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Scrape off the usual Audi marketing froth — “emotional driving experience”, “a microcosm in a macrocosm” — what we have here are two highly-polished and desirable luxury luggage luggers. The Avant variant (that'd be wagon to us Antipodeans) of the well-received A4 sedan range arrived last week and were launched last week with a testing drive out of Albury to Bright in the Victorian high country and back.
As with most Euro prestige wagons, a genre becoming ever more evident on our roads, it's not as though the Avants are a great deal more practical than the sedan, which boasts quite a big booty. Rather it's a question of which flicks your switch aesthetically. Still, the five door does have a highly useable 490 litres with the back seats up and 1430 when they’re folded flat. Up front there's a choice of the Volkswagen Group's direct injection turbo charged four cylinder engines. These are the stalwart 2.0-litre TDI common rail diesel and — one of our favourite small petrol jobbies — the 1.8 TFSI.
Both versions are driven through the front wheels via Audi's Multitronic continuously variable transmission with eight manual settings. Down the line, perhaps the second quarter of 2009, comes the enticing prospect of a quattro all-wheel-drive variant with a 155kW/350Nm version of the 2.0-litre turbo four, a drivetrain that will also go to the four door. Like the current four door, the Avant has a decent levels of standard equipment and the usual mile long list of costly extras. The pretty much standard 1.8 version we drove to Bright featured Milano leather upholstery, Servotronic steering, eight airbags, daytime running lights and $1600(!) metallic paint. The S-line packaged version in which we returned also copped grippy great 18-inch low profile rubber, paddle shifters, perforated leather and the optimum version of Drive Select (through which steering, gearshift and damping responses are altered to mood or circumstance).
Even without the full length sun roof ($2850), this variant returned little change from $70K. Steep, even when placed next to the Audi's direct rivals, BMW's 320i Touring and the Mercedes-Benz 200K Estate. And not a little silly if you're not so hopelessly badge besotted that you can't see the merits of Skoda's Octavia (with the same engines) and the Mazda6.
Both are equally good if not better drives, both are bigger and both are $25,000 to $35,000 cheaper. We could also point to Holden's new Commdore sportwagon, but badge blindness goes only so far.
As opposed to the previous generation A4, the new Audi is an attractive proposition as much for its on road behaviour as its chic lines. We'll get to the diesel in coming weeks (it's anticipated take up rate is less than 20 per cent), but on the word of trusted colleagues it reflects the equivalent sedan's disposition.
That's to say that the extra weight, especially over the front axle, drags it back against its more adroit petrol sibling. Audi's persistence with longitudinal engines means that the bigger the donk the more negated the advantages of its much-vaunted new platform.
Nor can a decisive economy advantage be claimed for the oiler. When pushing on, it needs to be spurred. In city traffic its consumption approaches that of the petrol car.
In fact, the 1.8 TFSI combines the best characteristics of petrol and diesel, with the flexibility of the former (at 8.9 seconds it's almost one tick quicker to 100km/h from standing) and the low down response of the latter. And all of its 250Nm is available from 1500rpm — almost the instant the throttle is floored.
It's a light weight contender that punches above its weight to imbue the Avant with a dynamic behaviour that's about as rewarding as you're going to get in a front-wheel-drive. While never enamoured of CVT, there are few grounds to complain of the way in which it transmits power to the road.
As ever with Audi, the inside story is one of tactile delight. The interior of even a basic spec variant is pervaded by an air of comfort, convenience and sheer quality that exceeds the Merc and leaves the Bimmer for dead. When you're sitting this prettily, you don't mind so much which wheels are doing the driving.
AUDI A4 AVANT
Price: $56,400 (TFSI); $57,800 (TDI)
Engines: 1.8L/4-cylinder turbo petrol (118kW/250Nm); 2L/4-cylinder turbo diesel (105kW/320Nm)
Economy: 7.4L/100km (TFSI); 6L/100km (TDI)
Transmission: continuously variable auto