Automakers dream of creating vehicles that people can identify from 50 paces. This can go horribly wrong (I m talking to you Pontiac Aztek). Audi has always done it right with the stylish A4. Naming all its competitors would eat up valuable space and time but the short list includes BMW 3 Series and Mercedes C-Class. OK, let s throw in the Infiniti G37. Maybe the larger Cadillac CTS too. All right I ll stop there.

The A4 I m driving is very well equipped at $46,630 including destination. Base models start at around 32 grand and come with a Continuously Variable Transmission and FrontTrak (front-wheel drive to you and me). $900 adds quattro all-wheel drive and a 6-speed manual. A 6-speed automatic with manual control is available (S-Line trim adds steering wheel paddle shifters). Keep in mind that some people don t care for the shiftless dynamic of CVT transmissions. I have not driven Audi s so if you check it out drop me a note to let me know what you think.

When the all-new A4 was introduced last year the 2009 model offered a V6 upgrade path. 2010? De-nied. Audi is simplifying the line up so if you want to go faster Speed Racer, you re going to have to commit to the high performance S4. All A4s get a turbocharged 2-liter 4-cylinder that makes 211 horsepower. It prefers premium fuel thank you very much.

No V6? No problem... kinda.

A4 is hardly a slug, 0-60 runs are brisk in 6 and a half seconds. This is a skosh quicker than many of the all-wheel drive competitors according to Audi. There s no turbo lag to speak of either. My only complaint with the performance is aural, the throatier sound of the V6 is missed. The 2.0T emits a much tamer exhaust note, more luxury than sport but I suppose that s its mission.

In the corners A4 is a solid performer. The hairs on the back of my neck find the BMW 3 and Infiniti G to be little more engaging in hard maneuvers but most owners aren t attending track day with this car. Ride quality is taut but comfortable, road noise is subdued though not library quiet. EPA fuel economy is 21 city, 27 highway. With quattro all-wheel drive, A4 is planted and secure in wet and sloppy conditions. Highly recommended for wet Northwest conditions, normal power delivery is 60 percent to the rear, 40 to the front.

Just call it Sybil

A4 can have multiple personalities with Audi Drive Select. Perhaps you and your spouse can t decide on sport or comfort. In this case Drive Select isn t just tech, it s part marriage councilor . Through buttons on the center stack (and in more detail using the Multi Media Interface) pilots can tailor the steering ratio, transmission shift points, suspension firmness and throttle response to their heart s content. Not for the indecisive. At $2,950 it s not cheap, but neither is a divorce lawyer.

The A4 is a good looking sedan and to help your image further there s a hill-holder feature. Take your foot off the brake when waiting at a stoplight and even on steep grades you won t roll back into the car behind you. Always bad form.

A positive stereotype

Audi can always be counted on for well done interiors and once again they ve done a nice job with the cabin. Materials and lighting are premium grade and remember, this is what an owner sees the most of. Seats are comfy but don t have the side support good for hard cornering, especially with leather. Audi s MMI user interface uses a knob and 4 main buttons that relate to what s in the corners of the screen. It s fine but does take a while to get used to.

Along with Sirius satellite radio, iPods are supported. Optionally. It s a gripe I have with Audi s pricing. Basics like iPod integration and Bluetooth for handsfree phone operation cost extra and they aren t cheap. In my tester, Bluetooth and iPod interface are part of Prestige package which includes keyless ignition and a great Bang & Olufsen sound system. Nice, but it ll set you back $8,700. Bluetooth alone is $700. Kia offers phone and music player connectivity standard. Just saying...

Something new in the back

Last year s redesign gave the A4 something it never had, decent rear seat room. To test this space I get comfortable behind the wheel and then check on whether I can tolerate sitting behind myself. Two average sized adults will be fine, three will be a bit pinched partly due to the drive shaft tunnel. Foot room is good but with a low seat, knees are up high with less thigh support.

Rear passengers can adjust the temp a bit with a hot/cold mixer (not dedicated climate zone) and there s a handy armrest with storage and cupholder. Like many Volkswagen products, side torso airbags are available in back to augment the side curtain units. Wish more manufactures would offer these.

A closer look at trunk technology

Bet you didn t know there was such a thing. That s why I m here. Pop the decklid of the Audi and it springs up nicely, eager to swallow an arm full of groceries. That s the positive side of gooseneck hinge arms. Unfortunately they take up a small amount of useful space. At least Audi trims it so the arms don t scrunch cargo. Using my old standard, A4 holds 6 packs of Kirkland brand bath tissue, average in class but it has to be wedged in. The rear seatbacks split and fold for more room. Not enough? Go for the handsome wagon, called Avant in Audispeak for even more space.

So, what to buy?

I ve spoken of competition- 3 Series, C-Class, G37, CTS, IS. These are all nice cars, all available with AWD. Anyone would be fortunate to drive any one of them. Here s where the test drive is very important. Only you can decide. My take? Audi s strength lies in style, power and comfort. For high performance I suggest the S4 that starts at $46,725. With its attractive interior, clean distinctive profile and signature daytime running lights that look like electric eyeliner, Audi keeps the refined A4 fashion forward.

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