a typically Audi-like interior. Space up front is good. In back, it requires some compromise with front-seat passengers. Trunk space is good compared to the 90, but less so than comparable sedans.
The A4 Quattro is as fully equipped as any luxury sedan and features a similar price. Base price is $26,500. That provides a front-drive sedan with leatherette seats and power everything, including good handling. The all-wheel-drive system adds $1,550 to the tab. Toss in a few extras and the price quickly climbed to an as-tested $31,395. Very reasonable in this class for a lot of fun.
BMW 318TI CALIFORNIA
The BMW 318ti is funky in a way few BMWs are. It looks like a sedan that’s had its backside hacked off, while it has a youthful feel that few luxury-oriented automakers seem to understand.
BMW goes one step beyond with its California edition. Instead of a small moonroof or a convertible top, the California meets it halfway, featuring the structural rigidity of a hardtop but a truly humongous roof opening. It looks extra funky with the roofstack back: This is not your father’s BMW.
But it’s not just the cute looks that earn this car its kudos, it’s the way it drives (this is, after all, a BMW). It features the mechanical package common to all 318s. That means a 1.9-liter dual-overhead cam, 16-valve, 4-cylinder engine. Although larger this year, the engine’s horsepower remains unchanged at 138, but torque grows to 133 foot-pounds. EPA-rated at 23 mpg city and 31 mpg highway, this car has sufficient power for its tidy size. The precise five-speed manual transmission was a joy to shift, the clutch just as easy to use as any BMW’s. The manual is a good choice to make the most of this engine; the four-speed automatic is an unneeded $975 option. Four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock are standard, as are dual airbags.
Handling is fun — this BMW is as tossable and great to drive as any Bimmer, it just has less power. This lets you savor the handling and engine power at hand even more than in a more powerful BMW. The back end can bounce around a bit in the rear-drive hatchback, but enthusiasts won’t find this a flaw; it’s fun to play with.
The interior, while not opulent, is well-constructed and feels like any 3-series. The California package, in addition to the wild roof, adds alloy wheels with H-rated 205/60R15 tires, fog lights, body-colored bumpers and side skirts, leather-covered steering wheel and hand brake. Leather seating and an on-board computer are among theo tions. The 318ti starts at $20,560, with the test car topping out at $24,460. Funky — but this funky little Bimmer screams fun.
So there you have it, two German sweethearts, two cars that could only come from the heart of the Black Forest. It’s great to be able to choose from among cars that are not only fun, but have a distinct character, an increasingly rare commodity in the automotive market these days.