In the past few years German industry has been losing weight, cutting costs and trying to gee up its image in an effort to counter the overmighty Deutschmark. If you want proof, look at the Audi A4 - lighter, cheaper and better-looking than the Audi 80 it replaced.

Since it was introduced in the spring as the most downmarket model in an upmarket range, the A4 has won many plaudits. The second-greatest compliment is that car magazines have been testing it against the BMW 3-series. The greatest is that it has usually been declared the winner.

It is easy to see why: Audi's design team has taken an unimpressive duckling and turned it into a swan. Where the 80 was dumpy, the A4 is muscular: its rising window-line and subtly flared wheel arches make it one of the more striking of the jelly-mould brigade. And it has a much bigger boot than the 80.

But the real joy of the car is its engineering. A lack of rattles on bumpy roads and an eerie silence on the motorway are the outer manifestations of this. The fact that the A4 is both lighter and cheaper than the car it replaces shows how much thought has gone into the underlying design. The gearbox is smooth, the clutch and power steering delightfully light.

On the downside, the car retains its predecessor's limited rear leg- room and the cabin's slightly cramped feel. It has also developed a weakness of its own: oversharp brakes. I found the high window line rather limiting when reversing; and, sitting in his car seat, my two-year-old son could not look out at the scenery.

The engine is fundamentally the same as the 1595cc unit in the 80. It's powerful enough for town and motorway, and it's economical: 29mpg on an urban cycle, 37mpg touring. But the car is frustratingly sluggish on cross-country roads: you can either play the gears frantically, or forget about exciting things such as overtaking.

It's still a great car, but should you choose this model, the 1.6SE? Only if you think it more important to have a few bits and pieces than an extra 20 brake horsepower. The SE (special equipment) consists of an electric sunroof, alloy wheels and leather this and that. For this you pay pounds 1,500 more than the standard 1.6.

I would go for the 1.8 model, which has a new motor with five valves to each cylinder. That costs pounds 300 more than the 1.6SE, but should get you where you want to go quicker and with less frustration.

David Bowen


Audi A4 1.6SE, pounds 16,991.68

Four-cylinder engine, 1595cc, 101bhp. Five-speed manual gearbox, front- wheel drive. Top speed 119mph, 0-60mph in 12 seconds. Average fuel consumption: 35mpg


BMW 316i, pounds 16,065 Great handling, but 1.6 litres is a little gutless for a BMW. Lacks the Audi's classy cabin architecture.

Mercedes-Benz C180, pounds 18,694

Another pounds 3,000 buys a bit more power, but it's less well equipped.

Rover 416 SLi, pounds 15,446

Better-equipped and nicely finished, but lacks the Audi's overall integrity.

Saab 900 2.0i 5dr, pounds 14,918

Good value and brawny, but not as well made.

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