MOTORING / Estate of the upwardly mobile: The stylishly solid Audi 80 TDi is a car for the chic at heart, says John Fordham

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IT MAY sound crazy to judge a car in the same way as you would judge a person. But it's fair to say that the Audis I've driven, although they have done almost everything right, have lacked what you might call charm. And this isn't simply male displacement of emotions into machinery, honest. It really is possible to sense a car's personality - and then try to negotiate your way into a give-and-take relationship with it. Some extreme examples of automobile personalities are the rugged and tempestuous Lancia Delta, and the modest and dogged Skoda Favorit.

By comparison, many Audis have a robotic orderliness that can be unsettling - though there have been notable exceptions. The first Audi Quattro is still a car that occasions a sharp intake of breath. But the manufacturers are in a quandary about how to splice a responsible image with one that is more sporty. Though it has spent a fortune updating its entire range in less than two years, Audi is still in a jam about how to get feel back into its products - instead of simply packaging a parts-list of impressive engineering innovations.

Audi's biggest strength in recent years has been its cultivation of a reputation for painstaking technological sophistication, taking on BMW and Mercedes in the pursuit of quality coupled with safety and the encouragement of responsible use. The motor industry in general may not know what to do with its gleaming fleets of unsold cars these days, but the Volkswagen / Audi group offers them to road safety researchers, who gleefully hammer them into concrete blocks.

Audis have regularly been classed in the front rank as far as safety is concerned. Innovations in this area have included the now-familiar crumple zones, safety cages, impact bars and the ingenious Procon-Ten system, which reflexively tightens the seatbelts and retracts the steering column in a crash - now standard on all Audis.

But if Audi's image still hovers anxiously between that of Volvo and BMW, the addition of an estate car to the 80 range has improved matters considerably. Though initially expecting the lack of personality mentioned before, I was won over by the 80 TDi in a day or two; priced at pounds 16,000, it neatly marries robustness, elegance and practicality in a manner that feels totally integrated. To go back to anthropomorphising for a moment, this new Audi may not be glam - but it knows exactly who it is, and that's an attractive enough trait.

Estates, it should be said, are doing pretty well in Europe these days - and BMW has had a lot to do with that. When the German company stuck an estate rear on its old-style saloon body and called it the 3-Series Touring, it instantly gave this traditionally dull department of motoring a new vitality. At last you could drive an estate while wearing a Fred Perry shirt, not a cable-knit jumper. At last the term 'estate car' didn't just mean a wheeled receptacle for yesterday's nappies and crushed McDonald's cartons - or a boxful of slavering dogs, wellingtons and 12-bores. The young, chic and upwardly mobile could now buy one without fearing that it would label them as being on the plateau of their lives.

Audi is aiming its 80 estate range at this market, and has designed its competitor remarkably well. The load-bay displaces 42 cubic feet with the back seats down, which is average to good, and it is easy to load because the sill is low. The spare wheel is tucked underneath, so there is no invasion of space, with tools and the first-aid kit discreetly tucked away behind flaps that are flush with the sides. The back seat splits 60/40, and everything is luxuriously lined with Audi's plush velour carpeting.

The first Audi estates to come to Britain will offer two petrol engines (a 2.0-litre and a 2.6-litre V6) and the 1.9-litre turbo-diesel tested here. This isn't an unduly sprightly engine, so you have to make pretty vigorous use of the gearbox - but Audi gearshifts are always precise and reassuring to use. The car is very well insulated, so you rarely notice the diesel clatter from inside. It's an easy starter, too, though I did notice a brief period of sluggishness on the test model from a cold winter start.

Nor can you get hard standing-start acceleration from this car without flooring the pedal and making the engine really yelp; but once under way, third gear offers perfectly acceptable overtaking acceleration and will give the car a distinct yank forward if you need it. Anyone who is in search of zippier performance can find it in the faster Audi estates, however, and the top-of-the-range S2 (a four-wheel-drive machine not due here until next summer) will get to 60mph in just over six seconds.

But the relatively modest performance of the TDi is, oddly enough, one of the things that makes it feel such a balanced and well-considered car. It manages to retain the pragmatic qualities of an estate without either pretending to be a sports car or sacrificing style. Its interior, though sober, uses a rich-grained deep black plastic that confirms traditional Audi quality, and the gracefully slender chromed door catches are among the most elegant detail features in the business.

The suspension - redesigned last year to enable the saloon's boot to be enlarged - is excellent now, offering luxurious softness without imprecision. The steering is a little light, but accurate and reassuring. The brakes are massively secure, and all the Audi estates now have anti-lock braking. The 80 TDi's drawbacks are a few unexpected oddities. As if to force an estate-car owner out of the habits of sportier driving, for example, the throttle is almost five inches ahead of the brake. This means you have to make an aerobics-style knee-jerk to get to the brake pedal. The handbrake has been so discreetly merged into its housing that getting your fingers underneath to pull it on is quite fiddly. But the solidity and good sense of Audi thinking makes this car cheap to run and as clean as a diesel can be (an exhaust gas recirculation system is fitted). And it will undoubtedly run for years.


Getting to know the Audi 80 TDi estate in 0-60 seconds

GOING PLACES: moderately quiet 1.9-litre turbo-diesel engine; good five-speed gearbox with excellent shift; top speed 108mph; 0-62mph in 14.1 secs. Power 90bhp, torque 134ft/lbs at 2,300 revs per minute.

STAYING ALIVE: reinforced safety beams in the doors, crumple zones front and rear, Procon-Ten safety system, first-aid kit and anti-lock brakes standard. Good visibility.

HANGING OUT: responsive handling and luxuriously gentle suspension without loss of control or noticeable roll.

CREATURE COMFORTS: Audi-standard carpeting and interior finish. Driver's seating position adjustable vertically as well as horizontally. Rear legroom acceptable. Load-bay very well appointed, and loading easy. Sound system and ventilation good.

BANGS PER BUCK: for pounds 16,000 you get power steering, electric tilt / slide sunroof, central locking operable from all locks; colour-keyed bumpers; split-folding rear seat; electrically adjustable beam height and mirrors; 44mpg in town, approx 50mpg cruising.

AND ON MY RIGHT: Peugeot 405 Turbodiesel (pounds 13,000) - excellent updated 405 with fine handling, much improved interior; not so frugal, however. Volkswagen Passat GLD (pounds 16,109) - slower, less attractive visually, but immense load space. BMW 318i Touring (pounds 16,000) - less room, more panache, more pace, superb handling balance.

TURKEY QUOTIENT: awful throttle / brake positioning; awkward handbrake.

STAR QUALITY: frugality, elegant appearance and finish inside and out.

(Photograph omitted)