SEE ALSO: Audi Buyer's Guide
Although they are currently the most popular thing since sliced bread, and everyone seems to drive one, Iíd like to present an argument against the proliferation of sport utility vehicles.
And exhibit "A" is the Audi A6 Avant.
All-new for 1999, the Avant is an all-wheel-drive station wagon that, I submit, can do almost everything a conventional sport ute can, but with more class, comfort, and efficiency.
From the top, the Avant is propelled by a 2.8 litre V6 engine that has five valves per cylinder. It develops 200 horsepower at 6000 rpm, and 207 foot-pound of torque at 3200 rpm. The Jeep Grand Cherokee, by way of comparison, develops 190 horsepower, the GMC Jimmy, 195 hp, and the enormously popular Ford Explorer, 160. True, some of these rigs can be had with V8 engines, but they are otherwise all six-bangers. In the stoplight sweepstakes, the Avant will leave them all for dead, mainly because itís lighter and revs higher. As a bonus, the Avant comes with a five-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission, which means you can either let the gearbox do the shifting, or handle it yourself. Not a big deal, but it adds to the driving experience.
Next up, traction. The Avant has Audiís fourth-generation Quattro system, which basically means that itís in all-wheel-drive mode all the time, but will automatically re-direct power to the appropriate wheel(s) in the event of a loss of traction. The chief advantage to this kind of set-up is that you wonít be caught with your traction down if you drive into a sudden snowfall, icy roads, or deep mud. Because of its relatively low ground clearance and monocoque construction, the Avant is not meant to be taken off-roadÖ.admittedly a bit of a fly in the ointment, but not particularly worrisome when you consider that less than two percent of all sport utility owners will actually use them off-road. And of that two percent, the vast majority drive rigs like the Jeep TJ, Suzuki Sidekick two-door and so on. Most four-door sport utes never see anything more challenging than snow on the driveway, and some of themÖ.the Lincoln Navigator, for example, will probably never see the muddy side of life. In most driving situations, the Avantís AWD system is a better bet precisely because itís mated to a relatively low-slung chassis, with one of the most sophisticated suspension systems in the business.
Cargo capacity. No argument, the Avant canít compete with behemoths like the GMC Yukon or Ford Expedition, but it will hold its own with most other compact sport utes, and actually has more front headroom and legroom than the likes of the Jimmy or Explorer. It seats five comfortably and, like some sport utes, has a couple of jump seats in the back for kids or dogs, or whatever. And what it may lack in storage capacity, it more than makes up for in fuel economy. Even driven hard, the Avant will return 20 mpg in the city and 34 mpg on the highway. There isnít a six cylinder 4x4 around that can touch it for thrift. And, needless to say, the Avant will make any sport ute you care to name look like a soapbox racer on the highway.
Creature comforts. Way back when, sport utes were supposed to be lean, down and dirty backroads bashers. Somehow, theyíve evolved into upscale suburban people carriers, often more luxurious than their sedan counterparts. Nothing wrong with that, but if comfortís your game, the Avant has one of the most hospitable interiors on the market, with modcons like climate control, power windows, heated front seats, cruise control, adjustable steering column, upgraded stereo system, heated steering wheel and so on as standard issue. It also comes in three varieties, no less: Ambition, Ambiente, and Advance, each one of which has its ownÖ.erÖ.ambience. One of the best things about getting behind the wheel of the Avant, and most other Audis for all that, is the excellence of the interior layout, and aside from top level utes like the GMC Denali, Range Rover, or Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited, there isnít much out there to top it.
Last but not least, price. The A6 Avant is a little on the high side, for sure, but you can drop well over forty large on the Navigator, almost the same amount on the GMC Denali, and up to and beyond $50,000 on rigs like the Range Rover, Lexus LX470, and the over-the-top Hummer.
Having said all that, the Avant isnít the only vehicle around that can challenge the overwhelming popularity of sport utes. The Volvo V70 AWD R, Volkswagen Passat GLX AWD, Subaru Outback Limited, and Mercedes E320 Wagon can all match it in most departments, but none do it with as much finesse.
I rest my case.