Hot to handle

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 July, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 July, 2005, 12:00am

I FIRST GOT behind the wheel of the new Audi A4 on Shek O Road. Having driven shotgun all the way from Audi's Wan Chai showroom while my companion had all the fun, I was raring to get to grips with the A4.

The moment I drove it out of the bus-stop chicane that is Shek O Road, I floored it and let the engine red-line, pushing the car into corners to the squeals of the tyres.

OK, it helps that the car doesn't belong to me. But the A4's most important attribute is its interaction with the driver. The clarity of the A4's every control is such that you can jump right in and straight away feel like a bully in the playground. That is how good the A4 is. And it's why the A4 is among the sporty sedans of choice for those who believe that a car in possession of all the practical functionalities of a real car doesn't have to be dull.

Just for the record, the latest A4 is a new model and hasn't just been given a face lift, even though the previous generation is only four years old. Although the car looks similar to the previous model, every body part is new. And there are enough upgrades and modifications for it to be considered more than just a revamp.

The most obvious change is the grille, inspired by Audi's Nuvolari concept car and since transferred to other models - including the A6, A8, A3 and TT - to become the new face of Audi. No one needs to be reminded how important family resemblance is to European manufacturers. Love it or loathe it, that grille (which I think looks like Homer Simpson's five-o'clock shadow) is here to stay. It suits the A4 more so than it does the bigger Audis.

And then there are the newly designed front and rear lights, which give the car a more steely-eyed glare.

If you put the latest A4 next to an older model, you'll notice a more pronounced bulge on the boot, wider bumpers and a higher beltline. Dimension-wise, the A4 is 38mm longer, but the wheelbase has been reduced by 2mm. It doesn't take a mathematician to work out that the front crumple zone and rear luggage space are the main beneficiaries of that extra room, rather than the passenger compartment.

But that's just as well. No one buys an A4 for travelling space and outright comfort (although a Premium Motors salesman will say the new front sports seats are contoured specifically for Asian motorists). The interior has been upgraded with higher quality leather, wood trims and aluminium pieces. The dashboard has been raised slightly to allow for more knee room. But these changes aren't as apparent as the increases in engine power, handling finesse and overall refinement.

The biggest news is probably the introduction of a new model title, the 2.0T FSI, which is equipped with a new two-litre, four-cylinder, FSI direct injection, turbo-charged engine - the same engine that powers Volkswagen's Golf GTi.

It's the world's first to combine turbo-charging and petrol direct injection technologies, which pressurises fuel and forces it directly into the combustion chamber. The benefits include a more precise fuel-to-air mixture in every combustion cycle, higher efficiency and improved cooling to the combustion chamber, which gives a higher compression ratio. The engine is equipped with two-stage intercoolers, continuously variable inlet camshaft timing, two-stage variable intake manifold and balancer shafts for excellent smoothness.

Although the engine output is the same as the Golf GTi, the A4 feels smoother, tamer and less raucous. It reaches 100km/h in 7.3 seconds - slightly slower than the VW, but still commandingly fast.

The A4's engine is a gem in itself. So, too, is its multitronic continuously variable transmission, which has always been the smoothest of its class. The A4's seven gears can be manually selected by the steering wheel's paddle shifters.

With suspension pieces borrowed from the S4 and A6, revised suspension geometry, improved braking system and a new Servotronic steering system, the A4's handling has become more dynamic and communicative.

The A4 is one of the most involved drives in its category. And if you think the alterations to this model have come too soon for a German car, maybe it's because the A4 really is ahead of its time.