A German Sports Sedan With Less Sticker Shock

If you thought agile German sport sedans only come with BMW and Mercedes badges, check again. The redesigned Audi 100 is a sprightly alternative that sells for thousands less than a comparable Bimmer or Benz. And it matches the performance of similarly priced Japanese cars such as the Acura Legend and Lexus ES300.

The heart of the new Audi 100 is a potent V-6 engine. Its 172 horsepower packs 30% more wallop than the five-cylinder engine that made the old 100 so sluggish. That, coupled with an optional, smooth-shifting four-speed automatic, makes this big Audi feel lighter and more nimble than its predecessor, even though it's 250 pounds heavier.

SNOW CAR. Handling is much improved, too. Even in sudden maneuvers, the new 100 feels poised and balanced. Thanks to front-wheel drive, the Audi is surefooted on snow or rain-slick pavement. BMWs and Benzes, with rear drive, tend to feel more skittish.

Inside, the ride is quiet and smooth, except on rough roads where the stiff suspension gets jouncy. The seats are comfortable and supportive, in either cloth or optional leather ($1,300). Unlike the old version, the steering wheel now tilts and telescopes. And front and rear, there's plenty of head and leg room--a feature that's sometimes wanting in midlevel Japanese luxury sedans.

The dash is nicely laid out. The Audi's big, round dials are easy to read, with switches that fall readily to hand. Only the tiny, cluttered radio controls are tough to decipher. A stylish, sweeping hood neatly protects gauges from glare. A driver's air bag is standard. However, no passenger-side bag is available.

The Audi's price enhances its appeal. A base model with a five-speed manual transmission starts at $27,700; an automatic adds $800. The top-end 100CS starts at $32,900. All models come with three years of free maintenance, including everything from oil changes to wiper blades. By comparison, a Mercedes-Benz 300E starts at $42,950, while a BMW 525i begins at $35,600. And the Audi is in the pack with its Japanese competitors: The Lexus ES300 begins at $26,550 and the Acura Legend sedan at $28,000. With the new 100, Audi is right back in the running.