1999 Audi A4
1999 Audi A4, European model shown. Click image to enlarge

By Grant Yoxon

The Audi A4 debuted in North America in 1996 replacing the Audi 90 and marked a big change for Audi. The A4 was everything the 90 wasn’t – attractive, sophisticated and quick.

Originally equipped with a 172 horsepower 2.8-litre V6, a 1.8-litre, 150 hp inline turbocharged 4-cylinder was added for the 1997 model year. This latter engine – along with its lower price, lighter weight and more sports car like ride and handling, would prove to be the most popular with buyers, but also the more problematic. More on that later.

Standard equipment included dual air bags, anti-lock brakes and traction control. Quattro all-wheel-drive was, and still is, an available option. Crash test data for this generation of A4 was good – the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave the Audi A4 a best five star rating for passenger safety in frontal impact testing and four out of five stars for the driver.

A4s were well-equipped with such standard features as power driver’s seat, automatic climate control, 16-inch alloy wheels, fog lights, AM/FM/Cassette audio, power heated mirrors, tilt and telescopic steering, cruise control and alarm system. Interiors are well put together and luxuriously equipped for the time. Options were few – the most notable being quattro all-wheel-drive.

Quattro was first introduced in the Audi line-up in 1980. The 1996 – 2001 A4 was equipped with the fourth generation of this system which uses a self-locking Torsen centre differential to direct power evenly between the front and rear axles. Any sudden differences in wheel speed will cause the system to re-direct up to 75 percent of torque to the wheels turning more slowly.

The 1.8T – for turborcharged 1.8 litre 4-cylinder – went on sale with the 1997 model year, with a suggested retail price of $31,600 in front-wheel-drive and $34,270 for all-wheel-drive – $5,900 less than models equipped with the 2.8-litre V6.

Nearly as well-equipped as the 2.8 V6, it is not hard to understand the attraction of the 1.8T. Buyers could get into a near luxury compact sedan for a lot less money without giving up much of the V6 performance. If you wanted leather and a power driver’s seat, however, you would have had to buy the 2.8.

Perhaps recognizing that buyers couldn’t see much point in spending nearly $6,000 for a marginal power increase, Audi raised the output of the 2.8 to 190 hp and 207 ft-lbs of torque mid-way through the 1997 model year. Front seat mounted side airbags were also added and anti-slip regulation became standard on the A4 traction control system.

A station wagon model was added in the US market in 1999, but was not sold in Canada until the 2002 model year when the A4 underwent a thorough re-design. Minor exterior upgrades came in 2000 with new headlights, grille, door handles and mirror housings. A revised instrument cluster also was added. Rear seat comfort, which is not an A4 strength, was also improved.

Side curtain airbags were added optionally in 2000 and became standard across the A4 line in 2001. Also in 2001, 1.8T power was bumped up significantly from 150 hp to 170 hp. The 1.8T has tons of torque and, when coupled with the 5-speed manual transmission, makes the A4 an extremely satisfying car to drive.

A multi-link front suspension that ably controlled torque steer is one of the reasons these cars are great handlers. I’ve never met an A4 owner that didn’t love the car’s steering and handling. Views on reliability, however, were mixed.

A problem with tie rod seals – dirt and moisture could get in causing excessive wear and eventually a very loose steering feel – led Audi to check all A4s for the condition and to recall some vehicles for replacement of tie rods.

1999 Audi A4
1999 Audi A4, European model shown. Click image to enlarge

Audi has also experienced problems with oil sludge build-up in the 1.8T four-cylinder. Audi is not alone, as similar problems have occurred with engines built by Toyota, Chrysler and Mercedes-Benz. Sludge build-up, which manufacturers say is caused by the use of improper engine oil and poor adherence to recommended oil change intervals, could lead to damage of the engine’s internal parts. Audi issued technical service bulletins on this problem and has extended the warranty to eight years with unlimited mileage on the 1.8T engine for all Audi A4s built between 1997 and 2004. The extended warranty is transferable. Owners who have experienced engine damage and paid for repairs can request reimbursement for those repairs provided they can prove the appropriate oil was used and changed at the intervals recommended in the owner’s manual.

Consumer Reports has included the 1996-2001 Audi A4 1.8T on its list of used vehicles to avoid, principally because of a worse than average record with respect to engine repairs, but engine cooling, electrical and brake problems also caused concern. Not enough data was collected from owners to evaluate 2.8 V6 models.

Despite this lack of support, the Audi A4 has relatively few service issues identified in the service bulletins – the major ones being noted above. Recalls have been issued for the tie rod problem and a warranty extension should cover 1.8T engine problems due to sludge build-up.

But the issue does underscore the need for a thorough vehicle inspection before buying an Audi A4 1.8T, or any used car for that matter. Never take a seller’s word on maintenance. Have the vehicle checked by an independent automotive service technician first and be sure there are no problems before you buy.

And speaking of buying – the A4 is a desirable used car buy, particularly for performance-oriented enthusiasts. So prices have held up reasonably well, despite the age of these vehicles.

Second Opinion

Early A4’s were attractive yes, but buyers expecting an Audi alternative to a BMW 3-Series will be disappointed. The A4’s handling is good, but softer and not as well balanced as the rear-drive 3-Series. As well, the A4’s steering is lighter, vaguer and less responsive. But equipped with quattro all-wheel-drive and a good set of tires, the A4 will run rings around a 3-Series in the snow. The A4’s interior is impeccable, but rear seat legroom is cramped. Its exterior styling has held up amazingly well over the years, and a nicely-kept A4 will look like a new car sitting in your driveway. – Greg Wilson – editor


1995, 1996, 1997: Transport Canada Recall Number 1997176. Units affected: 1997. A discharge of static electricity could activate the driver’s side air bag. Dealers will install a ground wire.

1996, 1997: Transport Canada Recall Number 2000238. Units affected: 2767. The plastic ignition switch housing may fracture. Ignition switch will be replaced.

1996: Transport Canada Recall Number 1996092. Units affected: 168. Improper grounding of the horn may cause intermittent operation. A ground contact spring will be installed.

1997, 1998, 1999: Transport Canada Recall Number 1999095. Units affected: 9000. A control valve in the vacuum hose connecting the brake booster to the intake manifold may not open or close fully at temperatures below -4 degrees F. A vacuum by-pass system will be installed on affected vehicles.

1998, 1999: Transport Canada Recall Number 1999195. Units affected: 4900. On certain vehicles, the steering assembly tie rod seals do not seal properly. Tie rods will be replaced on affected vehicles.

1998: Transport Canada Recall Number 1998126. Units affected: 1437. An engine backfire during cold start could damage an air screen loosely seated in the air flow metre, which could prevent the throttle plate from returning to its full idle position. A screen retaining ring will be installed and damaged screens replaced.

1999: Transport Canada Recall Number 2002104. Units affected: 2853. On certain vehicles, the steering assembly tie rod seals do not seal properly. Tie rods will be replaced on affected vehicles.

Used vehicle prices vary depending on factors such as general condition, odometer reading, usage history and options fitted. Always have a used vehicle checked by an experienced auto technician before you buy.

For information on recalls, see Transport Canada’s web-site, www.tc.gc.ca, or the U.S. National Highway Transportation Administration (NHTSA)web-site, www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on vehicle service bulletins issued by the manufacturer, visit www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on consumer complaints about specific models, see www.thecomplaintstation.com or www.lemonaidcars.com.

Connect with Autos.ca