Wagons, ho!I may just have driven the best overall car in the world. It's got power, style, comfort, utility, a high level of both passive and active safety, and that intangible aura of excellence radiated only by the world's best automobiles.
To even my own surprise, this contender for the throne is a station wagon, the Audi S6 Avant.
Or maybe I shouldn't be all that surprised. Wagons played a big part in the travels of my childhood, the family's '54 Ford dutifully hauling the five Browns and our camping gear all over the West. The light blue wagon lacked most creature comforts, but it ran reliably on regular, and its AM radio could pull in L.A. Dodger broadcasts from great distances. To this day I can't climb into a wagon without yearning for a campground or trailhead at the other end of the drive.
Wagons may have been crowded to the edge of extinction by the dinosaurs of the car world, SUVs, but, judging by the new wares on display at this year's Detroit auto show, carmakers are looking forward to that day when sense returns to the marketplace and the meaning of utility means more than heft and a high seating position. (Details on the show next issue.)
Some manufacturers, such as Audi and Volvo and to some degree BMW and Mercedes-Benz, have "gotten it" already (our Saab 9-5 wagon is a fleet favorite), building a solid base of customer satisfaction and loyalty from their wagon lines and, more important to the bottom line, preparing customers for even more luxurious, higher performance versions to come. With luxury and utility no longer contradictory concepts, these wagons-or whatever the carmakers choose to call the crossover vehicles that are neither trucks nor sedans-can legitimately play in the upper ends of the market.
Audi's Avantissimo, shown to the public once again in Detroit, looks to be the most production-ready example and is the focus of new contributor Elaine Catton's eye this month. It's a gorgeous, technically brilliant D-class car with, hopefully, a date with the production line in the near future.
I first met Elaine in a leafy Bavarian biergarten on a sultry summer's eve (don't worry, her very new husband was at her side) and soon learned she could hold her own with the pointiest gearhead at the table. Elaine's background includes a long stint with Cosworth Engineering, and I feel fortunate in adding her to our list of European-based writers-which now also includes Britain-based Angus MacKenzie.
My first encounter with Angus wasn't nearly as pleasant as it was with Elaine. We found ourselves standing in a chilly reception area at an ungodly early hour, waiting for a news conference to begin, and soon found ourselves in a mutual whinge about the razzle-dazzle nonsense we often suffer through just to get to the newsy bit. There's nothing quite like finding comfort in mutual discomfort, and we parted with a steadfast pledge to do some business together some time.
Despite the name, Angus isn't some raving red-hair recently descended from the highlands of Scotland. The broad accent instead points directly "down under," which for me adds nothing but credence to his takes on the automotive world. If nothing else, Australians are straight-talkers, and I asked Angus to bring to these pages that critical viewpoint, even wariness of the established order, which links the Aussies I've known to the American passion for individual freedom.
Which brings me back to wagons. In very real ways they are far better suited than giant SUVs to evoke that sense of freedom we all yearn for on the open road. Configured properly, wagons boast far more cargo- and passenger-carrying capacity than truck-based vehicles; their aerodynamic advantage means better fuel mileage; and their active safety is vastly superior. Need ground clearance? Have you checked out the Audi allroad or Volvo's XC line of wagons?