For those who don't speak Audi, the car I tested was an A6 (its model name) with a 3.0-liter engine, the company's signature four-wheel drive (quattro), and a five-speed automatic transmission. The Avant model is a station wagon and, unlike station wagons I grew up with, lacks a third row of seats. It was the back seat, the wayback, as we used to call it, that really made station wagons family cars. For better or worse, CAFE standards and minivans have driven traditional wagons into near extinction. So to me, the Avant is more of a sporty hatchback, a four-door sedan with some extremely usable interior cargo space.

Serendipitously, a friend had some furniture to move and it gave me the chance to check out the vehicle's cargo-carrying abilities. With the back seats folded down, it boasts a bit over 73 ft3 of space, which isn't a whole heck of a lot, but enough to carry the bookcases, books, and bric-a-brac transported. I did have to adjust my driving to compensate for the load in the back, however. I had to allow more stopping distance and really work the brake pedal. Though Audi touts its new "upsized tandem brake servo, complete with high-performance disc brakes," I'd suggest they add even more stopping power.

Perhaps part of my problem with the braking was the lure of the 220-hp engine and five-speed transmission with a "Sport" setting. You can put the gearshift in S (for Sport), or the transmission will put itself there if it determines that's the way you're driving. In S mode, the transmission delays upshifts to take advantage of the fat part of the torque curve.

Like every Audi I've ever driven, the A6 is fast. It's always quick to add another 10 to 20 mph no matter how fast you're already going. The literature says the Avant goes from 0 to 50 mph in 6.2 sec, 0 to 60 in 8.2, and has a top speed limited to 130 mph.

The car also handles well and has a comfortable interior. The six-disc in-dash CD changer, along with the Bose 200-W, eight-speaker (plus subwoofer) stereo and 12-way power front seats sure take the edge off a long trip.

It would be nice to test this car for a bit longer than a week though. It's chock-full of extras and electronic features that aren't readily apparent. For example, if the heating/air-conditioning system is on and using outside air, an environmental sensor checks incoming air for pollutants. If the reading is high, it shuts off access to the outside until air quality improves. According to Audi, "it prevents potentially offensive odors from reaching the interior." I would have liked to cruise farm country or maybe pass a chili cook-off and try that feature out.

You really do have to read the manual to get the most out of this car, a task most Americans eschew. But I would hope anyone paying $45,000 for a car, or anything for that matter, would read the manual. Another example is the dashboard. It offers a range of electronic readouts and can be configured to suit your taste. But like a multifunction watch or a VCR, you won't get far without the manual.

Another feature on the car is its standard warranties. They include a four-year/50,000-mile limited warranty that includes free scheduled maintenance, a 12-year limited warranty against corrosion perforation, and four years of roadside assistance. I don't have any direct experience dealing with late-model Audis or the company's service departments, but the warranties seem to indicate the company stands behind its engineering.

It's a top-notch, all-weather driving machine, but the cost puts it out of range for most folks. Still, Audi sales figures are climbing, so someone in those upper tax brackets must appreciate attention to detail and cars that beg to be driven.