Spending a week with the S4 Avant is certainly not a penalty. After driving the car and getting acquainted to the relative space that it offers as well as the driving dynamics, exposure to the car does bring forth an interesting question.

If fuel in the late 80's would gave skyrocketed to over $2 per gallon in the United States would stationwagons like the S4 have become the stereotypical definition of Sport Utility Vehicle? Until we have the ability to go back in time, this handsome wagon will have to just simply reside in the category of a well-hidden secret for those of us who enjoy driving quickly.

The S4 Avant takes the best characteristics of the sedan and simply adds more room to carry your stuff. It could perhaps be seen as the best compromise between a driver's car and a vehicle suited for an active lifestyle. The ideal niche for this car, as it was designed, is not directed towards towing a boat or handling more than five passengers (and indeed five is a tight fit), but towards having a rewarding driving experience.

Sliding into the cockpit of the Audi S4 Avant you will find the same pleasant dashboard layout as the A4 albeit with some minor changes: the backlighting of the gauges shows up as having red numerals and white arms. The gauges are a mixed bag due to the fact that as beautiful as they might seem at first tends to be a bit distracting at night.

The driver is also immediately struck by the aluminum trim that replaces the wood found in other V6-equipped models when you opt for the sport interior package, as our test car had been equipped with. This package also means that the sport seats are covered in a combination of leather and alacantara that is both handsome and functional since the seat material has a tendency to grip you firmly in places where you'll need it while cornering.

The three-spoke Audi sport steering wheel is a nice, thick place to command the helm from and the pedal relationship was nearly perfect for this 5'11" tall driver. The shifter was in feel very much like the A4 sibling in the fact that it was notchy and precise; the only downside to the overall feel of the 6 speed manual transmission lies in the throw to 6th gear which actually gates a bit more to the passenger side than one might initially expect. However, once you spend some time shifting between 5th and 6th gear the feeling becomes pretty natural as you select gears.

The front seat legroom is decent for drivers of this size but moving the seats to accommodate similar passengers in the rear seats will cause the driver to feel a bit pinched during longer trips. Granted, the rear seat legroom has never been this vehicle's strong suit as compared to the car's competitors, but the advantage lies in the shorter wheelbase-- which allows quicker steering response as well as a shorter turning radius.

Still, the S4 Avant moves forward in a brisk fashion attaining a 0-60 time of 6.0 seconds flat with a quarter mile time of 14.6 seconds at 99 miles per hour. Once underway the S4 Avant feels very much at home during hard acceleration and due to the Torsen differential allows the car to feel solid as it shifts its' mass under acceleration. Due to the heavy nature of the car it gives the illusion of not accelerating as quickly as the numbers suggest. But it gathers speed rather quickly.

Fortunately, the S4 Avant is not just about acceleration. Much of the pure joy of a small wagon like this is found in the ability to handle in a fluid, safe manner. The Avant continued to impress us during our weeklong drive on some local back roads leading to Summit Point, West Virginia. For those of you that haven't been to the area, West Virginia has some of the best roads in the Capital area and there we were able to quickly find out how forgiving the S4 can be.

Despite the car's all wheel drive nature there is the inherent ability to push the car to the point in which it will oversteer and simple corrections with the throttle will bring the car quickly back into line. Despite the safe nature of the suspension design and the normal understeer that is built into the normal handling bias, the car is very neutral and even tends to show the ability to handle smooth transitions from understeer to oversteer with the ESP feature defeated.

In the rain the Avant feels stable tracking in a straight line and there is minimal "tramlining" in comparison with other vehicles that have similar tire widths and comparable track widths. The S4 exudes a great amount of confidence in the wet with the ASR system on and even with it turned off it was difficult to make the car lose traction moving forward. Repeated hard launches in the rain-induced mild tire spinning in first and second gear but above that the car was very stable and gave us a good amount of confidence that the car would go where it was intended to go.

All in all, the Audi S4 Avant caused much sorrow when it left the stable. Despite the initial shock of the cost of the vehicle, most who drove it felt that it was a good value and that the safety factor of having a car with this type of handling prowess was well worth the price of admission.

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