MOTORING / Auto Biography: The Audi S2 Estate in 0-60 seconds

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I'M ALWAYS full of respect for Audis - dammit, I wish I lived in a house that was carpeted half as well as most of them. But there's something about them that usually doesn't quite light my fire. It's their plump, sensible boxiness, numb steering and - in the recent series of revamped cars - anonymous rep-car handling that get me down. They may be beautifully built, technically innovative and safe - but so are Mercedes, BMWs, the new generation of Rovers and a raft of other high-quality machines. So what makes the Audi S2 estate any different?

Like the highly acclaimed Quattro (Audi's most exciting and boldly conceived creation to date), the new S2 estate is a four-wheel-drive machine; it's a sports car with a box on the back, based on the inspiration of the S2 coupe. Outside, it's more or less another Audi 80 - but inside, it's clearly something different. You can tell from the sports seats and from the retro white-faced dials - a profusion of instrumentation that looks as if it has been lifted from Concorde - and the six-speed gearbox.

Owning a fast estate like this is a coded message telling us something about the driver that has nothing to do with supermarkets, dogs or wellington boots. Passion with responsibility? Iconoclasm with focus? Fire and ice? Whatever the message, as a driver's car the Audi S2 is truly remarkable. It corners more flatly, more purposefully and more securely than any estate - and most coupes in my recollection - and the four-wheel drive offers an additional stability in bad weather which makes the S2 safer still.

The downside is that even at pounds 30,000 plus, air-conditioning, heated seats and driver's airbag are still optional extras, though the respected Procon-Ten safety system (pre-tightening the belts and diverting the power unit in a frontal crunch) is standard. The S2 is a wealthy enthusiast's toy rather than any of the things estates are usually assumed to be, but it's a very memorable drive for all that.

GOING PLACES: Superb turbocharged five-cylinder engine coupled to switchable two or four-wheel drive via six-speed gearbox. Immense power and torque, 230 brake horsepower at 5,900 revs per minute, 258 ft lbs of torque coming in low at 1,950 rpm. Quick gearshift, very brisk on-road performance, with 0-60 mph in under 6.5 seconds, 50-70 mph overtaking speeds in top at 7.5 seconds.

STAYING ALIVE: Extensive Audi safety features, with strong crumple zones, side-impact bars, Procon-Ten cabin safety system, anti-lock brakes, but no standard driver's airbag. Magnificent handling on twisty roads, roll on cornering minimal, grip tenacious, yet urban ride quality only slightly knobblier than for lazier luxury cars. Four-wheel drive maximises stability in the wet.

CREATURE COMFORTS: Usual high standard of Audi cabin finish, though carbon facia panel not as attractive as it was supposed to be. Supportive sporty seats with height adjustment for both driver and front passenger. Leg-room average, rear storage space poor. Good ventilation and sound system, high-speed noise levels low.

BANGS PER BUCK: Power steering, alloy wheels, ABS brakes, remote central locking with alarm, electric windows, sunroof and mirrors, lots of dials and instruments you'll never look at. Fuel consumption approx 20 miles per gallon around town, approx 30 mpg on motorways. Price: pounds 30,494.

STAR QUALITY: Top-class sports-car performance with some of the safest and most reassuring handling characteristics on the road. Audi build-quality.

TURKEY QUOTIENT: It may be a sports car masquerading as an estate, but mostly without estate characteristics apart from the shape. Limited storage space, expensive, high insurance costs, not lavishly equipped.

AND ON MY RIGHT: BMW 530i Touring (pounds 32,550): better-looking, just as speedy and surefooted, but costlier still; VW Passat VR6 Estate (pounds 21,994): not very pretty or as leech-like on the road, but well-built, quick, cheaper and roomier; Volvo 850 T5 Estate (pounds 24,795): better equipped, cheaper and much more spacious, and with a ripping engine that seems inconceivable in a Volvo. Handling soggier than the power implies.

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