As baseball legend Yogi Berra would say, "It's deja vu all over again."
At major auto shows from Los Angeles to Detroit, automakers unveiled no fewer than nine station wagons last month. Not since pre-minivan days have so many new wagons been introduced in an early auto show season.
Audi of America Inc. already is ahead of the crowd, adding wagons to its lineup the last few years. Its latest, the 2001 S4 Avant, takes a compact station wagon and gives it the ride, handling and power of a sports car.
There's no wallowy ride in the S4 Avant, like there was in the station wagons of the 1960s and '70s that carried dads, moms and the kids.
Rather, the S4 Avant -- based on the A4 Avant but with a class-leading turbocharged V6 with 250 horsepower -- is as tightly controlled on mountain twists as any German road car.
While driving, I didn't give a thought to the fact I had a wagon body back behind me. The relatively short-in-length S4 Avant -- at 176.7 inches long, it's the same length as its sedan sibling and just 2.1 inches longer than a Honda Civic sedan -- provides sport sedan handling.
To be sure, riders regularly feel vibrations from the road inside this car and there's a good amount of road noise that makes it to the passenger compartment. The independent front and rear suspension -- four-link in front and double wishbone at the rear -- is sport tuned. The S4 Avant also wears sizable, 17-inch performance tires.
But none of the vibrations was harsh on the test drive, and the power-assist rack-and-pinion steering responded crisply to driver inputs.
The 2.7-liter, double overhead cam, biturbo V6 added to the fun.
With a hale and healthy 258 foot-pounds of torque available in a wide range -- from a low 1,850 rpm on up to 4,500 rpm -- the S4 Avant scooted away from stoplights with gusto and tore down freeways with confidence.
The test vehicle had the standard manual transmission, a six-speed that provided an array of driving options. If I stayed in the first couple of gears around town, which was easy to do, the S4 Avant had so much grunt it whipped past most other drivers before they knew what was going on.
If I upshifted to use the higher gears, the power was more managed but there still was zip available, if needed. The flexibility was, quite simply, impressive.
Audi says this station wagon can reach 60 mph from a standstill in just 6 seconds, which is on a par with sport sedans.
Who knew that a small station wagon could be so sporty?
Helping to maintain traction and poise as all the power goes to the wheels is the S4 Avant's standard quattro all-wheel drive system.
The car also comes standard with an electronic stability system that helps the driver maintain control.
But the performance does come at a high price. The starting manufacturer's retail price plus destination charge for the S4 Avant is $41,050.
This doesn't include a sunroof or HomeLink gate and garage door opener, but it does include leather seats, 10-way power front seats and Audi's standard four years, 50,000-miles free scheduled maintenance.
It also includes heated driver door lock, cruise control and other power amenities as well as high-power Xenon headlamps, which is often an option on other luxury cars.
Note that the S4 Avant price is $1,600 more than the S4 sedan and $8,535 more than the less-powerful A4 Avant with 190-horsepower, 2.8-liter six-cylinder engine. The price also compares with the $31,795 starting price for BMW's 325xi Sport Wagon with 184-horsepower, 2.5-liter, inline six cylinder.
The S4 Avant has the same compact looks as the A4 Avant, but with a lowered suspension, the S4 Avant has a ground clearance of just 3.5 inches. The stance reminds me of the lowered look that young Southern Californian customizers prefer on their subcompact and compact cars.
The S4 Avant also offers two very bright exterior colors -- Nogaro Blue and Imola Yellow -- that aren't available on any other A4.
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