The Audi 80 2.6 saloon is, in most respects, a refined and reassuring machine in which to embark on such a journey. Everything on it that opens and closes does so with a 'thunk' like the door of a bullion vault. It has the patent Audi safety system, Procon-Ten, which improves the odds of survival in a front-end crash. Its engine is a squeezed version of the company's 2.8-litre V6 model, with the piston travel slightly reduced to make a nevertheless brisk, quiet and powerful unit. The boot swallows everything you can hurl into it, and the interior is reasonably spacious, too.
And yet the 2.6 has faults that are hard to square with Audi's well-deserved reputation for excellence and attention to detail. It has an irritatingly snatchy clutch, for a start - so much so that I stalled a couple of times on roundabouts until I got used to it. I also found that, in stop-start traffic driving, it was difficult to keep the motion as smooth as you might expect of a luxury saloon costing nearly pounds 20,000. The gearshift was awkward, too, particularly when moving up into third. And although the ride was generally forgiving and comfortable, the car demonstrated a faint but unsettling tendency to lurch on ridged or bumpy roads. A powerful engine like this in a front-drive car will understandably produce wheelspin, especially when accelerating thuggishly on corners - which you shouldn't be doing anyway. But the effect here was made worse by being coupled with a sharp clutch action. In other words, this isn't a perfect Audi, or a perfect competitor in its class. But those carpets . . .
GOING PLACES: Superb V6 engine, a slightly toned-down variation of the regular Audi 2.8: 0-60mph in 8.6 secs, 30-70mph in approx 9.6 secs. Good gearing, but gearshift tricky.
STAYING ALIVE: Traditional Audi build quality, anti-lock brakes standard, plus Procon-Ten safety system which pre-tensions seatbelts and withdraws steering wheel on impact. Childproof locks. Visibility not bad, but combination of high boot and back headrests obscures rear view. Handling not perfect, with wheelspin easily induced, an undulating ride, and dull steering responses.
CREATURE COMFORTS: Beautifully appointed interior, a consistent Audi plus, though seating not ideal - particularly at the back. Legroom at rear average, though boot is spacious. Good sound system.
BANGS PER BUCK: Power steering, ABS brakes, central locking, electric windows, sunroof and mirrors standard throughout. Fuel consumption not bad for engine capacity, around 23mpg in town, 30mpg at constant motorway speeds. All for a price of pounds 19,195.
STAR QUALITY: Refined, safe and beautifully built saloon. Excellent redesigned engine, comfortable interior and the Audi reputation.
TURKEY QUOTIENT: Inert steering; handling inclined to pitching on undulating road surfaces, and to wheelspin on acceleration out of turns, particularly in the wet. Clutch action over-sharp.
AND ON MY RIGHT: Volkswagen Vento VR6 ( pounds 19,995): faster, better handling, ugly appearance. Rover 420 GSi ( pounds 17,930): faster still, but not so good at coping with it. BMW 325i ( pounds 21,350): excellent chassis, and no handling or driving quirks except that back-end twitch in the wet.