Audi has redone its price leader, the A4, for 2002 and made it available with an automatic transmission that passengers might enjoy more than drivers.
The car is well worth considering and so is the transmission, which is "continuously variable" rather than having four or five fixed drive ratios. It runs smoother than any other automatic you've likely experienced, and it improves fuel economy.
But there's a catch and it's a big one: it's not available in models with all-wheel drive, one of Audi's best selling points.
Its cost: $1,150, not at all out of line for any automatic transmission. If you must have all-wheel drive, though, you'll have to settle for an A4 with a conventional five-speed automatic, beginning at $27,800, $1,750 above the CVT model's base price of $26,050.
Audi says the transmission might become available in future all-wheel drive models. Might. And no time frame is given.
Just as with other continuously variable transmissions that have appeared in cars over the years, Audi's employs two pulleys of graduated size and a belt - one made of metal links chromed with vanadium, in Audi's case. The belt slides back and forth from the narrower to the wider parts of the pulleys and back again, to produce varying "gear" ratios.
The result -- seamless upshifting during acceleration without the surge and sudden drop-off in engine noise as a higher ratio is reached. In highway passing maneuvers, a stomp of the accelerator produces an increase in speed, without the lurch of a sudden downshift as with conventional automatic transmissions. Edgy passengers will love it.
Audi says the chain is quieter than a belt, and the tester's powertrain - engine and transmission - was reasonably quiet, but the noise it did produce was an unpleasant, though not very intrusive drone, along with some vibration during acceleration. Since they're bolted together up front, I couldn't tell whether it was the fault of the transmission or the four-cylinder engine - or maybe both.
The transmission can be shifted manually among five ratios if you choose, via the console-mounted lever or buttons on the steering wheel.
The continuously variable transmission is not available in station wagon models of the A4 because they only come in all-wheel drive. It is available in six-cylinder, front-wheel drive A4's, however. A five- speed stick is standard in the four- cylinder versions, and a six-speed in six-cylinder versions.
That V-6 is new this year and delivers 220 hp., 14 percent more than the 2.8-liter six it replaces.
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