Audi back in fast lane with S4 Avant

How fast do you need to get to the grocery store, dry cleaners or lumberyard?

Audi obviously thinks you need to get there very quickly because for 2004 it has brought back the performance S series for its A4 sedan, wagon and the new cabriolet (convertible).

Audi last offered a performance S version of its A4 sedan and wagon in the 2002 model year.

For '04 the S designation returns on a car with a 4.2-liter, 340-horspower V-8 to give the cars quite a pop.

The S4 sedan runs $45,650 with 6-speed manual, $46,800 with 6-speed automatic; the wagon $46,650 with manual, $47,800 with automatic; and the cabrio $53,850 with manual, $55,000 with automatic.

While the sedan will make up the bulk of sales and the cabrio will attract the most attention, you have to dance with the one you brung.

Though there isn't a big call for performance wagons sporting 6-speed manual transmissions at a shade under $50,000, an Avant so equipped arrived so that's the one tested.

Avant is the term the German automaker uses to keep from calling it a station wagon.

Officially it's the '04 Audi S4 Avant quattro MT6, a moniker that if printed on a business card would take up both sides.

To further decipher the name, quattro designates all-wheel-drive, or that all four wheels are at work at the same time, and MT6 is the code for having to motor around with a 6-speed manual transmission, which, though smooth shifting, is more in character with a sedan or cabrio than a wagon.

Whether sedan, cabrio or Avant, all are powered by the 4.2-liter V-8, and are rated at 15 m.p.g. city/21 m.p.g. highway. So all carry a $1,700 gas-guzzler tax.

Audi says the $1,700 hasn't kept folks out of showrooms, though you may have a difficult time convincing the Sierra Club of that.

Audi sales are down about 4 percent through the first four months of this year, to 24,149 units, the automaker says, because motorists are waiting for the next generation A6 series coming out this fall.

It's not that they are sitting back in protest of the guzzler tax or waiting for gas prices to slip under $2 a gallon again.

A gas-guzzling station wagon with manual transmission finished in brilliant yellow.

Audi either has a heck of a sense of humor or its engineering and marketing departments have been sniffing exhaust fumes for way too long.

But the Avant is a real kick. Press the pedal and you are more than gently nudged back into the leather bucket seat as the V-8 flexes its muscle.

A very potent machine that exceeds most speed limits in third gear.

Of course, while the 4.2-liter V-8 propels you like a rocket from the light, it takes a huge infusion of fuel to do so.

The S4 Avant V-8 is a vehicle for those who can look environmentalists in the eye without wincing and hand a $20 bill to the station attendant knowing that 1) there will be no change and 2) the tank still won't be full.

If gas prices hadn't soared, there probably would be less focus on the mileage rating and guzzler tax than on the fact that before the '04 model year, the performance S versions of Audis regular 4 series were powered by a 2.7-liter, twin-turbo V-6 developing 250 h.p. and producing 258 foot-pounds of torque.

This is far less than the 340 h.p. and 302 foot-pounds of torque for '04 in the 4.2-liter V-8.

With the 4.2-liter, the zero- to 60-m.p.h. acceleration time is a very quick 5.3 seconds.

No linger, no lag, just go.

Novelty aside, the S4 Avant quattro arrived just about the same time that Ms. Nature decided to dump enough rain on the landscape to foster thoughts of road-testing arks.

While all-wheel-drive is known for the grip and handling it provides on dry roads and the traction for optimum security on snow-filled roads, t e quattro Avant proved to be equally impressive when the interstate filled with so much rain that the white lane divider marks disappeared under the standing water.

A look in the rearview mirror showed four sets of headlights approaching abreast from the rear, which was more than a bit unsettling because there only were three lanes and one of those followers was driving on the shoulder, thinking it was the road.

The S4 Avant held its ground in what had become an asphalt lakebed.

No wavering, no hydroplaning.

A wagon that guzzles high-priced gas? There are times when you don't care.

The low-profile, 18-inch radials that are standard are performance summer tires meant for no-nonsense handling on dry roads. But they did a more than admirable job in the rain, thanks, no doubt, to the Avant's all-wheel-drive.

But in the Snow Belt, Audi says, you'll want to store the summer tires and replace them with all-season radials when the white stuff covers the lane markers.

In the cabin, the S4 Avant was loaded with goodies, including a pull-up divider screen behind the rear seats to separate cabin from cargo hold for your pet; an extension that pulls out from the bottom of the front seats to provide more thigh support on long trips; and a cargo hold shade to hide objectsfrom prying eyes.

Also, there's a fold-down rear seat armrest that houses dual slip-out cupholders as well as a handy first-aid kit; a sack to hold skis that pops out from behind the rear-seat armrest; fold-flat rear seat backs to expand cargo capacity; and a 12-volt power outlet in the cargo hold for whatever you need to plug in whenever you need to plug it in.

The S4 Avant starts at $46,650. Standard equipment includes four-wheel anti-lock brakes, automatic dual-zone climate control with dust and pollen filter, cruise control, power locks/windows/mirrors, power front seats, leather upholstery, headlight washers, AM/FM radio with in-dash six-disc CD changer, driver/passenger side-impact air bags and front/rear seat side air-bag curtains.

The test car added a premium package at $1,650 that offered power sunroof combined with such non-essentials as automatic dimming mirror and driver-side memory seat/mirror.

Kudos to Audi for the 4.2-liter V-8 in all the S models, but we'd prefer enjoying it in the sedan or cabrio.

Another Cadillac V: The 400-h.p.-plus Cadillac CTS-V sedan now at dealerships will be joined by a performance STS-V version of the rear-wheel-/all-wheel-drive STS.

The STS replacement for the Seville bows this fall but sources had no word on when the V-Series will join the lineup.

The CTS and STS are both built off Cadillac's Sigma platform.


2004 Audi S4 Avant quattro MT6

Wheelbase: 104.3 inches

Length: 179 inches

Engine: 4.2-liter, 340-h.p. V-8

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Fuel economy: 15 m.p.g. city/21 m.p.g. highway

Base price: $46,650

Price as tested: $48,750. Includes $1,650 for premium package with power glass sunroof, Homelink remote transmitter, auto-dimming interior/exterior mirrors, driver's seat/mirror memory adjustment; and $450 for heated front seats. Add $690 for freight and $1,700 for gas-guzzler tax.

Pluses: First V-8 in a compact wagon. Lots of muscle. With all-wheel-drive the machine hugs the road-wet or dry. Wagon people- and cargo-carrying capability.

Minuses: Nothing like introducing a V-8 powered station wagon that goes zero- to 60-m.p.h. in 5.3 seconds at a time when gas prices top $2 a gallon and seem to be rising every second. The $1,700 guzzler tax.