Audi's snazzy V6-powered A4 inhales deeply through its five-valve cylinder heads, and what a difference the additional valve makes. Tromp on the gas pedal and it responds with a lively leap, almost as if its soul had been unleashed.

Combined with variable intake valve timing, the new heads boost power of the 2.8-liter, dual-overhead-cam (DOHC) engine to 190, and drop the zero-to-60 time to 7.1 seconds for cars with a manual transmission. Fuel efficiency has been improved at the same time.

The five-speed manual gearbox not only lets the driver get the most out of the engine, its shift linkage is tight and direct.

For 1998, the A4 can also be specified with the Tiptronic transmission ($1,075) that can be shifted like a manual or left to shift automatically on its own.

Audi's switch to a more efficient and powerful five-valve cylinder head design is not without precedent: the A4 1.8 T uses one on its turbocharged four-cylinder, which is one reason it feels so much bigger than it is.

The mid-size A4 has been a hot seller in Europe and has led a resurgence of sales in this country too. It has clean, simple lines that are both athletic and aesthetic. Large, five-spoke alloy wheels are set out near the corners, which gives it a purposeful stance.

The suspension is tuned for tight handling, yet it is fluid enough to accommodate sharp bumps without sending shudders through the body. Audis always handle well, and the A4 is no exception. Nose it into a turn and it follows your lead like a good horse, especially when equipped, as our test car was, with the optional Quattro all-wheel-drive system. The Quattro package is a stand-alone option for only $1,600, and not only does it provides unsurpassed traction in bad weather, but it also assures a firm grip even in the dry.

From a safety standpoint, the A4 has both dual front airbags and side front airbags built into the outboard edge of the seats.

Our pearlescent white test car was loaded with all the goodies, such as headlight washers, heated seats, power sunroof, leather upholstery, heated windshield washer nozzles, tilt/telescope wheel, automatic climate control and front and rear fog lights.

Even though the A4's interior is not voluminous, it is finished with the tone of a drawing room. Colors are subdued, and the dash and door panels are accented with polished wood trim. Instruments have simple, readable faces that look elegant, subdued colors and readable instruments. The center of the dash gets rather busy with myriad small buttons for radio and climate control, but otherwise the ergonomics are good.

The front seats were not as well-contoured as I would like, but they were firm and had long bottom cushions for under-thigh support.

Rear-seat legroom is on the tight side for adults, which is one of the only real complaints about this car. It does have a split-folding seat for added hauling flexibility.

A tiny, pop-up cup holder is the other. Even though I rarely use cupholders while driving, most people find them important, and the one in the A4's console is nearly useless.


The base price for the 1998 A4 2.8 is now $28,120, and the car driven here was equipped with pearlescent paint, all-weather package, power sunroof and Quattro all-wheel-drive system.

The sticker price was $33,930.


The standard warranty is for three years or 50,000 miles.

All scheduled maintenance is free for three years or 50,000 miles.

Vehicles for The Star's week-long test drives are supplied by the auto manufacturers.

Point: The A4 is even more delightful when its horsepower is bumped up to 190 through the use of five-valve cylinder heads. Handling is tight and the interior reflects European luxury.

Counterpoint: Some parts of the dash are a little busy, and the back seat is tight on legroom.


ENGINE: 2.8-liter, 6


WHEELBASE: 103 inches

CURB WEIGHT: 3,318 lbs.

BASE PRICE: $28,120


MPG RATING: 19 city, 27 hwy.