Our view: 1998 Audi A4

The new Audi A4 has a Rolex movement and a Timex price tag.

OK, OK. A starting price of $23,790 for the four-cylinder model, and $28,390 for the V-6, isn’t exactly the Chevy Malibu’s stretch of the beach. But it is a deal for a seamless, high-end German sports sedan. When you compare the A4 stickers with those of their midsize Teutonic brethren — the Mercedes-Benz C-class and the BMW 3 cars — you are talking thousands of dollars less.

The A4’s other edge over its Wagnerian trail buddies is its availability with an important feature they don’t offer: all-wheel drive. To make matters even more dramatic, that Quattro all-wheel-drive system is one of the best on the planet, and only adds $1,600 to the cost of the vehicle.

The A4, the smallest and least expensive car Audi sells here, began life as a 1996 model with a 172-horsepower, 2.8-liter V-6. For 1997, the A4 2.8 was joined by the A4 1.8T, which is essentially the same car powered by a 150-horse, turbocharged, 1.8-liter four.

For 1998, the A4 2.8 has been upgraded with a new V-6. Although it has the same displacement as the old engine, this new guy represents a considerable techno-leap. The old V-6 was a single overhead cam, 12-valve affair. The new one is fitted with dual overhead cams, 30 valves and variable valve timing.

At 190 horsepower, the new engine develops only 18 more horses than the old one, but it produces better gas mileage and a lot more torque.

That additional torque, or pulling power, helps improve 0-60 acceleration to a brisk 7.1 seconds. The fact that the extra torque is now delivered at a lower r.p.m. also means better performance in real-world situations — such as accelerating into an expressway lane from an on-ramp.

Indeed, this new V-6 is one sweet engine. It spools out quickly and effortlessly, and is still making pleasant, purring sounds when the tachometer is reading well over 6,000 r.p.m.

As it turns out, there are three ways to enjoy the new V-6. People who like to shift can opt for the standard five-speed manual gearbox that I found on the test car. Those who don’t like to shift at all can get the car with the optional five-speed automatic ($1,075). Those who sometimes like to shift will enjoy the automatic’s Tiptronic feature. Borrowed from Porsche, Tiptronic allows you to manually upshift or downshift with great ease by employing a special shift gate.

The precision and refinement represented by the A4’s powertrain is really the essence of this car. Everything about it is slick and silky. Driving it is like having a cat rub up against your bare leg.

If there is any rain on the A4 parade, it is that it looks too much like a Bimmer 3-car. But, then again, you can argue that this is a fine way to flirt with plagiarism because civil aggression and muscularity make for delightful automotive aesthetics.

The A4 2.8’s hushed interior proved equally attractive. The styling was fresh and graceful, and worked well. I particul arly appreciated the telescopic steering wheel, which is a boon to long-legged folks like myself, as well as short people like my wife.

Other noteworthy interior features included side airbags for front-seat passengers, mounted in the outboard seat bolsters, and the exceptionally generous use of lovely walnut veneer. The test car’s optional beige leather upholstery was not a Kmart blue-light special at $1,320, but it was soft, good-looking stuff.

The A4 2.8’s lively engine performance was complemented by efficient braking (courtesy of four-wheel discs and ABS), and controlled cornering (courtesy of an athletic suspension and 16-inch all-season radials).

Motorists who want an even higher order of handling can get the car with a $400 performance package that includes a lowered suspension, stiffer springs and shock absorbers, and high-performance tires.

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