Few words in the automotive world come with such a pariah as 'station wagon.'? Yes, 'gas guzzler'? and 'minivan'? both carry negative connotations to some, but then again big trucks and SUVs are stilling selling (albeit slower each day) and minivans are continue to be the vehicle of choice in school drop-off lanes.
In Europe, however, station wagons are generally referred to as estate cars and, ironically, are pretty popular. Semantics or not, station wagons are about as popular in Europe as crossover suvs are here in the States.
Audi took things a step further by creating its own name for the station wagon - Avant - and applied it to its top-selling A4/S4 line, which also includes cabriolet and sedan models. Intent on avoiding any terms associating the Audi S4 with a run of the mill grocery getter, Audi gave the S4 Avant a powerful engine, sport-tuned suspension and a stylish, yet restrained designed. With the market shifting away from large, bulky SUVs and a growing number of manufacturers introducing station wagon variants of popular sedan models, Audi may have a unique hit on its hands with the high-performance 2008 S4 Avant.
Station wagons may have had their peak during the pre-minivan era here in the States, but the look and feel of the S4 Avant is reminiscent of classic American muscle cars. Similar to the S4 sedan, the Avant has a design that design that is simple and proportionate and uses minor cues to add to its performance stance. Visually, the S4 Avant uses a crisp crease just below the beltline to avoid a slab-sided body, while the blacked-out B- and C-pillars further add to the clean, unsuspecting look. In fact, the 2008 S4 Avant could have easily been the poster child for a classic sleeper if not for the attention-grabbing Imola Yellow paint scheme (a $750 option) - good news for drivers looking to get noticed, but bad news for drivers looking to anonymously explore all of the throaty V-8's 340 horses.
Only minor differences distinguish the S4 Avant from its Audi A4 counterpart avoiding the unnecessary, gaudy clutter that curse most factory-tuned cars. Aside from the lower ride height, the only main visual cues to the upgraded status of Audi's performance wagon are the quad-tipped dual exhaust outlets, lower door-mounted rocker panel enhancements, aluminum exterior mirrors and roof rails and, finally, the S4-specific brake calipers that proudly display the S4 logo. Audi's Convenience Package finishes off the look of the S4 Avant by adding Adaptive Front Lighting to the Bi-Xenon headlights and 18-inch, seven-double spoke wheels wrapped in Continental high-performance rubber.
On a clear, sunny Florida afternoon, Clearwater's Sunshine Dragstrip opened up its lanes to us. While the sport-tuned suspension is probably more at home on a road course, the S4 Avant did not disappoint in straight acceleration - going from 0-60 mph in just 5.3 seconds. Compared to the Cabriolet, the Avant benefited from a solid roof and was 200 pounds lighter making it feel even faster off the line and more nimble when taking corners. The S4-emblazoned calipers not only looked good, but also helped bring the Avant to a stop with no noticeable fade.
After testing the S4 Cabriolet a few weeks ago, we couldn't help but appreciate how effortless power was sent from the pedal to the pavement. The Avant's drivetrain was the same as the Cabriolet and left us with the same level of satisfaction. The 4.2-liter V-8 still put out a high-revving 340 horsepower (peaking at 7,000 rpm), the six-speed manual provided smooth, effortless shifts sending power to all four wheels via Audi's famed quattroÂ® permanent all-wheel drive system.
With all its raw power and handling capabilities, something had to give with the S4 Avant. Driving full throttle into turns and quick zero to 60 mph jaunts might be fun, but the resulting fuel mileage can cause a slight pain at the pump. With EPA estimates of 13 mpg city and 20 mpg highway, the only thing more agonizing than watching the gas gauge drop is filling the 16.6-gallon gas tank with premium unleaded only. But then again, this is no economy car and it almost begs to be driven hard as often as possible. The required gas-guzzler tax adds $1,700 to the 2008 S4 Avant's final price.
Inside, the offers RecaroÂ® seats with Alcantara inserts and optional ($400) carbon fiber trim surrounding the shifter and cutting through the middle of the instrument panel and door trim panels to continue the car's sporty theme. For the front passengers, sport bucket seats provided racecar-like bolstering without creating an overly harsh or uncomfortable ride, while all seats benefit from the luxurious look and feel of the suede-like Alcantara seat inserts. Offering up to 59 cubic feet of cargo space (27.8 cubic feet with the rear seat up), the S4 Avant is not only fun to run errands in, but it's also useful.
Convenience and enjoyment are recurring themes inside the Avant with our test model being equipped with the optional ($1,950) navigation system and a Bose premium sound system with Sirius satellite radio. Changing and/or viewing stereo settings, navigation route guidance and system options are easy for the driver thanks to the dials mounted on the steering wheel and viewable in the instrument cluster digital display.
Besides the seats and a slightly different instrument panel, the S4 Avant had an interior that was almost identical to the 2007 S4 Cabriolet we previously tested. Unfortunately, our main complaint about the Cabriolet's interior was also present in the Avant. The placement of the parking brake lever under the height-adjustable center console made setting and releasing the parking brake feel awkward and unnatural. In a car with such a refined interior, it's rather disappointing that such an obvious conflict of space is present.
One glaring weak point in the otherwise flawless design of the A4/S4 line is its crash-test rating. Although receiving a good rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) gave the Avant and Sedan models a four-star rating for frontal-impact and rollover protection (side-impact crash tests resulted in a five-star rating for front passenger protection and four stars for rear passenger protection).
As was the case with the S4 Cabriolet, drivers looking for the high-performance version of the A4 Avant need to come up with a considerable premium over the standard four-cylinder variant's asking price. The base A4 Avant model starts at $32,000, while the S4 Avant and all its performance glory have a starting MSRP of $49,610. Toss in the all the option upgrades and the 2008 Audi S4 Avant we drove had an as-tested price of $57,310.