2003 Audi A4 CVT
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Story and photos by Haney Louka
Let’s suppose for a moment that you enjoy driving, but don’t get excited about rowing through gears and dancing the three-pedal jig. Or maybe you primarily drive in heavy traffic and the thought of endlessly going back and forth between first and second gear just doesn’t appeal to you.

But maybe you’re not a big fan of automatic transmissions either: these ‘slushboxes’ can sap your engine of valuable power and cripple your fuel economy, and completely isolate you from the driving experience.

Well, it looks like Audi has cracked the code: can a car be equipped with a transmission that provides the performance and fuel economy of a manual, is as user-friendly as an automatic, and is smoother and simpler than both?

Well, yes and no. For the most part, the CVT (continuously variable transmission)-equipped Audi A4 delivers on these promises. So long as buyers are willing to get used to its minor quirks, they will be hooked on this newest generation of shiftless trannies.


CVT Technology

2003 Audi A4 CVT

2003 Audi A4 CVT
Click image to enlarge

Audi isn’t alone in its battle for acceptance of the CVT by the car-buying population. While CVTs have had limited application and success in the past (remember the Subaru Justy?), 2003 is a banner year for mass-market introduction of these transmissions by Audi, Nissan (in the Murano), MINI (in the Cooper), and Saturn (in the 4-cylinder VUE and Ion Coupe).

The CVT, or ‘multitronic’ in Audi-speak, is available only on front-wheel-drive versions of Audi’s A4 in combination with the 1.8T four-pot motor. And there’s no conventional automatic transmission offered on this model.

Unlike conventional manual and automatic transmissions, CVTs do not use individual gears to vary the ratio between engine speed and road speed. Instead, two variable-diameter pulleys connected by a belt or chain (see below) do that job. The pulley diameter changes when its two tapered halves move toward or away from each other. During low road-speed acceleration, the input pulley halves are apart (smallest diameter) and the output halves are together (largest diameter). The opposite is true in a high-speed cruising situation.

Traditionally CVTs have been used with engines that have low torque output because of rubber belts that were used to transfer engine power to the driveline. Audi’s solution to that is the use of a vanadium-plated steel chain that contains 1,025 links to give it the flexibility of a rubber belt. So equipped, the Audi CVT is capable of handling torque inputs of up to 230 lb-ft. Indeed, this same transmission does its duty with the 3.0-L V6 under the hood of Audi’s Cabriolet.

The strong but flexible chain also provides other benefits: There’s more than a 6:1 ratio between lowest and highest gears, and a power-sapping and fuel-gobbling torque converter is not required with this CVT.


Price and Features

Base price for the A4 CVT is $33,600 – the most affordable vehicle in Audi’s lineup. Standard features are plentiful, the most notable being keyless entry, fog lights, anti-lock brakes, dual-zone climate control, one-touch up and down for all windows, and 15-inch alloy wheels.

Winnipeg Audi dealer, St. James Audi, provided me with a black A4 equipped with the $750 comfort package (leather seats and centre console armrest), $750 convenience package (heated front seats and cruise control), and $1,375 glass sunroof for a total as-tested price of $36,475. It’s certainly refreshing to see a well-equipped car in this class wearing a price tag in the mid-thirties.

Propelling the A4 is the acclaimed 1.8-litre, four-cylinder, 20-valve motor that makes use of forced induction in the form of a turbocharger. In various states of tune, this engine also finds its home under the hoods of Audi TTs and VW Passats, Jettas, GTIs, and New Beetles. Power numbers for the A4 application of this motor measure 170 horsepower at 5,900 rpm and 166 lb-ft of torque between 1,950 and 5,000 rpm. Those numbers are right in the neighbourhood of A4’s chief competition – the Mercedes C240, BMW 320i, and Saab 9-3.

While most other Audis enjoy the benefits of ‘quattro’ all wheel drive, the CVT-equipped A4 transfers power to the ground through the two front contact patches only. Audi refers to this as “FrontTrak,” presumably to give owners an answer to the inevitable question, “is it a quattro?” Hey, whatever works.

I was initially expecting that evil left-right tug under acceleration that is typical of turbocharged front-drivers, but Audi’s engineers have managed to all but eliminate that nasty torque-steer.


Styling

2003 Audi A4 CVT

2003 Audi A4 CVT

2003 Audi A4 CVT

2003 Audi A4 CVT

2003 Audi A4 CVT
Click image to enlarge

There’s very little to differentiate this base A4 from its upscale siblings. It has that same muscular, chiseled shape that makes all A4s stand apart from the crowd. It keeps the dual exhaust and fog lights of its pricier brethren as well. About the only outward disclosure of the CVT’s low price is Audi’s use of 15-inch alloys and 65-series rubber. Compared with quattro’s 55-series tires on 16s or the optional 45s on 17-inchers, some aggressiveness is lost because of taller sidewalls and narrower width that prevent the rubber from properly filling the wheel wells.

Surrounding the driver’s seat is a demonstration that the A4 continues Audi’s tradition of assembling some of the nicest interiors at any price: finely tailored with all materials – headliner, dash, seats, switches – designed to be nice to behold and touch. The stereo – a single-CD unit backed up by 10 speakers and 150 watts – is easy to operate and sounds great and the dual climate control works intuitively.

The interior is not without fault though: the cruise control is inconveniently located below the turn signal stalk where it can be mistaken for the turn signals. By doing this, Audi has perpetuated a quirk that I find annoying in most Mercedes-Benz vehicles that I review.

The left edge of the centre console is not knee-friendly. And there’s no trip computer, which, in this class, should be standard-issue.


The Driving Experience

On the road, the gearless tranny works almost invisibly. The most noticeable quirk in day-to-day driving is that throttle management isn’t the smoothest from a stop. There’s a bit of jerkiness associated with initial throttle application that tells me a bit of tweaking to the CVT design is still required. In fairness to Audi, I noticed a similar trait in a CVT-equipped MINI.

On hard acceleration, the multitronic mimics an automatic transmission’s downshift where the revs snap up to the meat of the 1.8T’s power band, which is about 5,500 rpm. That’s where the tach needle will remain until there’s a change in right foot pressure on the pedal. It takes some getting used to, but the benefits are huge: where an automatic has only a few ratios to choose from in any given situation, the continuously variable transmission does just that: it varies the ratio continuously to provide optimum performance or fuel economy depending on driver inputs.

For those who absolutely insist on hearing the revs climb and drop or need to hold the transmission for a quick corner exit or down a hill, the manual Tiptronic feature is excellent. Traditional automatics with a manual mode take time between driver input and the resulting shift. With multitronic, these ‘shifts’ are much faster than any automatic and it seems to match revs on downshifts – very smooth. There are also six pre-programmed gear ratios for the manual mode – one more than most slushboxes can offer.

The ride is taut ride considering the 15-inch rubber on the road. Body motions are well controlled, but the car does push in the corners and the flexing sidewalls can be felt in these situations.


To Sum It Up

As the least expensive vehicle in Audi’s lineup, the front-drive A4 offers the quality and luxury expected of its more expensive stablemates. And for those who don’t need all wheel drive and don’t want to shift it themselves, being able to obtain a well equipped example in the mid-thirties is something much of the competition simply doesn’t offer.


Shopping Around

The entry luxury market is flush with new models every year, and the 2003/2004 field is no exception. Notable competition comes in the following flavours:

  • Acura TSX ($34,800)
  • BMW 320i ($34,900)
  • Cadillac CTS ($39,900)
  • Infiniti G35 ($38,900)
  • Lexus IS300 ($37,775)
  • Mercedes-Benz C240 ($38,450)
  • Nissan Maxima ($34,500)
  • Saab 9-3 ($34,900)
  • Volvo S40 ($31,495)


Technical Data: 2003 Audi A4 CVT

Base price $33,600
Price as tested $36,475
Type 4-door, 5 passenger sedan
Layout transverse front engine/front-wheel-drive
Engine Inline 4-cylinder with exhaust gas turbocharger, DOHC, 20 valves
Horsepower 170 @ 5,900 rpm
Torque 166 lb-ft between 1,950 and 5,000 rpm
Transmission Continuously Variable
Tires Pirelli P6 Four Seasons, 205/65-15, H speed rated
Curb weight 1,525 kg (3,362 lb)
Wheelbase 2,650 mm (104.3 in)
Length 4,547 mm (179.0 in)
Width 1,937 mm (76.3 in)
Height 1,428 mm (56.2 in)
Trunk capacity 380 litres (13.4 cu. ft)
Fuel consumption City: 11.4 L/100 km (24 mpg)
  Hwy: 7.5 l/100 km (37 mpg)
Warranty 4 yrs/80,000 km; no-charge scheduled maintenance

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