1999 Audi A4 Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Avant translates as great sports wagon.
If you still think station wagons are clunky and boring and old-fashioned, then you haven't been in an Audi showroom lately. If you had, you would have seen the A4 Avant, which is how you say station wagon at Audi, and your opinion of wagons would have undergone some major revisions.
Whether you like wagons, you've got to admit this is just about the slickest small hauler ever conceived. In some ways we think it's even more of an eye-grabber than the A4 sedan, which we think is an elegant piece of work.
The Avant is the latest addition to the front-drive A4 lineup and it shows, once again, that the folks in Audi's design studios have been taking plenty of Vitamin I, for Imagination. In an era when U.S. manufacturers have all but abandoned wagons, Audi is demonstrating that light cargo capability and svelte sheetmetal are not mutually exclusive concepts.
Beyond that, the A4 Avant, like all Audis, offers the option of traction at both ends of the car with its excellent Quattro all-wheel-drive system. And it comes standard with all-around performance no sport-utility could ever hope to match.
Our A4 Avant tester was pretty much a top-of-the-line unit, complete with Audi's new 2.8-liter V6, Quattro system, and Sport package. It isn't exactly cheap at $34,230, but it's hard to imagine a better car for ripping around Michigan back roads in mid-winter, making trips to the home improvement center, then impressing the valet parking crew at a black-tie dinner in the evening.
Wagon or sedan, the EPA classifies the A4 as a compact. At a tidy 176.7 inches, the Avant is actually 1.3 inches shorter than the sedan. It's not quite an inch taller, and its sloping tailgate lends the same graceful touch as the sedan's curved rear roof pillars.
The A4 sedans and wagons offer two engine choices, both featuring Audi's new five-valves-per-cylinder technology. The standard engine is a turbocharged 1.8-liter 4-cylinder, generating 150 horsepower and 155 foot-pounds of torque.
Audi's V6 is a five-valve design based on the old two-valve engine. Boasting 190 horsepower, it definitely lends more urgency to forward progress. Don't be deceived into thinking all those valves and cams add up to a high-rpm screamer. The essential trait of this undersquare engine design is torque. It's a highly tractable engine around town, making upshifts well short of the rev limiter.
The A4 1.8T sedan starts at $24,290, while the 2.8-liter version retails for $28,890. The A4 1.8T Avant starts at $26,940, while the 2.8-liter V6 A4 Avant goes for $31,540. (All prices include Audi's standard $500 destination charge.)
Unlike most manufacturers, Audi offers 5-speed manual transmissions as standard equipment. The $1,075 optional automatic is a Porsche Tiptronic, which allows drivers to operate it as a semi-manual. It lends a little more variety to automatic driving than the garden variety automatic and can make commuting more entertaining. As automatics go, this is a good one, but we still prefer manual gearboxes, and our 5-speed tester reflected that. Frankly, we were a little disappointed with the shift action, which lacked precision, but it's still our preference.
Audi's $1,600 Quattro all-wheel drive system was a valuable feature in mid-winter Michigan. After driving Avants of all flavors, we think the Sport package is a bargain at $400, which adds slightly stiffer springs, more aggressive shock damping and heavier antiroll bars. The standard suspension allows just a little too much up and down motion and body roll for such an otherwise sporty little freighter and the Sport suspension offered acceptable ride quality on southeastern Michigan's pothole-infested highways. (The Sport package costs $750 for cars equipped with the 1.8-liter turbocharged engine.)
The final major extra was an $1,190 power moonroof. We checked it for function and sealing, then forgot about it--too much snow coming in with it open, you see.
The A4's outstanding elements of style extend within, where we encountered a black and saddle tan interior that could easily have been conceived for an Orvis catalogue. It's not as spacious as a Volvo V70, but with cooperation from those up front it is possible to get three adults into the back--three friendly adults--and the high-quality leather is a treat for the olfactory system, as well as the backside.
There were a few small demerits. The control stalks are hidden by the steering wheel spokes. Operating the lights and cruise controls is a bit awkward and the two-prong cupholders are virtually useless. We have a little trouble getting used to the lurid red glow of the A4's instruments at night, but they may improve night vision a bit.
On the other hand, the A4 adds an oil temp gauge and ammeter to the usual array of instruments, the power windows are express down all around and express up in front, and storage cubbies are padded to keep small stuff from rattling. Side airbags are included up front. Another winning point: no daytime running lamps, a big plus for stealthy storming around the hinterlands.
As we're sometimes moved to do with cars of exceptional sporting character, we drove our A4 Avant to Hell and back. Literally. Hell is a wide place on one of southeast Michigan's more entertaining back roads, and, as you'd expect, a favorite photo stop for folks who love to explore the oddities they glean from their road maps.
We didn't spend much time in Hell, though. We were too busy enjoying the A4's superb grip and it's lively responses. The Quattro system made the most of the patchy traction available on wintry roads strewn with sand and occasional icy patches, lending a level of confidence that's rare in any vehicle, whatever the road conditions.
We were also impressed by the little wagon's balance and response in quick maneuvers. The Sport package makes a readily discernible difference in controlling weight transfer, which lends a significantly higher level of precision to quick changes in direction.
The flip side of this is slightly firmer ride quality. Our A4 tester was a little more sensitive to tar strips and small bumps than the models we've driven with the standard suspension setup, but it was a long way from harsh, and think the tradeoff is worth it for the heightened sense of control.
Braking is an exceptionally strong suit. Augmented by ABS, our Avant's all-disc system hauled the car to safe, straight-line stops without drama or the slightest hint of fade in repeated use.
While the V6 isn't a high-revver, it does hustle the Avant down the road in a quicker-than-ordinary hurry, zipping from 0 to 60 mph in less than 7.5 seconds, and 100 mph in 21 seconds. Try that in your Ford Explorer.
The engine emits a bit more intake noise than we'd like when it's pressed hard, but in most normal operating conditions we found the interior to be reasonably quiet.
You probably don't need us to tell you that station wagons aren't the first choice of Americans who want a little extra cargo capacity. From Connecticut to California, soccer and hockey moms are packing their teams into sport-utility vehicles.
Nevertheless, style is something that will never go out of style, and the A4 Avant has it double in spades.
It's not the right choice if big cargo chores are on your agenda, but with the rear seats folded flat it can swallow that occasional extra something, or vacation luggage for two. And you can always lash odds and ends to the roof rack.
We think the A4 Avant is something special. It will outperform most sedans in this size class, and its sleek styling makes sport-utilities seem clunky, boring, and clumsy.
Audi's A4 Avant is definitely not cheap. But the quality is high, the furnishings posh, standard features comprehensive, and it comes loaded with character.
The station wagon is not dead. It was just waiting for someone to reinvent it. Thank you, Audi.
Options As Tested
Quattro all-wheel drive, power moonroof, Sport suspension package.
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