Sabtu, 07 Juni 2008



By Jay Shoemaker

The last generation Audi TT had more show than go. The German roadster’s dynamics were tarnished by massive turbo lag, an over-eager paddle shift gearbox and an entirely flappable suspension. In fact, the TT’s iconic exterior design and interior quality were its only saving graces. Now that TT 2.0 has arrived, and a decent enough amount of time has passed since Hugh Grant’s loathsome character drove a TT in “About a Boy," is Audi finally ready for a little Boxster bashing? Yes and no.

The original TT was a rolling realization of Bauhausian anti-bling– to the point where the tiny tail spoiler (added to correct high speed stability “issues”) stuck out like a Black Sabbath T-shirt on Michaelangelo's David. Audi's designers folded and crimped the old TT’s sheetmetal and flame surfaced the sides. They ended-up with a more modern and less distinctive car. At the risk of offending the TT's core supporters, Audi’s ministrations delivered unto them a mucho macho model, flared wheel arches and all.

The aesthetic discord hasn’t disappeared; it’s simply moved to the front. Audi’s trademark “Billy the Big Mouth Bass” grille gives the TT a distinctly lopsided appearance. While the oversized schnoz and the new fastback eliminate the polarizing push-me, pull-you proportions (a.k.a. the bathtub-on-wheels effect), the features add gun slit aggression to the TT’s profile and destroy the original’s “oval uber alles” purity of form. Thankfully, when it comes to Audis, beauty is more than skin deep.

When I sat in the new TT in Paris, the interior was a let down. Now that I’ve driven the R8, I feel better about the TT’s strikingly similar cabin– and less impressed with the R8. Thanks to the TT’s added length, width and price, the new model’s cockpit is significantly more spacious and luxurious than its predecessor. The TT’s squashed crown symbolizes its sporting aspirations, while the ergonomics, build and materials quality are damn near perfect.

But not quite. The TT coupe’s rear three quarter blind spots are as dangerous as ever. The exposed phone cradle at the rearmost part of the center console (behind the driver’s elbow) is a turd in a rock garden. And the standard sound system lacks depth, clarity and power. Still, there's no question that the new TT is a much more pleasant place in which to do business.

The business in question: driving. As you’d expect, the TT’s dynamics are roughly akin to the hip, hot and harmonious VW GTI upon which it’s based. My front-wheel drive tester holstered the same 2.0-liter turbocharged four as the GTI, complete with VW’s latest direct injection technology. Thanks in part to an aluminum diet, the 200hp TT blasts to 60mph in a tick less than six seconds. There’s a little lag off the mark, a sweet exhaust note and encouraging popping noises between shifts.

In fact, the new TT drives like an enthusiastic puppy. Turn-in is immediate and aggressive. The S-Tronic’s (nee DSG) paddle shift cog swapper isn't as slam bam as the previous model’s, but it ain't slow neither; given the new TTs more mature demeanor, seamless shifts were the right choice. Switch off the ESP handling nanny, and the standard 17” wheels still offer enough grip to keep all but the lunatic fringe from cutting themselves on the edge of the TT’s envelope.

Even the short wheelbase and [optional] 18” run flat tires can’t kill the coupe’s wonderfully compliant ride– aside from the occasional abrupt response to broken pavement. The TT’s incredibly light electromechanical steering is the only major blot on its dynamic copy book. At low speeds, you're golden. At highway velocities, the helm's lack of road feel tests your mettle, and turns turns into an intellectual exercise.

Compared with the competition– Porsche Boxster/Cayman, Mercedes SLK and BMW Z4– absolute handling prowess goes to the mid-engined Porsches. Stunting and flossing rights belong to the SLK, with its three-pointed star and retractable hardtop. And the much-improved Z4 wins pistonhead props for its BMWness. But the Audi has the most compliant ride, the quietest and most beautiful interior, the coolest transmission and the best visibility (although that’s not saying much). Trump card: the TT is significantly cheaper than these natural born thrillers.

But then the VW GTI is significantly less expensive than the TT, far more practical, cheaper to run and no less fun to drive. Is it worth paying an extra $10k+ for an high-class image and a more luxurious cockpit? Believe it or not, there are plenty of buyers who wouldn’t be caught dead in a GTI. And there are plenty of drivers who crave a four-wheeled, four-ringed designer object, regardless of its handling chops. For both of these groups, Audi’s expensive creases are a necessary price of admission. Once inside, they will not be disappointed.


By Jay Shoemaker

There I was, having fun, fun auf die autobahn, when nature called. Somewhere southeast of Stuttgart, I took the wrong exit and found myself outside the gates of Audi’s Neckarsulm factory. A large sign proclaimed the brutally Bauhaus industrial complex ground zero for the German automaker’s R8 supercar. I was immediately convinced I was destined to park one in my garage. Of course, by then I’d been chasing R8 ownership for over three years. So, do good things come to those who wait?

Flash forward to Vegas. I'm looking at a row of carefully prepped aluminum-bodied R8’s shimmering in the desert heat, hunched low to the ground, looking distinctly sinister in the winter sun. The German coupe’s over-sized mal occhi stare out from a shape not entirely unlike a Ferrari F430, though obscured by all manner of bulges, strakes and intakes.

The R8’s “blades”– contrasting colored bands bisecting the R8’s profile like enormous pieces of duct tape– look just as jarring in real life as they do in the pictures. But the car’s back end is a thing of beauty; a synthesis of Italianate style and Germanic precision projecting pure power.

The R8’s interior shares too much family resemblance with the upcoming TT for my tastes, from its door pulls to the undersized sat nav screen to the dreaded Multi-Media Interruption device. Despite the haptic heaven– buttery leather, textured aluminum, carbon fiber accents, plush Alcantara– it’s a bit like sitting inside a Halliburton Zero.

Thanks to the R8’s panoramic front windshield, at least it feels like a BIG briefcase. For a mid-engined sports car, rearward visibility is better than expected– somewhere between horrendous and really bad. Backup sensors and camera come standard. Much obliged.

The 3439 lbs. R8 holsters Audi’s 4.2-liter FSI V8, good for 420 horsepower and 317 lb.-ft. of torque. To help well-heeled potential customers do the math, Audi’s product specialists laid out a 200 mile route through Nevada’s Valley of Fire, and provided access to the Las Vegas Raceway.

On the open road, the R8 is a serene machine. Despite low gearing, road and engine noise levels are subdued enough for the daily drudge. My tester was afflicted with a few squeaks and rattles; an indication of early build problems or journalists’ ability to abuse Audi’s horsepitality. Anyway, over any road surface, the R8’s ride quality is superb, even without the optional 'Audi magnetic ride' adaptive damper system.

When pressing on, the R8's exhaust note morphs from metallic rasp to barrel chested roar to banshee wail. The endless mechanical aria is a welcome alternative to the standard-issue sound system, which is no better than an A4’s ICE. And while we’re here, the R8’s armrests are poorly positioned for long term comfort and the cupholders are useless.

The Lamborghini Gallardo donated its paddle shift transmission to the R8. At low speeds, smooth shifts are fast unmöglich. While Audi's R-tronic system isn’t as bad as BMW’s SMG cog swapper (what is?), it's nowhere near as agreeable as Audi’s world class DSG. To make matters worse, the R8’s paddles are too small and made of nasty ass plastic. I briefly drove the six speed manual version and prefer it for extended civilian jaunts.

Cruisers note: storage space is notable by its absence. Audi will sell you a gorgeous seven piece set of fitted luggage for around 5000 Euros (which is nicer than anything else inside the car). But hey; long distance love isn’t the R8’s main mission.

The track is the R8’s true métier. Zero to sixty in 4.2 seconds says this sucker moves. Equally important, the coupe changes direction with sufficient panache to elicit a gleeful cackle from the most jaded track addict. Even with the ESP traction control disengaged, getting the Quattro-equipped mid-engined motor’s back end out of line is almost as hard as trying not to.

Too much speed in a corner? Back off the throttle and the nose tucks neatly into line. Composure through long sweepers at speeds at 100+ mph is equally exemplary. And the R8’s binders are phenomenal: an endlessly reassuring combination of power, feedback and measured modulation.

On the Vegas circuit, max attack e-gear shifts were swift yet smooth. Unfortunately, Audi put the e-gear indicator into the witness protection program. Even so, flogging the R8 around a track– and then driving it home– could become its new owner’s new favorite pastime.

The R8’s handlers claimed the R8 opens a new automotive segment: affordable exotica. Yes, well, as quick and conscientious as the car is, the R8 struggles to surpass the dynamic benchmark set by the similarly priced Porsche 911 Turbo.

While the rear-engined German is faster than the R8, the visually malevolent Audi definitely possess the X factor needed to present a suitable alternative to the Daddy of All Daily Supercars. In time, the battle lines will draw closer. Call me a speed-crazed fashion victim, but I can’t wait.

AUDI A4 2.0T

By Samir Syed

Buying an Audi sedan without Quattro all wheel-drive is like dating a Swedish brunette. That said, there’s nothing wrong with the right brunette, Bergman movies notwithstanding. And Audi makes and sells plenty of products where only the front wheels are driven, from economy cars to its aufwendig TT. In fact, Audi’s UK website proudly proclaims “a front-wheel-drive car is in principle more controllable and tracks better than conventional rear-wheel drive.” OK then, in advance of the all-new A4 headed our way in '09, let’s have a look at the Audi A4 2.0T and see if we can get past the FWD thing.

Under the guidance of northern Italian designer Walter de’Silva, Audi’s products preserve the straight, clean lines that BMW and Mercedes abandoned in pursuit of Picasso-esque titillations. The A4 maintains the simplicity of form and absence of affectation that has marked this marque’s models for decades. It’s proof positive that Audi understands understatement like Ferrari groks glamor.

Except for the A4’s chrome-lined Billy the Big Mouth Bass front grill. The grill takes up nearly the entire vertical span of the A4’s front fascia, interrupted by a slim piece of Euro-plate accommodating plastic (think local, screw America). The snout is Audi’s iDrive: a huge mistake its maker refuses to rectify. Like a tribal tattoo on a cheerleader’s bum, the grill is the one detail that almost ruins an otherwise clean image. Almost.

The A4’s interior has no such Achilles heel. The design is two steps forwards, one step back; the splendid red-on-red gauge read-outs are back, along with the square steering locus and the all-work-no-play center stack. The A4’s quality materials continue to defend and extend Audi’s rep for haptic happiness, with controls that snick with precisely measured sensual satisfaction.

Of course, no one’s perfect. A garish, silver piece of trim bisected my test A4’s interior; presumably inspired by a bath tub ring. Worse, the A4’s rear accommodations are still cramped enough to make an A4 owner covet a relatively measly Malibu. If your passengers are neither large or numerous, the A4’s handsome cabin remains the standard to which all other automobile manufacturers can– and do– aspire.

Crank-up the A4’s two-liter turbo-four, and its sonic signature is to a BMW six what a garage band is to Led Zeppelin. Once underway, Audi’s 200-horse powerplant displays minimal turbo-lag and stumps-up enough twist to keep on keeping on on the highway. Enough is enough, but no more; the 3428 pound A4 is no pocket rocket. That's partly because the front wheel-drive A4 I tested came with a CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission)– no "proper" autobox is available. In any case, the sprint from rest to sixty takes about eight seconds.

Savvy pistonheads will know this relative sloth indicates a struggle between maximizing mpgs and providing enough get-and-go to keep up with the luxury car-equipped Joneses– where fuel economy prevails. As a result, unless you’re a hypermiler, the A4’s force-fed four-pot feels a bit hyperactive underfoot; slightly out-of-synch with entirely understandable upmarket expectations of seamless and serene forward progress.

Bereft of the weight of the Quattro gubbins, the A4 should bring something of that “improved traction” to the game. Should, but doesn’t. While the A4 offers an excellent balance between law enforcement-compatible handling and premium price-compliant ride comfort, and the brakes are as dependable as a federal tax collector, even a sport-package equipped A4 lacks anything like a Golf GTI’s fluidity at speed.

With a wishbone upfront and independent suspension at the rear, a well and truly caned A4 dismisses surface imperfections to maintain its course. But it’s still very much an Audi: a nose-heavy beast with only slightly more steering feel than a radio controlled model car. One giant road dip in a tight right-hander reminds us that the Audi A4 remains the long distance commuter’s sports sedan.

Is this a problem? Truth be told, the majority of a non-Quattro A4’s 2.0T’s eventual owners will never push their upscale motor vehicle past three-tenths, never mind eight-tenths. They’ll never know– or care– how the A4’s handling can’t hold a corner to a BMW or a Cadillac CTS. They’re more interested in the inherent advantages of front wheel-drive during occasional bouts of inclement weather. As Audi’s excellent traction control program will take care of the daunting snow banks in the Costco parking lot, Quattro need not apply.

Well good for them. For such average Joes, the A4’s good looks and superior interior make it an entirely defensible choice. But that doesn’t change the fact that Quattro is Audi’s Unique Selling Point; the compensation for not buying a more dynamically engaging car. An A4 2.0T sans all wheel-drive is nothing more than a comfortable, boring sedan that gets reasonable mileage. Sure the A4 is a good car in and of its own accord, but I’d rather have an Accord.


By Jay Shoemaker

I really want a Mercedes Black Series AMG. It’s a practical, sharp looking car, and nothing clears my head like Saturn V quality thrust. But my spouse’s desire to share her dotage with yours truly conspires against it. So, after driving a BMW 6-Series and finding it a bit… sclerotic, I wandered over to my local Audi dealer in search of something slinkier and kinkier. And there she was: a brand new S5 coupe on the showroom floor, shooting me come hither glances. So thither I went. Ah, but did I tarry long enough to take possession of Ingolstadt’s two-door Q-ship?

Walter de'Silva claims the S5 is his meisterwerk. As Walt penned the Gorgonesque Q7, I reckon he’s damning himself with self-praise. Like the TT and Bimmer’s Bangle bungles, the S5 suffers from a surfeit of surfaces: artfully indented panels, swoopy swage lines, blistered wheels arches, chrome window surrounds, a Billy the Big Mouth bass grill, angry eyes headlights (complete with LED mascara) and more. The S5’s basic shape and stance are purposeful, but the “auto emoción” here is nothing more than a hissy fit.

The S5’s interior also blends the sacred and the profane. The materials, gauges and switchgear are boilerplate Audi– which is no bad thing. But the S5’s aluminum dash accents are garish and jarringly asymmetrical. A CD player in the center stack consigns the HVAC controls to the bottom of the pile– a brand-defiling ergonomic affront that continues with the MMI (Multi Media Interface). Pistonheads of a certain age will find the MMI’s eight major buttons, three [bottom] menu buttons, four inner buttons and obligatory rotary knob about as intuitive as Bayesian Reasoning. And less fun.

The S5’s seats are a major disappointment; while laterally coddling, the thrones lack sufficient upper back support. The S5’s meaty steering wheel offers some compensatory haptic satisfaction and a wide range of (cough) manual adjustment. As in the 6-Series, Audi’s big coupe is capped by an oversized sunroof that tilts but doesn’t slide; the automotive equivalent of getting stuck on first base. And you can have any transmission you like as long as it’s a six-speed manual.

So, we’re hunting Bimmers are we?

Thumb the 354-horse powerplant into life and the S5’s woofling 4.2-liter V8 tells well-heeled helmsmen that all’s right with the world (if not the global temperature). The S5’s engine note is as lusty as a Tudor era pub wench; it’s a suitable soundtrack for a torque curve that’s fat enough to provide prodigious pulling power deep into triple digits, and phat enough to rocket the a 3600lbs. sedan from naught to 60mph in 4.9 seconds. If only the S5’s gearbox didn’t feel like a notchy cable shifter from some ancient GM product.

Once the cog swapper’s vital fluids warm-up, the S5’s gearbox regains class appropriate silkiness. By then enthusiastic drivers will wonder why Audi eschewed an autobox in a car whose steering is lighter than an Olsen twin’s lunch order.

Ignore the S5’s helium helm, throw the uber-A5 into a corner and the coupe’s re-jigged weight distribution, multi-link front suspension and rear-biased Quattro system forestalls, quells and/or corrects Ye Olde nose-first understeer. Mind you, with the Quattro system’s asymmetric dynamic torque split principal patrolling the school for scandal, and Audi’s ESP handling Nanny sending tail-out aspirants to bed without their supper, power slides aintgonnahappendotcom.

In short, the S5 is a supremely capable all-weather point and shoot luxobarge– that's as suitable for hunting M cars as a .22 caliber rifle is for shooting a grizzly. So why does the S5 sacrifice ride quality on the altar of corner-carving confidence, especially when Audi’s sublime adjustable magnetic ride suspension lingers in the corporate bull pen (so to speak)? Probably for the same reason that Ingolstadt’s boffins forgot to equip the car with a DSG, the world's best paddle shift dual clutch gearbox, available on a lowly (and I mean that in a nice way) TT.

The Audi dealer wanted $58,490 for the S5 on display, including an optional Bang & Olufsen 505-watt sound system (which was a deal for an extra $800). I don’t suppose S5 owners would kvetch at the cost of catering to the S5’s 14/21mpg thirst, but it’s worth noting that around town driving requires a refill every 200 miles or so.

Also noteworthy: the Audi S5’s performance barely matches the lower priced BMW 335i (also available with four wheel drive) and poses no threat whatsoever to the upcoming V8-powered BMW M3. Even on its own terms, the S5’s lack of an automatic or dual clutch transmission limits the model’s appeal. Perhaps if the S5 packed the RS4’s 420hp motor, it would make more sense. The Audi faithful can only hope this version is on the way. Meanwhile, the Audi S5 is a vehicle I might settle for, but not one I truly desire.


By Jonny Lieberman

Buy a Toyota Prius and you get a backup camera, keyless ignition, iPod integration and travel over 50 miles for every gallon of gas poured therein. Buy an Audi RS4 and you don't even get self-dimming mirrors, and you can only drive 11 miles per gallon of dead dinos (EPA notwithstanding). The Prius will set you back $25k. The RS4 costs three Prii. At freeway speeds, the Toyota is a near silent and comfortable cruiser, whereas the Audi sounds and feels like a volcano making love to an avalanche.

I only tell you this because the moment I saw the RS4 a Toyota angel appeared on my left shoulder and an Audi demon manifested itself on my right. And then I drove the RS4 and the demon kicked the snot out of the angel.

Allow me to dispense with the unimportant stuff. The RS4 looks like Shawne Merriman in a tight blue shirt, its mirrors are too small and the interior is stereotypically Audi-perfect minus the ugly, useless strip of tacky carbon fiber trim half-circling the dash. The stereo sounds tinny and the back seats are a joke. Got it? Good.

Most buff books clock the RS4's 0-60 time at 4.6 seconds. That's stupid fast indeed, just ahead of its main competition, the M3. However, what they leave out is that the RS4 can do 0-110 in 4.7 seconds. Or at least it feels like it can.

Blindfolded, you would swear the Audi is being launched from a trebuchet. Sitting forward of the front wheels is an all-aluminum, 317lbs., 4.2-liter miracle of human imagination. Yes, it makes 420hp, but so does a Dodge SRT-8. While fun, the Dodge Boys' 6.1-liter Hemi is far from miraculous. The RS4's V8 is nothing short of a revelation.

Let's say you're cruising at 80mph in sixth-gear and the engine is doing 3,000rpm, the mechanical equivalent of sipping a latte. You downshift to fifth and the engine quickly and smoothly spins up to 4,000rpm. In most cars, the engine would slow you down; the RS4 just screams louder and burns more gas. Your velocity remains unchanged.

More proof? In first gear, release the clutch without touching the go-pedal. You won't stall. You'll go. Also, a V8 with an 8,250rpm redline is mechanical heroin.

Fine, so the engine is a torque-tastic beast, but they put it in an Audi so it's nothing more than a bloated understeerer totally devoid of road feel and reflexes, right? Dead wrong. I have a turgid, secret back road I use to evaluate the handling prowess of my testers.

Until this week, Porsche's Boxster was the champ. I could whip it through the turns at 70mph. For comparison's sake, the nearly-as-nifty handling Miata could "only" do the twists at about 60mph. The RS4 dominated the two-mile stretch at 100mph, and if I wasn't so ham-fisted it could have gone faster. Much faster.

Audi used every trick in the playbook to get the RS4 – with 58% of its weight over the front wheels – to handle near-on perfectly. Credit the DRC (Dynamic Ride Control) which hydraulically links the diagonal suspension bits to each other. As the front wheels read the road, the rear shocks preemptively (and correctly) react. This setup works so well the WRC just banned it.

The engineers also made sure every body panel in front of the doors is composed of kilogram saving aluminum. And the 19" Pirellis are fantastic. While the initial turn in isn't as effortless and eager as say an EVO, this two-ton all-wheel driver can safely carry more speed through a corner than you can handle. After the apex, the RS4 can blast sideways with such force that you will swear you are piloting violence.

And that's before you push the innocuous little button marked "S." Normally, the RS4 is faster than whatever car you are driving next to, sounds bonkers and has a devastatingly punishing ride. Push the button though, and three things happen.

First, the throttle control is remapped so that the rev-happy mill will crank faster with less input. Second, valves open in the mufflers changing the sound from Howard Dean's scream to Gunnery Sgt. Hartman showing Joker his war face. Lastly, the shocks get firmer and the ride goes from mercilessly painful to f-you. I absolutely love it. Forget violence, you are now driving war.

There aren't enough superlatives (or space) to properly describe the vulgar joy of driving an RS4. For instance, I haven't even mentioned that the brakes are stolen from Lamborghini's Gallardo. Nor did I tell you that while normally quite brave and stupid, I was too frightened to turn off the handling nanny. In short, if you have the means, the RS4 is your end. Right. Now excuse me. I've got some sinning to do before the Audi man comes and it's time to repent.


By Jehovah Johnson

I’m a not-so-well-known writer for a not-so-well-known car mag and an equally obscure website. I’m standing, jet-lagged and a little smelly, in the courtyard of a hotel I can't afford in front of a new SUV that costs more than my state college education. I’m here on Audi's dime. Come, Constant Reader, and join me for the auto writer's Holy of Holies: the press launch. A gaggle of my fellow egomaniacs and I are here to drive the brand new Audi Q7 SUV.

I open the door and haul myself in. The door slams. Chunk. Solid as rebar. I look around and face the first of many moments of confusion. Audi has just flown me across three time zones. My Malaysian-made Tag-Heuer knockoff says 8:16 in the morning, but my body clock ain't buying it. It looks like A8 in here. Or A6. Where am I again? I fiddle with the Multi-Media Interface, Audi's slightly-less-screwy answer to BMW's entirely screwy iDrive. I find the navigation system, but can’t be bothered to GPS myself. Other menus control the air suspension’s relative puffiness, the stereo’s wikkidness and a complication of user-definable functions– like how long the headlights interrogate wildlife after you walk away. Ah, the Germans: Masters of Convoluted Simplification.

I look around for the fancy gadgets highlighted in the crack of dawn press briefing. Panoramic sunroof to brighten Audi's deluxe but dour materials? Check. Rear temperature controls to forestall the thermal implications of the panoramic sunroof? I perform a quick center console reach around. Check. And what was that about the wipers? Wasn’t there something about them parking in a different position each time so the blades won't wear out as fast? How Phaetonesque. Too bad they couldn't apply all that engineering genius to something more useful, like designing a third-row seat roomy enough for those of us who actually have legs.

Moments later, I'm cruising down the road with a fellow hack, praying that he’s got kids or some other reason not to endanger my life by showing me what a great driver he isn't. As always, my goal is to probe the press car’s dynamic abilities without starting a pissing contest. As I hit the expressway onramp, I floor it. The Q7's acceleration is as thrilling as an Antique Road Show rerun. Just what I expected from a 350hp V8 pulling a 5500lbs. SUV (seven second zero to sixty time notwithstanding). I’m not stupid enough to drive a Tahoe-sized SUV like a Miata, but my co-driver has no such qualms. He horses the mighty Q7 into the first bend at a speed that exceeds his abilities. Remarkably, the Q7 stays the course. My colleague’s post-corner commentary is insouciant, but his eyes have the haunted look of a man who's just had an electronic intervention. I fight an urge to pierce his right kidney with my Audi-branded pen.

Fast-forward to the off-road portion of Audi's militarily precise schedule. It's really just a dirt road with attitude. No surprise there: I've seen what happens when jaded journalists take expensive SUVs on genuine off-road courses. Better to send the SUV’s directly to the crusher and save the towing costs. Still, it makes one wonder how much faith Audi has in the Q7's electronic stability program, which includes a trick, Land-Rover-like hill descent mode.

Before we can raise the question, our German-employed minders distract us with lunch. My co-driver questions one of Audi's smiling press reps over prime rib and onion tarts. Actually, he's not questioning, he's telling. It’s something about feeling the Quattro all-wheel-drive system shifting power to the front wheels as the Q7 transitioned from understeer to power-on oversteer. I snigger into my Dasani. I love listening to PR guys trying to tell journalists that they’re full of shit.

Lounging in the hotel bed that night, I try to figure this one out. For my paper paymasters, I’ll write about how the $50k-plus Q7 drives like an Audi sedan on stilts. I’ll snipe at the SUV’s disastrous fuel efficiency– the one complaint that’s beyond all censorship. Not that its petrochemical consumption matters to anyone other than left-leaning journalists. Q7 buyers will be image-conscious people who are too image-conscious to buy a BMW X5 or Mercedes GL because they don't want people to think they are image-conscious.

My print editor would shit a kitten if I turned that in (which might make it worth doing). So I'll feed him some crap about the wonders of FSI direct injection, heap praise on Audi’s new blind-spot monitoring Side Assist system, and gently chide Audi for the cramped third row seat. He'll be happy, I'll get paid and life will be good. I wonder what they'll serve at next month's Cadillac event, and drift off to sleep.


By Robert Farago

Anyone who looks at the new Audi A3 3.2 DSG and sees an overpriced economy car should not be allowed to play with Rottweiler puppies. While Ingolstadt's diminutive four-door may seem like a hatchback for badge snobs willing to sacrifice size for breeding, it's actually a four-wheeled fiend, a beast born and bred to take a bite out of the time - space continuum. Everything else about the A3– the foot on the Audi ownership ladder thing, the four-wheel-drive peace-of-mind shtick– is nothing more than a glossy coat on a vicious little monster. And I mean that in the nicest possible way.

The A3's aesthetic dissonance should tip off neophytes that something wikkid this way driveth. Calling the little Audi "ungainly" is like saying a Saab stretch limo lacks a certain finesse. The unconscionable gaping maw that is Audi's house snout never looked as hideous as it does here, attached to a car whose creators seems to have given up around the halfway mark. I presume the A3's sloping rear roofline was designed to distance Audi's $35k 'entry level' hatchback from the traditional econobox. At best, the A3 looks like a dwarf station wagon. At worst, it joins Mercedes' SLK as another petite whip suffering from Peter North syndrome.

Inside, the A3 adheres to Ingolstadt's well-established Buddhist gestalt: discipline (sila), meditative concentration (Samadhi) and wisdom (prajna). On the downside, the A3's lack of rear legroom forces full-sized adults to assume the Lotus position. On the upside, the interior offers occupants peerless ergonomic Zen. From the steering wheel's textured perfection, to the white-on-black gauges' lack of affectation, to the switchgear's clinically measured clicks, the A3 serves-up no more or less functionality than necessary for the job at hand. Alternatively, you could say that the A3's cabin's displays all the brutal minimalism of a Heckler and Koch submachine gun.

Fire-up the A3's 3.2-liter six and it's clear the Germans have re-lit the pilot light under the hot hatch genre. The A3's powerplant marries a soft burble to a horny zizz; like a banker and a showgirl itching to strip naked, jump under the hood and put the pro back into in procreative. As you pull away, the A3's torquey powerplant confirms the impression: objects in your rear view mirror will soon be further than they appear. At first, the Audi's steering seems a bit vague and the brakes a touch touchy– but that's only because you're not going fast enough. Right foot rectification tightens-up the controls and unleashes the dogs of driving.

If ever a right-sized performance car wanted to snap its leash and chase hubcaps, well, here it is. You can hammer the A3 in any gear, on any road, anytime, anywhere, and enjoy unabashed, confidence-inspiring dynamic synthesis. The A3 3.2 DSG goes exactly where you point it, stays planted while you're going and doesn't waste a second getting there. Because the A3 sits on a modified fifth gen front-wheel-drive VW Golf platform, really determined and/or demented drivers will soon discover that understeer arrives early and stays for breakfast. But in any situation other than a series of tight radius turns– long sweepers, point-and-squirt, straight lines, highwaymanship– the A3 is a pocket rocket poster child.

The devil's in the drivetrain. In the TT we tested back in '04, the same engine / cog swapper combo suffered from manic depression: lazy in Drive, over-eager in Sport, blah when paddling. In the A3, the system is flawless. Thanks to new software, Drive shuffles through the six gears quickly and efficiently, but kicks down and kicks ass when asked. Sport keeps things fizzing along without straining against the aforementioned lead, but races for redline at a moment's notice. As for the A3's paddles, it's official: you can kiss the three-pedal car goodbye. The DSG system delivers seamless, rapid-fire, idiot-proof changes up or down the gearbox at any engine speed. It's a toy, it's a weapon, it's a wonder. No suprise Stuttgart has suddenly sidled up to Wolfsburg: every Porsche made needs a DSG gearbox mach schnell.

Although the A3 is a reasonably practical proposition– a slightly cramped machine offering excellent mileage and safety– the 3.2 comes with Audi's S-Line suspension as standard. Loonies like, wafters wince. The A3 3.2 isn't hard riding per se; its aluminum subframe has a rubbery kind of dampening effect on the endless jolts delivered by the tiniest surface imperfections. But there's no question that the A3 is a jiggy machine in more ways than one. If you're not the kind of driver who considers a highway off ramp's speed limit as only 50% accurate, if you don't like counting cobbles, then the significantly less expensive, more softly sprung A3 2.0T (with the optional DSG) is the way to go. Although the jury's out on the lighter engined A3, I have a sneaking suspicion that it won't hang about either. It's all in the genes.


New Audi A4

By Robert Farago

You gotta love Audi. Despite its rivals' explosive growth, The Boys from Ingolstadt have resisted the lure of sudden intended niche acceleration. While questions about reliability and resale value have shadowed the brand's progress like a pack of predatory wolves, Audi keeps on plugging away with a limited line of luxury limos, waiting for their turn to fill US owners' heated garages. As always, the A4 is both the point man and the mainstay of Audi's long march. Does the latest evolution finally signal the beginning of the end of the beginning?

From a sheet metal standpoint, the A4 is perfectly positioned to enjoy a rare window of unopposed conservatism. BMW's once-staid products have been turning Japanese (I really think so), Mercedes has renounced their discreet design heritage, Jaguar has overexploited theirs, Cadillac continues to live on the edge and the Asian brands are stuck in Pasticheland (save Infiniti). Aside from its inappropriately voracious snout– perfectly designed to make US license plates look ugly and stupid– the A4 is the ideal choice for drivers who believe discretion is the better part of showing off. It's old money on wheels.

The A4's rear lamp treatment is the only other concession to the vagaries of style. Audi's artisans added a pair of lenses resembling eagle heads to the tailgate/trunk. And? One suspects they were devised solely to help anally-retentive German corporate car buyers gauge their relative worth (with appropriate efficiency). No matter: the A4 is still as sensible as a bran flake breakfast. I reckon the Avant (that's "station wagon" to you and me) is the only machine that can make a Buick LaCrosse (that's "masturbation" to Quebecois) look like a hot rod.

Inside, welcome to the world's best interior. Not even brother Bentley can compete with the A4's superbly coordinated combination of shapes, textures, colors, materials and ergonomics. Did you know that every A4 switch, from the radio station buttons to the odometer's trip reset to the HomeLink transponder, responds with the exact same click? Or that the carmaker employs haptic and olfactory teams to make sure Audi interiors feel and smell like, um, Audi interiors? If you were wondering how the guys running Ingolstadt's four ring circus dare charge 40 large for a miniature station wagon, then you've never road tripped in an A4 Avant– or worn an Armani suit.

Yes, there is that. By American standards, the car is too small by half. I'm not sure if you could park an A4 Avant in the back of a Dodge Magnum, but I'd like to see you try. Meanwhile, the A4's rear chairs are less accommodating than a Turkmenistan Airlines economy class seat. Rear legroom is so scarce there are knee-shaped indentations on the back of the front seats. The obvious DVT danger restricts the A4 Avant's appeal to middle-aged Euro-snobs with small children. Works for me…

As does the dynamic payoff. While BMW's 3-Series is the better steer, there is nothing wrong with the way the A4 Avant drives. Cruising is the small Audi's default mode, but there's plenty of scope for speed-oriented shenanigans, what with seriously grippy brakes, Quattro four-wheel-drive and a supernatural handling Nanny keeping an eye on things. Unfortunately, the Servotronic speed-sensitive steering is lighter than an anorexic dust mite. In fact, all the Audi's major controls– helm, throttle, clutch and brakes– lack sufficient heft for small car drivers who enjoy regular bouts of contemptuous sniggering. Still, as the Audi product planning guy says, it's easy to park.

The Avant's two-liter four-cylinder turbo deserves special mention. The powerplant stumps-up enough low-end grunt to maintain smooth progress without dialing-up the revs. Once the turbos kick-in, the five-door Audi skeedaddales with the kind of free-flowing mechanical abandon that makes tuning shops very, very happy. Even without the inevitable used car bargain boy racer mods, the A4 Avant sprints to sixty in 7.4 seconds and tops out at a buck-thirty. That's not bad for a 3800lbs. vehicle that travels 25 miles to a gallon of dead dinoflagellates.

In fact, there's just one thing wrong with the A4 Avant: size. In the US market, "small" and "luxury" go together like "bling" and "Brooks Brothers". If this spatially-challenged luxury wagon had the word "Volks" in front of it and stickered for $10k less, it'd sell like heissekuchen. The A4 Avant and its sedan sibling are just not big enough to earn their crust for US drivers rooting around at this elevated price point. Aspiring Avantissimos are advised to buy used or plunk down $10k more for the A6 Avant and hold onto it for life. If the cost scares you, remember: it's what's inside that counts.


By Robert Farago

An Italian tailor once told me that the best men's clothing is invisible. A well-made suit flatters its owner, not the tailor. And so it is with the Audi S4 Avant. Despite the company's decision to slather the press car in Crayola yellow, and their unconscionable policy of inflicting their gauche grill across the entire model range, the S4 Avant is an entirely restrained machine. It's completely devoid of the aesthetic fripperies that announce a heavily modified car's sporting aspirations. The S4 Avant is all about the driver, not the manufacturer.

The bias is obvious the second you enter the belly of the beast. As the S4 Avant's door thunks shut with startling finality, you're captivated by an interior that is as dour as it is functional; a dark plastic and leather cabin that feels more like an operating room than an automotive cockpit. Every human interface– from the clicking HVAC controls to the steering wheel's tiny thumbwheel controllers– reacts with perfectly measured tactility. Even the in-dash MMI (Multi-Media Interface) works with chilling precision. The car's single-minded minimalism raises your driving game on the subconscious level.

The S4 Avant's 4.2-liter V8 whines like a turbine. Blip the throttle and there's a hint of bass, but nothing to disturb the atmosphere of Zen-like calm. Lower the six-speed autobox' polished lever into Drive, gather up some revs, and it's clear that Ingolstadt's pocket-rocket is designed for double-duty. The shifts are silken; the slush box quickly and constantly seeks out the highest possible gear. The steering is lithium light. Your mother could drive this car without once sensing the animal lurking within.

Press the go-pedal that little bit deeper, the rumble intensifies and the scenery begins fast forwarding towards you. The S4 Avant under full load produces the kind of endless, effortless, seamless shove and big-bore bellowing you'd expect from a large capacity V8. But the gearbox' eternal hunt for cruising revs punishes the slightest reduction in throttle travel with an immediate upshift. There's only one thing for it: click into Sport. Now squeeze the gas. Audi's uber-wagon holds the gears to redline, leaping towards the horizon like a Labrador spying a downed duck.

Soon after accelerative acclimatization, the S4 Avant's Styrofoam steering starts to rankle. Surely the whole point of the car's compact proportions, stunning power-to-weight ratio and highly evolved four-wheel-drive system is to corner at terrific speeds with sure-footed ease. That it does, but there's a critical ingredient missing: precision. The S4 Avant's rack-and-pinion helm is absurdly over-assisted, to the point where judging the car's attitude through the twisties becomes an entirely intellectual exercise. The same visceral deficit applies to unwinding the steering lock. For amateur drivers seeking 9/10ths excitement, it's a dangerous deficiency.

On long sweepers, the S4 Avant's numb steering is less of an issue; just set your course and hold. Seek out a 180-degree highway onramp and give it some. The S4 Avant's 18" Conti Sport Contacts maintains a death grip on the tarmac in the face of ferocious lateral G's. The chassis stays flat, level and communicative. The tiniest tug on the wheel rotates the S4 Avant's mass in an entirely entertaining fashion. A gradual squeal of the left front tire (in a right-hander) indicates the limits of adhesion, and the gradual onset of understeer.

Mucking about in a parking lot with the S4 Avant's handling Nanny switched off reveals that the mini-wagon's back end is less willing to come out and play than a computer gamer with the latest edition of Doom. Even with the most dramatic mid-corner lift off, the S4 Avant's rear is resolutely determined to stay in line, or, failing that, get back in line with a vicious SNAP. The S4 Avant's ventilated discs brakes are similarly brutal. Stomp on the stoppers and it feels as if you've landed a fighter jet on an aircraft carrier. At the same time, the binders are wonderfully progressive (if only the gas pedal in Sport mode was as controllable). Safety, rather than outright fun, is the dominant motif.

Taken as a whole, the S4 Avant is a superb cross-country cohort, rather than a finely-honed sports sedan. If you're looking for a practical car that can burn-up the highways and byways without attracting undue attention from law enforcement, the S4 Avant (in a subtle shade) is an ideal steer that would never fail to keep you coddled, amused and secure; no matter what the weather. If, however, you're looking for a fast Audi with the handling fluency of a BMW, the S4 Avant isn't it. The S4 Avant flatters owners who drive with their head, not their heart.


By Robert Farago

The Audi A8L W12 goes like Hell. Kick the gearbox in the sides a couple of times, mash the gas and the long-wheelbase leviathan transforms itself into a car-sized guided missile, punching through the air with terrifying resolve. And so it should. The W12 in question– two V6 powerplants connected at the crankshaft in a 'W' formation– generates 450hp. That's enough power to propel Audi's flagship from zero to sixty in five seconds dead, or accelerate from any speed to its 130mph V-max with stupendous, seamless, seductive shove.

Ah, you noticed that did you? One-three-oh is plenty fast compared to say, a Toyota Corolla, but we're talking about a top-of-the-line limo from the makers of the S4 and RS6, two cars that clearly believe that life begins at 140. You'd be forgiven for assuming Audi built the W12 to mix it with big-engined Mercs and Bimmers tear-assing up and down Germany's unrestricted Autobahns, knocking on the door of the double ton. At the very least, the W12 should top-out at 155mph, in accordance with the Fatherland's so-called "gentleman's agreement".

But no, safety restrictions on the sedan's all-weather tires (and Audi's understandable desire to avoid another brand-crippling recall scandal) confine the W12 to twice the standard US speed limit. In fact, the same electronic limitation applies to the W12's lesser-engined siblings. Hang on; if you take top-end bragging rights out of the equation, what's the point?

Exclusivity certainly plays a part. Audi US estimates/hopes they'll sell 150 W12's this year. The chances of seeing another W12 heading your way are about the same as bumping into a previously unknown identical twin. Of course, the joys of owning a rare Audi must be balanced against the underlying suspicion that there's a good reason why the $120k sedan isn't flying off the forecourt. Did I hear anyone say "residuals"…?

The W12's exterior offers few external clues that you're perched atop the A8 tree. The foremost of these would be the W12's humongous snout or, in Audi speak, its "single frame grill". I say "would be" because the nose job will eventually appear on all Audis. Which leaves incorrigible car spotters with trapezoidal exhaust pipes, trunk and side badges and optional dub-clad nine-spokes. Clearly, the W12 takes nothing away from– nor adds anything to– Audi's penchant for elegant minimalism. Aside from the new corporate mug, the W12 embodies and extends the A8's stealth wealth appeal.

Inside, well, someone went nuts with the option list. The W12 comes with every conceivable comfort and toy– from sat nav to Bluetooth to seats that do everything but check you for prostate cancer (thank God). And then there are optional goodies only W12 customers can purchase: headrest-mounted DVD system, rear reclining seats, a bit more leather here and there and a 'fridge that will chill two bottles of wine down to -35F. Oh, did I forget to mention the paddleshifts?

The levers flanking the back of the W12's steering wheel are the usual pseudo-F1 jobs, offering nothing more than manual control over the six-speed Tiptronic autobox. But here, they work perfectly. The W12's maximum torque arrives at 4000rpm. Max power clocks in at redline (6200 rpm). So it's well worth paddling up and down, holding the gears for as long as possible. The paddle-actuated shifts aren't racecar quick, but they're luxuriously smooth. So that's alright then.

Yes it is. I want to be clear about this: the W12 performs magnificently in both a straight line and around curves. The air suspension eliminates the nose-heavy nature of most 12-cylinder sedans. The aluminum space frame construction helps keep the overall weight down. Nineteen inch tires provide masses of grip and Audi's Quattro system makes the most of it. Put it all together, throw the A8L W12 into a bend, and it responds like a car half its weight and two-thirds its [considerable] length.

Unfortunately, once again, a fast Audi is let down by its steering. This time, there's plenty of feel, even at the straight ahead. But the variable power assistance is too supportive at slow speeds. While you wouldn't want to try to maneuver this XXXX-sized sedan around town without SOME hydraulic help, the W12's helium-infused helm is too frothy for quick turn-in and rapid mid-course corrections. The big Audi is more of a cruiser than a corner carver.

Never mind. Bottom line: the 6.0-liter W12 A8L beats the 4.2-liter V8 A8L in every major category, including mission critical imperious wafting. The W12, like the A8L it's based on, is a fine limo by any standard. If you're not bothered about paying an extra 40 large for the privilege, if you're not concerned by killer depreciation, more power to you. Literally.