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First the good news: The Audi A4 1.8 T is better in every way than its precursor. Now the bad: It isn’t a patch on the Lexus IS 300. As compact performance cars go, the Audi is good, but the Lexus is hands down the finest vehicle in its class — better even than the BMW 3-Series. The entry-level offering of Audi’s 4 Series, the A4 1.8 T, features front-wheel drive and a 5-speed “manu-matic” transmission. A 1.8-liter, 170-horsepower, turbo-charged four-cylinder engine with five valves per cylinder supplies the power, with larger engines and Audi’s Quattro all-wheel-drive system available (at significantly higher prices). Inside, the A4 is certainly accommodating. There is much more interior room than one might expect from such a small car, although the rear seating area is cramped; and the A4′s cumbersome entry and exit will remind you more of a space capsule than of a European touring sedan. And while the A4′s fit and finish are more than just acceptable, they don’t compensate for poor rear-quarter visibility or for seats that are surprisingly lacking in thigh and lateral support. And with such inadequate lateral support, you’ll find yourself gripping the steering wheel just to stay in place. The A4′s ergonomics are, in a word, disastrous. Controls are cryptically labeled, badly placed, and too small to manipulate without taking your eyes off the road. You can forget about operating the A4′s controls by feel or while wearing gloves. It just ain’t gonna happen. And since the window and door buttons are practically at the elbow position on the driver’s side armrest, you’re in for yet another distraction. On the road, the A4′s acceleration is brisk but uneven. Around town, the car is either sluggish or surges ahead like a poorly trained mount. It requires an annoying amount of effort to drive smoothly, and after a few days my tendency was just to let the A4 jump ahead before reining it in. By way of contrast, you’ll never have this problem with an IS 300 or Nissan Maxima. Fortunately, driving’s a little better on the highway, where the Audi comes closer to BMW 3-Series performance than any front-wheel-drive car I’ve experienced. If you can ignore the excessive wind noise, you’ll note the A4′s remarkable steering quickness and smooth ride. Still, when you come right down to it, the Audi is not nearly as smooth or as much fun to toss around as the baby Lexus. This is a car that’s cute; it even has lots of potential. But not for this ultra-competitive price class. M.S.R.P. — $24,540 Price as tested — $27,140 Warranty — 4 year/50,000 miles, with roadside assistance and free scheduled maintenance Mileage — 20 city/29 highway

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