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HAVING trailed in the slipstream of BMW for years - a whisker behind on poise, panache and prettiness - Audi has finally strung together the magic formula. It reads "A4". The new series, advertised on hoardings with a double-take X-ray image of the car's innards, is aimed at the dominant 3-series BMW and has ended up with a nose ahead of its rival in some departments.

Replacing the Audi 80, the A4 is an utterly different car in its combination of quiet eagerness, handling balance, silky ride and graceful aesthetics. In my view, there has been no other Audi since the Quattro (with the possible exception of the ferocious RS2 super-estate) with such charisma.

Though the old Audi 80 was a well engineered and dependable car, it lagged behind its rivals in many respects. It was bulbous and smug-looking at the kerbside, uninvolving to handle, and it neither swished like a Merc or wound itself around twisty roads like a BMW. The A4, though it has a Mondeo-like bodyline, is sleek and far less squat than the 80 in appearance, exudes authority in performance, and handles and rides beautifully. The price range, too, is appealing. At not much more than £15,000, it starts below the cheapest BMW 3-series and doesn't quite touch £20,000 even for the classiest A4, the 2.6-litre V6.

With so much efficient anonymity in the mainstream car market, few things make new models stand out. What makes the A4 different is that rare sensation of the machine being linked to your own musculature by some instant-transfer neural network. BMWs have these characteristics too, of course, and so does the Ford Mondeo - but the list in the under £20,000 bracket is short.

The Audi A4 joins this company, and adds a ride quality over bumpy roads that rivals Mercedes. It is comfortable, safe, well equipped, good value, and has just one weak point - the usual compact-saloon tripwire of cramped rear legroom. It also has disconcertingly fierce brakes, a curious idiosyncrasy for such a perfectionist's car. It's something you soon adjust to, but the engineers at Ingolstadt should give it further thought. It mars what is likely to be one of the great cars of the decade.

GOING PLACES: Very smooth and purposeful 2.6-litre engine, giving 0- 60mph in around 8.5 secs, 30-70mph overtaking speed in about 8 secs. Not quite a class-leader on these figures, but a slick gear change and substantial torque make it feel sporty. Easy and relaxing car to control, with a jerk- free driveline (the power connection linking the engine to the roadwheels).

STAYING ALIVE: Very strong on passive safety, with extremely well-engineered bodyshell. Fort Knox-like doors, side impact bars, pre-tensioned seatbelts and anti-lock brakes all standard. Handling excellent, though a shade more prone to roll on tight bends than a BMW 3-series. Steering responsiveness positive and reassuring. Good visibility, excellent driving position.

CREATURE COMFORTS: Excellent sound-deadening, giving whisper-quiet performance even on windy motorways. Very well finished and elegant cabin and facia design. Comfortable seating. Boot-room good, though loading access is restricted. Rear leg and headroom are the car's downside - OK for a young family, not so OK for a regular four adults unless two are vertically challenged. Superb low-speed ride, making town use untiring.

BANGS PER BUCK: The A4 is good value considering its high construction and performance standards. Driver's airbag, anti-lock braking, electric front windows and mirrors, Sony stereo, and electric tilt-slide sunroof are all in the price. Average fuel consumption 30mpg on motorways, 25mpg in town. Three-year/60,000-mile warranty. Price for the 2.6-litre V6 version: £19,755.

STAR QUALITY: Fine engine, graceful appearance, superb ride quality.

TURKEY QUOTIENT: Limited rear room, over-sensitive brakes.

AND ON MY RIGHT: BMW 325i (£23,000) - more expensive, a little quicker, a little flatter on corners, just as cramped at the back, BMW cachet at last looking vulnerable to Audi; Ford Mondeo 24v (£20,175) - noisier, less refined, but handling as good or better, more room in the back; Mercedes Benz C280 Esprit (£26,000) - comparable performance to A4, more room, but high outlay, and even higher on extras.