There are a number of new contenders in this field since the last A4 Avant was launched. The A4's key rival is the BMW 3-series Touring, but Mercedes-Benz now has a new C-class estate, Alfa Romeo introduced its 156 Sportwagon last year and MG Rover now has the75 Tourer, with the sporty MG ZT-T to follow.
The Lexus SportCross will also join the fray at the top end of the sector this autumn, while there is also likely to be an estate version of the Jaguar X-type in the future. Fleet customers will be on the lookout for strong residual values, low running costs and low emissions.
Although most analysts will not yet have set firm residual value predictions for the new A4 Avant, early indications show it should be up with the BMW 3-series Touring and Mercedes-Benz C-class. Like all Audis, the A4 Avant has variable servicing with the possibility of covering up to 19,000 miles before any maintenance work is needed.
And with a staggering range of engines and transmissions, any fleet operator will be able to find a low-emission variant to suit individual drivers' company car tax budgets. The A4 offers four petrol engines ranging from 102 to 220bhp and three diesel engine options ranging from 130 to 180bhp.
Most front-wheel drive models will have a choice of five-speed manual or company car tax-friendly Multitronic CVT automatic transmissions, which have no significant fuel consumption or emissions penalties over the manual gearboxes.
However, the 3.0 quattro automatic will be five-speed Tiptronic with sequential manual shifts. Diesels will also have the option of six-speed manual transmissions.At launch in October the range will reflect the saloon - except the new 1.6 version which will be added next year. However, front-wheel drive versions of the 3.0 A4 Avant will be on sale in the rest of Europe, using the Multitronic CVT transmission.
I'm sure Audi's marketing team know their stuff, but there must be an opportunity for a 3.0-litre automatic version in the UK without four-wheel drive, especially in the light of next year's BIK tax changes. At 236g/km, it would fall into the same tax band as the equivalent BMW and easily beats the Mercedes C320 estate on 271g/km.
Audi expects to sell 7,000 A4 Avants in the UK next year, with more than 80% bought with corporate cash. This compares favourably with the BMW 3-series, which sold 4,582 in the UK in 2000. Although the 3-series still carries an aspirational badge, it seems like the A4 Avant is the favourite premium upper-medium estate. And with personal taxation issues becoming crucial in the light of next year's emissions-based regime, the Audi A4 Avant range is more likely to offer a company car driver a tax-friendly option.
With an unrivalled range of diesels and the option of a good automatic transmission which won't send your tax bill through the roof, the success of the A4 Avant in the corporate sector is set to continue. Add to this the fact that Audi will begin offering Euro IV diesels from May 2002, which will eliminate the 3% supplement on company car tax then the Avant will be hard to beat.
Audi has scored again by creating an understated and desirable estate. The clean lines of the saloon have been translated to the two-box variant, and has given the Avant a dynamic look with its rising waistline at the rear and slightly tapering roofline. Match this to a set of smart alloy wheels and few estates would look more attractive.
The interior space gains from the saloon are carried over to the Avant, with slightly more rear leg and shoulder room, while the quality of the fixtures and fittings are second to none.
The previous Avant suffered when comparing luggage space with the seats up. In fact the old car, with 388-litres of space, was behind the 3-series Touring (436- litres), Mercedes-Benz C-class estate (470 litres) and the Rover 75 Tourer (400 litres). The new Avant luggage space places it towards the top of the class, with 440 litres seats up, and it also benefits from a full metre's width.
So the new Avant is not just a 'lifestyle' wagon, and will do the job of load-carrier when required. I drove three examples of the car - the 3.0-litre quattro, the 2.5 TDI quattro and the 2.0-litre. The 3.0-litre took us on the first stint - 150km from Berlin Tegel Airport to our halt for the evening.
Fitted with the five-speed Tiptronic gearbox, the A4 started as a lazy companion reluctant to change down, instead gradually increasing speed through the torque.
A few kilometres later and proceedings livened up after some autobahn action. Going for gaps in the traffic the car proved keener to slip down a few cogs and the V6 engine sounded musical and refined at high revs. Later a virtually clear section of road saw the car reach an indicated 240km/h (149mph).
The 2.5 TDI with 180bhp is one of the most impressive cars on sale. With strong economy and effortless torque, the car would be the pick of the range. However, the weight of the four-wheel drive system takes its toll on emissions and fuel consumption, so the 155bhp version with front-wheel drive might be a cheaper bet.
The return leg to the airport was completed in the 2.0- litre - the entry-level car until the 1.6 arrives. Despite its humble place, the refined yet husky-voiced 2.0 seemed happy to hold a steady 210km/h (130mph) on the autobahn.