The Audi A4 Avant may not turn heads like a chiseled Cadillac CTS Sport Wagon and, at least in this test car's configuration, won't win any races against a grocery-toting BMW 3-series. But make no mistake, this is a handsome, pleasant-to-drive vehicle.
From afar, the A4 might be best described as an extremely scaled down Q7. Stand a little closer, however, and there's no mistaking it for anything but a station wagon, with a large, perfectly rectangular storage area that can easily carry a weekend's worth of luggage. Not surprisingly, the car's true beauty is inside, where Audi's trademark teardrop-shaped gauges and engaging, finely assembled dash help the A4 Avant to clearly outshine the well-appointed but conventional interiors in the CTS and the 3-series.
The price you pay for the Audi's interior beauty is ergonomics. There's a needlessly complex HVAC system, which calls for you to use two separate controls to adjust the fan, and the MMI interface can still be awkward to use. This particular A4 also seemed to have trouble syncing with an iPod, even though it comes with special cables for the task.
Unlike Cadillac or BMW, Audi doesn't offer wagon buyers six-cylinder power. The familiar 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder can't quite match the output or refinement of its larger-displacement competitors, but it's nonetheless smooth and potent and offers the fuel economy benefits one would expect of a smaller engine (better than the BMW by a combined 3 mpg, and better than the Cadillac by 2 mpg).
Our Avant lacked the optional sport suspension and Drive Select package, which would bring its price in line with BMW and might have helped it rival the 3-series' outstanding dynamics. As equipped, however, there's too much body roll, and in fast turns it tends to understeer despite the Quattro system's ability to send up to 85 percent of the engine's torque to the rear wheels. Steering is typical Audi, meaning it's quick, precise, and almost devoid of feel (Drive Select offers a way to increase the steering effort).
Despite its ergonomic idiosyncracies and dynamic limitations on a curvy road, the A4's combination of efficiency, subtle beauty, and real usability makes it a great choice for anyone in need of a small luxury car with some utility.