The A4 Avant (Avant is Audiese for "wagon") is all-new for 2009, and when Audi says all-new, they aren't fooling around. The new A4 Avant has a new shape, a new interior, and even a new-found power boost for its stellar 2.0T engine. Small wagons are in short supply in the American marketplace -- has Audi improved the breed with the new 2009 A4 Avant? Read on. $35,675 base, $37,155 as tested, EPA fuel economy estimates 21 MPG city, 27 MPG highway.
First Glance: The problem with testing Audis
My wife Robin thinks Audis are the best cars on the planet. I can't say I'm quite as enamored with them as she is, probably because I don't get to drive them as much as she does -- any time an Audi shows up at the Gold household, Robin disappears with it. There have been times when I have literally had to beg her for the keys. I know what you're thinking: "Don't let her drive them, you wimp." I tried that once, with a gloss-black Audi S5. I kept the car to myself until the second-to-last day of test week. I also failed to mention the fact that it had a 354 horsepower V8. (Robin, she likee the power.) That was a year and a half ago, and she still brings it up during arguments.
For this test, I tried a different tact. I preceded the 2009 Audi A4 Avant's arrival with a week of speeches about the millions of readers who count on me to provide thorough reviews, how much income my reviews generate (a frighteningly big chunk of it; if you guys don't read, we don't eat), and how, if she didn't let me drive the 2009 Audi A4 Avant, our entire future would collapse into a smoking pile of moral and financial ruin.
Turns out no speeches were needed. Robin wasn't crazy about the A4, because, and I quote, "It doesn't have heated seats."
I swear, I will never understand women.
Robin's derriere froid was my gain, as it meant I got plenty of seat time in the A4. And despite my butt remaining at ambient temperature, I thought it was fantastic -- though as wagons go, it leaves quite a bit to be desired.
In the Driver's Seat: A4 Avant trades function for form
One of my complaints about Audis past is that they all look alike. Not the new A4. It doesn't look like an A6 or an A8. What it looks like is a BMW 3-series. But it's handsome, and that's what counts. Compare the new A4 Avant to the old one, and it's as if the car has traded its clunky glasses and frumpy wool skirt for contact lenses and clingy jeans, though there's still a bit of long-legged gangliness in the wheelbase.
Sadly, the one thing the new A4 wagon doesn't do as well as the old one is wagoning. The car itself is bigger, but cargo space (link goes to photo) is way, way down, from 27.8 cubic feet in the '08 wagon to a measly 17.3 in the '09. That's only half a cube more than the A4 sedan! Isn't the whole purpose of buying a wagon to haul more stuff? Compare the A4's cargo capacity to its rivals: Volvo V50, 27.5; Saab 9-3, 29.4; even the VW Jetta wagon, 32.8. With the rear seats folded -- they don't fold flat, a major wagon faux pas, as is the lack of a bumper scuff plate -- the A4 Avant stows 50.5 cubic feet, only 8.5 fewer than the '08 model, which shows that a) anyone can fill up a paragraph with numbers from the spec sheet, and b) Audi has put more of an emphasis on back seat space.
But let's leave the back seat behind (hah!) and move to the front. I love what Audi has done with the dash -- like the exterior, it's more sexy and less frumpy than the old car, though the controls are still a bit too complicated for my liking. I loved my test car's combination of beige leather with silver and ash-wood trim, though wood is a $400 option.
On the Road: World's best four-cylinder gets even better
I will never run out of good things to say about Audi's 2.0T engine. For 2009, this turbocharged, direct fuel-injected four-cylinder vundermotor produces 211 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque, up 4 hp and a hefty 51 lb over last year. 258 lb-ft is about what you'd expect from a medium-sized V6, and that's exactly what this engine feels like. My test car had the optional six-speed automatic transmission (standard; only sedans offer a manual) which pulls the neat Audi trick of reducing power slightly during shifts so as to smooth out the ride. Fuel economy is good, too -- I averaged 23.4 MPG on the prerequisite premium fuel, which is pretty good for a wagon, or at least it would be if the A4 had a decent-sized cargo bay. The only thing this engine lacks is a good soundtrack -- the 2.0T rumbles and moans like it couldn't care less.
It's a good thing the 2.0T engine is as good as it is, because for now, it's the only choice for the A4 Avant -- the sedan's 265 hp 3.2 liter V6 is not available in the wagon. No big loss, because the improved 2.0T actually develops more torque than the V6, making it more better-er for wagoning. (Er, provided we're still pretending that the wagon carries significantly more cargo than the sedan, which it doesn't.) While A4 sedans can be had with front-wheel-drive, A4 wagons come exclusively with Audi's Quattro all-wheel-drive system -- not that you'll hear me complaining, because Quattro provides better grip when the weather is lousy and more fun when the sun is out and the roads are curvy.
Journey's End: Not the best wagon, but I still might well buy one
One thing never seems to change about Audis: They're expensive. The base-level A4 Avant Premium starts well over $35k and includes power-adjustable leather seats, automatic climate control, and a wonderful panoramic sunroof. The heated seats that Robin missed come with the almost-$40k A4 Premium Plus, which also gets automatic lights and wipers, auto-dimming mirrors, Bluetooth, a 6-disc CD changer and iPod adapter. The $43.5k Prestige model adds rear parking assist, keyless ignition, power tailgate and a Bang & Olufsen sound system. (How great is it that a guy named Mr. Bang went into the stereo business? I suppose he could have made guns.) And then there are the options -- $1,500 worth on my tester, and that was without navigation or metallic paint ($475 for any color other than white, black or red). Buy an A4 Avant with all the trimmings -- adaptive suspension, radar cruise control, rear side airbags, etc. -- and you're looking at over $54,000.
If you're buying a wagon for serious hauling, I'd skip the A4 and go for the Volvo V70 -- it costs less and carries a lot more. The Volkswagen Jetta wagon is a good choice for those who value utility over cachet. Saab's spacious and affordable 9-3 wagon looks great and drives great, though at the time of writing Saab's future is a little hazy. But despite the fact that its rivals do the job better, I would still be tempted to buy an A4 Avant, even though I'd be paying more and hauling less. At least I wouldn't have to worry about my wife stealing it. -- Aaron Gold