Audi Proves Wagons Still Work

Audi Proves Wagons Still Work

Driving a well-resolved station wagon is one of the few surprising delights of 2020.

Dozens of SUVs roll down my driveway each year, some with the best intentions and some fuelling expectations, but less than a handful would be welcome to stay for the long haul.

In contrast, even though old-school wagons are about as popular today as the dreadful Trabant that was sheltered for far too long behind the Berlin Wall, a good one is still a car to keep.

A good wagon can even be a thinly-disguised sports car.

I can think of at least a dozen surprise packets with a family-sized box on the back, led by the Audi RS6 and Benz C63 Estate, although only the Lamborghini Urus has given me the same sort of shock on the SUV side of the fence. Not that I would want to live with the bellowing Italian super-SUV every day…

Even so, I was not expecting too much from the Audi S4 Avant. It’s just been updated with a bolder-looking facelift, but my tester is pre-change and has done more kilometres than a typical review car.

But it only took a few minutes to remember why a good wagon can still make a powerful point about practical, enjoyable, flexible motoring.

The S4 Avant, even though it’s getting old, is better than just a mid-fielder.

It’s quick and composed, beautifully finished, and either relaxing and rewarding depending on your mood.

Avant is Audi shorthand for a wagon, just as BMW uses the Touring tag for its family haulers, even though the literal translation of ‘avant’ is before and from my perspective – and the boxy shape of the tail – it would work better with ‘apres’, also translated from French.

The A4 models are still the heartland cars at Audi, even though they are comprehensively out-sold in Australia by the German company’s SUVs, providing both the basics for various body styles and the mechanical basics even for some of the SUVs.

The S4 fits in the middle on performance as well as size, with a mechanical package that is upgraded to a turbocharged V6 engine that makes 260 kiloWatts and 500 Newton-metres, with an eight-speed automatic and all-wheel drive.

So it’s a brisk car, not nearly as rambunctious as the RS models, but still hits a sweet spot if you have just over $100,000 in the kitty.

The powertrain is smooth and refined, the cornering grip is great, and it can really punch out of corners or through an overtaking spot.

The various driving modes make a significant difference to the sound and feel of the car, from the exhaust note to suspension grip and feel, although it’s fine to leave it in the standard setting unless you want the extra in everything that comes with Sport.

The flappy paddles make manual shifting easy and, if you want to go sprinting, you can hold onto the ‘downshift’ paddle and watch the electronics do the job of selecting the correct ratio without having to make individual down-changes. The first time I saw that happen was on a McLaren supercar and it’s still not available on the latest Lamborghini Huracan, even though the Italian company is now owned and directed – as part of the giant Volkswagen Group – by Audi.

The shift system is one of the clever items in the S4 package, which ranges from classy safety equipment to the heads-up speedo display and brilliant LED headlamps.

The styling of the S4 is almost timeless, smooth but not exceptional, with good looking 19-inch alloys and supportive sports seats and a large infotainment screen.

Cabin finishing is superb, and now an Audi signature that gets a lot of people excited at first glance and often convinces them to sign the purchase paperwork, and the detailing in everything from the infotainment display to the alloy wheels is top-class.

I’m not convinced by a price-tag that trips over $100,000, but Audi Australia has sharpened the value in its cars over the past year and there is a lot to like – and enjoy – in the S4 wagon.

On that front, or back, the Avant has a giant load space with a big opening and things can be improved if you want to sacrifice the back seats. It’s definitely as good as an equivalent SUV.

In the end, the appeal of the S4 Avant is fairly narrow in a world so overflowing with SUVs. But I still like the idea of sliding into a car, not climbing up like I’m mounting a Kenworth.

For anyone who enjoys their driving and prefers the feeling and feedback of a car to a truck, the Audi is a powerful reminder of what SUV buyers are giving up by following the herd.

2020 Audi S4 Avant
8 Stars
Classy in every area
Not an SUV
Getting a bit old
Not an SUV
Price: from $102,900
Power: 260W/500Nm
Transmission: 8-speed auto, all-wheel drive
Position: prestige mid-sized wagon
THE TICK: for sure