Once suited to adventurous spirits and strong spines, the sport-utility vehicle has now become positively genteel. In fact, the true ground-pounders of the sport-ute segment now take a back seat to their refined, more car-like competitors. And that suits the folks at Audi just fine, since their new A4 Avant wagon can’t be considered a sport-utility in the truest sense of the word. But there is plenty of sport “sedan” beneath this stylish skin. And with a long interior and the available sure-footed quattro system, plenty of utility, as well. But is that enough to make the A4 Avant a success?
That depends on your definition of success. Because to those who don’t need the rugged overkill offered by many SUVs, yet appreciate the availability of all-wheel drive and the roominess of a wagon, the 1998 Audi A4 Avant is already a success.
And good looking, too! As the Avant’s unique styling makes it instantly recognizable as a member of the Audi family and sets it apart from the other wagons on the road. Admittedly, not very difficult to do, considering this sparsely populated market segment.
But to us, the real standouts are its sports sedan-like agility and strong grip, evident even in our front-drive tester, and its elegantly appointed interior. That, like the new A6, comes in three distinctive atmospheres that let buyers select colors and fabrics, a varied mix of bright trim and wood, even the style of stitching. All at no extra cost.
The front leather buckets are typically German, firm, but offering good thigh and lateral support, as well as side impact protection and optional heat. The driver’s seat gets 8-way power adjustment with a manual lumbar support, and faces an instrument cluster that includes oil-temp and ammeter gauges in its excellent layout.
The stereo controls, however, are still a tad too small, although they are more legible than those found on the pricier A8. But the climate controls couldn’t be simpler. Just select the desired temperature, push the auto button, and forget about it. Also worth forgetting are the funky two-pronged cupholders. The design is clever, but not very useful.
And, unfortunately, neither are the back seats, where space is tight even for kids. Prompting us to recommend that this Avant is better suited to couples seeking wagon versatility rather than families. But there is adequate cargo space: 31 cubic feet with the seat upright, 63.7 with it folded. And it’s easily accessed through a rear hatch that swings high and away, revealing the nice, large opening.
Also easily accessed are the vital fluid filler caps in the otherwise tight engine bay. This 2.8-liter dual-overhead-cam V-6 includes 5-valve technology, variable valve timing, and a variable geometry composite intake manifold in its bag of technical goodies.
And delivers 190 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque. Along with an impressive 25 miles per gallon fuel economy in mixed city and highway driving. It also delivered us to 60 in a respectable 7.6 seconds, with a good strong pull throughout the powerband. But under full throttle acceleration, the 5-speed automatic in Tiptronic mode ignored our shift points, and instead, ran to the redline where it shifted itself. But the FrontTrak front-drive system, with all-speed traction control, pulled us nimbly through the slalom with minimal slippage on a 40 degree day and easily handled a high-speed lane change at 60 miles per hour, almost making us forget that this wasn’t a Quattro-equipped test car.
The heavily weighted steering is smooth as whipped butter at speed. Turn-ins are precise, with just a touch of understeer before it hooks up and sends you in the desired direction. Braking is also excellent. 4-wheel discs and ABS are standard, and brought us to a stop from 60 in a rock solid average of 120 feet. There’s plenty of feedback through the pedal, so you know this system is working.
Out on the highway, the ride is refined and supple. But on back roads, the 4-link front, and torsion-beam rear with gas, coil-over shocks at the corners, does only an okay job at soaking up the harshest thumps.
Base price on this stylish little package is $30,965. Our lightly optioned tester rang up at $33,945. If that’s too rich for your blood, wait until fall, when the Avant will be available with a 1.8-liter turbo four that should bring the price down to around $25,000.
This Audi is a far cry from the woody clad highway boats we grew up with. The 1998 Audi A4 Avant delivers sports sedan handling and wagon versatility in an aggressively styled package loaded with technical innovation. That should spell success for the A4 Avant in capital letters.
Engine: 2.8-Liter Dohc V-6
Torque: 207 Lb Feet
0-60 MPH: 7.6 Seconds
60-0 MPH: 120 Feet