SEE ALSO: Audi Buyer's Guide
Although the sports sedan class is well-established, "sport" and "wagon" are looked on by most manufacturers and buyers as mutually incompatible categories. After all, station wagons are kid-haulers, the sort of vehicle ancestral to the minivan. And nothing is as diametrically opposed to sportiness as a minivan, except maybe a wagon, right?
Wrong. Audi had been making some seriously sporting wagons for years now. Among the newest offerings for the sport wagon niche is the A4 Avant, based on the compact A4 sedan. Like the A4 sedan, the Avant is available in both front-wheel drive and Quattro all-wheel drive from. It uses the newest version of Audi's 2.8-liter V6, with 5- valve-per-cylinder heads for more efficient power production. The new engine makes more power than previous versions of the engine, with no decrease in fuel economy.
Recent time spent with a 1998 Audi A4 Avant Quattro went by all too quickly. It combined the best of German luxury car comfort and sports sedan performance in a unique package. The Quattro all-wheel drive gave it traction and great handling even in wet, slippery conditions, and the small station wagon design made for a very comfortable and versatile interior. It may be German, but it is as versatile as a Swiss Army knife.
APPEARANCE: "Sports sedan with a fanny pack" is what Audi calls the A4 Avant, and that's as a good a description as any. The Avant is a good-looking, small, two-box design, discernably an Audi but less rounded than the A4 sedan because if its gently-sloped station wagon roofline. It shares sheetmetal with the A4 sedan ahead of the windshield, and looks more compact than the sedan. It is slightly shorter than the A4 sedan, with less rear overhang. Bright roof rails give a semi-sport-utility look and some extra carrying abilities - just be careful of the fixed-mast antenna at the rear of the roof. As on the A4 sedan, the Avant has subtly sculpted sides and small fender flares. It is a fine example of old world elegance, handsome and functional with no gimmickry.
COMFORT: The A4 Avant is a small wagon, with emphasis on small. Think of it less as a family hauler and more as a 4-door hatchback. A very well-appointed 4-door hatchback, a most European type of car. It is both luxuriously comfortable and versatile. Firm but comfortable seats with perforated leatherette upholstery (driver's power-adjustable, front passenger manual), automatic climate control with pollen filtration, one-touch power windows, power mirrors and door locks, and leather trim for the steering wheel and shift knob are some of the standard luxury touches. A 60/40 split rear seat with a ski passthrough, and rear cargo shade and net make the A4 Avant a versatile cargo hauler when necessary. With the rear seat folded, there is a flat three foot by five foot carrying space, with more width available around the rear wheel wells. The back seat is not extremely spacious, but it is reasonable for medium-sized people. The "Atmospheres" interior design concept allows a choice of interior styles and materials. Audi's seat heaters, part of the "All-Weather Package", are the best in the industry. Instead of the usual one or two temperature positions, they have five for maximum adjustable comfort.
SAFETY: The 1998 Audi A4 Avant has safety-cage chassis construction, next-generation front airbags and side airbags for front seat occupants, 3-point safety harnesses for all occupants, and 4-wheel antilock disc brakes.
ROADABILITY: The combination of all-wheel drive Quattro traction and all-weather Goodyear Eagle RS-A tires gives the A4 Avant excellent handling characteristics in wet or dry conditions. At a track event at a wet, slippery Sears Point International Raceway, the A4 Avant got my vote for "car best suited to the conditions." On the street in mostly drier weather, its nimble handling and compliant suspension made it a winner for around-town errands, a long highway trip, and backroad pleasure driving. It was quiet, comfortable even on poorly- surfaced roads, and always a pleasure to drive.
PERFORMANCE: The A4 Avant is offered only with Audi's 2.8-liter, 190-horsepower V6 engine. No problem there -- it's a unique five- valve-per-cylinder design with variable intake geometry and variable intake valve timing for great power characteristics at all engine speeds. Although a five-speed manual gearbox is standard equipment on Quattro versions, most Avants in this country will be ordered with the optional 5-speed automatic transmission. It's more convenient in traffic, and because it uses Tiptronic manual shifting licensed from Porsche, it is just as much fun when traffic is light and the road is twisty. In automatic mode, the transmission's adaptive shift logic learns the driver's driving style, and shifts quickly and smoothly.
CONCLUSIONS: The 1998 Audi A4 Avant offers a unique combination of small wagon versatility and sporty performance.
SPECIFICATIONS Base Price $ 31,040 Price As Tested $ 35,725 Engine Type dual overhead cam 30-valve V6 Engine Size 2.8 liters / 169 cu. in. Horsepower 190 @ 6000 Torque (lb-ft) 207 @ 3200 Transmission 5-speed electronically-controlled automatic with Tiptronic manual shifting Wheelbase / Length 102.6 in. / 176.7 in. Curb Weight 3553 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 18.7 Fuel Capacity 15.6 gal. Fuel Requirement unleaded premium (91 octane) or regular (87 octane) gasoline Tires P205/55 HR16 Goodyear Eagle RS-A Brakes, front/rear vented disc / solid disc, antilock standard Suspension, front/rear independent multilink / independent double control arm Drivetrain front engine, all-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 17 / 27 / 21 0 to 60 mph 8.9 sec 1/4 mile (E.T.) 16.7 sec OPTIONS AND CHARGES 5-speed automatic transmission with Tiptronic shifting $ 1,075 Audio package with Bose premium sound and 6-disc CD changer $ 1,200 All-weather package - includes: heated front seats, windshield washer nozzles, and driver's door lock $ 470 Glass sunroof & remote locking package $ 1,190 Trip computer with auto-check system $ 250 Destination charge $ 500