The SUV Alternative
These days, everybody loves sport-utes. And why not? They offer a commanding view, fantastic cargo space and four-wheel drive. But what SUVs don't offer is precise handling, decent fuel economy and easy maneuverability. For those things, one must look a little closer to the pavementat vehicles like Audi's 1999 A6 Avant wagon, the perfect SUV alternative.
The Avant, which was redesigned for 1999 and is based on the A6 sedan that was introduced just last year, is set to compete with luxury wagons from Volvo, Mercedes-Benz, Saab and BMW, as well as with ever-popular luxury sport-utility vehicles. Offering up to 73.2 cubic feet of cargo capacity and standard quattro all-wheel drive, this Audi has everything those luxo-sport-utes have except the skyscraper views and the mile-high fuel costs. With this in mind, we accepted Audi's test car outfitted with 16-inch alloy wheels, a cold-weather package and a convenience package, and set about evaluating the vehicle during a weeklong, mid-spring stint in Denver.
When we first laid eyes on the A6 Avant, we thought the car looked like something that had hovered right out of "The Phantom Menace"with its shiny silver sheetmetal, steeply raked rear window, creased edges and inflated stance. That's OK for futuristic space movies, we thought, but not for a suburban-dwelling family of five. As the week progressed, the car's styling grew on us, but we think it had more to do with how we felt from inside the cabin than out. The guts of a vehicle are what really count anyway, though. And this Audi has guts in places that Jabba the Hut can only imagine.
A 2.8-liter, DOHC V6 engine that makes 200 horsepower and 207 foot-pounds of torque powers the A6 Avant. Though the engine of our A6 was smooth and quiet, we noticed a distinct lag between the time when we mashed the pedal to the floor and the A6 lurched forward with the purpose of a rottweiler after a T-bone. With the A6 wagon weighing in at 3,858 pounds, hot-rod types may desire a bit more punch at the get-go, but for families going to the country club, pee-wee soccer tournaments or on a camping trip, there won't be much to growl about.
There are a couple of things that stood out immediately as we navigated our test loop in the 1999 Audi A6 Avant: precision and privacy. Mom's old station wagon was never much fun to drive, but the luxury sport wagons hitting dealer showrooms these days work to provide plenty of thrills. Audi's A6 is no exception. Performing favorably in the twisties just south of Boulder, Colo., we were amazed that the A6 Avant cornered as easily at 90 mph as it did at 30. Steering is perfectnot too linear, but tight enough to manage with small, precise movements. The optional 205/55 HR16 all-season tires that surround 16-inch alloy wheels gripped the roads well, and we had confidence in the car's antilock brakes, even though they squealed randomly.
A five-speed automatic transmission with Tiptronic shifter comes standard on the Avant. In automatic mode, the tranny smoothly found the right gear every time. Some of us are not big fans of automanual transmissions, but we tried out the Tiptronic for readers who might want to shift a little bit. We found that it was difficult to sense which gear we were in when using Tiptronic and, because it's not a true manual, it seemed a waste of energy and concentration.
Those who value their privacy will appreciate the A6. It didn't take us long to marvel at how quiet the car was; we felt like we were in a soundproof cocoon gliding through the bustling city. On the expressway, we passed big rigs in silence. Wind, engine and road noise seemed nonexistent and there was never a need to blast the radio in an effort to drown out traffic noiseat least not with the windows rolled up. The cabin was tightly constructed as well; not once did we detect a creak, rattle or shimmy from loose interior materials.
Inside the vehicle, we were greeted by a convoluted sea of red digital readouts amid a dizzying array of tiny stereo and climate-control buttons that made our heads swim. We must not have been the only ones with this reaction, because Audi installed a wood-grained panel cover that flips down to hide half of the console's readouts and make things easier on the eyes. Despite all of the gadgets to decipher, we were disappointed that our A6 did not come with an in-dash CD player; a trunk-mounted six-disc CD changer is available as a $1,300 option.
We had difficulty prying open the console ashtray and noticed that it didn't line up correctly when it was pushed back into place. We were baffled that Audi chose to install an analog clock when most of the other secondary readouts were digital (most instrument panel gauges were analog), and were annoyed that the clock was positioned on the instrument panel where only the driver could see it. We were disturbed that the red displays, which looked cool when lit up at night, tended to get washed out when driving in the sunshine. And, we were bummed to find that the rear hatch-release button on the key fob required between two and three presses to work properly.
Audi did a better job with its cupholders this year than it has done in the past. The one that pops out of the dash doesn't block anything and the one that pops out of the console is inconspicuous and well positioned, though neither is able to expand or contract enough to accommodate different-sized drinks. We appreciated the two climate zones for front-seat occupants, the convenient rear hatch and fuel door-release buttons located on the side of the driver's doorframe, and the heated rear seats and steering wheel.
A built-in ski bag passes through the middle of the rear armrest, keeping snow and ice off backseat occupants as well as the leather seats; the bag also clips into place to prevent ski tips from swinging into backseat occupants during hard cornering. Meanwhile, a rear console-mounted first-aid kit provides basic medical supplies in an emergency, door-mounted cubbies extend for added storage and two rear cupholders pop out of the front-seat cushions. For safety, all three backseat passengers receive three-point seatbelts and headrests.
To further enhance the utility aspect of this vehicle, Audi installed a floor net that prevents small parcels from spilling all over the cargo area, a vertical cargo net that keeps large pieces of luggage from toppling onto the heads and necks of backseat passengers, and a cargo cover that hides goods from inquisitive eyes. Additionally, a rear window sunshade makes for better visibility on sunny days, and the rear hatch opening is large enough to load just about anything one could imagine. If you ever need to add washer fluid or check the oil, you'll find it easy to open the spring-mounted hood because the release latch is on the outside of the hood rather than underneath it.
The A6 Avant starts at $37,100 (including destination fee), but that price can escalate quickly when optioning out the car. Our car, as tested, cost just a hair under 40 grand. Still, the BMW 528i sport wagon is priced only $300 less and it comes with a standard manual transmission and seven fewer horsepower than the Audi (though the Bimmer feels more powerful). Volvo's comparable V70 wagons also generate fewer horses, but can be equipped with turbochargers and can also cost several hundred dollars less at base. Many luxury sport-utility vehicles can be had for thousands more than the Avant, however. Audi's A6 is not a steal, by any means, but it is a fairly priced vehicle in a hot market. With its utility, all-wheel drive and creature comforts, you'd be wise to consider the A6 Avant as an SUV alternative.