B. Grant Whitmore, Contributor
It seems like the word "sport" is too much in use these days. Every Madison Avenue marketing guru knows that you can tack sport onto a product's name and make it appealing to health- conscious my-body-is-a-temple Gen-Xers and age-avoiding my-God-I'm-halfway-through-this-life Boomers. Witness the proliferation of sport drinks, sport bras, sport-utility vehicles, and sport bottles. Really, what's next? Sport furniture? Sport briefcases? Sport pets? Not to gripe, but it seems that with this much sports apparatus floating around our country, we shouldn't have to go to the gym for a workout. If the claims are true, we should just be able to open a Gatorade, hop in the Explorer, and drive to a friend's house to watch ESPN. With such a proliferation of sports gear, we should look like a nation of Gabrielle Reeces and Michael Jordans, instead of the Roseanne Arnolds and Drew Careys that we all really are.
The marketing and advertising executives of the world's auto manufacturers are no dummies to the sport phenomenon. Look at the sport sedans, sport wagons, sport trucks, sport-utility vehicles, sport-utility wagons, and sport-utility sedans being sold at the local auto mall. Despite what the salespeople at the dealership may say, many of these overdone vehicles aren't any sportier than Aunt Hattie in her Sunday best. Edmund's thinks that there is more to being sporty than tape stripes, fog lamps and body-colored bumpers; we feel that a car (or truck) has to be refreshing, entertaining and fun to drive to garner such a moniker.
It was with such trepidation that we embarked on our evaluations of the A4 1.8T Avant and A6 Avant wagons. You see, both of these Audis are supposed to be sport wagons in the tradition of the Volvo T5 wagon and BMW 530i Touring; cars that offered owners so much driving pleasure that people could actually forget that they were in a station wagon. Although wagons are not a new product for Audi (the old A6 wagon was a favorite of staff members looking for a roomy and luxurious people hauler), Audi hasn't attacked the sporty segment of the wagon market until now.
Fortunately for Audi, the A4 and A6 models give the company the chance to build sport wagons on a platform shared with some nice sport sedans. We've sampled the A4 and A6 sedans several times, and ended up being more smitten by the cheaper, more vivacious A4, but we can't fail to recognize the inherent goodness in the A6, even if we think it costs too much. So, we like the idea, but can Audi pull it off? There are many changes that go into transforming a sedan into a wagon, and sometimes things don't turn out as well as we would like. In this case, we think they got the recipe right.
The A4 1.8T Avant is the cheapest of Audi's wagons, and in some ways may be the most true to the sporting ideal. The A4 Avant comes standard with the same four-cylinder turbocharged dual-overhead cam engine found in the A4 1.8T sedan. This engine makes150 horsepower and 155 foot-pounds of torque and can propel the small wagon to 60 mph in 8.5 seconds. Of course, to get to speed that fast the A4 1.8T Avant requires a manual transmission. Fortunately, Audi saw fit to equip the 1.8T that we tested with a five-speed manual. Those not wishing to row there own gears can opt for a Tiptronic auto-manual transmission. While we were not able to test the Tiptronic transmission on the 1.8T Avant, we have experienced it on other A4 models and can honestly say that we prefer the smooth-shifting standard transmission.
To up the performance ante, Audi has made their Quattro all-wheel drive system standard on the A4 1.8T Avant, giving the car all-weather driveability in the process. True, we evaluated the car on a flawless Florida day, but its ability to grip the road through sandy corners and large puddles indicate that this car would do just fine in a Colorado snowstorm. Try as we might, we couldn't trick the Quattro system into sending power to the wrong wheel. Even with the steering wheel cranked all the way over while circling in an empty, sandy cul-de-sac, we weren't able to get the A4 to put a foot wrong. We also like the way the Quattro system helps the A4 out on dry, paved roads. The weight balance is better on the Quattro-equipped 1.8T Avant than it would be if the car were a front driver. This means that turn-in is better than in some high-performance wagons, and that understeer is greatly diminished.
The final touch on the Avant 1.8T that we tested was the sport package. Designed for its attractive appearance nearly as much as its true performance functionality, the A4 Avant sport package consists of a 20-millimeter lower sport suspension with firmer shock and spring settings, a thicker rear stabilizer bar, 16-inch cast alloy wheels, 16-inch performance tires, and a leather-wrapped sport steering wheel and shift knob. While the larger tires and lowered suspension undoubtedly improve the Avant's cornering ability, most drivers will probably opt for the sport package just because of the cooler wheels and interior pieces.
It's fair to say that we were happy with the A4 1.8T Avant, and feel that it lives up to its marketing as a sport wagon. The car is quick and nimble, changing directions and speeds with nary a thought. Pushing the light manual gear shifter through the transmission's detents while tugging at the very precise steering mechanism via a beefy three-spoke leather-wrapped steering wheel did actually make us forget that we were driving a wagon; something that we are always conscious of otherwise. The A4 1.8T Avant handles nearly as well as the compact A4 1.8T sedan, a car that is among our most favorite vehicles, period. The added utility of the Avant's giant cargo area makes this wagon a definite winner.
We'll admit it: we just aren't as crazy about the A6 as we are about the A4. Our editor-in-chief called the car "a blob" in his first evaluation of the vehicle over a year ago, and, while not all on the staff agree with his strong opinions regarding the car's performance, appearance and value, few of us get as excited about it as we do for some of Audi's other offerings. Needless to say, our reluctance to like the A6 Avant was stronger than it should have been for what is supposed to be an objective evaluation, and our subsequent admiration for the wagon surprised a few of the staff members who weren't crazy about the sedan.
While the A6 isn't exactly a sport wagon, it definitely qualifies as a touring wagon and should never be confused with the land yachts of yore that typify our ideas about how station wagons look and drive. As Edmund's discussed upon its first evaluation of the A6, the 200-horsepower 2.8-liter V6 engine isn't up to the job of hauling this 3870-pound car to 60 mph in too much of a hurry. Audi's own numbers list the A6 Avant's sprint to 60 mph at a somewhat leisurely 9.6 seconds. Nevertheless, the A6 has a top speed of 130 mph and cruises along nicely at freeway speeds, offering drivers enough power to get out of their own way when there is a need to pass or merge. We think that part of what diminishes the A6 driving experience is the car's standard Tiptronic auto-manual transmission. Tiptronic is supposed to give drivers the thrill of changing their own gears, while maintaining the practicality of an automatic. We found the Tiptronic's gear changes to be too slow to be called thrilling, so we just put the thing in drive and went on our way. Nevertheless, we couldn't help thinking that a solid no-frills automatic, like the one on the BMW 540i, might be better suited to this sedate cruiser than the faux-sport apparatus being foisted upon us.
Were it not for our gripes about the engine and transmission, we might have been as won over by the A6 Avant as we were by its smaller relative. Like the A4 1.8T Avant, all A6 Avants are equipped with a Quattro all-wheel drive system that maximizes traction in any weather. We were impressed to find that this large wagon feels rock solid at speed, sticking to the road in big sweeping turns even better than the A4 Avant did. We also liked the A6's driving position, finding it roomy and comfortable, without having the drab, institutional feel that afflicts some wagons.
Because of its increased size, the A6 didn't compel our drivers to squirt through traffic as smoothly as they did while driving the A4. Nevertheless, the car's tight steering and fluid suspension did invite spirited driving. We found, not surprisingly, that the tall A6 Avant has more body lean in the corners than the A4. A pendulum-like swinging motion accompanies this body lean when the rear end of the car lets go in a turn, due to the A6's longer overall length. Despite this, the A6 and A4 Avants offer similar handling dynamics, since the independent front and rear suspension setup is the same on both cars. Furthermore, the chassis of the A6 is merely a stretched version of the one found in the A4.
Although we will be testing the A4 1.8T Avant and the A6 Avant at greater length in the not-too-distant future, allowing us to garner better impressions of the cars' interiors, we would like to comment on these wagons' livability and utility. Cargo carrying capacities for the A4 and A6 wagons approaches that of many sport-utility vehicles, and the A6 Avant can be equipped to carry two children in an optional rear-facing child seat, raising the A6's maximum passenger load to seven humans. At the same time, these Audi wagons offer comfortable interiors that are pleasantly designed and intelligently laid out. The A6 Avant's higher price tag means that it gets nicer interior fittings, but even the lowly 1.8T Avant gets standard automatic climate control, remote keyless entry with central locking, 60/40 folding rear seatbacks with a ski sack, side-impact airbags, and four-wheel antilock disc brakes. We would be remiss if we failed to mention the high-quality upholstery, plastic and wood trim that Audi uses to make the interior of all of their cars comfortable and luxurious.
We prefer the A4 1.8T Avant to the A6 Avant because it's a better value. We also prefer its dimensions, but hey, we might change our tune if we were driving kids around more often. Both of Audi's new wagons are a welcome addition to the A4 2.8 Avant that was introduced last year. By bringing out these new models, Audi has soundly pegged the wagon market, offering useful, competent vehicles that are stylish (yes, we think that the A6 looks better as a wagon) and fun-to- drive. Heck, you may even want to call them sporty.
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