Continuously Variable Transmission: technology for the twist-and-go breed of stepthrough scooters and mini-cars?
Not so. Or Audi might say nein.
CVT in cars has mostly been a curiosity. The theme has been small engines revving busily in response to throttle application but acceleration that seems to bare little correlation to the effort the engine is making.
Audi is among the car makers pioneering new generation CVT technology. Its Multitronic system - in which a link-plate chain replaces the most commonly used belt-drive format - has replaced conventional automatics in front-wheel drive A4s and A6s.
Other car makers are adopting similar CVT solutions. Nissan's Hyper-CVT in the forthcoming Primera wagon is only the tip of an iceberg.
CVT is now used in big Nissan rear-drive luxury saloons like the Gloria and there are hot rumours of a flagship Skyline using the 3.5-litre V6 from the upcoming Z-Car and driving through a CVT which has eight pre-set ratios that can be selected using a sequential manual shift.
The signals are clear. We can expect to see CVTs in a wider range of much more powerful cars than has been the case traditionally.
Audi says a link-plate chain is superior to a belt in coping with the power and torque (up to 300Nm at present) of larger capacity engines. The Multitronic system also dispenses with a hydraulic torque converter and adopts an oil-cooled and electronically-controlled multi-plate clutch.
The clutch actuation is controlled through monitoring of engine and vehicle speeds, road gradients and throttle position. The stepless style of performance and impressive smoothness allows the Multitronic system to avoid any risk of being dubbed a "Curiously Variable Transmission."
The driving experience in the 2.4-litre A4 is almost eerily seamless.
There's none of the rev-up-and-be-patient characteristic of many CVT systems.
Instead there's a consistent relationship between engine revs, road speed and throttle position. The Audi picks up speed swiftly to complete open road passing moves effortlessly and conquer long uphill runs using mid-range torque rather than higher revs.
In the A4 Multitronic the engine is either a new 2.0-litre four-cylinder or the 2393cc 30-valve V6 tested here.
The V6 is exceptionally smooth and moderately powerful. Its maximum output is 125kW at 6000rpm. It develops peak torque of 230Nm at an easily accessible 3200rpm.
Nudge the shift lever across into its manual mode and there are six ratios available for sequential selection. The ratios are well spaced with the shifts being achieved quickly and with minimal shift-shock.
Use a light throttle and Multitronic adopts ratios that are fuel-miser tall.
Open road 100km/h cruising is achieved at just 2000rpm whether the transmission is left to its own devices or sixth gear is selected. Fifth equates to 2400rpm and fourth finds the torque peak at 3200rpm for more urgency.
Around the city you're only likely to see more than about 1500rpm on the tacho when moving away from standstill or slow speeds, and when hurrying the car.
In terms of performance Audi says the A4 2.4 Multitronic is a mere 0.1 of a second slower through the 0-100km/h sprint than a five-speed manual model and matches or slightly betters fuel economy figures.
I ran a fuel economy check and averaged an impressive 7.7-litres per 100 kilometres on a Tauranga-Auckland return trip. On another check that was predominantly city driving the A4 Multitronic achieved 11.1 litres per 100km.
The only minor shortcoming appears to be launch feel. From standstill with a firm throttle application there's a momentary delay before the Audi moves forward. It can be barely be described as a hesitation because once on the move the car goes decisively.
Later while reading a technical material on the car I wondered if this was my driving technique catching the transmission's adaptive software by surprise.
The control of the clutch is meant to adapt to driving style and conditions and I enjoyed driving the A4 as smoothly as possible. On occasions when I did stab the throttle it was if the car took a split-second to gather its thoughts.
With its smoothness and ease-of-use the Multitronic transmission is good news and a style of transmission that answers most of the demands of both manual and automatic buyers. It also shows that the potential for these transmissions is enormous.
The way Multitronic exploits torque and provides acceleration with minimal increase in revs suggests a made-in-heaven match for the vast torque punched out by modern direct injection turbodiesel engines.
So what of the new Audi A4 itself?
It's a chunky compact sedan with a high waistline, muscular shoulders and a sweeping roofline that are unmistakably Audi.
It shares the double grille (upper and lower) frontal look with the TT and recently facelifted A6. As on other current Audis the use of large diameter wheels to fill the highly-defined wheelarches gives the car a purposeful stance.
The design and driveability is good news as well. It's actually so appealing and capable that I'd suggest unless a potential Audi customer really needs the extra legroom, cabin width and luggage capacity of an A6 then it's worth saving some money and choosing an A4; or moving up in engine size, specification and opting for a A4 quattro against a front-drive A6.
Specifically the A4 driving position is better and it takes only a few minutes on the road to realise the bodyshell is stiffer, resulting in not only more agile handling but a more composed ride with less suspension thump.
I had the opportunity to drive a 2.4-litre A4 and A6 back-to-back, and discovered that the A6 feels like the four-year-old design it's now become. The A4 feels tauter and more responsive.
In terms of progress over the previous generation A4 - which was phased out in mid-2001 - the new A4 delivers significant gains.
Much of it relates to accommodation. Audi engineers have packaged the new A4 to deliver some much needed millimetres in the rear cabin - without making it so spacious that it directly rivals the A6.
An example is my standard benchmark of attempting to sit behind my preferred driving position. It was cramped in the old A4 and still a little snug but a lot more realistic in the new one which has 43mm more kneeroom and a 19mm increase in rear headroom.
Up front the driving position is excellent with the seat offering manual height adjustment that allows it to be fully lowered. Supportive side bolstering and a four-way electric lumbar support are much appreciated and the seats are notable for lower back and lateral support.
Load capacity has also been improved. The new A4 has 445 litres of luggage volume and a flat boot floor. A moderately high loading lip is obviously a contributor to the stiffness of the chassis but is a minor obstacle to loading through a small boot opening. Lower the 60/40 split folding backrest and the load volume expands to 720 litres.
The stiffer body means a more responsive chassis. Grip levels in the front-drive models obviously aren't in quattro league, but the handling is less nose-heavy than a V6 hanging ahead of the wheels would suggest. Compared with the old model the steering feels more direct and there's the impression of not only increased road feel but needing to make smaller steering inputs.
Drive it spiritedly and the A4 corners with progressive understeer and there's confident grip from the 205/55 ZR16 Dunlop SP Sport 2000 radials. The tyres clear surface water effectively and also provided assured dry grip. And they're reasonably quiet on coarse chip surfaces.
The four-wheel disc brakes are powerful and electronics keep a watching brief over enthusiastic driving with traction control and Audi's ESP Electronic Stability Programme.
The 2.4-litre A4 is priced at $78,500 and Multitronic is the sole transmission choice. In fact if you want a manual the choice at present is either 1.8-litre Turbo Quattro (also $78,500) or the flagship 3.0-litre V6 quattro ($99,900).
Comparison pricing shows the Audi has an advantage over its German compact luxury sedan rivals. The BMW 325iSE auto is $86,900 and the Mercedes-Benz 240 is $87,000 in Classic specification and $100,000 for the upscale Elegance.
The A4's New Zealand specification includes chunky five-spoke 16-inch alloy wheels, eight airbags (including side curtain), standard ESP, traction control and ABS anti-skid brakes.
The climate-control air-conditioning has separate driver and passenger temperature controls, there's an excellent Compact Disc sound system with clear display and steering wheel satellite controls, trip computer, alarm and immobiliser and a tilt/telescope adjustable steering column.
The stylish cabin is trimmed in black leather with woodgrain dash and door trim highlights. The finish is typical of modern Audi models with a simple design that mirrors some TT themes and the emphasis on the quality of materials and the precision of fit and finish. The roof lining is a textured grey cloth.
The headlamps were powerful on full beam with penetrating range and intensity. The dipped performance retains a useful spread of lighting.
The new A4's appearance conveys an impression of strength and quality. In Audi's regulation silver the car looks as if it has been machined from a billet of alloy.The confident ride and handling reinforce that impression and the satin smooth combination of V6 power and Multitronic complete a highly refined and desirable compact luxury car package.
AutoPoint road test team