SEE ALSO: Audi Buyer's Guide
Christmas morning, 8 AM. A chilly 22 degrees on the thermometer, heavy frost on the ground. Puddles from recent rain haven't thawed in days. A 125-mile journey to visit relatives for an afternoon Christmas dinner is the plan for the day, and then the same distance back home before the next winter storm hits. I live near sea level in Northern California, they live at 4000 feet in the Sierra Nevada foothills. I expect snow, ice, and less-than-pleasant driving conditions, but I look forward to the trip. I'm driving a new Audi A6 Avant Quattro.
"Avant" is Audi's term for station wagon. The 1999 A6 Avant combines the versatility of a wagon with the elegant design and luxury accommodations of the A6 sedan on which it is based. Standard Quattro all-wheel drive and optional, highly recommended, six-level heated front and rear seats with a heated steering wheel make the A6 Avant a great winter car and a serious alternative to any mid-sized luxury sport-utility vehicle for all-season on-road use. But it is far more than a winter specialty car.
Quattro all-wheel drive helps give the A6 Avant good manners and stability on dry pavement as well as in the wet. And it is a true German luxury car that has a wagon's flexibility to carry unwieldy loads and as many as seven people. On the road, its handling abilities and ride comfort are far better than those of any SUV, as it the fuel economy. On my 250-mile Christmas trip, the Avant used only half a tank of gas. No worry that gas stations would be closed. And the A6 Avant was quiet and comfortable enough to have easily done the round trip nonstop.
APPEARANCE: It's hard to make a two-box wagon look sleek and interesting, but Audi's stylists have succeeded by eliminating the boxes. The Avant shares the sedan's rounded body panels forward of the well-raked windshield, and adds an interpretation of the wagon form that is as unique as the sedan's shape. Typically of Audi styling, it has no sharp edges, although a shoulder-line crease running down each side from the corner of the headlight to the taillight helps give definition to the shape. The Avant's roofline peaks over the front seat, and slopes gently toward the rear. The heated backlight is far from vertical, and huge wraparound taillights dominate the rear of the car. Chrome trim on the grille and around the side windows adds a luxury touch.
COMFORT: Audi has a feature unique in the industry. Its "Atmospheres" interior design concept allows buyers to choose from a variety of interior color schemes and materials. My test car had the "Advance" interior, featuring matte-finish walnut trim and a two-tone brown color scheme. Attention to detail is paramount. Both the 12-way power-adjustable front buckets and rear bench are contoured for comfort. The steering wheel is adjustable for both reach and tilt, and all windows may be raised or lowered with one touch of the appropriate control. Extendable pockets in all doors provide convenient storage space. Carrying capacity is very versatile. The rear seat folds with a 60/40 split. The cargo net may be used with tiedowns on the floor or ceiling, and a shade can hide cargo when the rear seat is in use. Loading height is lower than in a sport-utility, and a stainless steel sill protects the bumper and helps hold items in place. An available removable rear bench seat - rear-facing as in old American wagons - can hold two small children.
SAFETY: All seating positions in the 1999 Audi A6 Avant have a three-point safety harness and adjustable headrest. Next-generation front and front side airbags are standard, with rear side airbags available. A rigid safety cage protects occupants. Quattro all-wheel drive and antilock brakes help the driver avoid accidents.
ROADABILITY: The A6 Avant has the feel and handling of a contemporary German luxury car. The chassis structure provides a strong, rigid platform for a soft and well-controlled fully-independent suspension that is tuned for long-distance comfort. Steering effort is light, but not too light. Despite its comfort, the Avant corners nearly as well as many sports sedans, and is much less tiring on a long trip. The fourth-generation of Audi's Quattro all-wheel drive system is the secret behind the Avant's abilities. It automatically shifts up to two-thirds of available power to the wheel that has the most traction. This has obvious benefits in poor, low-traction conditions like rain and snow. It also works on dry pavement, giving the A6 Avant excellent handling characteristics.
PERFORMANCE: The 2.8-liter V6 used in the A6 Avant may seem small for a car of its size, but it works perfectly well as a luxury car powerplant. It is an interesting dual overhead cam, 5-valve-per- cylinder design with variable intake valve timing that makes 200 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 207 lb-ft of torque at 3200 rpm. Typically of European engine designs, it makes its best power at medium and high engine speeds. The electronically-controlled 5-speed automatic transmission has adaptive shift logic that enables it to better select the correct gear ratio for driving conditions. For more performance- oriented driving, standard, Porsche-licensed Tiptronic shifting allows fast manual shifting.
CONCLUSIONS: The 1999 Audi A6 Avant combines sport-utility space and all-season traction with sports-sedan driving fun. It's as much an alternative to a luxury sedan as to a sport-utility vehicle.
SPECIFICATIONS Base Price $ 36,600 Price As Tested $ 39,525 Engine Type dual overhead cam, 30-valve V6 Engine Size 2.8 liters / 169 cu. in. Horsepower 200 @ 6000 rpm Torque (lb-ft) 207 @ 3200 rpm Transmission 5-speed electronically-controlled automatic with Tiptronic (r) manual shifting Wheelbase / Length 108.6 in. / 192.0 in. Curb Weight 3858 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 19.3 Fuel Capacity 18.5 gal. Fuel Requirement unleaded premium (91 octane) recommended, unleaded regular (87 octane) permissible Tires P205/55 HR16 Goodyear Eagle RS-A m+s Brakes, front/rear vented disc / solid disc, antilock standard Suspension, front/rear independent 4-link / independent double control arm Drivetrain front engine, all-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 17 / 26 / 23 0 to 60 mph 9.6 sec 1/4 mile (E.T.) 17.5 sec OPTIONS AND CHARGES 16-inch alloy wheels with 205/55 tires $ 225 Cold weather package - includes: heated front and rear seats, heated steering wheel $ 650 Leather seat upholstery $ 1,550 Destination charge $ 500