A Stigma to Some, Haute Couture to others.

That's the nature of the station wagon, which for many Americans dredges up images of '60s-era family road trips in overcrowded and less-than-cool, wood-paneled land-barges, while Europeans see only high style and versatility.

Too bad for the U.S.'s sedan-fixated majority, because Audi's new A4 Avant is eye-catching, highly functional and a pleasure to drive, no matter which of the many available powertrain combinations you choose.

The Avant is the second in the line of new A4s, which debuted in Europe in sedan form in November and already has seen sales reach 60,000 units. It hit the European market in April starting at E30,600 ($48,140), though a less expensive 1.8L gasoline model arrives at year's end, starting at E27,550 ($43,351).

Both the new A4 sedan and Avant are slated to reach the U.S. and Canada in late September as '09 models. Prices will be announced closer to launch, but Audi says stickers will rise only slightly from current levels ($28,000-$38,000).

Although expected to comprise only 10% of A4 sales in the U.S., or 4,000 units, the new Avant gives the sedan a run for its money in Europe, where it accounts for 40% of A4 sales. In several markets, penetration can reach 80%.

At 185.2 ins. (470.3 cm), the new Avant is nearly 4.7 ins. (12 cm) longer than its predecessor, yet body weight has been cut 10% through the increased use of lightweight steels and by substituting adhesives for welds during construction.

Fuel economy also has been improved 10% overall, Audi says, with the Avant boasting a wide range of powertrains that includes five gasoline and five diesel engines — all with direct injection.

The gasoline lineup starts with the 120-hp and 160-hp 1.8L TFSI 4-cyl., ratchets up to the all-new 2.0L available in 180-hp and 211-hp variants and tops out with the 265-hp 3.2L V-6 offered on all-wheel-drive quattro models.

The diesel roster includes three versions of the 2.0L 4-cyl. — 120, 143 and 170 hp — and two V-6s, a 190-hp 2.7L and 240-hp 3.0L (due in the U.S. next year).

In the U.S., the powertrain lineup is greatly pared. No diesels will be offered. Base sedan models will come with the 2.0L coupled to either the 6-speed manual or automatic transmission, with all-wheel-drive models featuring the 3.2L with the automatic. The Avant will be sold only with quattro and the 3.2L/6-speed automatic combination.

The Avant stands out among the scraggly landscape of Ibiza, Spain. Its taut body lines widen out at the base, giving the car a muscular road stance. And the wagon's sloping roof line with the top-mounted integrated spoiler suggests more stylish coupe-like characteristics that are becoming as much of a signature design feature for Audi as the brand's imposing trapezoidal grille.

Inside, the Avant is all Audi, with its familiar dash layout, MMI-based operating system and either techy-type fabrics and aluminum accents or leather seats coupled with a wood-aluminum blend.

The Avant comes with an innovative panoramic roof that opens over the front seats. Because the glass panel retracts upward and back, the sunroof eats up much less headroom than is typical.

Of course, the strength of any wagon is its cargo-carrying ability. Audi claims a best in class with its 50.5 cu.-ft. (1,430 L) of space with the split rear seats folded.

But the highlight of the cargo bay may be its simple, yet innovative reversible floor that provides a hard plastic washable surface for transporting wet or mud-covered items and its system of bars, straps and lockdown rails that help secure loose objects. The power tailgate is infinitely programmable, allowing the opening height to be adjusted to accommodate a low clearance overhead.

On the road, the first thing you notice about the A4 Avant is how good the NVH is, particularly for a wagon. There's none of the noise that typically emanates from having a wide-open cargo bay.

It doesn't really matter what model or powertrain is chosen, the Avant performs with aplomb whether it's the base car with the 1.8L gasoline engine and slick-shifting manual or the full-out quattro version with the 3.2L.

The diesels are superb and would go over well in the U.S., given their smooth, quiet operation and gobs of torque. If there's a complaint it's with the steering, which is a bit skittish, making it more difficult to find a rhythm with the road.

But it's only a minor annoyance. And for Americans looking to step out of their SUVs and into something more fuel efficient but still highly versatile — and, yes, more stylish, the A4 Avant could be the answer.

[+]PROS/CONS[-]
> Engine smorgasbord > No diesel for U.S.
> Clever cargo bay > Skittish steering
> Sedan-like NVH > 6-month U.S. wait

'09 Audi Avant

Vehicle type: front-engine, front/all-wheel-drive, 5-passenger wagon

Engines: 3.2L DOHC V-6

Power: 265 hp @ 6,500 rpm

Torque: 243 lb.-ft. (330 Nm) @ 3,000-5,000 rpm

Transmission: 6-speed automatic with Sportshift

Wheelbase: 82.2 ins. (280.8 cm)

Overall length: 185.2 ins. (470.3 cm)

Overall width: 71.9 ins. (182.6 cm)

Curb weight: 3,660 lbs. (1,660 kg)

Base price: est. $29,000

Fuel economy: (Europe) 18/34 (13.1-6.9 L/100 km)

Competition: BMW 3-Series, Saab 9-3

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