Perhaps the most important reason Audi of Germany is still viable in the U.S. is that in the 1995 model year, it conjured up a bit of magic.

That's when Audi began remaking its lineup by bringing out the compact A4 sedan followed soon after by a full-size A8 for '97 and a midsize A6 for '98.

The A series helped erase memories of unintended acceleration woes in the '80s, charges that plagued the automaker each time someone hit the gas rather than the brake and drove their Audi 5000 through the garage without opening the door--and then told their insurance company: "Audi made me do it."

The A series gave Audi credibility and respectability rather than suspicion.

Now it's time for the car that started the recovery to move to the next generation for '02. In the process it gets all-new sheet metal as well as a 2.3-inch longer wheelbase, 1.3 inches more width and about a half inch in extra height because, while Audi has grown up in the U.S., so have the folks who buy the German cars.

We previously tested the sedan (Transportation, Nov. 18) and now the compact wagon has arrived with a look that tends to mimic the larger A6 sedan and wagon.

We tested the '02 A4 1.8T Avant Quattro MT5, which is a lot of verbiage to explain that it's an Audi wagon (Avant) powered by a 1.8-liter turbocharged (1.8T), 170-horsepower 4-cylinder with 5-speed manual (MT5) and all-wheel-drive (Quattro).

The A4 is a foul-weather friend to keep you moving when the snow piles up and planted on the pavement when the roads are clear.

An optional 3-liter V-6 is new for '02. It delivers 220 h.p. and is a smoother and quieter power plant. Of course, this is a wagon, so the emphasis is on the 21 m.p.g. city/29 m.p.g. highway rating from the turbo 4 more than whisper-quiet operation.

Like the sedan, the wagon offers a 5-speed manual or 5-speed automatic ($1,000). You can opt for a continuously variable transmission, or CVT, by settling for a front-wheel-drive A4.

The A4 Avant tested came with the optional ($1,000) sports package with firmer sport suspension, 17-inch high-performance radials, an electronic stabilization program (ESP) to keep you on course and on the road where you belong, as well as four-wheel anti-lock brakes with Brake Assist as standard. If you don't strike the pedal with sufficient force in a panic situation to activate ABS, Brake Assist does so to keep you in control of the vehicle to steer around the emergency.

Those performance radials, however, are summer tires, so for optimum footing in the Snow Belt, a seasonal change in treads--on your dime--is needed about Nov. 1 each year. If you give up the sports package, you get 16-inch all-season radials.

Nice touches in the A4 Avant include a first-aid kit in the pull-down rear-seat armrest, which also houses a pair of slide-out cupholders; pull-out coinholder tray in the dash; large removable hazard light in the hatch lid; pow er plug in the cargo hold; and fold-down-flat rear seats for more cargo capacity.

There's also a trio of plastic clips that serve as grocery-bag holders along the top of the rear seats and a pull-out shade from the rear seat to hide cargo-hold contents. A pull-up shade from the same holder slips into roof latches to provide a see-through barrier between seat and cargo hold for the pet.

Some drawbacks, however. The cabin is snug. Longer, taller and wider needs to be longer and wider still, especially for rear-seat occupants. Front and back perforated leather seats are rock hard and don't offer much in the way of side support.

A remote release button hidden in the driver's door opens the tailgate, but the button is neither easy to see nor reach and can be confused with a pair of other buttons that activate/deactivate the security alarm.

Base price of the A4 Avant tested was $27,650 (with V-6, along with a few other goodies, the price can rise to $33,090). R>
Standard equipment includes front- and side-impact air bags and side air-bag curtains, automatic dual-zone climate control with pollen filter and smog sensor, power windows, cruise control, power locks, storage trays under the driver/passenger seats, 60/40 split rear seat for added cargo room, headlight washers, AM/FM radio with in-dash CD changer and power and heated mirrors.

A notable option is the power tilt/slide sunroof at $1,000 for a taste of open-air motoring.

Audi sold a record 83,283 vehicles last year, up 3.6 percent from 80,372 in '00. For '02, sales are nearly 3 percent ahead of last year's pace. The near-term goal is annual sales of 100,000. The long-term goal is to irritate rival BMW by reaching 200,000, with no timetable set for either.

To reach 100,000, Audi needs more products. A variety are planned, beginning this fall when the A4 cabriolet (convertible) appears, followed by the next-generation A8 sedan in the second quarter of next year as an '03 and the RS6, a high-performance version of the A6 in the middle of next year aimed at BMW's high-performance M5 sedan.

The 4.2-liter, 450-h.p. RS6 is a major step up from the S6 with its 4.2-liter, 340-h.p. V-8, Audi says. The RS6 comes with side skirts and deck-lid spoiler for show and a Dynamic Ride Control system as standard to reduce unnecessary body movement and provide optimum handling.

Audi has a high-performance RS4 in Germany, but won't bring it to the U.S. because it doesn't meet safety and emissions regulations; the RS6 will.

The A4 cabriolet will be built on a slightly longer wheelbase than the sedan or wagon to add a little more rear-seat leg room so it holds four passengers. It also will offer the choice of the 170-h.p. turbo 4 or 220-h.p. V-6.

One reason for offering a high-performance RS6 is that Volkswagen and Audi are going to try to further separate themselves from one another, with Audi focusing more on performance.

VW, for example, will begin offering the Phaeton in the second half of next year, a luxury sedan about the size of an Audi A8 that will be its new flagship estimated at $55,000 to $65,000.

While the European version will offer a choice of 6- or 12-cylinder gasoline or V-10 diesel engines, the U.S. version will come with a choice of 300-h.p. 8-cylinder or 400-h.p. 12-cylinder gas engines.

The VW Phaeton also will come with 4Motion all-wheel-drive, eight air bags (front, side and side curtains); four-zone Climatronic air-conditioning/heating with individual temperature controls for each seating position; automatic humidity control to prevent window misting; audio/TV/navigation/on-board computer/telephone push-button controls in the center console; 12-way power front seats (18-way with 12-cylinder) and 10-way power rear seats (with optional massage function); and optional automatic distance control to signal when you are too close to a vehicle ahead.