San Cassiano, Italy Considering Americans' reverence for SUVs, it's puzzling to consider that wagons, despite their similar silhouette, still carry at least as much figurative baggage here as they do literal. Audi's artful Avant models, for instance, barely register a blip on the radar in the States. Whereas six of every ten A4 and A6 models sold in Europe are Avants, in America, the ratio is barely one out of ten. For the new A6 Avant, arguably Ingolstadt's most beautiful wagon to date, that will translate to a scant 2500 cars a year.
Probably the biggest downside of that kind of exclusivity is a paucity of powertrains. When the A6 Avant reaches dealer showrooms this summer, starting at about $46,000, it will do so just one way: with the direct-injection 3.2-liter V-6 that arrived last fall with the new A6 sedan, a six-speed Tiptronic manu-matic transmission, and Quattro all-wheel drive-no V-8, no manual gearbox. Fortunately, the mellifluous 3.2 is very fine indeed, spinning out an easy 252 hp and 243 lb-ft of torque. And although it's still forced to haggle with the poky Tiptronic over each gearchange (Audi's lightning-quick direct-shift gearbox won't arrive in the A6 for at least another year), the engine is admirably smooth, responsive, and frugal, and it's quite capable of moving the Avant's additional hundred or so pounds with aplomb. An adaptive air suspension, derived from the setup in the flagship A8, is a worthwhile extra, providing settings for various duties, including a self-leveling feature and a stiff-and-lowdown Dynamic mode.
The A6 Avant offers what is certainly the most successful integration yet of Audi's controversial new corporate face. The body's tapered profile and broad shoulders, which evoke the much-lauded Avantissimo concept from 2001, beautifully balance the visual weight of the big, single-frame grille. The new car is larger than its predecessor in practically every dimension, providing more head and shoulder room. Cargo capacity is up, too, by 3.9 cubic feet (about equal to a full-size Samsonite case). It now totals 20.0 cubic feet with the rear seats up, 58.6 with them folded.
In the end, the appeal of the new A6 Avant-and, for that matter, every Audi wagon since the 5000 of the early 1980s-doesn't hinge on brute strength or arklike stowage potential. For the rare buyer who understands, it is elegant, understated proof that sport can be smart and that utility doesn't have to be box-shaped.
On sale: July 2005
Price: $46,000 (est)
Engine: 3.2L DOHC V-6, 252 hp, 243 lb-ft