Photo: Audi. Click image to enlarge
By Richard Russell
San Cassiano, Italy – Station wagons have not exactly been the hot button on the North American market, where consumers flock to Sport Utility Vehicles as their conveyance of choice. It’s a different story elsewhere in the world, particularly in Europe, where wagons are a major factor. At Audi, for example, they account for more than 64 per cent of sales, compared to 10 per cent here.
But Audi feels strongly that the recent growth in the number of wagons available in North America has raised awareness, acceptance and expectations. This trend might also get a boost from the recent rise in the price of gasoline. If either or both of these come to fruition, sales of the 2006 Audi A6 Avant will surely exceed the modest expectations of 150 units per year for Canada.
Introduced to the world media here in Italy, this latest Avant showcases Audi’s technology and features the company’s controversial new face on yet another product. There is no missing the new nose, first introduced on the A6 sedan and later on the new A4. Love it or hate it, this massive chromed horse collar certainly announces that this is a new Audi. A distinctive “torpedo” shoulder line runs the length of the Avant below the window line; at the rear, a pair of slick new LED taillights displays two distinctly different looks for running lights and brake lights.
Audi is known for its interior craftsmanship, and this latest version carries the same combination of elegance and exceptional build quality seen on the current A6 sedan. Aluminum and wood trim, either walnut or birch, are used sparingly according to which of four interior colours are chosen. Obviously, in a car of this calibre, the standard equipment list is long and complete. It includes leather seating, dual-zone climate control, sunroof, heated front seats, an electro-mechanical parking brake and eighth-generation electronic stability program, in addition to the usual amenities and features we’ve come to expect from luxury cars at this price range.
The cargo compartment has a variety of neat touches, including dividing nets, cargo rails with multiple adjustable tie-downs and telescoping arms, and a retractable two-story floor. You can even program the height to which the tailgate rises, to avoid damage in enclosed parking spaces.
Audi says to expect a V8 version next year, using the same 4.2-litre unit as the sedan. Until then, a 255 hp 3.2-litre V6, teamed with a six-speed Tiptronic automatic and Quattro all-wheel-drive, is the sole drivetrain offering. The V6 utilizes direct injection to meter fuel directly into the combustion chamber rather than the intake tract, resulting in improvements to both mileage and emissions. It also means more torque and thus driveability: 243 lb-ft, to be exact.
This latest Avant shares an entirely new platform with its sedan sibling. Larger and offering more interior space, it is also 34 per cent more resistant to bending forces. This shows in improvements in ride, handling and noise levels.
The Alps are dominated by the mighty peaks of the Dolomites in the Tyrol region in the very north of Italy. The region is home to what claims to be the largest ski resort in the world, with 460 lifts and 1,050 km of runs. Every square metre of land is used for skiing; in this domain, it seems Audi has captured the lion’s share of the car business among those who practice this sport. What better way to get to the slopes, than a wagon with the all-season grip and carrying capacity suited to that active lifestyle?
The landscape is awe-inspiring and there are more twists and turns in the road than the Liberal sponsorship scandal. Every few hundred metres there is a switchback as you claw up or down the slopes. The drop-off is so severe that if you left the road, your clothes would be out of fashion before they reached bottom. Thanks to Quattro and a well-engineered suspension, the A6 Avant clings to the road like a coat of paint. The excellent combination of supple ride and hunkered-down road holding is the result of a new four-link front suspension combined with a trapezoidal link rear setup borrowed from the newest generation A8. Adaptive air suspension is also available, allowing you to select between comfort, automatic and dynamic modes. When in dynamic mode or driving swiftly in automatic mode, the Avant automatically lowers 15 mm. It can also be raised 50 mm when extra clearance is needed.
The six-cylinder has ample if not impressive power, especially when apportioned through a six-speed gearbox. I drove both manual and Tiptronic six-speed versions and can report that the auto works very well indeed, especially when you use the wheel-mounted paddles for gear selection. The brakes, designed for these types of roads and the unrestricted speeds of the Autobahn, are both powerful and progressive. There was no sign of fade despite repeated heavy use as I tore up and down the paved slopes. Although dry for the most part, many corners were covered with the runoff caused by a warm sun and all that snow: perfect conditions for Quattro, which showed an uncanny ability to find grip under a variety of conditions.
The Audi Avant and its competitors are lifestyle vehicles in Europe, much like SUVs here. In addition to offering as much room, all-season grip and utility as an SUV, the Avant adds vastly superior ride, handling and performance. Look for it in Audi stores this summer at about $65,000.