In the highly competitive world of automobile manufacturing, no niche is safe from exploitation. That's especially true when the niche market requires only a small derivation from a company's best-selling product. In this case, the niche vehicle we're referring to is the Audi A4 Avant of the luxury-wagon market, and the product it's derived from is Audi's best seller, the A4 sedan.
We've had the opportunity to test out a few A4 Avants and sedans in the past year, and our overall impression of these cars is favorable. They provide an uncommonly sporty driving experience for this class of vehicle, they're attractive, and they usually live up to our conceptualization of an entry-luxury family car. We say "usually" because our latest stint behind the wheel of a sparsely equipped A4 Avant turned up some gripes that we hadn't noticed before.
This year, Audi has downgraded the power source to complete the model line: the A4 Avant is now available with the 1.8-liter turbocharged motor that's also found under the hood of the base A4 sedan (and the base Volkswagen Passat, Audi TT and New Beetle 1.8T). The 1.8T makes 150 horsepower at 5,700 rpm (compared to 190 horsepower for the 2.8-liter engine) and 155 foot-pounds of torque at 1,750 rpm (compared to 207 ft-lbs. for the 2.8). It's a high-revving powerplant, and despite the peak output, torque does not seem to develop down low, instead coming on all at once when the turbo unleashes at somewhere closer to 3,000 rpm.
So while power is still available from the 1.8-liter engine, it is by no means abundant or what we'd call refined. This may be due in part to the fact that we drove the car at elevations higher than 5,280 feet, but even our recent low-altitude test of the A4 2.8 sedan (with Tiptronic transmission) revealed zero-to-60 acceleration times of eight and a half seconds. At a mile high, the smaller engine mated to the manual transmission moved the heavier wagon to 60 in about 10 seconds. Throttle response after slamming down the accelerator is hesitant at first; it's like the car is pausing to build up energy, then after a split second, you're off. We did not notice this sort of turbo lag when we drove the Avant 1.8T at sea level a few months ago, so if we have to blame something, we'll blame the thin air.
The A4 model line comes standard with a five-speed manual transmission. We found the shift action to be precise and the clutch light, but why, we ask, is the push-down-for-reverse configuration necessary in a five speed? It's the same quirky setup that's a trademark of Volkswagen transmissions, but we'd like to see some differentiation for the Audi line of cars.
Our test car, like all A4 Avants, was equipped with antilock brakes, "quattro IV" all-wheel drive, all-speed traction control, seat-mounted side airbags, headlight washers, fog lights, cruise control and remote keyless entry. In fact, the only option added to our car was the all-weather package, a $470 feature that includes heated front seats, heated windshield washer nozzles and a heated driver's door lock - not an option we had much use for in the balmy heat of late springtime, but it is consistent with the reason for buying an AWD wagon: all-weather capability.
Sadly, the A4 does not really feel like a luxury car unless you add the optional Bose audio system with a CD changer, Tiptronic automatic transmission and a moon roof. But equipped with all of those niceties, the price exceeds $30,000, and you're still sitting on cloth seats; leather seats are not available on the A4 1.8T, though "leatherette" seat trim is a no-cost option. Based on the nappy condition of our test car's cloth seats, we'd advise anyone considering the A4 to ask for leatherette, or step up to the A4 2.8.
Though we weren't impressed by the feel of the seat fabric or by the butt-numbing rigidity of the seat itself, we were eventually able to find a comfortable seating position for long drives. Rear-seat passengers, however, complained about their flat bench and lack of thigh support in the face of limited legroom. And speaking of rear-seat passengers, we are reminded of another odd concern: the A4's rear window does not lower all the way into the door, which is presumably a safety device. But because the glass parts from the C-pillar at a steep angle (forming a slot), one of our backseat passengers found reason to let out a scream as her arm was forcibly pinched when the driver attempted to raise the rear window. The window's motor is strong enough to bruise the arm of a 23-year-old female, so be sure to keep children's arms and fingers inside the vehicle at all times.
Ergonomically, the A4's interior is showing its age, though it was designed just four years ago. Front cupholders are located under the center armrest, meaning drinks must be stowed where you normally put your elbow, awkward as that may be. The center console is composed of a panel of orange-on-black buttons that take too much attention to operate. Seat adjustments (for non-powered seats) must be made with a combination of slide levers and pump handles. To tell time, the driver must gaze below the tachometer at a poorly numbered analog clock the size of a quarter. Analog clocks are not unusual in luxury cars, but when the radio station, climate control, fan speed, outside temperature and odometer readings are all digital, we'd prefer to keep the theme consistent.
Part of our long-standing enthusiasm for the A4 model line is the simple fact that the car is fun to drive, and that still holds true -- even in the heaviest iteration with the smallest engine. In the dead of a Rocky Mountain winter, the A4 Avant's four-wheel grip will undoubtedly make it a valuable commodity. Previously, we've driven A4 Avants equipped with the sport package, an option that lowers the ride height and adds firmer shocks and springs, as well as a thicker rear stabilizer bar for a more performance-tuned ride. After this latest drive in an A4 with basic underpinnings, we were pleasantly surprised. The car rolled a little more while cornering, but the ride was smooth while providing good isolation from the road and maintaining its poise under spirited driving.
We love the sleek styling of the A4 sedan, and while the wagon still carries the A4's athletic lines, the stigma of being a wagon makes it less attractive. Picture Arnold Schwarzenegger with a beer belly, and you'll understand what we're trying to say.
When a relatively small Japanese firm called Fuji Heavy Industries, parent company of Subaru, made a name for itself by selling respectable quantities of all-wheel-drive station wagons, other manufacturers took notice. But while Subaru makes a point of keeping their wagons reasonably priced, Audi has decided to market to a more upscale audience, though the A4 Avant we tested most recently looked less luxurious inside than the 2000 Subaru Legacy. Sure, the A4 boasts an attractive exterior, but we're more impressed by what's under the hood: the Legacy Outback and GT wagons offer more power for less money than the A4 1.8T, and their normally aspirated engines are not affected by turbo lag. And despite the car's unorthodox appearance and rather clunky manual transmission, the Legacy is still the best-selling wagon in America.
If you're in need of an all-wheel-drive wagon and can't stomach the looks of the Subaru Legacy, wait for Volkswagen to reintroduce their all-wheel-drive Passat GLX wagon sometime next year. The Passat is basically a stretched A4, meaning that rear seats have 2 extra inches of legroom. The Passat is also pleasantly conservative in appearance. Engine options are the same. And since Volkswagen does not come with a prestige-added premium, the thousands of dollars you'll save will make the all-wheel-drive Passat wagon worth the wait. Until then, however, it's no wonder Subaru sells so many wagons: theirs are affordably well-appointed, and worth the money.