_____For many people, the snow and ice in the Portland area just before Christmas became a driver's nightmare. But those few days of bad weather turned out to be the perfect time to test the 1999 Audi A6 Avant station wagon.
_____It wasn't necessary to travel up to Mount Hood to find out that Audi's quattro all-wheel-drive system lets the A6 Avant navigate icy roads as well or better than many sport-utility vehicles. The car maintains traction very well and with slight corrections from the driver recovers easily when it does begin to slip. The quattro system, which comes standard on the wagon, can transfer up to 66 percent of the available torque to whichever wheel has the best traction.
_____Another nice feature was the optional cold weather package, including front and rear heated seats and a heated steering wheel. While a heated steering wheel sounds frivolous, you quickly learn to like it in subfreezing weather. The seat heaters in the front seats have six temperature settings; the top settings are so warm you may be tempted to warm your coffee on the passenger seat during the morning commute.
_____Power for the Avant comes from the same engine found in the sedan, a 2.8-liter, 200-horsepower V-6. The engine links to a 5-speed automatic with Tiptronic, which allows manual upshifting or downshifting without a clutch. The A6 offers more acceleration from a standing start than has been the case in the past with some Audis, although heavy-footed drivers would still find it lacking. The A6 Avant has excellent reserve power for passing at freeway speeds.
_____In addition to foul-weather road-holding agility that compares to SUVs, the Avant offers cargo capacity that equals or exceeds mid-size SUVs. For instance, cargo capacity behind the second row of seats measures 36.4 cubic feet in the Audi, nearly as much as the 39 cubic feet in a Jeep Grand Cherokee. And with the second seat folded, the Audi cargo space actually exceeds that of a Grand Cherokee, 73.2 cubic feet compared to 72.3 in the Jeep.
_____Audi laid out this cargo space carefully. A slightly raised loading sill made of stainless steel prevents bumper damage and acts as a stopper when heavy goods are being transported.
_____A system of cargo partitions and covers make the space useful for more than one task at a time. A partition net between the second row of seats and the cargo area can be extended all the way to the ceiling to keep cargo from shifting forward. Other standard equipment includes a regular cargo net, a rear luggage cover to keep items hidden and multiple tie-downs in the luggage area. A rear power outlet and luggage area light can also prove handy.
_____For those who often have to haul half the soccer team, Audi offers an optional ($700) two-person rear-facing children's bench seat that can be installed in the rear of the cargo area and removed whenever it isn't needed.
_____The Audi's styling should take away the stigma that has become attached to station wagons. The striking front end and dynamic side view, with its rising window line, black center roof posts and bold wheel arches, serve notice that this is a fun-to-drive European touring car, as well as a family hauler.
_____The suspension system, with multi-links in the front and double wishbones in the rear, provides a comfortable ride with good stability in corners.
_____The Audi A6 sedan ranked as one of three finalists last year for North American Car of the Year honors, in part because of the high quality of its fit-and-finish. That carried through to the Avant, evidenced by the close fit of exterior body panels, lack of even the faintest squeak or rattle and quiet and spacious and extremely luxurious interior with wood inlays and leather throughout.
_____When it comes to comfort and convenience features, Audi goes to great lengths to cover all possible bases. If the statistics box accompany this story were to list all the standard features, the box would have had to be about twice the size it is. From standard first aid and tool kits, to headlight washers, to "puddle" lights at all four doors and headrests at all five seating positions, Audi tries to meet all possible expectations of the luxury car buyer. And that even extends past the purchase, with all scheduled maintenance provided free for three years or 50,000 miles.