2006 Audi A4 2.0T

Well-packaged performance however it's presented

Sometimes it gets to you. In a moment of hair pulling, stop-the-insanity madness, you can no longer take the term "new." And let's not forget its neighbors: completely new, all new and totally new. One of the biggest offenders? Carmakers.

We can't completely blame the manufacturers from calling each year's model new-they want to call attention and bring you into the showrooms. In the ultra-competitive auto market, today's hotness becomes yesterday's lukewarm in the blink of an eye. But we have seen some flimsy excuses for "all-new" models being indicative of as little as a new audio system or available faux wood interior trim. So, what about the 2006 Audi A4-is it "all-new" from the ground up? Nah. Audi says around 60 percent. On the other hand, though, it does have some significant changes-a new exterior look that really captures the eye and a few interior tweaks that probably won't. Most importantly, there are some substantial improvements in the performance department and, with the A4's already impressive fun-to-drive quotient, that's big news indeed.

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The A4 lineup is pretty diverse. You have a choice of a handsome 4-door sedan, sleek wagon (Avant in Audi-speak) and sublime 2-door convertible. You also get a choice of 4-cylinder and V6 engines, front and Quattro all-wheel drive, 6-speed manual or automatic transmissions-some with the ultra-smooth CVT continuously variable transmission. And if that isn't enough, there are the V8-powered S4 and RS4 super performance models. Basically, you tell Audi your space, speed and budget requirements, and they'll find an A4 perfect just for you. Our tester was an A4 Sedan 2.0T with Quattro all-wheel-drive and a 6-speed manual transmission.

We were a little concerned with the news that Audi had recently freshened the exterior of the A4, as it was already one of the most handsome small sedans on the road. The most noticeable change is the front end with the new large grille opening that has now become Audi's corporate face for all its vehicles. While it appeared too big on the A3 we recently tested, on the A4, the prominent proboscis fits in quite handsomely. Flanked on both sides are clear headlamps at a suggestive angle that makes the front end of the car look aggressive.

A new contour line on the A4's sides sharpens the profile, while new taillamps are wider, extending over the trunklid. All in all, Audi did a masterful job-our bright red test car looked more muscular and purposeful than the previous model, which compared to the more overt designs of the new BMW 3 Series and Lexus IS 350, enjoyed a classic, refined look that we think will please any owner's eye for years to come.

To go with the new look, there are some eye-opening performance improvements. At the heart of the matter is the new 2.0T FSI motor. Featuring direct fuel injection, the turbocharged 2.0-liter not only puts out an impressive 200 horsepower, but also puts out its maximum torque of 207 lb.-ft. at just 1,800 rpm. That means an instantaneous surge just about any time you tap the gas. When we tested this powerplant in the new A3, it felt almost rocket-quick. With the slightly heavier A4, it is still impressively quick, feeling more than capable of doing battle with many competitor's 6-cylinder engines, but offering the fuel-sipping abilities of a smaller 4-cylinder.

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Adding to the fun, our tester featured a smooth and quick-shifting 6-speed manual transmission and the Velcro-like grip of Audi's Quattro all-wheel-drive. Handling is noticeably crisper for 2006 - Audi took many of the suspension and steering components from its S4 super sedan and bestowed them on the A4.

Our tester included the optional Sport Package, which gets you handsome 17-inch alloy wheels with performance tires and a sport suspension. Audis tend to provide a soft ride, so with the firmed-up suspension you get an ideal blend of performance and comfort. If you get overly enthusiastic, standard ESP stability control is there to help you out of a jam.

The interior is a perfect place to enjoy the A4's athletic moves. It starts with superb quality of materials and an understated, handsome design. Audi fans will feel right at home with the large gauges and familiar red LED readouts and lighting. Little details shine through; on the steering wheel, the remote controls for the audio system (on our tester, a sweet-sounding optional Bose system teamed with Sirius satellite radio) are small tumblers you roll underneath your fingers-much easier and more intuitive than the pushbutton/rocker switches you find on just about every other manufacturer's offering.

Nice improvements for '06 include a swath of aluminum trim that runs across the dash and surrounds the shifter, and brightens up the interior and a center console. And after too many tipsy-cup adventures to remember, we now have two honest-to-goodness cupholders in the center console that finally acknowledge that we Americans like our beverages large and securely located.

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We especially liked the supportive front bucket seats and comfortable rear seat accommodations. Audi says the 2006 model even picks up a little extra rear legroom. Even more comforting is the knowledge that every A4 features standard front and side airbags, along with head protection airbags for front and rear outboard seating positions. Those up front get the added benefit of active head restraints that reduce likelihood of whiplash.

You'll also feel good with the A4's generous list of standard equipment, including automatic dual-zone climate control with dust and pollen filter, power driver's seat, power windows, heated outside mirrors, central locking with selective unlocking and premium audio system with in-dash 6-disc CD changer. Equipped with a 6-speed manual transmission and Quattro all-wheel drive (you can save some cash if you choose the front-wheel-drive model), you're looking at $29,450 which is a good value, especially when you add in the fact that Audi will pick up the tab for scheduled maintenance for 4 years/50,000 miles.

Our tester had more added goodies, including a Premium Package with leather seats, moonroof and power passenger seat; a Lighting Package, which adds Bi-Xenon headlights, adaptive front lighting, light-sensor and rain sensor and, our favorite, auto-dimming exterior mirrors. Along with the Audio and Sport packages mentioned previously and a couple of nice touches like power rear and manual side sunshades (very Limo!) and headlight washers, our admittedly loaded tester carried a still reasonable and quite competitive MSRP of $35,995.

The 2006 Audi A4 is a perfect blend of old and "new." The tasteful style, wonderful build quality and simple feeling of being surrounded by something very good is unchanged. A handsome updating of the classic lines, and an impressive upgrade in performance makes an already fine sport sedan even more enjoyable to drive. What's new with you? (www.audiusa.com)

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