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First drive: Audi's A4 Avant returns

Single model line-up: For now the A4 Avant is only available with a 2.0-litre engine mated to Audi's continuously variable "multitronic" transmission.

Audi has re-introduced the Avant to its A4 range to meet demand as well as match its rivals

2 Sep 2002

LATE last year Audi Australia backed away from its plans to supplement the then six-month-old second generation A4 sedan range with an Avant (Audi-speak for wagon) model.

The company's research had shown the prestige compact wagon segment was in decline, so it could not justify expending valuable resources promoting a model that was destined not to generate significant sales volumes.

Booming four-wheel drive sales, backed by a massive influx of soft-roader models, had eaten into what was already a niche sector within the prestige segment, so Audi decided to push the presence of its A6-based Allroad model instead.

The local arm of the German manufacturer said it also wanted to focus more of its attention on sustaining the high level of interest the A4 sedan range was experiencing at the time.

So the A4 Avant was removed from the planning agenda and ruled out for the first six to nine months of 2002. But its being out of favour did not last long.

With prestige rival BMW introducing the 3 Series Touring (another non-conformist name for wagon) to Australia for the first time in July, after announcing its plans at the Melbourne motor show in March, Audi Australia was pressured into taking another, closer look at the Avant so as not to be left out of the mix that also included the Mercedes-Benz C-class wagon.

It also claims there was a turnaround in the market over the past six to 12 months - prompting a recovery from shrinking sales - as well as a growing demand from customers looking for the Avant to be a part of the A4 range, as it was with its predecessor.

So the plans that Audi already had in place for the Avant's release were swung into action, with the car arriving just a few months after its original second-quarter launch date.

Only one variant is being brought in for now, fitted with the 2.0-litre engine and multitronic transmission that has contributed significantly towards the A4 sedan's success and improved sales since the current model arrived in June last year.

That powertrain combination also gives Audi a player in the compact wagon sector at a much cheaper price point than its main German rivals.

The Avant joins the A4 range costing $4350 more than the equivalent 2.0-litre sedan model at $54,250, which is significantly cheaper than the admittedly bigger engined and more powerful BMW 320i Touring ($67,200) and Mercedes-Benz C200K Classic wagon ($66,974).

Audi has steered away from its higher-spec rivals in an effort to corner the lifestyle sector, which is where it believes first-time wagon buyers are entering the market - pitching it against other top selling European prestige wagons such as Volvo's V40, Volkswagen's Passat, Saab's 9-5 and even the Alfa Romeo 156 Sportwagon.

Like its sedan counterpart, the A4 Avant has grown bigger with the new generation, with increases to length, width, height and wheelbase contributing to similar space improvements on the inside - more headroom in the front, more elbow room front and rear, better rear legroom and increases to the load space aperture and through loading width.

Standard equipment levels also run lineball with the sedan, including features such as ESP (Electronic Stabilisation Program), ABS, six airbags (dual front, front side and the "Sideguard" head curtain system), dual-zone climate control air-conditioning, remote central locking, electric mirrors and windows, cruise control and a 10-speaker audio system with six-disc CD player.

Alloy wheels are 15-inch as standard, but larger 17-inch items are available as an option, along with Xenon headlights, sports suspension, an acoustic parking system for the rear, trip computer, Bose audio system, leather upholstery and satellite navigation - to name but a few.

The sales target for the Avant is about 30 units per month for the period from September until the end of this year, while Audi has forecast 300 units - or around 25 cars per month - for the full year in 2003.

Those figures represent a big improvement on the Avant's performance over the past three years when its sales almost halved, dropping from an average 15 units per month in 1999 to just eight per month last year when the old model was discontinued.

But Audi is of the opinion that it has a good product on its hands with the new A4 Avant, one that can do the job in the compact wagon niche that accounted for just 2.4 per cent of the total prestige segment in 2001.

"The presence of good product in a segment tends to fire it up," Audi Australia managing director Graham Hardy said in support of his company's latest model.

PRICING:
A4 2.0 manual - $47,400
A4 2.0 multitronic - $49,900
A4 Avant 2.0 multitronic - $54,250
A4 1.8 T multitronic - $58,070
A4 1.8 T quattro manual - $58,970
A4 2.4 multitronic - $63,370
A4 3.0 multitronic - $80,070
A4 3.0 quattro tiptronic - $84,070

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

MUCH of what has been said about the way the A4 2.0-litre multitronic sedan drives translates directly to the Avant model - good grip, surefooted handling, adequate rather than startling performance and still some annoying kickback through the steering.

But like all good wagons these days, unless you were constantly watching the mirrors you would be hard put to tell that you are not actually behind the wheel of a sedan.

The slight increase in road noise that comes with open cabin cars like wagons and hatchbacks is a bit of a giveaway, but other than that the Avant is effectively a sedan with an extra large boot and it behaves on the road as such.

Attention to detail has always been an Audi strong point and the Avant continues that tradition, especially around the cargo area where a good deal of effort has gone in to making it as practical and user-friendly as possible: * The tailgate opens to a standard height for regular size people, as well as offering an additional 15cm of vertical travel on its gas struts, and anywhere in between, for taller people accessing the rear compartment.

* Smooth surfaced inside panels with no wheel arch bulges to intrude on using the available space efficiently.

* A variable double storage floor with a floor panel adjustable to three different positions that when removed to fully open the second, lower level compartment, liberates an additional 65 litres of storage space.

* The retractable cargo barrier connects to the roof both when the rear seat backrest is in its normal position, as well as when the seat is folded flat to increase luggage space - protecting occupants at all times.

* Child anchorage points are mounted on the rear of the backrest rather than intruding on available luggage space by being located on the floor.

The luggage area remains huge, just like it is in the sedan, but it does come at the expense of rear seat legroom, which is a long-time shortcoming of the A4.

Since the original A4 Avant was released in 1996, Audi's compact luggage hauler has been the most successful premium estate car in its segment in Europe and a clear leader over its BMW and Mercedes-Benz rivals.

Although the buying picture in Australia is very different, Audi has in its latest A4 Avant a vehicle that is well equipped, eminently practical and reasonably priced - just the ingredients it needs to have every chance of improving its lagging sales performance of recent years.

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