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With Avant, Audi offers top-notch quality in a car for the mass market

I've just finished testing the 2007 Audi A6 Avant 3.2 quattro AT6 S-Line.

Yes, it's a long name.

Last year, I fell in love with its kin, the A3 3.2 quattro S-Line.

Audi is hardly the only luxury automaker trying to market an entry-level car while preserving top-notch quality. But with the Avant, it has done an exceptional job of creating a wagon that will appeal to a mass market.

This is a superb car with typical Audi interior fit and finish -- leather, aluminum trim, wood veneers. It is also comfortable and relatively fast, considering it weighs more than two tons. The S-Line model(a $3,350 option) driven in Sport Mode hardly handles like a station wagon, but its rear cargo space is around 38 cubic feet -- double the A3's.

The ride is stiff, but European enthusiasts -- and, increasingly, many in the United States -- prefer the ride to be firm and stable, not rocking and rolling.

The car is powered by a 32-liter V-6 that delivers 255 horsepower and 242 ft.-lbs. of tugging torque, since there is weight to be pulled even before it's loaded with five passengers and gear.

The engine is linked to Audi's silky smooth six-speed automatic Tiptronic gearbox. That means you can leave it in automatic mode or, even without a clutch, shift it with paddles on the wheel. (The latter proved far more fun).

These same features also apply to the A3 3.2 with standard S-Line frills. It has the same transmission, engine, interior, and surprisingly good interior space. And it tugs around about 500 pounds less curb weight. And remember, we're comparing a model priced at about $35,000 here to today's test car, which costs $60,770.

Standard safety gear includes front, front-side, and side-curtain air bags, stability control, and electronic brake assist and distribution.

Inside, while fit and finish are superb, I did find something to complain about. The seven-inch multimedia screen at center dash offers good basic information -- including navigation, climate, and audio data -- but working through many of the specifics of each area was difficult. Thankfully, there are useable, redundant controls for audio and climate that help keep you away from the large center control knob, because moving between the knob, screen, and an assortment of other controls can be distracting. It's not necessary to have interface buttons, a control knob, and an information screen for things as basic as the heating system. Maybe this is intuitive for younger drivers, but Audi should remember that they are not likely to be forking over more than $60,000 for a car.

That said, this is one of the most sturdy, surefooted, and relatively powerful wagons I have ever driven.

But so was the A3 3.2 quattro.

Royal Ford can be reached at ford@globe.com.

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