The Audi S4 Avant, Dodge Magnum SRT8 and Mercedes-Benz E55 AMG Sport Wagon prove that high-horsepower wagons are back, and badder than ever. Photos by Jeff Allen November 2005 Wagons are forging a comeback in the U.S., no doubt about it. And why not? They handle better, are easier to park and (especially in the case of these three) provide a more rewarding, involving driving experience than SUVs, minivans or crossovers. And for those of you who think wagons are "un-cool," and only bought by those who have to shuttle around kids or dogs, look no further than the three assembled here: The Audi S4 Avant, Dodge Magnum SRT8 and Mercedes-Benz E55 AMG Sport Wagon were bred for battle. All have power to corrupt, near-sports-car handling levels and, of course, gobs of space for hauling, made easier because of their 5-door body styles and folding rear seats. And haul they will, as we found out after spending several days putting them through their paces. Because of our Battlewagons' widely disparate prices, this isn't a head-to-head comparison, but rather a celebration of each wagon's mix of style, power and utility, complete with performance numbers. Audi S4 Avant By Kim Wolfkill If there's such a thing as a sports car of station wagons, then the Audi S4 Avant is it. It has all the proper ingredients — a 340-bhp V-8, 6-speed manual transmission, sport-tuned suspension and Quattro all-wheel drive — despite also having a rear hatch, roof racks and a cavernous cargo area. True, there are a couple of wagons out there with even more power (the Magnum SRT8 and E55 AMG are faster at the drag strip), but no wagon, and very few sedans, have what it takes to stay with an S4 Avant once the road gets twisty. Key to the Avant's entertaining nature is the sedan from which it springs. The S4 has always been a favorite among sports-car and sports-sedan fans alike, combining sure-footed handling with excellent power and all-around good looks. Building on that solid foundation, the S4 Avant enjoys similar popularity, delivering the sedan's performance with the added utility only a wagon can offer. And while many wagons are regarded as suburban family haulers, the S4 version manages to avoid that stereo-type altogether, coming off instead as stylish, sporty and hip. Then again, how could it not be? With a throaty 4.2-liter V-8 driving all four wheels through a slick-shifting 6-speed, what's not to like? The engine pulls with linear conviction from low on the tach all the way to its 7000-rpm redline, without sacrificing an ounce of smoothness. Along the way, each dip of the throttle is accompanied by a menacing snarl from the S4's four chrome-tipped exhausts. There was a time when only the RS 6 got to sound this mean, but now the S4 enjoys an intimidating note of its own. It's got the speed to back up this attitude too; 0-60 mph takes just 5.7 seconds, the quarter mile, 14.1 sec. at 99.7 mph. An engine as good as the S4's would be wasted on anything less than an equally competent chassis. Again, using the sedan as its starting point, the Avant benefits from everything Audi has learned over the past 25 years of Quattro all-wheel-drive development. The multilink front and rear suspensions get the sport-tuned treatment in the S4, meaning stiffer shocks, springs, anti-roll bars and a 30-mm-lower ride height than the standard A4. The brakes are similarly supplemented with big 13.6-in. vented rotors up front and 11.9-in. rotors at the rear. Now refined to all but an art form, the S4's handling is a model of confidence, composure and security. Little seems to unsettle this nimble wagon, which despite its not-insignificant 2-ton curb weight (and a big V-8 hanging over the front axle), changes direction with conviction and reassuring levels of grip. The steering communicates most of what the front wheels are doing, and like all Quattro-equipped Audis, the S4 exhibits a slight understeering tendency as it approaches the middle part of a turn, before working its all-wheel-drive magic to confidently claw its way around. Yet as sporty as it may be, the S4 Avant is also very much about versatility. It's about railing through the canyons with two aboard and a load of bicycles, camping gear or a road trip's worth of provisions packed in back. No longer are going fast and hauling stuff mutually exclusive. The Avant has room for dogs, kids or even the occasional short-legged dinner guest. Along the way, ride comfort remains quite good despite the suspension's stiffer setup and low-profile, 235/40R-18 high-performance tires. The chassis still manages to soak up most bumps with little complaint, making it commuter livable and fun at the same time. Some of that livability can also be attributed to Audi's consistently stellar interior accommodations, long regarded among the industry's best. The S4's are no exception, coming across as elegant and stylish, yet also clean and sporty. Supportive Recaro seats are surrounded by a cabin accented in leather, aluminum and in the case of our test car, optional ($300) carbon-fiber trim. Those preferring a subtler look can opt for the standard gray birch wood accents, but there's no denying the hip factor that carbon fiber adds when tastefully (and sparingly) placed throughout an interior. Hip and cool as the cabin may be, it's still a snug fit for four adults. Those same compact dimensions, which make the S4 such fun to toss around a winding back road, definitely affect its rear seat room. For occasions that place a premium on parcels over people, flipping down the rear seats expands the cargo-carrying capacity to near sport ute proportions. The Avant isn't quite as tall as a typical midsize SUV, but in most circumstances, it has more than enough space. Not to mention the night and day difference when it comes to driving pleasure. Driving pleasure in a station wagon? Absolutely! Gone are the days of using wagons merely for carting around kids and stuffing full of groceries. Now everyday errands become guilty pleasures. The S4 Avant is as comfortable commuting to work as it is mugging unsuspecting sports cars on weekend forays into the country. Its effortless blend of luxury, style and utility endows it with a degree of versatility that challenges traditional classification. Throw in sports-car-rivaling performance, and it may very well belong in a class of its own. Audi calls it an Avant. I call it a roaring good time. Dodge Magnum SRT8 By Mike Monticello There was nothing wrong with the Dodge Magnum R/T we tested back in the November 2004 issue that a trip to a speed shop wouldn't fix; it simply needed stronger performance to back up its bad-boy looks. Luckily, Chrysler has its own in-house speed shop, called SRT, for Street and Racing Technology. These guys have already worked their magic on the Neon, Crossfire, 300C, Ram pickup and the Viper. The SRT philosophy is simple: "Best performance for the lowest price." Now it's the Magnum's turn. Starting with the engine, the Hemi in SRT form gets a bump in displacement from 5.7 liters to 6.1, along with a new intake manifold, high-flow cylinder heads, large-diameter valves and reshaped cylinder ports and exhaust headers. The engine was strengthened with a reinforced block, higher coolant flow, a forged steel crankshaft, powdered-metal connecting rods and pistons cooled by oil squirters, enabling the redline to be raised from 5800 rpm to 6400. The 6.1 is exactly the same size dimensionally as the 5.7 (it does away with the engine cover), though it weighs 15 lb. more owing to the new intake manifold. But if you want power, you've come to the right place. Try 425 bhp at 6000 rpm (85 bhp more than the 5.7). It drops the Magnum R/T like a bad habit, charging to 60 mph in just 5.2 sec. (versus 6.1 for the RT) and thundering through the quarter mile in 13.6 sec. at 105.9 mph (vs. 14.6 at 97.4). It does so with a subdued V-8 rumble; we'd actually prefer a more fired-up exhaust note. Power is sent to the rear wheels through the Mercedes-Benz-designed W5A580 5-speed automatic transmission with an upgraded rear differential. AutoStick allows for manual shifting via left or right movements of the shift lever. Now you'd think with this newfound power — and the Magnum's muscle-car pretensions — that the SRT8 would be all about leaving long, black stripes at stoplights. You'd be wrong. Due to tall gearing, huge 20-in. forged aluminum wheels shod with Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar tires (245/45s at the front and 255/45s at the rear) and a torque peak that is 800 rpm higher than on the R/T, the SRT8 leaves the line with nary a chirp, even with the traction control turned off. While 420 lb.-ft. of torque is formidable, its peak comes in at a lofty (for a 6.1-liter) 4800 rpm, making the engine feel a bit soft at lower revs. While power is important, making the Magnum into a more sporting piece required a significant altering of the suspension. The basics remain the same, but specially tuned dampers, altered spring rates, new suspension bushings, larger-diameter anti-roll bars and a half-inch-lower ride height give the Magnum a more tied-down feel. The SRT8's ESP stability program's threshold was raised, allowing drivers to have a bit more fun with their car when the going gets twisty. How much of a difference do the changes make? Gigantic. Slalom speed rose from 61.7 mph for the R/T to 66.3 for the SRT8. The skidpad improved from the R/T's wimpy 0.72g to an impressive 0.87g. With massive 14.2-in. vented rotors clamped by 4-piston aluminum Brembo calipers at the front and 13.8-in. vented rotors at the rear, the SRT8 makes stops that completely belie its 4380-lb. curb weight, hauling itself down from 60 mph in 116 feet (vs. 135 for the R/T) and 207 ft. (vs. 238) from 80. Unfortunately, our car was plagued with mushy initial pedal feel and a long travel, which turned into brake fade down one particularly steep and twisty back road. Aside from the special wheels and SRT8 badging, exterior changes were kept to a minimum. A new front fascia includes air ducts to cool the front brakes while a new air dam reduces lift. The rear fascia includes a "wake modifier" and larger cutouts for the dual 3.5-in. exhaust tips. Inside, the most notable change is to the front seats, which gain considerably more bolstering and suede inserts. It's interesting to see the sharing of M-B parts, such as the wiper/turn signal and cruise-control stalks, along with the M-B shift gate. Despite impressive performance numbers, out on real roads the Magnum SRT8 doesn't hide its weight well. It feels a bit like a truck, partially because of its large-diameter leather-wrapped steering wheel, but also because of overly light steering. The result is a ponderous front end, and this limited feedback means you're never quite sure what the heck is going on up there; but its limit of adhesion is appreciably high, due in no small part to those sticky Goodyears. The Magnum forces you to concentrate hard to keep all of its mass on the road, while a car like the Audi S4 begs you to attack every corner as if it were your last; because of the Magnum's numb feel, it seems you are just a little behind with every input. The Magnum SRT8 has to be viewed for what it is — the wagon of muscle cars; it isn't meant to be the sports car of wagons. Perhaps what's most impressive, though, is that you could have two Magnum SRT8s for the price of one E55. In other words, it lives up to SRT's goal of delivering the best performance possible for the lowest price. Mercedes-Benz E55 AMG Sport Wagon By Dennis Simanaitis I could have seen this coming: Give the old guy the Mercedes (as the young racers go storming off in the Hemi and the Quattro). But it helps to read the not-so-fine print: E55 AMG. This is no ordinary Benz wagon. The E55 AMG Sport Wagon proved a perfect conveyance for our brief trip down onto the Santa Rosa Plateau in Southern California horse country, southeast of our Newport Beach digs. In fact, as nearby data will confirm, my assigned car was the most potent stormer of the three — 4.4 sec. to 60 mph whereas the others are well into the 5's. Yet, of course, pure acceleration isn't what these wagons are about. For instance, I certainly wouldn't do 4.4 with a restored Stickley in back. (Then again, if it's properly packed in....) The E55 AMG's 5.4-liter supercharged V-8 produces 469 bhp at 6100 rpm and a traction-control-tripping 516 lb.-ft. of torque in a range as broad as the Santa Rosa Plateau itself (if plateaus happened to be measured from 2650 to 4500 rpm). All this means that one is never at a loss for forward progress. Alas, if exercised with brio (or its German equivalent, Lebhaftigkeit), one can also expect pretty dismal fuel economy. We saw 12.1 mpg overall, though a rather more prudent EPA suggests 14/21. Either way, the E55 AMG earns a $1700 gas-guzzler tax. There are steering-wheel buttons for driver-invoked up- and downshifts of the car's 5-speed smart automatic, as well as the usual M-B lateral slapshift. This trip, I found myself preferring the buttons. On the approach to long sweepers, for example, a left-button downshift provided just the retardation I wanted (as well as not illuminating any telltale brake lights). Competitive? Not our bunch. The Mercedes cabin is, to me, the nicest of our trio. Its shiny bits, Nappa leather and black bird's-eye maple are well executed without looking art-school trendy (think S4) or Bauhaus-retro (think Magnum). Plus, the Benz offers my preferred driving position. The S4 is a tad tight for a bigger-than-average-bear physique; the Magnum's high-sided styling makes me feel like sonny pretending he's driving daddy's car. The Mercedes has several neat touches within the cabin as well, among them an optional rear-facing third row. Children love riding back there. When not needed, it folds utterly flat to leave a large cargo volume that can be made even larger by folding the second row. Editorial-integrity disclosure: Actually, though, the Dodge has the roomiest interior. It was this car we chose for our dinner run with all five of us aboard, Monticello, Wolfkill, photographer Jeff Allen, videographer Jay K. McNally and me. (I couldn't persuade any of them into the E55's kiddy seat.) Other cabin enhancements on the Mercedes add cost but, to me, not special value. I appreciate the front seats being heated (E55 standard) and actively ventilated (part of the $3390 Premium Package, a healthy portion of which is a COMAND-DVD navigation system). But I never really got into the Drive-Dynamic front seats, capable of real-time multi-contouring massage. As for COMAND, either this multi-function control is getting simpler or I'm getting smarter. On other ergonomic fronts, I never got entirely comfortable with Audi's Multi-Media Interface. And one of these days the Chrysler portion of DaimlerChrysler is going to discover press-and-hold-to-set radio memory. I must confess, however, that I found the Magnum a blast to drive on twisty roads. True, its steering is a bit featureless on-center, but there's so much tire and, what's more, the Magnum's chassis couples all four so well. By contrast, "my" Mercedes didn't turn in with any more confidence. And, more than once, a dashboard light signified that the car's ESP was overruling my lead foot. What with our occasional encounters of sand, gravel or misty road surfaces, I wasn't about to disengage this traction/yaw control. Yet, I do think it acted a bit overzealously. Nevertheless, like other Mercedes-Benz models that come to mind, the E55 AMG wagon seems to diminish in size, the harder I push. By contrast, the Audi S4 already feels pre-shrunk. And I would certainly acknowledge the bad-weather capability of its Quattro all-wheel drive. In my stints on this trip, the S4 felt especially nimble and stable, though lacking the road-stripping torque of the other two. On another subject entirely, it wasn't until I was gathering specifications that I realized the E55 AMG had electrohydraulic braking. This system, seen as a first step toward pure brake-by-wire, has hydraulic actuation of its wheel cylinders, but computerized pressure generation and distribution of the fluid. In a couple of its earliest applications, we've found electrohydraulic braking feel to be a bit artificial. This time around, the brakes earned nothing but praise. One criterion of mine is how well I can play the brake pedal: How consistently can its ABS be avoided or invoked at will? Last, let's reiterate, this is in no manner a comparison test; it's a combined drive of three sport wagons of wildly disparate price. And, at an as-tested $91,325, the Mercedes is vastly more expensive than the others. Is it worth that much more? For fortunate affluent sorts, this is decided on matters of heritage, prestige and personality as well as performance and function. The Mercedes-Benz E55 AMG Sport Wagon certainly has all five in abundance.