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4T : Reviews & Road Tests

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8 July 2012


It’s fair to say the claws are out in a lavatory at the airport. “I guess you can say that when you’ve won a Pulitzer,” mutters one journalist to another, and then goes silent as the door swings open and I stroll into the men’s room. I’m at an airplane hangar about 20-minutes’ drive from the Denver airport. The massive building usually used to house planes has been commandeered by Audi for the launch of their updated B8 range of automobiles and a comment… critique really… made by Wall Street Journal writer Dan Neil may have ruffled a feather or two.

Five minutes earlier Audi’s public relations rep was presenting the new cars when the subject turned to the allroad (A4 allroad in most markets, but simply “allroad” in the USA). Someone from Audi described the allroad as “iconic” and when the question and answer period began, Mr. Neil went first by asking something while adding that use of “iconic” as “ill-advised.”

In the perspective of a press launch, catty journos talking about each other aren’t terribly abnormal. PRs talking about their cars in gratuitously becoming fashion aren’t either. Nor again are critiques and smart-assed comments from Mr. Neil… ever since we’d first met him in Le Mans years ago. It’s part of his charm, and so is his impressive scope just in case the Wall Street Journal post or the Pulitzer didn’t tip you off on that already. Still, even with that scope, could he be wrong on the subject of the allroad and its “icon” status?

Perhaps this is all about perspective. When you think of what comprises an automotive “icon”, it all starts with cars like the Model T, the Volkswagen Beetle and/or the venerable Jeep. Anything much beyond these three is likely an exercise in the pairing down of automotive niches. In the world of ice cream the icons are chocolate and vanilla, beyond that it’s a matter of opinion as to the difference between feature flavor and microbatch. As ice cream goes… so goes the auto industry. Here’s our scoop on Audi’s rugged wagon.By the time the allroad was first shown in 1999, the SUV craze was well established. Subaru had gone ahead and created the off-road wagon in the form of the Outback four years earlier (if you don’t count the AMC Eagle). The legend goes that Audi’s then-CEO Franz Josef Paefgen sidestepped pressure from bosses at the Volkswagen Group to build an Audi SUV by heading off in the same general direction as Subaru. Even still, he changed the formula a considerable margin by giving the allroad more performance, well more luxury, an adjustable air suspension and fender lip flares to an A6 Avant. Power came from the S4’s potent 2.7T biturbo V6 or optionally from the A8’s 4.2 V8.

No, the allroad wasn’t the first sport utility wagon going, but it was the first to pair a luxury car with the concept and first also, at least in this class, to make use of a height adjustable air suspension in order to up the utility factor while off road and improve handling while on road.

In many respects, Paefgen was an Audi purist. He saw the land rush that was the burgeoning SUV market and turned up his nose. Where the Q7, Q5 and Q3 would eventually help usher Audi into the mainstream, Paefgen’s allroad was instead a perfect niche vehicle for the Avant-crazy Audi loyalisti – one that even came with an optional manual transmission. Alas, and perhaps not surprisingly, not very many were sold.Today the allroad has changed a bit. Whereas Europe has two offerings with both A4 and A6-based versions, the USA now gets solely the smaller offering that will be known in America simply as ‘allroad’.

Why no A6? For starters, the A6 Avant no longer comes to America in any form. That car is too pricey, and the much more affordable 7-passenger Q7 is considerably better geared to American tastes.

Contrarily, the A4-based allroad made a more compelling case to North American product planners. Volumes would be higher, costs lower and the A4 Avant model was already in the market so that meant federalization cost savings. In as much, the timing was perfect for the allroad to stage a comeback.

Though based on the A4 Avant, this new allroad shares a lot of similarities with the previous allroad. The size is virtually the same – longer actually in wheelbase and with more headroom.Gone are the days when Audi could justify three different drivetrain options for such a niche car. Today’s allroad offers just one – the 2.0 TFSI four-cylinder (211 hp / 258 lb-ft) paired with a quick-shifting and very efficient 8-speed Tiptronic transmission.

Not surprisingly, the setup is certainly efficient. EPA figures are 20 city and 27 highway, though even more surprising is that Audi’s claimed 0-60 mph run of 6.5 seconds is better than the 6.8 managed by the original allroad with manual transmission (7.2 seconds with Tiptronic).

Why faster? For one, the current-generation EA888 2.0 TFSI with Valvelift is considerably more powerful than its C5-era equivalent 1.8T – an engine that would have been entirely too anemic for the original allroad. Another reason is certainly weight, with the new car tipping the scales at 3,891 lbs. versus the original allroad’s 4,233 lbs.Of course this newest A4 platform has been designed with weight savings much more a priority than was the old car, but another key weight (and cost) saver is the lack of air suspension. Purists may grouse but the savings helps the allroad in many ways and the car actually doesn’t give up much to the old one. It’s got a clearance of 7.1-inches as compared to 7.6 as standard operational height on the old car.

One trick available via the use of the car’s latest modular longitudinal matrix (MLB) architecture is a widened track. Audi was able to adopt the same wider track from the A5/S5 coupes, which helps for lateral stability that proves useful in a more off-road environment. In other words, there’s a reason for those widened fender arches.

Stance isn’t the only upgrade for the allroad. The taller suspension means 45 series tires (versus 40 on the A4) and a final drive adjusted to compensate for the change. The allroad also gets tailored ESP programming that allows a little more slip and delays ABS pulse.One thing the allroad doesn’t get is hill descent control. Audi emphasizes the allroad is not an off-roader. It’s more of an active lifestyle vehicle. Think of it as more rally car than rock crawler. Its car nature is emphasized by its tow rating (Class 1 < 1500 lbs) versus the 4500 lbs rating of the Q5.

On our drive from Denver to Vail, the allroad presented a very compelling proposition. The general allroad design language with its silver vertical slat grille and aluminum brightwork is a step above the original allroad’s pieces of flair.

On the road, there are a few changes that need mentioning. For one, the greater suspension travel and meatier tires ease the slightly harsh ride of the outgoing B8 A4 Avant. That’s not to say it’s soft, but it helps assure the car will have more mainstream appeal. The change to electromechanical steering, done mainly to help fuel economy through less frictional drag, isn’t terribly noticeable around town or switchbacks through the Rocky Mountains on the way to Vail. The weight and feel actually seems to be slightly improved.Inside, the allroad is essentially straight up A4. However, there are important B8 facelift upgrades worth mentioning and most center around the MMI system. For starters, controls have been simplified, knocking eight buttons down to six. Audio commands are improved for cars sporting navigation, and these also operate the new Google-based search and navigation with Google maps and street view. Newer style, and more ergonomic, A6/A7 control stalks are also a welcome upgrade to the A4’s cockpit.

Base price on the allroad is a hair under $40K at $39,600. Critics will argue that this is more than $7,000 over the “top-of-the-line” Subaru Outback 3.6R, but we’d counter with a simple brand comparison. There aren’t that many people cross-shopping the Subaru Legacy (on which the Outback is based) and the Audi A4. The same logic applies to the allroad vs. Outback comparison. These are different cars for different customers.

Our Ibis White test car was conservatively built, with options but seemingly done on a budget. While it’s possible to tip the $50,000 figure with the allroad, our car came solely with the Premium Plus option group package that included auto-dimming mirror with compass, auto-dimming and power-folding exterior mirrors, Audi Music Interface (AMI) with iPod cable, Bluetooth mobile phone integration, driver information system with trip computer, heated front seats with driver memory, HomeLink garage door opener, xenon headlights with LED DRL, three zone climate control and power liftgate. So-equipped it weighed in at $43,795.Looking over the options list, there are a few more we’d recommend that our car didn’t have. First and foremost would be the trick MMI Navigation plus system with Google functionality. At another $3,050 it isn’t cheap, but it does net you the aforementioned navigation with voice control, 3G Wifi hotspot, a hard drive for MP3 storage, DVD, HD radio, SD card slots, parking sensors with rearview camera and an upgraded color driver information screen in the instrument cluster.

Beyond navigation, we’ve found a few more boxes that enthusiasts may want to check. The $500 Sport Interior Package will get you a three-spoke sport steering wheel with shift paddles and power four-way lumbar adjustment for driver and passenger. Audi’s layered wood trim first shown in the A7 is also now available at the cost of $850. Finally, we really like the monotone look and Audi does offer a full paint finish that will match the flares and body kit to the body of the car. This last option will net you another $1,000.

So is the allroad an icon, or perhaps not-so-much as Dan Neil suggested. We believe the allroad’s place within the Audi lexicon is firmly cemented and indeed an icon in that context. People outside of sport-utility wagon owners or Audi enthusiasts may likely think otherwise, but the cult-like following and name synonymous with luxurious semi-offroad functionality to people in these groups make it qualify as an icon in a micro-batch kind of way.

From our perspective, whether or not Dan Neil finds the allroad “icon”-worthy should be less of a concern to Audi. More important will be how credible an heir this car is to those who are more in tune with Audi, former allroad owners or aspirationals ready to trade in their Outback or Volvo XC70 for something more hip or luxurious. How these wagon-friendly active lifestylers perceive the car will determine its success.Considering these groups, we believe the new allroad will be decidedly successful. It is certainly much more handsome than its off-roader wagon competitors. It is more luxurious, more functional, tech-laden and also more efficient. It is worth the premium.

There is but one section of its target audience where the car may fall a bit short and that is amongst the performance gearheads who have owned (and maybe still own) the original C5 allroad. They know who they are and they’re not hard to spot. They’ve got a manual transmission version and at the very least it’s got an ECU upgrade… maybe something even more radical. They love the functionality of the air suspension even if it is so they can lower it more for appearance than raise it to go off road, and they’ve likely got a few external upgrades like a set of larger rims.

This last group is not a large one, but it is boisterous. They’ll likely critique the lack of manual gearbox more than anything, even though this new 8-speed is well more efficient and surprisingly quick to shift. Likely they prefer a rev-matched blip of a Stage 3 biturbo V6, which all may be incredibly cool but isn’t very dialed in to mainstream success in the 2013 marketplace.

In the end, we think the allroad will be a net gain for Audi. It is more affordable, more efficient, more ergonomic and more tech-laden than both the original and its current market rivals. Like the allroad before it, it will be a niche car… but a more mainstream niche car that should sell in thousands rather than hundreds. Its more broad appeal may mean greater sales than any allroad before it, though its lack of enthusiast kit in the face of market logic that helped it achieve its micro-batch icon status means there will definitely render it also just a bit more vanilla.

See more photos from this road test in our PHOTO GALLERY.

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