While Americans are smitten -- temporarily, I'm sure -- with big SUVs, Europeans, to whom $5/gallon gas sounds like a pretty good deal, prefer mid-size wagons like the Audi A6 Avant. The A6 Avant hauls lots of stuff and packs in lots of safety features, and does so with reasonable thirst -- EPA estimates are 19 MPG city, 27 MPG highway. For 2007, a new S Line appearance and handling package attempts to sweeten the deal. But like most European cars, it's not cheap: $48,720 for starters, $60,770 as tested. How does this German wagon hold up to American family-car duty? Read on.
First Glance: Great clothes, wrong shoes
When I first saw the Audi A6 Avant last year -- Avant is Audi-speak for "wagon" -- my jaw literally dropped. If more wagons looked this good, I bet the automakers would sell a heck of a lot less SUVs.
So when I saw the 2007 Audi A6 Avant with the new (new to the wagon, that is) $3,350 S Line package, I was a bit disappointed. I didn't mind the special S Line bumpers or the extra gadgets like steering-wheel paddle shifters and headlight washers, No, it's the 19" wheels (link goes to photo) included with the S Line package that I don't like. The big, bright silver wheels -- which stood out all the more against my test car's dark blue paint -- made the A6 Avant look like it was pretending to be something smaller, almost an oversized A3. It reminded me of a friend's dad who still dresses like he did when he was twenty-five. No doubt he thinks he looks cool; in reality he looks like a geek. To me, the A6 Avant looks a lot better with smaller wheels and lighter paint colors.
In the Driver's Seat: Brighter colors spruce the place up a bit
Anyone who's read my other Audi reviews knows what I think of their interiors: Dark and complex, a place purely for getting on with the business of driving. The A6 Avant had a few pleasant surprises: Brown leather on the seats and door panels and silver trim on the instrument panel. Both helped break up the monotony, but I still prefer the soothing colors and curves of the Mercedes E-Class' cabin (photo here).
Standard in the A6 is Audi's Multi Media Interface, or MMI, which uses a dial to control stereo, navigation, climate, and other functions. I've driven enough Audis to become familiar with MMI, and I still can't perform simple operations like changing the radio station or turning down the fan without diverting my attention from the road. I just don't think it's possible, and that makes MMI a potential safety hazard. (The $4000 Technology Package includes a voice recognition system for many of these functions; I highly recommend it.)
But let's talk about what the A6 does right. It has comfortable seats front and rear and a big load bay with squared-off sides. A metal plate protects the cargo bay's threshold, but there's nothing to protect the bumper from luggage-induced scrapes. At 33.9 cubic feet (59 cu. ft. with the seats folded down), it offers a tad more cargo space than the BMW 5-series wagon but less than the Mercedes-Benz E350, Saab 9-5 and Volvo V70. Nor does the A6 offer seating for 7 like the Mercedes E350 does.
On the Road: Stodgy but sure-footed
With all-wheel-drive (standard on the A6 Avant) and performance tires (part of the S Line package), I figured my test drive should include a run on my favorite twisty road. But just as I got there the heavens opened up and the rain began to pour down. So rather than a test of the A6's handling prowess, it turned into a demonstration of why the A6's electronic stability control is such a must-have safety feature. I tossed the A6 into the curves at dry-road speeds, and the ESC system did its job, braking individual wheels and modulating the power so as to keep the A6 on course. The Audi felt like it couldn't put a foot wrong… and if it did, well, luckily the A6 has lots of airbags as standard equipment.
One feature I really liked was the optional backup camera (again, part of the Technology Package). With orange lines that show the path the car will take as you turn the steering wheel and a beeper that tells you how close you're getting to what's behind you, it made parking this big girl a cinch.
Journey's End: Tough competition
The A6 squares off against luxury and sport wagons like the Mercedes E350, BMW 530i, Saab 9-5, Volvo V70 and Subaru Legacy GT. Of these, the Audi, BMW, Mercedes and Subaru offer all-wheel-drive as standard; Volvo offers AWD on the hot-rod V70R. I like the Mercedes better for luxury, and appreciate the flexibility of its third-row seat, though like the Audi it's a bit dull to drive. The Saab 9-5 and Subaru Legacy GT offer more thrills at a lower price, though their interiors are strictly coach-class. For something completely different, check out the Dodge Magnum, which trades a little practicality for a lot of attitude.
To me, the A6 is the best looking of the Euro-wagons (without the S Line package, that is); it doesn't scream "Mommymobile" (or perhaps I should say "Mutterauto") the way the Mercedes, BMW and Saab do. And when the weather goes bad, the A6 is the car to have. It's a tempting proposition. Shame it's not more exciting to drive; that alone would be enough to steer me into the arms of the Saab 9-5. Still, my week with the A6 Avant reinforced my belief that when it comes to family cars, the Europeans know what they're doing.