In the mid-1980s, Audi delivered one of the slickest sedans the U.S. market had ever seen. The Audi 5000 was an aerodynamic wonder, with extraordinarily good looks, a nice level of standard equipment, and an aura of exclusivity. Adopted in large numbers by drivers looking for something new and fresh in luxury market, the Audi 5000 became a big hit—until…
Reports of the Audi surging uncontrollably when put into gear immediately after starting—even when the brake pedal was firmly depressed—became widespread. The CBS network’s investigative news show “60 Minutes” did a report, resulting in the Audi being almost universally considered at fault for the situation, even though NHTSA engineers never found anything wrong with any of the cars they examined.
Predictably, (just as we’ve seen recently with Toyota) sales plummeted. So badly in fact, Audi considered leaving the U.S market altogether. Before it did though, in 1996, the company introduced a reworked version of the then smallest car in their American lineup. The new car, labeled A4, delivered a combination of good looks, impressive performance and a handsome interior. This car attracted new, positive attention to the Audi marque and is credited by many with reversing the fortunes of the company in this market.
Today, one of the most coveted symbols of success for young executives, the Audi A4 delivers a nice combination of luxury and sportiness in a comfortably-sized package, without a great deal of ostentation. To date, there have been four generations of the A4.
1995 – 2001 Audi A4
Introduced in 1995, as a 1996 model, more than anything else, the look of the A4 attracted considerable attention to the car. It was a distinctive shape for its day and when drivers took it out for a test drive, the power of its 172-horsepower, 2.8-liter V6, along with the competent handling of the small front-drive sedan impressed them. Audi’s all-wheel drive system, known as Quattro, was also a big selling point. To ease American buyer’s concerns about safety and reliability, Audi offered free maintenance for three years or 50,000 miles.
The car featured dual airbags, antilock brakes and traction control as standard equipment in addition to automatic climate control, alloy wheels, and fog lights. Key options included a Bose audio system, keyless entry, leather upholstery for the seats and steering wheel, and heated front seats.
The Audi’s engine also generated 184 ft-lbs of torque, making the A4 pretty quick off the line for its time. Buyers could choose between a five-speed manual transmission (standard), or a five-speed automatic (optional).
For 1997, Audi introduced a 150-horsepower, 1.8-liter turbocharged inline four-cylinder engine option for the A4, which reduced its price point considerably, making the A4 more attractive to an even wider range of shoppers. The 1.8 was introduced with an automatic transmission only—although manual transmissions were offered with the engine later.
MY ’98 saw the introduction of the A4 wagon (Avant, in Audi-speak) featuring a revised version of the 2.8-liter engine making 190 horsepower and Quattro (the sedan got the new engine too). A new version of the automatic transmission was also introduced, featuring Porsche’s Tiptronic technology. This enabled drivers to take manual control of the automatic. The 1.8-liter Turbo engine was installed in the wagon for 1999, with a choice of either the Tiptronic or a manual transmission, both featuring five speeds. The A4 1.8T Avant, as the wagon with the turbo engine was known, featured all-wheel drive as well. To this day, all A4 wagons offered in the U.S. are strictly all-wheel drive.
The 2000 model year brought about the inevitable styling refresh, as this first version of the A4 was nearing end of its run. New headlights, a new grille, new door handles and new mirror housings were incorporated to freshen the look of the Audi. The interior got an updated instrument cluster and center console.
MY’01 marked the introduction of a 170-horsepower version of the turbo engine and Audi was confident enough to expand warranty coverage to four years or 50,000 miles, with no charge for scheduled maintenance or 24-hour roadside assistance.
2002 – 2005 Audi A4
For 2002, the A4 got all-new styling and the V6 engine was bumped to three liters of displacement, resulting in 220-horsepower. The Tiptronic transmission was dropped in favor of a Continuously Variable Transmission for front-drive models, and the five-speed manual was replaced with a six-speed for the V6. The five-speed Tiptronic transmission was continued for Quattro models. As was common practice, the sedans were offered with a choice of front-drive or Quattro, while the wagons were again Quattro only.
The new look was characterized by clear glass headlights, dual exhaust and a high waistline. Additionally, the shape was more of a single arcing profile than a clearly defined three-piece hood-roof-trunk profile as on the first generation car. The GEN2 A4 was also larger so the interior was more spacious as well.
Chassis tweaks made the new A4 a bit more engaging to drive than the first version of the Audi. Specifically, the body was made stiffer and the rear suspension system was completely revised to a multilink system, replacing the torsion bar system the GEN1 A4 employed.
Standard features included an in-dash six-disc CD changer, dual-zone automatic climate control with a sun sensor and an active charcoal filter, side and side curtain airbags, stability control, and traction control. Key options included OnStar, leather upholstery, Parktronic parking assistance and navigation.
In 2003, Audi added a convertible to the A4 lineup, known as the A4 Cabriolet. At launch, the only drivetrain offered was the 220-horsepower, 3.0-liter V6 from the sedan, paired with the Continuously Variable Transmission and front-wheel drive. Later in the model year, the 1.8T version was offered with the turbo engine. Quattro was not an option for the Cabriolet.
In the rest of the lineup, leather was made an option for the 1.8T for the first time. Prior to 2003, if you didn’t want cloth, you got leatherette if you opted for the turbo versions of the A4. The 3.0-liter cars got leather as standard, leatherette was dropped, and a more supple leather upholstery was available as an option. For MY2004, Quattro was offered with the V6 iteration of the Cabriolet so it got the Tiptronic transmission as well. For 2005, xenon headlights became standard, OnStar was dropped, and satellite radio became an option for the convertible.
2006 – 2009 Audi A4
Introduced in mid-2005, as a 2006 model, there is some debate as to whether this period of the A4’s run should be classified as a separate generation—or a refresh of the second generation. For 2006, Audi replaced both engines with more powerful units; the A4’s styling was updated and the suspension systems were reworked.
The turbo engine was a 200-horsepower, 2.0-liter inline four, the V6 for the sedan and the Avant was a 255-horsepower 3.2-liter. The Cabriolet continued with the 3.0-liter V6. Transmissions offered were both six-speed manuals and six-speed automatics with Quattro-equipped cars. And, for the first time, a manual transmission was offered with the V6 engine and Quattro for the sedan and the wagon. The CVT continued for front-drive models. If you got a Quattro version of the Cabriolet you got a five-speed Tiptronic.
Standard equipment for turbo cars included dual-zone automatic climate control, a power adjustable driver seat, an in-dash six-CD changer, and an automatic top for the convertible. V6 powered cars got leather; a power-actuated front-passenger seat and wood interior trim rather than aluminum. Optional bits included a Bose sound system, satellite radio, HID headlights, auto-dimming mirrors, and nav.
For 2007, the Cabriolet’s styling and running gear was brought into compliance with the rest of the A4 lineup. Turbo cars got a new steering wheel and V6 models got a sunroof as standard equipment. Paddle shifters sprouted from behind the steering wheel of the cars with automatic transmissions installed. Sirius became the sole sat radio provider, previously Audi offered a choice of either (XM or Sirius) and convinced the dark days of the unintended acceleration controversy were firmly in the rear-view mirror, the free maintenance program was dropped.
Styling was updated a bit for 2008 by making the appearance-oriented elements of the former S-line exterior package part of the standard look for the cars. Thus, the front and rear bumpers and the lower side door trim were revised. The trunk lid sprouted a subtle spoiler and the front grille was changed. The A4 Cabriolet got heated seats as standard equipment and iPod interfaces were made available as options.
2009 – 2011 Audi A4
Completely redesigned for 2009, the A4 offered a new (if somewhat evolutionary) look, the ability to customize steering, suspension and transmission settings, and revised weight distribution.
For the sedan and the wagon, the 2.0-liter turbo was fitted with direct injection and got an 11 horsepower bump to 211. Torque output was 258 ft-lbs. The 3.2-liter V6 was pushed to 265 horsepower (but was not installed in the Avant). The Cabriolet got the engines from the previous generation of the A4, as that car was about to be replaced by the upcoming all-new A5 Cabriolet.
Longer and wider than the previous model, the 2009 A4 was even more spacious than its predecessor. Standard features included; sunroof, air-conditioning, power front seats, leather upholstery, cruise control, a split-folding rear seat, Audi's MMI (multi-media interface system for audio, navigation and telephone functions), a 10-speaker CD audio system with a subwoofer, satellite radio and an auxiliary audio jack.
Optional was bi-xenon headlamps, LED daytime running lights, auto-dimming side and rearview mirrors, Bluetooth, three-zone automatic climate control, heated front seats, an iPod jack, a six-CD changer, rear parking distance control, keyless ignition and entry, a lane-change warning system and an upgraded 14-speaker Bang & Olufsen sound system.
The 2.0T Cabriolet featured 17-inch wheels, an automatic soft top, power front seats, dual-zone automatic climate control, and a 10-speaker audio system with a six-disc/MP3 changer. To enhance the 3.2 Cabriolet model, Audi added 18-inch wheels and heated front seats. Adaptive bi-xenon headlights, navigation, MMI system and upgraded Bose speakers rounded out the options list for the Cab.
For 2010, Audi killed the Cabrio as well as the V6 engine. As a result the 2010 A4 came only with the 2.0T engine. For 2011, an eight-speed automatic transmission supplanted the six-speed.
Current Model: 2012 Audi A4
The 2012 A4 essentially picks up where the 2011 left off, with no bombastic changes to trumpet. Pursuing Audi’s model of small-displacement high-output engines, the 2.0T makes 211 horsepower and 258 ft-lbs of torque. All-wheel drive models offer a six-speed manual or an eight-speed automatic transmission. If you want front-wheel drive, you’ll get a Continuously Variable Transmission.
The Audi A4 is credited by many with saving the company in the U.S. Over the years, the car has proven to be versatile, well-built and a highly desirable automobile. Yes, there have been recalls over the span of this car’s existence and if you’re considering the purchase of an A4, you’d do well to run an Internet search for “Audi A4 Recall”, denoting your model year of interest.
Similarly, these cars, with their somewhat complex all-wheel drive systems, can be somewhat expensive to repair. Make sure you have any A4 you’re considering subjected to a very thorough pre-purchase inspection by a trusted professional mechanic, one proficient in the ways of the products Audi builds.