EXPERT REVIEW

The Detroit News's view

Warm and fuzzy aren’t words you’d tend to associate with Audi AG cars. After all, the people who make them are pretty serious. Audi’s predecessor, Auto Union, was the first German manufacturer to have a crash-test program back in the ’30s. More recently, the company, now a division of Volkswagen AG, decided to use five valves routinely in production vehicles to get more performance with no loss in fuel economy just like Ferrari SpA.

Thankfully, Audi hasn’t ignored creature comforts. That’s why we felt so good about testing the 1998 A4 2.8 Quattro sedan. You get high-tech wrapped in a people-friendly package, along with three cabin choices that allow you to customize your sedan.

A niggling complaint: Make sure the dealer points out the cupholders to you. Audi did too good of a job integrating them into the console.

She: I know you keep yelling at me about that pile of catalogues next to our bed. But they help me do these test drives.

He: I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that mess. It reminds me of the woman who told her husband she was going to start cleaning houses to make money and he said, “Start with ours.”

She: Hey, that pile is part of my office. Besides, once you’ve studied the beds, pillows and accessories in the Pottery Barn and Crate and Barrel catalogues, you get a new admiration for Audi. In our moms’ day, everybody had the same dinette and sofa. But that doesn’t work in the ’90s and Audi knows it. That company is really tuned in to how people want their vehicles to reflect their lifestyles. That’s why you get a whole range of light or dark woods, different fabrics and bold or cool colors in the A4 sedan.

Choosing your A4’s cabin is just like catalogue shopping. I wouldn’t be surprised if Audi added popular, yet offbeat colors like lavender and mint to the interior choice lineup next year.

He: Yuk! Who talks about lavender and mint in the same breath as Audi? You’re embarrassing me. And so is Audi. This used to be a man’s car. Especially a German man’s car. Plain black cabin. No chrome, no wood, no sissy fabrics, just nice black leather.

She: So you’re saying you were really happy with “Ambition?” That was the name of the cabin ensemble on our test car, which featured an interesting pallette of classic dark wood and muted colors. Thank God they didn’t give us the Ambiente package, with its Mediterranean feel, light woods and bold colors.

He: Are we even on the same planet? Instead of all that foo-foo stuff, we should be talking about the A4’s sterling performance, which is what attracts people to these cars in the first place. If you’re a fan of Audi’s five-valve technology, the A4 2.8’s powertrain will not disappoint. The twin-cam V-6 gives you a hearty 190 horsepower and gobs of low-end torque. The five-speed automatic transmission now has a so-called Tiptronic feature, which lets you shift manually without a clutch, for an extra $1,075. I like this feature beca use in clogged freeway conditions, you don’t have to fiddle with shifting, but when you’re in the mood, you can switch to Tiptronic and really enjoy the sporty sensation.

She: Some people may gripe that our test car’s sticker price of $34,435 is not exactly bargain-basement when it comes to the family sedan category. And it’s not. But you really get a lot for the money with the A4 although I was slightly put out that the six-disc CD changer is a $1,200 option. At least they throw in carpeted floor mats.

He: You’re conveniently forgetting why this car carries a premium price tag. Don’t forget, this is one of the few European performance sedans you can get with all-wheel drive, which Audi calls the Quattro system. It’s really terrific in all kinds of weather and terrain, giving you a feeling of security that few other vehicles in this price range do.

She: Audi also has an almost Volvo-like commitment to safety with its 1998 vehicles. Here’s a family sedan with thin such as standard side air bags and an antitheft alarm system. Even the power mirrors have a defog feature which I’m sure drivers will appreciate on frosty mornings. Women, too, may appreciate the fact that for 1998 Audi has stripped that stupid football logo off the side moldings. I hate football.

He: What a gump. I’ll bet you never even noticed it before. Shouldn’t you be describing the car’s dynamic behavior, how it hugs the curves and accelerates almost effortlessly?

She: No, what I’m forgetting to describe is the A4’s exterior. If you think “dowdy” the minute you hear the word sedan, you’re on the wrong track with the Audi. The A4 has a spirited, sporty look that fits in perfectly with the casual lifestyles of today. It’s gonna look good with anything you’re wearing. And I know that will infuriate you, Paul.

He: That sounds like a bunch of marketing mumbo-jumbo. Guess what? Audi’s redesigning the car in another year or two. Wait till you see the A4’s big brother, the all-new A6, which comes out later this fall in the United States. It has a new, more rounded appearance that’s going to be the Audi family look for at least the next five or six years.

She: The A4 passed the exercise-class acid test. The women I run into after class are totally unimpressed by our fancy test cars. But the A4 stopped several of them in their tracks. Even the ones decked out in the expensive Ralph Lauren workout gear. One even said, “What a beautiful car.” That earns four stars to me.

He: Was that the one who said I had nice legs? I guess that makes me a four-star husband, huh?

She: Only until I can find a replacement in one of my catalogues.

1998 Audi A4 2.8 Quattro

Type: Front-engine, four-wheel drive, five-passenger sport sedan

Price: Base, $28,120; as tested, $34,435 (inc. $500 destination charge)

What’s new for ’98: Side air bags, depowered front air bags, Tiptronic automatic transmission, revised antilock brakes, larger tires, redesigned instrument cluster and steering wheel, revised center arm rest, luggage net, improved radio

Standard equipment: Variable-assist power steering, all-season radial tires, electronic differential lock, alloy wheels, foglamps, power mirrors, electronic climate control with pollen filter, power windows, cruise control, tilt/telescope steering column, AM-FM stereo cassette, power locks, cupholders, carpeted floor mats

Safety features: Dual front air bags, side air bags, antilock brakes, traction control

Options on test vehicle: Automatic five-speed transmission with Tiptronic ($1,075); leather upholstery ($1,320); all-weather package, including heated front seats, heated windshield washer nozzles, heated driver door lock, expandable ski/storage sack ($630); glass sunroof and remote locks ($1,190); Quattro all-wheel drive system ($1,600)

EPA fuel economy: 17 mpg city/27 mpg highway

Engine: 2.8-liter V-6; 190-hp at 6000 rpm; 207 lb-ft torque at 3200 rpm

Transmission: Five-speed automatic

Competitors: Saab 900, Volvo S70, VW Passat, BMW 323i, Nissan Maxima, Acura 3.2TL, Toyota Avalon, Mitsubishi Diamante, Subaru Legacy GT, Oldsmobile Intrigue, Ford Contour SVT

Specifications: Wheelbase, 102.6 inches; overall length, 178.0 inches; curb weight, 3,450 pounds; legroom, 41.3 inches front/33.4 inches rear; headroom, 38.1 inches front/36.8 inches rear; shoulder room, 54.7 inches front/53.4 inches rear

12-month insurance cost, according to AAA Michigan*: $1,516

Where built: Ingolstadt, Germany

* Rates based on an average family of four from the Livonia area whose primary driver is aged 40 with no tickets who drives 3-10 miles each way to work. Rates reflect multicar discount and, where appropriate, discounts for air bags and seat belts.

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