Every carmaker has a forte. Some have two. Audi has many. And aside from all-wheel drive and direct fuel injection and turbocharging and fine styling, Audi is also good at building lots of luxury and refinement into its compact sedans and wagons.
That brings us to the all-new 2009 Audi A4. Indeed, Audi is much better known for the compact, luxurious A4 than its larger offerings like the A8 and Q7, which can explain why this compact represents nearly half of all Audis sold in the U.S.
The 2009 A4 Avant combines all of Audi's strengths, and as such, becomes one of the most appealing wagons on the market, something we confirmed soon after we got down the road on the Mediterranean island of Ibiza in our first drive of this slick hauler, an experience that also provided us our first taste of the terrific new 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that will power most 2009 A4 models sold in America.
The Future of Audi The 2009 Audi A4 is the single most important car for Audi in the U.S., representing almost 50 percent of Audi's yearly sales in America, almost 40,000 cars.
The 2009 Audi Avant represents only about 10 percent of that figure. That's not much, but it's a different story in Europe and elsewhere, where sales of the A4 Avant currently match or outpace sedan sales. Audi is hoping that the 2009 Audi A4 Avant's mix of style, utility and fuel-efficiency will catch on in America now that the price of fuel has taken little wagons out of the shadow of sport-utilities.
The Beauty of Utility At least the 2009 Audi A4 Avant is beautiful. That's what Audi tells us anyway. And in this case it's true, as there are very few wagons ("estates" the Brits call them) as stylish as the A4 Avant. Thanks to the repackaging of the front suspension and engine that moves the front wheels forward in the A4 platform, the wagon takes on the most graceful proportions of any wagon in Audi's history.
On the outside, the 6.6-inch-longer wheelbase, stretched nose and lower ride height add balance and elegance to the wagon's innately rear-biased proportions, complemented by the steep windshield that contributes to the sense of speed. Overall, the A4 Avant stretches 4.7 inches longer than before and adds 2 inches of width.
It's a very sleek package. The silver roof rails lay down flat. Little vertical lips at the outboard corners of the taillights reduce aero turbulence in much the same way as the integrated spoiler on top of the rear hatch. The D-pillar and rear window are steeply raked, adding a sense of sportiness (although at the expense of ultimate cargo space, which is down from 59 cubic feet to 50.5).
The Beauty of Stuff What Audi provides in consolation for the reduction in cargo capacity — besides attention-getting style, of course — is a carload more features than were found in the previous A4 Avant. These include a reversible luggage compartment floor, an available power tailgate, a panoramic two-panel moonroof and even an electronic sensor that automatically turns on the headlight high beams when conditions are right.
This, of course, is in addition to the laundry list of additional features that the new-generation A4 sedan brings with it, including a wider, more comfortable cabin rendered in much more premium materials and new color combinations, plus a standard MMI video screen-based control interface. In fact, the 2009 Audi A4 Avant even offers surprising high-end options such as climate-controlled seats and a 505-watt 14-speaker Bang & Olufsen sound system.
Stronger Motivation for the A4 Character Our drive also is our first opportunity to experience the all-new Audi 2.0T, the latest revision of the turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-4 that has been the staple of the A4.
It had better be good, since the 2.0T will be the only engine offered in the A4 Avant until a significant number of U.S. buyers demonstrate a desire for more power. And they may never show up, because, truly, the 2.0T might prove more than satisfactory even for enthusiasts. There are 211 horsepower and a very impressive 258 pound-feet of torque. By comparison, the 3.2-liter V6 available in the A4 sedan produces 54 more hp but 15 fewer lb-ft of torque, a gap that seems narrow enough to forestall any clamor for the larger, less fuel-efficient engine.
With all that torque, the inline-4 engine is lively. And when paired with front-wheel drive and a six-speed manual transmission (the only combination with the 2.0T available to us on this drive, which had a bias to the European market) we liked it fine, though there's a slight tug of torque steer. But that's largely moot for us, as the Avant 2.0T will come only with all-wheel drive and the new six-speed "fast-shifting" ZF-built automatic transmission.
As we hurled along the cliff-side roads of Ibiza, a sexy, mechanized whirr from the powertrain was omnipresent, plus a more mature growl than one might expect from a 2.0-liter four. Not surprisingly, the pull is magnificent once all 258 lb-ft are summoned. Since this is a wagon, it didn't take much to provoke the stability control nanny, but happily, the calibration is such that braking action tightens your cornering line before retarding engine output, so the result is smooth, predictable acceleration on the brink of tire breakaway but rarely surpassing it.
Turns Better Than Ever After driving the 2009 A4 Avant more or less back to back with the A4 sedan, we found — surprise! — virtually no difference in the way they turned and stopped. The less forward-biased weight distribution that has made the new A4 sedan more responsive to the steering wheel also pays off in this wagon form, allowing for a nice, flat cornering attitude and easy, predictable rotation in tight 2nd-gear corners.
You'll definitely want to check the option box for Audi Drive Select with Audi dynamic steering, which allows you to alter certain drive characteristics including throttle action, transmission calibration and steering response. With this setup, you can dial in aggressive settings for each and take the A4 driving experience into a whole new realm, which all but makes you forget that you're driving a wagon.
This system also incorporates active countersteering and optimized stability control settings, which together add a real measure of safety while upping the threshold of intervention by the stability control — a win-win if there ever was one.
Beautiful Utility The 2009 Audi A4 Avant is scheduled to go on sale at the same time as the A4 sedan; we figure late this summer, probably late August or early September. Despite the decline in the dollar's buying power, the price of the Avant won't increase much from its current level, Audi tells us. Right now, a 2.0T Quattro with an automatic transmission starts at $33,300, and options like Audi Drive Select, panoramic sunroof and the Bang & Olufsen sound system could blow the price up above $40K.
Just like Audi itself, the A4 Avant just hasn't caught on in America in the way that everyone expected. But perhaps the great driving character of the new A4 Avant will help people overlook its reduction in cargo capacity. Think of the 2009 Audi A4 Avant as Audi's sexiest crossover.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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