This is a crucial time for Audi in this country. Stagnating sales have begun to rise, according to Gerd Klauss, vice president of Audi of America, based largely on the success of the A4 sedan.

New products are key to Audi's comeback plan, and one of the slickest is the A4 1.8 Turbo, a value-oriented version of the A4 with a four-cylinder engine and a base price of $22,990. December sales were the best in a decade.

I recently spent a week with one, and was impressed not only with its performance, but with the fact that content has not been sacrificed. Power windows, automatic climate control, heated mirrors, cruise control and AM/FM stereo cassette are all standard. Adding to its allure is the fact that the sophisticated Quattro all-wheel-drive system can be added for only $1,600, making this an impressive bargain.

This new powerplant reminds me of the little engine that could. And it does. At first glance, putting a small engine in a car this size would seem to be a recipe for disaster, but just the opposite has occurred. This twin-cam, five-valve-per-cylinder engine uses a small turbocharger and intercooler to pump out 150 horsepower, which moves this 3,200-pound sedan along with surprising authority. What makes this powerplant so successful is that the turbo boost can be felt just past idle. There is no waiting for revs to build before its extra power kicks in. Audi says this engine produces at least 155 of torque from 1,750 rpm to 4,600 rpm, and the result of a power band this flat is that it feels like a bigger engine.

Despite its smaller size, the 1.8 performs almost as well as the V-6 engine, which has 172 horsepower. Accelerating to 60 mph only takes a few tenths of a second longer, a difference that cannot really be felt through the seat of your pants.

A good deal of our test car's responsiveness can be attributed to its five-speed manual transmission, which will not be widely available for a couple more months. Given the flat power band of this engine, however, I would expect it to do fairly well with the automatic transmission.

The five-speed's shift linkage has a slightly rubbery feel, which is pretty common for VW and Audi products. Audi is the upscale division of Volkswagen. Run it through the gears as you enter a freeway and you will find it rewards each gear change with a pleasant surge. The engine gets a tad noisy at high speeds, but nothing that is bothersome.

What really won me over was the Quattro all-wheel-drive system that gives incredible traction in a myriad of conditions. Using a torque-sensing center differential, it divides power between front and rear wheels as conditions dictate, and the rear differential locks electronically for difficult conditions. Quattro cannot be felt during driving because it works invisibly in the background. What you notice is an exceptional surefootedness in nearly all conditions.

Combined with the standard anti-lock brake system, the all-wheel-drive system provides a level of security and safety matched by few in this price range. The fact that this sophisticated system only costs $1,600 as a stand-alone option shows how committed Audi is to making its cars competitive in this market. Approximately 68 percent of the cars they sold in 1996 were so equipped, versus 20 percent in 1994.

Inside, the A4 1.8 is much the same as the A4 2.8, except that the wood trim has been deleted and the interior feels more sparse. Gauges are excellent, but the radio system has tiny buttons and is overly complicated.

My biggest beef was with the manually adjustable driver's seat. Never in a week did I get it so it felt just right. The only way to raise the seat is to pivot the bottom cushion forward, which upsets the under-thigh support and makes you feel like you are sliding into the steering wheel. The power seat is not affected in this way.

The second biggest compliant with the A4 centers on the legroom in e back seat. It is no more than adequate for adults, which is a sizable drawback to some.

The flip-folding back seat reveals a cargo space almost as big as a small station wagon, and that not only enhances the car's versatility but makes it appealing to folks with active lifestyles. Personally, I would probably choose to add the optional Sport Package of 16-inch wheels, sport seats and a sport steering wheel.

From the perspective of value-per-dollar, the little A4 1.8 Turbo is exceptional. Car and Driver has named it to its Ten Best list.

As a bonus, Audi offers no charge maintenance for three years or 50,000 miles.


The base price of our test car was $22,990, and the only option was the Quattro system for $1,600. With freight, that brought the sticker price to $25,090.


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

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

Point: The turbocharged 1.8-liter engine is a jewel. It has the guts of a larger engine without the thirst.

The world-class Quattro system costs only $1,600, little to pay for peace of mind in nearly every weather condition.

Counterpoint: Adjusting the driver's seat to suit me was trying, the radio buttons are too small and there is not enough legroom in the back seat.


ENGINE: 1.8-liter, 4-cyl.


WHEELBASE: 102.6 inches.

CURB WEIGHT: 3,252 lbs.

BASE PRICE: $22,990


MPG RATING: 21 city, 30 hwy.