1998 Audi A4 Avant Road Test

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1998 Audi A4 Wagon

(2.8L V6 5-speed Automatic)

To the Summit in an Audi

The glowing orange sun slipped demurely behind the edge of the mountain range as we climbed higher and higher along the winding highway, classical music transforming the quiet interior of our test car into a mini-ampitheater. It was surreal; all we needed was a bottle of wine chilling in the backseat and a chauffeur. Except then someone else would get all the fun of driving this sporty little gem into the mountains. Nope. Nix the chauffeur.

Everything had been taken care of for our getaway ski trip: bags were packed, cat was fed, gas tank was full and skis were piled neatly in the back of the Audi A4 Avant Wagon we had snagged for our weekend in the mountains. We were off to the Summit. Summit County, that is.

My husband had been as excited as a little boy on Christmas morning when I told him about getting the Audi for our trip. And after laying eyes on the good-looking wagon (in this case, that is not a contradiction in terms), he was awe-struck. Once we were settled inside the Audi, he proceeded to push every button and flip every switch in sight. Accomplishing this within the first ten minutes of our journey, he then leaned back in the heated leather seats for a two-hour drive. Suddenly, in the midst of the serenity, an annoying high-pitched buzz started to sound. It gave us three insistent beeps, then silenced itself. Three minutes later, it happened again. And again, and again and again. Darkness now cloaked the vista, the radio was silenced and both of us were testing every button and gauge in the car trying to get the damn beeping to stop. Nothing was working. Desperate, we rummaged through the glove compartment for the owner’s manual, eagerly opened to the table of contents and discovered that the entire thing was written in German.

My husband immediately handed the book over to me, assuming I could decipher the manual. Having lived in Austria for half a year, I squinted, trying to make sense of the familiar language, but my experience was unfortunately limited to interactions with store and restaurant owners and small talk with my host family. Apparently, my Deutsch teacher had failed to teach us the finer points of automotive terminology. So, back into the glove compartment went the book. Thankfully, our poking around finally confused the trip computer enough to get the buzzing to stop, and we continued on our way.

Night had fallen hard on Summit County when we cruised smoothly through the Victorian-esque ski town of Breckenridge, Colo. Hitting the trip meter as we passed the Blue Moose Restaurant, we proceeded to drive 4.2 miles down the road to Blue River, where our turnoff was supposed to be. After passing 5.5 on the trip meter, we turned around and headed back to a nearby gas station, which, interestingly, didn’t stock a street map of the city in which it was located. (This still makes no sense to me.) Anyway, halfway back down the same road, we figured out the problem: the gauge was in kilometers instead of miles per hour. Doh! German car, the metric system, yada yada. After six or seven kilometers, we found our turnoff and parked our very stylish light blue test car in front of the wood-sided home. Boy, it looked good in the mountains.

Later that evening, on our way into town to meet friends, we noticed something else: everything on the wagon was written in German, including the cruise control labels that read aufn/ein/aus. Driving on the highway was interesting when we had no idea how fast we were actually going. We quickly figured out that slowing down to 100 kilometers per hour when passing police cars was sufficient to avoid getting pulled over.

I found out later that the car was being shipped back to Germany after our trip and was just in America on vacation. By the end of our vacation, my husband and I had talked ourselves into needing an Audi A4 Avant. It proved to be a fantastic car, with more than enough power thanks to its 2.8-liter V6 engine. It tackled the 10,000-plus-foot altitude better than any sport-utility vehicle I’ve ever driven. Making 190 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 207 foot-pounds of torque at a low 3200 rpm, the all-wheel drive wagon climbed steep, backcountry mountain roads without a hint of effort.

But it was more than just a workhorse; the A4 Avant handled like anything but a wagon. Driving down pothole-ridden I-25 in Denver, I literally found myself looking at the corroded asphalt and wondering why I couldn’t feel any of the bumps. It was a hoot to swing fast around corners and easy to park in ski lots chock-full of SUVs. Not only that, but it held three passengers and five pairs of ski boots, skis and gear loaded in the back with no problem. When we accidentally discovered the First Aid kit and ski sack stuffed in the backseat fold-down center armrest, our accolades tripled. A car that crunches rocks (almost) as well as a sport-ute, handles the twisties like a sports car, holds (almost) as much gear as a minivan and comes with extras like a First Aid kit and a ski bag to keep the inside of the car clean? It seemed too good to be true, and I secretly wondered what the catch was.

Perhaps it was a death trap? No, the Avant came standard with dual front airbags, side-impact airbags mounted in the front seats and antilock brakes. No one was going to fly through the window in this tank. The car, zippy as it was, still felt solid and substantial and the doors and hood closed with an appeasing thunk. In the evening, twisting the windshield wiper spray button caused even the front headlamps to get their own burst of washer fluid squirted on them for better visibility. The front seats slid up and down for a more commanding view and the telescoping steering wheel offered the perfect individualized fit for any size driver. Safety had definitely been a priority.

There were, however, some complaints. The climate and radio control panels had so many buttons that figuring them out gave me a headache and the trip computer, nice as it was, provided more information than I really wanted to know. For instance, the digital display behind the steering wheel specified the radio station call letters AND tuning numbers. And we never did figure out what that beeping alarm was for.

One backseat rider thought the front seat headrests were so large and the back seats were so low that his field of view was limited. He also complained that the rear windows only went down three quarters of the way, which could be a positive safety feature if you’ve got a few little ones snuggled in the backseat. And despite the great visibility everywhere else, the rear window wiper/washer consistently smudged up the view out the back.

In its trend-setting way, Audi offered a few innovative gadgets on the A4 Avant as well as traditional luxuries. The cupholders were simply two plastic flaps that popped out of the center console to hold a cup in place. One friend scoffed when he saw it, contending that they would never hold a can steady. Upon testing it out, however, we found it worked quite well. The automatic sunroof dial was an interesting idea, but required a little too much concentration to control. In an effort to avoid quick, out-of-control starts with the peppy engine and smooth five-speed manual transmission, the A4 Avant’s clutch had to be almost completely released before acceleration would kick in. The cigarette lighter didn’t accommodate our cellular phone plug and the vanity mirrors needed lights.

Despite this, none of these complaints caused enough bother to ruin the overall greatness of the car. When one editor first got into the car, he thought the seats felt too low, the car felt too heavy, the clutch felt too stiff and the brakes felt too grabby. Yet by the end of his test loop, all he could say was the Audi felt too perfect.

As a shorter staff member, I appreciated the low roof height, which would’ve allowed me to reach across the entire top when hand washing the vehicle and to load bikes, skis or a car-top carrier onto the roof rack without assistance from a taller being.

Other amenities available on the vehicle include a retractable rear luggage cover, luggage net, standard center headrest and a remote rear deck lid release. Although the standard sound system on our test vehicle was more than adequate, you can option out for a Bose eight-speaker, 150-watt sound system with five-channel amplifier and a six-disc CD changer. I know, I know. It still seems too good to be true, but it gets even better.

Audi’s standard warranties include bumper to bumper coverage, free scheduled maintenance and 24-hour roadside assistance for three years or 50,000 miles. All this is available for a base price of only … aha, here’s the catch I was looking for … $31,540 including destination charge.

Well, it’s a bit steep, but the A4 Avant wagon does offer luxury, safety and road prowess for the money. Still, we’re wondering what’s going to happen later this year when the VW Passat wagon, with its nearly identical powertrain, arrives in showrooms with a lower price tag slapped on its window?

I guess we’ll just have to take it to the Summit in order to find out …

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