Small, luxurious European sport wagons are a unique breed, targeted at buyers who want sports-sedan performance and the functionality of a sport-utility vehicle. Some folks think they look dowdy, but I like them because they combine fun-to-drive character with load-carrying practicality.
Audi’s A4 Avant is an excellent case in point. This vivacious, compact wagon has the vigor of 190-horsepower sedan and the all-weather mobility of an SUV when it’s equipped with the quattro all-wheel-drive system. Its small size makes it maneuverable, yet its station wagon profile creates enough cargo space to be handy for those with an active lifestyle. No, you can’t carry home sheets of plywood from the lumber yard, but if you need space for your camping gear, or have to carry a bunch of soccer balls to the kid’s practice, there’s ample space.
Folding down the back seat doubles the cargo space to 63.7 cubic feet. A retractable luggage cover shields items from prying eyes but it has to be removed when the seat is collapsed. A luggage net keeps small items from rolling around, which is handy.
Since it is built on a 103-inch wheelbase, the Avant sacrifices a little rear-seat legroom to retain its compact dimensions.
The 2.8-liter engine has dual-overhead-cams, five valves per cylinder and pumps out its maximum torque, or pulling power, at 3,200 rpm. The manual transmission lets the driver get the most out of the 190-horsepower V6, and because the quattro system splits power equally between front and rear wheels it even improves the car’s balance in dry cornering.
For $1,075, the five-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission can be added as an option. Tiptronic has both manual and automatic modes, which means it offers the best of both worlds.
The Avant is also available with the automatic transmission and front-wheel-drive. This combo does have FrontTrak, an all-speed traction control system that should give it exceptional stability in slippery weather.
Brakes are strong and powerful, with anti-lock standard across the board.
Aside from its tailored styling, the most notable thing about the Avant is its high-energy personality. The five-valve engine was added midway through last year, and it changed the car’s character considerably. It feels more robust, and it lunges away from stops with much more enthusiasm than in the past. On the open road it cruises quietly and smoothly, free of vibration and fussiness. Without the usual clues of wind and road noise, you will find yourself cruising along faster than you expect.
Inside, our test car’s off-white leather seats made the cabin look open and airy, while the dark-blue dash and door panels added a feeling of richness and elegance. Walnut wood trim on the dash, console and door panels was a nice counterpoint.
Befitting a car in this class, creature comforts such as power windows and mirrors, automatic climate control, keyless entry, cruise control and AM//FM stereo are standard . Options include heated seats, leather upholstery, a one-touch power sunroof and a sport package of seven-spoke alloy wheels, tighter suspension and sport steering wheel.
Our test car had both the sport package and leather upholstery. In tpyical German fashion, the front seats were firm, yet you could spend hours there and not be uncomfortable. I struggled to find a comfortable seating position initially because I felt as if I was sitting down too low. When I raised the bottom cushion it tipped too far forward for my taste. I finally settled down after fidgeting like a kindergartner on the first day of school, and the driving position was just fine. The center armrest is a good place to rest your elbow.
The 60//40 folding back seat has a center headrest and shoulder belts for three.
The seats in the A6, Passat and New Beetle all use a different height adjuster, and it is better.
Handling is agile and responsive. The ride is reasonably firm, yet even with the sport pac ge of 16-inch alloy wheels and high-performance tires it remains compliant. Bend it into a turn, and the A4 grips the pavement as only an all-wheel-drive car can. Quattro is especially effective if the pavement is wet or greasy.
If you like the sport wagon concept but still think the A4 is too small for your needs, Audi’s A6 Avant will be available soon. Volkswagen’s new Passat wagon is just now coming into showrooms, and it shares many of the A4’s parts and pieces.
The base price of our test car was $31,040. It was equipped with options of leather upholstery, Sport package (16-inch alloy wheels, sport suspension, sport steering wheel), heated front seats and trip computer.
The sticker price was $35,740.
The basic warranty is for three years or 50,000 miles. All scheduled maintenance for three years or 50,000 miles is included at no charge.
Point: Especially when it is equipped with the quattro all-wheel-drive system, the Avant marries SUV practicality with European sedan handling in a package that is both handsome and understated.
Counterpoint: The Avant has a couple of limitations relative to its size: back-seat legroom is snug and ditto its cargo capacity.
ENGINE: 2.8-liter, V6
WHEELBASE: 103 inches
CURB WEIGHT: 3,428 lbs.
BASE PRICE: $31,040
PRICE AS DRIVEN: $35,740
MPG RATING: 19 city, 27 hwy.