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Audi charges ahead with stylish Avant wagons Audi charges ahead with stylish Avant wagons Audi charges ahead with stylish Avant wagons

By Marc Stengel

MARCH 8, 1999:  If I were in an aphoristic frame of mind, I'd probably suggest something like, "What's hardest to grasp is what's hardest to change." Not that I'm advocating oracular pronouncements and circular logic--it's just that, having completed two invigorating test drives of Audi's spanking-new A4 1.8T Avant and the larger A6 Avant, I'm struggling with exactly how to define the experiences I've had and the accomplishments Audi has wrought.

At the most general level, Audi has managed to refurbish a once less-than-stellar reputation by insisting on an audacious, almost irreverent approach to its own automotive makeover. For example, the company has ruthlessly simplified its product line, so that instead of offering a proliferation of incompatible platforms in some dozen unrelated models, there are now 10 complementary models (so far) issuing from just three different platforms. Whether you like 'em or loathe 'em, no cars on the road today catch more eyes and turn more heads than Audi's present lineup.

Understandably heady with the news of its 40-percent sales leap in '98, Audi seems to have dedicated the '99 model year to changing North America's perception of the humblest auto category imaginable: the station wagon. "Avant" is the name for Audi's bold forward stroke, and the company's stratagem, apparently, is not so much to make the best wagons on the road as to redefine just what a station wagon ought to be. The plan seems to be working: Auto critics who scarcely deigned to drive a wagon before are now falling all over themselves to chirp about the new crop of Avants. Audi, of the famed linked-circle logo, has succeeded in squaring off its graceful A4 and A6 sedans and hitching the resulting neo-wagons to a star.

A4 1.8T Avant

What's particularly hard to grasp about this pocket-sized, turbocharged "sport wagon" is that any pretense of utility is vastly overshadowed by swagger. I mean, come on: The car's only got a 1.8-liter turbo four-banger that makes just 150 horsepower; and it's a nominal five-seater with rear legroom seemingly tailored for monkey limbs.

But these superficial realities completely miss the point. This car, especially when equipped with the five-speed manual transmission, is an uninhibited blast to drive. It's not a station wagon for kids and pets; its a station-to-station sport pod for shuttling between pit stops. Indeed, the A4 Avant successfully changes one's perception of a subcompact wagon: Its turbo motor revs exuberantly to redline at a mere moment's notice, and its steering and handling hug the road in a loving embrace. But the starkest clue of all that this is not your mommy's old-fashioned wagon is the gaze of wistful envy that you exact from everyone you leave behind.

For all this, you still get a big, boxy stowage hold of 31 cubic feet that inflates to 63.7 cubes with both rear seat backs folded. Audi's inimitable system for all-wheel-drive--the quattro IV system--is standard on all Avants for '99. Its obvious utility on slick road surfaces is easy to overlook because of its seamless operation at all times--not to mention its distinctly calming effect during spates of sporty hard-cornering at the limit.

No one, not even Audi, expects the A4 1.8T Avant to sell because it excels as a delivery wagon. It will sell--surprisingly well, one suspects--because it is a cleverly unusual, honestly sporty, surprisingly practical vehicle for a competitive price. Adding a $750 Sport Package and $190 key-less remote to the $26,440 base price yields a price tag approaching $27,500, as tested. At this level of cost and content, even the most jaded aficionado is bound, finally, to grasp just what a change in fortunes the lowly wagon has undergone in Audi's hands.

A6 Avant

And then there were six, as Avant scales the pecking order into midsize territory aboard Audi's A6 platform. Despite this model's 2.8-liter, 200-horsepower V6, the A6 Avant quattro is not strictly 33 percent more car than its 150-horsepower A4 sibling. Rather, Audi's achievement with the A6 Avant is to carve out an entirely different niche for a wagon that is arguably more functional, if a tad less fashionable--and significantly more expensive.

The A6 Avant is, to coin a term, the Ultimate Supermommy Car. With its "Onyx Ambition" interior, replete with "genuine" leatherette upholstery and real wood accents, this wagon feels like a country club drawing room on wheels. True, the fascinating lines of the A6 sedan devolve, with the Avant, into something of a pregnant guppy; but the stylistic trick of merging function into style is still an Audi exclusive.

Best of all, the A6 Avant is a genuine five-seater for real Moms, with leggy room for three on the back bench. Better yet, an optional, rear-facing "tyke" bench for two is available for the cargo hold. It's guaranteed to become this car's most contested perch for kids up to 4 feet, 2 inches and 80 lbs. When it's not in use, the seat will tilt and rotate out of the way, or you can remove it altogether.

This larger Avant foregoes any pretense of serious sportiness, opting instead for a sporting flair and a signature of style. The quattro IV all-wheel-drive system, accordingly, assumes the much more practical role of defeating the elements so that carpools and grocery runs can avoid interruption. Ride quality, too, trends toward comfy and away from "hard-edged." The V6 motor is a champ, but not a sprinter; and mated to Audi's marvelously sophisticated five-speed automatic transmission (the only one available), it does its driving chores without complaint--and also without much flair. A Tiptronic "semi-auto" clutchless shift system is included, I suppose, just to break the monotony from time to time.

Clearly, the A6 Avant is Audi's concession to unadulterated practicality. As a potential seven-passenger people mover, it clearly resurrects the station wagon ethos of yore, albeit in a stylish silhouette unimaginable in the woody-wagon heyday of the '60s. The $36,600 base price would no doubt have been unimaginable then as well--not to mention the $39,475 bottom line, after options including heated seats and steering wheel, sunroof, and memory seating. But in a thickening forest of towering SUVs, Audi is no doubt determined to set its sights high. To consider an A6 Avant as your next family wagon is unquestionably to grasp for the brass ring.

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