D. John Booth, Contributor
We don't usually expect much from a midcycle refresh, but the newly restyled Audi A4 far exceeded expectations. For while they showed us the attendant new sheet metal (and its controversial new grille) along with some swiveling headlamps, there was incredible depth to the changes for 2005 that really make the '05 a whole new car rather than a mere mid-model reskin.
For one thing, the suspension has been upgraded substantially. The 2005 Audi A4 boasts a front end that's been revised with numerous components — including the track rods — from the high-performance Audi S4. The rear comes in for even more revision with links and wheel carriers from the S4 and shock absorbers from the Audi A6. But the really, really big news lies under the hood with Audi releasing not just one, but two new direct-injection gasoline engines.
The first replaces the venerable 1.8T as the new base engine in the Audi A4. Already one of the best engines in the lineup, the new four grows to 2.0 liters and is equipped with a direct injection system. The result, says Audi, is 200 horsepower (up from 170) and 207 pound-feet of torque (up from 166) over an amazingly broad rev range that stretches from 1,800 rpm to 5,000.
And it is that flexibility that impresses more than the gain of 30 hp. The 1.8T was already known for performing a fair impression of a V6, but the new 2.0T FSI (as in Fuel Straight Injection) is all but indistinguishable from a raft of supposedly more sophisticated sixes. Part of the credit goes to Audi's FSI technology, which sees the injectors squirt fuel directly into the combustion chamber rather than into the intake manifold. Because there is less tendency toward detonation (that nasty pinging noise you get when you put cheap gas into a high-performance engine), the 2.0T FSI works with an abnormally high compression ratio of 10.5 to 1. The result, as any hot-rodder knows, is better low-end torque which the 2.0T has in spades. For the record, Audi claims the 2.0T hustles the A4 to 60 miles per hour in just 7.1 seconds (0.7 second quicker than the 1.8T).
The other change that Audi made, along with the boost in displacement, was to add twin balance shafts that spin at twice the engine speed. The result is that what little vibration there was on the old engine has virtually been eradicated. Also gone is the typical four-cylinder thrashiness at high revs. The 1.8T has long been our favorite Volkswagen/Audi engine. The revisions to the new four-banger just reinforce that feeling. You really don't need more engine than this but Audi didn't stop there.
The larger 3.2-liter V6 also makes great gains. Long the weak point in Audi's lineup, the company's previous mid-displacement V6s have lacked for torque and had only middling horsepower. Because it's also gained from the FSI technology (developed by Audi, by the way, for its Le Mans-winning RS8 racers), the naturally aspirated, four-valve 3.2-liter 90-degree V6 gets a phenomenally high 12.5-to-1 compression ratio. That's good enough to squeeze 255 hp (an increase of 35 over the outgoing 3.0L) from the 3.2L, and more importantly, 243 lb-ft of torque (up from 221).
Both these numbers are less of an upgrade than the boost in the four-banger. Ditto for the acceleration times which are now 6.5 seconds for the 3.2L versus 6.9 for the outgoing 3.0L. Nonetheless, the new V6 feels like it has quite a bit more torque than the old engine, no longer needing revs above 3,500 to make significant progress. It still loves to rev; it just doesn't need to.
It may even prove a little overeager for some. Perhaps, it's the direct fuel injection, or maybe it's Audi engineers tuning the drive-by-wire throttle for enthusiastic response, but the V6's response to minute inputs can be a trifle abrupt. Sometimes, when you just want a smidgen of acceleration, the 3.2 will throw in an extra dollop, free of charge. It's never truly disconcerting but it certainly does require a little recalibration of your right foot. Nonetheless, the new 3.2L is an improvement of some margin over the outgoing V6.
Both engines are now hooked up to six-speeds, both manual and automatic. Because all 3.2-liter A4s coming to the United States are quattros, there will be no Multitronic CVT option on that model, as Audi has only engineered that transmission for its front-wheel-drive cars. However, the DSG paddle-shift tranny that was first shown in the TT is currently being developed for the A4 3.2. The only way to get the CVT will be on the 2.0-liter, front drive models. Additionally, a manual tranny will be available on the 2.0 in both front drive and quattro form in the U.S. As for which tranny is best for the A4, the automatic seemed better suited to the new engines in our opinion. It lessens the impression of what little turbo lag the 2.0T has and smoothes out the 3.2L V6 a little as well. Besides, if you want to shift manually, there's always the Tiptronic alternative.
Depending on the road, the 2005 Audi A4 comes off as either superlative or merely very good. We were lucky enough to test the A4 over a variety of changing road surfaces. Under such conditions, the A4 is marvelous. Its long-travel feels relatively soft (compared to a Bimmer or Merc), soaking up midcorner bumps that would leave lesser cars flouncing and bouncing. On flatter stretches, though, that same suspension tuning limits cornering. Not as flat through high-speed esses as a 3 Series, the Audi A4 also pushes the front end more than the rear-drive BMW.
Inside, there's less change. Audi brags about a new steering wheel and a new navigation system, but there's nothing remarkable about either. Regarding the relative lack of interior improvement, Audi's materials have been the best in the luxury segment for some years now, so the same-ol', same-ol' is actually plenty good enough.
Which means that the Audi A4 is going to be better competition for BMW, certainly at least until the new 3 Series shows up (and if BMW's design chief, Chris Bangle, has his way perhaps for some time after). That's helped out by Audi's contention that the new A4's pricing won't increase more than 0.5 percent over the current model which ranges from $25,800 for the 1.8T to a starting point for the V6 of $31,500.
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