Review and Photos by Brian Early
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In all likelihood, the recent upgrades to Audi’s bread-and-butter model, the A4, were a calculated effort to defend its position against the new BMW 3-Series and Lexus IS models. As the A4 was last redesigned in 2002, it wasn’t really time for Audi to introduce the next generation A4, but a mid cycle upgrade was a way of giving it a fresh face and upgraded performance to compete with its redesigned competitors.
For 2006, Audi replaced the two available engines, two of the available transmissions, tweaked the chassis, and updated the exterior to better fit in to the new Audi corporate “look” (complete with the horse-collar grille). The A4-based V8-powered S4 performance models received similar updates, but the Cabriolet is basically carried over.
Replacing the evergreen iron block 1.8 litre “1.8T” turbo four as Audi’s base engine last year is an all-new, all-aluminum turbocharged and intercooled 2.0 litre four cylinder. Cleverly dubbed the “2.0T”, it’s a real gem. Boost lag, which was a constant companion in the 1.8T, is vastly reduced in the 2.0T. The 2.0T’s “FSI” (Fuel Stratified Injection) direct fuel injection may deserve some of the credit.
Unlike most conventional fuel injected gasoline engines which spray their fuel into the intake somewhere upstream of the cylinder (typically right at the intake valve), FSI operates like a diesel, injecting the fuel under very high pressure – nearly 1200 psi – directly into the cylinder itself.
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While in some markets this design permits Audi to substantially lean out the mixture – direct injection allows the creation of a fuel-rich “stratified charge” near the spark plug – North America’s fuel quality and emissions standards preclude taking maximum advantage of that capability, so Audi calls our version of FSI “Fuel Straight Injection”. Even so, there are still appreciable benefits in fuel economy and power production to be had. A vaguely diesel-like rapping sound at certain low engine speeds is the only noticeable functional difference.
Although there is an optional 255 hp “3.2 litre” FSI V6 (displacing 3121 cc, it’s actually 3.1 litres), the gutsy 2.0T provides performance similar to the 3.0 litre V6 that was available in the 2005 models, so it may prove enough for most buyers. The $7,000 lower price of admission makes a pretty convincing argument too. Both require premium fuel; as you’d expect, the four-cylinder is the more economical of the two, with A4 Avants rated at 10.6 L/100 km City/ 7.0 Highway (10.8/7.2 with the optional automatic).
It was an Avant that I tested. “Avant” is Audi-speak for “station wagon”, a body style which adds a meaningful amount of cargo space and versatility to the sedan. I have to admit to having a soft spot for compact station wagons. Perhaps it’s because they add so much versatility to what would otherwise be a smallish sedan, while requiring so few sacrifices in exchange, the most apparent being the entry price (Avants carry a $1450 premium over their sedan counterparts).
Oh sure, there’s that whole “uncool” station wagon thing, but let’s face it, what are most SUV’s and crossovers but glorified wagons? Quattro all-wheel drive is standard Avant equipment, so you don’t have to sacrifice traction to gain car agility – having driven a snow tire-shod A4 Avant in heavy snow several years ago, I can vouch that it’s a virtual mountain goat.
Clearly I’m not the only one who sees the advantage – the premium all-wheel drive wagon market is more hotly contested than one might expect. The A4 Avant 2.0T finds itself facing such worthy adversaries as the BMW 325xi Touring, Volvo V50 T5 AWD, and even the Subaru Legacy 2.5GT Ltd. Wagon.
What hobbles the A4 Avant (and its sedan sibling) is a less than spacious rear seat. Part of the blame for this lies with the A4’s longitudal powertrain layout (lengthways in the engine bay, a design shared with the previous generation VW Passat), which likely forced Audi to compromise the rear seat’s legroom for the sake of bettering that of the front seats. It’s an unfortunate disadvantage for a model pitched at families – while the space issue’s not severe enough to write the A4 off for the task, those with long-limbed gangly adolescents had better try the Audi on for size before buying. My 5’11” frame could sit behind myself, but kneeroom was at a premium. Note also that the A4’s pronounced transmission tunnel limits space for the middle rear seat position.
Likewise, the cargo area isn’t cavernous, but it is usefully large, and is nicely finished with chrome tie-downs, a hidden, splash-resistant tray, and a retractable blind that features a built in sunshade/divider. The rear seat splits 60/40 and folds, and there’s a pass-through available to accommodate skis and the like as well.
The interior’s finish and quality are one of the A4’s charms; it’s a known area of strength for parent company Volkswagen. As you’d expect in this price range (starting at $42,200; $51,035 as tested), there’s a full complement of power features, including auto up and down windows at all four corners, dual zone automatic climate control, and heated front seats. There are also plentiful option packages, with goodies like adaptive (steerable) bi-Xenon headlights, heaters for the rear seats, memory for the driver’s seat and mirror positions, and a navigation system, just to name a few.
While side airbags for the rear seat are a $500 option, pretensioners for all five seating positions and front seat side and side-curtain airbags are not. Audi is rightly pleased to have just earned a “Double Best Pick” in recent IIHS (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety) side and offset frontal crash tests with an A4 sedan. A body structure comprised of 45% high strength steel (by weight) no doubt helps.
You may be surprised the first time that you drive the A4 at night; pretty much every display, control, or button is illuminated a warm red (save for the white gauge markings) – including the switches for the dome and map lights, the door handles, and the dash vent flow control knobs. Rear seat passengers are even treated to footwell lights that illuminate from beneath the front seats when their respective doors are opened. It’s all bit like Tokyo at midnight, but in a nice way. Pity that Audi didn’t light up the cruise control stalk as well; its location beneath the turn signal lever on the lower left of the tilting and telescoping steering column takes a little getting used to.
The A4 driving experience is a combination of good and bad. Handling and stability are quite good, aided by my tester’s optional 235/45/17 Pirelli P6 tires and the A4’s standard (and unobtrusive) stability control system. The steering is fairly uncommunicative, but it has an appropriate heft, and feels satisfying enough. Thankfully, it has remained hydraulic, avoiding the artificial feel that can result with electric power assist. Strong, four-wheel disc brakes with ABS and EBD provide confident stopping power. Even with the 17-inch wheels – 16 inchers are standard – the A4’s ride quality is on the firm side, but not harsh. Some of the credit for this must belong to the A4’s adoption of some of the suspension design and pieces from the hi-po S4, as well as the larger A6.
It would probably take being rolled down a hillside to evoke any squeaks or rattles in the Avant’s solid-feeling structure. Wind and engine noise are well controlled, though some road noise makes it through, particularly over coarse pavement surfaces.
I was therefore surprised to experience a noticeable vibration from my A4’s four cylinder engine at idle – that has not occurred in any of the other (transversely mounted) 2.0T’s I’ve been in. Perhaps the fault was unique to my tester.
The 2.0T’s electronic throttle is clearly tuned to provide an aggressive tip-in (trying to make up for the old 1.8T’s pronounced lag?). That, combined with the turbo’s quick spool-up (and healthy 207 lb-ft of torque, available from 1800-5000 rpm), requires a delicate touch during gentle low speed manoeuvres. On the plus side, with the help of the Quattro system’s excellent traction, the aggressive throttle response does make decisive left turns as easy as point and shoot, and excellent mid-range thrust takes some of the stress out of overtaking.
In spite of my heavy-footed efforts, I still experienced 11.6 L/100 km fuel economy.
A six-speed manual transmission is standard equipment with the four-cylinder turbo; my tester had the available six-speed automatic. It’s a commendably smooth operator, with nearly imperceptible upshifts, even under full throttle (the gear being used is indicated in the trip computer if you’re trying to keep tabs). The wide ratio spread makes for good low-end power while still providing relaxed cruising – 120 km/h is about 2200 rpm.
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This was not my first encounter with a VW group six-speed “Tiptronic” automatic, I’ve driven a Jetta 2.5 with its transverse-mounted relative before. Just as with the Jetta, in normal “Drive”, the A4’s tranny is programmed to shift up as early as possible to provide the best economy and the least engine noise. It’s also hesitant to downshift, particularly if the downshift requires it to skip a cog – say 6th to 4th. By the time that it makes up its mind and commits, the hole in traffic that you were aiming for is long gone.
There is a “Sport” position, but it hangs on to each gear for far too long for it to be used as a default selection. The Tiptronic shift gate offers manual gear selection – if the conservative computer okay’s your decision first.
Save the $1340 and get the six-speed manual. It’s a pleasant transmission to row, and you’ll only have yourself to blame for inappropriate gear selections. It’s the better match for the A4’s driver oriented persona besides.
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The vehicle that may prove to be the biggest thorn in the A4 Avant’s side is the new A3. Positioned just below the A4 in Audi’s line-up, the A3 offers less cargo room (it’s essentially a four door hatchback), but subjectively greater passenger space, being based on the new (and considerably enlarged) Jetta/Golf platform.
Currently, the A3 offers the same 2.0T engine as the A4, with a choice of – you guessed it – a six-speed automatic, or the acts-like-an-automatic “DSG” six-speed automanual transmission, albeit strictly in front-wheel drive, at least for the moment. (A 3.2 litre version with Quattro all wheel drive is set to bow later.)
For now, only the A4 offers the 2.0T with Quattro, and only the A4 Avant combines the two with wagon practicality. It’s unfortunate that many of the A4’s “surprise and delight” features won’t be discovered in the showroom where the purchasing decisions are made; this is a nicely finished, competent vehicle, worthy of a closer look.
Technical Data: 2006 Audi A4 Avant 2.0T
|Options||$8,835 (Tiptronic transmission; Packages: Sunroof, Premium, Technology, Cold Weather)|
|Price as tested||$51,835 Click here for options, dealer invoice prices and factory incentives|
|Type||4-door, 5-passenger compact station wagon|
|Layout||longitudal front engine/all-wheel drive|
|Engine||2.0-litre 4-cylinder, DOHC, 16 valves|
|Horsepower||200 @ 5100-6000 rpm|
|Torque||207 lb-ft @ 1800-5000 rpm|
|Transmission||6-speed automatic Tiptronic|
|Tires||P235/45R-17 in. all-season|
|Curb weight||1665 kg (3671 lbs)|
|Wheelbase||2648 mm (104.3 in.)|
|Length||4586 mm (180.6 in.)|
|Width||1937 mm (76.3 in.) with mirrors (1772 mm/69.8″ without)|
|Height||1427 mm (56.2 in.)|
|Cargo capacity||787 litres (27.8 cu. ft.)|
|Fuel consumption||City: 10.8 L/100 km (26 mpg Imperial)|
|Hwy: 7.2 L/100 km (39 mpg Imperial)|
|Fuel type||Premium unleaded|
|Warranty||4 yrs/80,000 km|
|Assembly location||Ingolstadt, Germany|