WILLIAMSTOWN, MA — Audi AG's A4 could, arguably, have been its most successfully “targeted” car ever. After all, it almost singlehandedly put Audi back on the map in the U.S. And in Europe, the original A4 (introduced in 1995) proved Audi now is serious about competing with the holder of the German-performance crown, BMW AG.

But the market moves swiftly now and it's high time the original car was updated. So for '02, the completely revised A4 is beefier, more powerful yet more quiet and more closely resembles the larger, more expensive Audi A6 sedans.

It's the more-muscular, more refined drivetrains that Audi believes will attract new customers, and the inclusion of a high-tech continuously variable transmission (CVT) should intrigue some of Audi's longstanding technology-seeking customers:

  • An all-aluminum 5-valve-per-cylinder, 3L V-6 — Audi engineers swear it's not just a displacement-enhanced variant of the former 2.8L engine — develops a stout 220 hp and 221 lb.-ft. (300 Nm) of torque. The new 3L engine is fitted with a balance shaft, continuously variable intake valve timing (2-stage on the exhaust side) and a variable intake manifold.

    Audi says weight has been reduced by 42 lbs. (19 kg) thanks to the aluminum block. A unique design for the single balance shaft takes drive from the oil pump shaft; thus the balance shaft turns at the same speed as the crankshaft, but in the opposite direction.

    There also are new, lighter-weight pistons with low-friction coating, and Audi uses a special “lost-metal” process to produce an intake manifold with highly polished runners that reduce flow turbulence.

  • The revised 1.8L turbocharged I-4 develops 170 hp and also has reduced reciprocating mass, enhanced cooling and optimized fuel injection. Audi says it's the first engine of its kind to meet California's ULEV (ultra-low emissions vehicle) standards. The 1.8L engine feels satisfyingly more powerful than it is, especially when mated to a 5-speed manual, achieving maximum torque at just 1,900 rpm.

Additionally, Audi is offering an optional 6-speed manual transmission for the A4 3.0 V-6 model with the quattro all-wheel-drive (AWD) system, the first time a 6-speed has been available in the A4 range. The 5-speed automatic transmission allows for a sport shift program, which engages special software that allows for early downshift and a later upshift.

But the big driveline news is the availability of Audi's Multitronic CVT for A4 models, although only offered for front-wheel drive (FWD). Audi, which spent 10 years developing the Multitronic and builds the transmissions itself, says the shift is as quick as a manual — with the economy of a manual — but smoother than an automatic.

It also is lighter and smaller than a conventional automatic transmission. Audi says its CVT differs from others being developed by rival automakers in that the design can handle larger torque input. Indeed, the 221 lb.-ft. of the 3L V-6 can be accommodated, a feat rivals' CVT technology cannot replicate.

Some test drivers here find the CVT too sensitive to a light touch on the throttle. Others complain of hesitation at low speeds.

Meanwhile, engineers brag that the new A4's body structure is 45% more rigid, while the longer wheelbase provides a more roomy and refined interior — tight rear-seat room was a particular bugaboo with the previous-generation A4 — and a larger trunk space. Improvements also include revised rear suspension on a wider track with larger wheels.

Cosmetics include a higher beltline, redesigned grille, large prominent headlights, new angular rear taillights and exposed dual exhaust.

Safety wise, ESP (Electronic Stabilization Program) and hydraulic brake assist come standard. Audi is adding General Motors Corp.'s OnStar communications system as an option and a specially designed 10-speaker Bose sound system as standard.

Audi of America Inc. believes it has set the benchmark among German sports sedans with this new-generation A4. Not that it's desperate. The German automaker's U.S. arm already is basking in overall sales of 43,300 units for the year's first six months, up 7% over the same year-ago period.

That's especially remarkable in a market where U.S. automakers are scrambling for sales in the wake of an economic downturn. It's also quite a jump from Audi's all-time sales low of 12,000 cars in 1991 to a projected 85,000 for '01.

Audi, in fact, says its piece of the North American luxury car pie has climbed from 5.8% in 1999 to 6.9% in 2000. While worldwide sales last year were 653,000 units, with 240,000 sales in Germany, the automaker says the U.S. and Canada now make up its No.1 export market, accounting for 21%.

“The A4 is contributing to Audi's popularity by becoming an icon in its own way,” says Len Hunt, vice president of Audi of America. “The whole range every year has seen consistent growth. It's with a fond farewell that we wave goodbye to the old A4,” he adds, noting that older models will remain a key revenue stream via used car sales.

The A4 remains Audi's best-selling model range in North America, with '00 sales of 34,460 units in the U.S. and 3,371 in Canada — 87% of those equipped with quattro AWD and nearly half with manual transmissions — well above the industry's average of around 8% for manual drive.

All the same, the A4 lineup is feeling the heat from rivals such as the BMW 3-series, Mercedes-Benz C-Class and new Lexus IS 300, as well as the all-new Jaguar X-Type, which has yet to hit dealers' showrooms.

One Audi executive admits the automaker didn't see the C-Class low starting price coming. The impact of the X-type, he says, is another unknown, but he speculates that the median age of Jaguar customers generally is older than those of the A4, which enjoys its greatest appeal among males between the ages of 34-42.

Audi, which expects to sell 1,900 A4 1.8 Ts and 1,200 A4 3.0 (V-6) models per month beginning this fall (the Avant sports wagon will be available in spring), says so far it has no plans for rebates or incentives. And although it isn't discussing price, it says it will remain competitive in the segment. The outgoing A4 range starts at around $24,500 for the 1.8 T.

2002 Audi A4 3.0
Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, 5-passenger 4-door sedan
Engine: 3L (2,976 cc) DOHC V-6; aluminum block/aluminum heads
Power (SAE net): 220 hp @ 6,300 rpm
Torque: 221 lb.-ft. (300 Nm) @ 3,200 rpm
Compression ratio: 10.1:1
Bore × Stroke (mm): 82.5 × 92.8
Transmission: Continuously variable automatic/6-speed manual
Wheelbase: 104.3 ins. (265 cm)
Overall length: 179 ins. (455 cm)
Overall width: 69.5 ins. (177 cm)
Overall height: 56.2 ins. (145 cm)
Curb weight (CVT): 3,627 lbs. (1,645 kg)
Market competition: BMW 3-Series; Lexus IS 300; Mercedes C-Class; Volvo S60