2009 Audi A4 Avant

Ibiza, the notorious party island off the coast of Spain, isn't exactly the first location that comes to mind for the drive of a new station wagon - it's more the kind of place where you step off the plane and they hand you a packet of crystal meth and a glow stick. But even without those, we managed to enjoy our time behind the wheel of the new Audi A4 Avant. Ibiza's narrow, winding roads were largely empty - we guessed it was because debauchery season hadn't yet begun, but evidently the island's inhabitants were just inside with curtains drawn, sleeping off their hangovers.

That meant fewer puttering, diesel Seats to zoom around, a task of which the Avant's 3.2-liter V-6 made quick work. So, too, did the spunky new 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder - which is unrelated to the outgoing car's 2.0-liter and which proffers an additional 11 hp and 51 lb-ft of torque. That engine was paired with a six-speed manual and front-wheel drive in the second car we sampled.

Unfortunately, neither of those powertrain combinations will be seen stateside, where the market for compact, luxury-brand wagons is small. (Mercedes-Benz no longer sells its C-class wagon in the States, although you can still get a BMW 3-series wagon.) So, Audi is trimming the A4 Avant lineup, and we'll get the new wagon with only one powertrain: 2.0T, Quattro, automatic - a combination that was not hand on our sunny Spanish island.

Still, we did learn a few things about the fifth generation of the A4, which is the most changed since the model made its debut in the mid-1990s. The car uses Audi's reconfigured transmission and torque converter (or, in stick-shift cars, transmission and clutch), first seen in the A5/S5. It allows the engine to move rearward in the chassis, meaning more of the powertrain's weight rides within the wheelbase and less hangs out ahead of the front axle. This is also the first A4 with a 60-percent rear-biased Quattro system. Together these changes help the car feel more balanced and less nose-heavy than before, although you still won't mistake it for a rear-wheel-drive car. Another new feature is Audi's Drive Select, which allows the driver to choose among sport, comfort, or automatic settings for the steering effort and quickness (the latter thanks to an actively variable ratio), throttle and automatic transmission mapping, and damper firmness.

The system ends up being a mixed bag: We liked the flatter cornering and slightly higher steering effort afforded by the sport mode, but compared with the standard steering, the active steering is less predictable and too twitchy and nervous in low-speed corners. Other new technologies include a blind spot warning system, intelligent cruise control, a rear-view camera, and a power tailgate. The new A4 is nearly five inches longer and is wider as well, which yields fractionally more interior space - six-footers can sit in back, although there's not much room to spare. The dramatically sloping roofline is bad news for anyone who wants to carry bulky items; apparently they're expected to switch over to the new Q5. The A4's interior is a close kin to the A6's, which is good company indeed.

Despite the behavior of some members of the U.S. press contingent in Ibiza - one of whom deposited some regurgitated Jack Daniel's on the tarmac before boarding our early-morning flight out - Americans evidently are considered rather staid where the new A4 Avant is concerned. Sure, we can groove to its curvy new shape and its general wagon hipness, but we're not racy enough to get the manual transmission or the most powerful engine. And if you're holding out hope for the new S4 Avant or the RS4, sorry to disappoint you, but word is that those party wagons are unlikely ever to touch down in America.

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