Audi’s contemporary twist on station wagon

Peter Atkinson |

Sitting low and tough, Audi’s all-wheel drive S4 Avant is helping keep the station wagon alive.
Sitting low and tough, Audi’s all-wheel drive S4 Avant is helping keep the station wagon alive.

One sad consequence, and there haven’t been many, of the rise of the SUV has been the corresponding demise of the Aussie station wagon.

Manufacturers have largely swapped one for the other in model ranges at an alarming pace, with wagons of all sizes becoming collateral damage of the SUV revolution.

One of the few exceptions is German maker Audi. Despite having one of the most comprehensive fleets of SUVs on the market – no less than 19 varieties, counting performance and electric variants – Audi has still found room to retain the humble station wagon in its portfolio.

Mercedes and BMW still offer wagons, labelled ‘estate’ and ‘touring’ respectively, but it feels like a bit of a token gesture, a fact borne out by humble sales figures.

Audi, by contrast, continues to embrace the wagon (which it calls an Avant) with not just one but three distinct iterations of both its A4 and A6 Avant.

As well as the conventional format, there’s an all-road variant of both models, as well as two high-performance models each – the S6 and RS6, and the smaller S4 and RS4.

The S4 Avant, which recently underwent a mid-model upgrade, is tested here.

The A4 has been a volume-seller for Audi since it first broke cover in 1994 and the sporty ‘S’ models have long been part of the offering.

The Avant accounts for about 20 per cent of S4s sold in Australia.

Industry-wide, the wagon’s market share in Australia has shrunk by about 90 per cent since 2000, falling from about 70,000 units to its current 7000-odd sales.

Audi’s quattro all-wheel-drive is probably a factor that most attracts S4 wagon buyers, no doubt many of them snow-skiers or mountain bike riders.

And in that regard the S4 is brilliantly fit for purpose.

It’s a well-resolved highway cruiser that delivers engaging, athletic driving dynamics and oodles of power delivered smoothly through a refined eight-speed automatic transmission and distributed to all four wheels via quattro technology.

It’s a driver’s car but not one that will frighten the conservative, nor is it a handful to drive around town, thanks to its predictable handling, forgiving ride and wide, predictable power band.

It’s a handsome-looking machine, but it’s also unlikely to stand out from the crowd.

That changes when firing the ignition of the rorty twin-turbo V6, with its quad exhausts. Its 260kW of power is enough to set it apart from everyday wagons (or sedans for that matter) and, with its hunkered down stance and poised appearance, it absolutely looks the part.

All at a price just above the magical $100,000 mark – not an immense jump from the $70-odd grand for the four-cylinder, entry-level A4.

The S4’s enduring popularity probably reflects two things – Audi’s genuine commitment to the model, and the quality of the finished product.

Almost two decades ago the original S4 models came with a supercharged V6 2.7-litre powerplant, then a silky-smooth, purring 4.2-litre V8, before the arrival of the six-cylinder, twin-turbocharged configuration.

The latest version costs $500 less than the model it replaces. The interior has been tweaked, most noticeably by the inclusion of a restyled MMI (MultiMedia Interface), coupled with Audi’s familiar Virtual Cockpit digital instrument panel.

Both are attractive and effective, although it’s surprising to find that the S4 has moved away from the familiar scroll-and-click technology of Audi’s MMI to a full touch-screen affair. But it works, and looks, just fine. And the new system boasts clever tricks like an embedded SIM card to link it to the outside world, meaning the car can check fuel prices or the cost of parking.

Other notable inclusions in the S4 include 360-degree camera with park assist, adaptive cruise control with traffic jam assist and active lane support. There’s also pneumatic front sport seats complete with massage function. All are standard features in a strong technological package.

The S4’s performance capability makes it look like pretty good value for its $102,400 asking price. (The test machine included an optional $2900 quattro sport differential that pushed the price to $105,390.)

The S4 also offers adaptive dampers, allowing drivers to dial up the appropriate level of stiffness in the ride. The result is a car that feels beautifully settled and never rushed by quick changes of direction.

The S4 boasts 0-100km/h in 4.9 seconds and never seems to be working hard no matter how urgent the situation.

It is the very definition of the term “quick and easy”. Which sums up the appeal of the S4 Avant, a car of surprising practicality and range.

It can be enjoyed as a silky, muscular everyday drive, or a versatile load-carrier perfect for weekend getaways, even a seriously quick sports device when the mood requires.

It’s a model that will hopefully be around for a few more years yet.

AUDI S4 AVANT 3.0 TFSI quattro

* HOW BIG: Based on Audi’s mid-sized sedan and wagon, the S4 is perfect for four adults, or can squeeze three in the back.

* HOW FAST: Anything that gets to 100km/h within five seconds is quick. This one does it without much effort.

* HOW THIRSTY: Two turbos on the 3-litre V6 deliver a thirst of 8.8L/100km – not bad for a genuine performance machine, but not exactly frugal.

* HOW MUCH? $102,400 plus on-road costs, which stamps this car as a bit of a bargain.