Audi’s original Allroad found a small but vocal following when it was first introduced on the old A6 platform, but it also had a bit of an (understandable) inferiority complex. Just as the medium-sized luxury SUV segment exploded, the Allroad offered much of that segment’s versatility and cargo space, but it didn’t hover over smaller cars like a leviathan. That stature also helped its on-road and soft-road dynamics. Flash-forward to late 2016, and the advantages of a wagon with all-wheel-drive versatility haven’t gone anywhere. In fact, this year’s Audi A4 Allroad further refines the art.
The Allroad was first based on the A6 platform using turbocharged V6s and then naturally aspirated V8s, last sold in the US market in 2005. The more recent A4-based Allroad debuted in 2010, propelled by four-cylinder engines. The new A4 Allroad’s body muscles up compared to the A4 sedan, with flared wheel openings, vertical grille bars, and tall roof rails that all accent height, as well as bright accents for the rockers and lower front end. Rear turn signals are a feast for the tech nerd. Sequential LEDs illuminate to sweep across the back in the direction of the turn, suggesting motion itself. I learned that ergonomics engineers deep in the bowels of Audi discovered that this arrangement is a few milliseconds faster than conventional bulbs, even static LEDs.
But the heart of this car is a revised “Ultra” Quattro all-wheel-drive system, exclusive to the Allroad for now (it will expand across the lineup over the next couple of years). The key is its ability to entirely disconnect the rear differential and propshaft from the driveline when not needed. It can also fully lock and vary the amount of drive to the rear wheels and from left to right, depending on conditions. Ultra Quattro learns road conditions and driving style quickly, tailoring the percentage of drive directed to each corner of the car. It does not create more grip—grip is a constant, immutable by any technology beyond tires—but it is more efficient and reacts more rapidly than any preceding Quattro system.
On initial startup, Ultra Quattro sets off in full all-wheel-drive and learns conditions and driver behavior to either dial back to front-wheel drive or to stay in all-wheel drive. This coupling and de-coupling of the propshaft and rear diff occurs in only 200 milliseconds. Ultra Quattro also predicts the road 500 milliseconds ahead through multiple sensors supplying data on tire slip, yaw rate, steering angle, rate of change of the steering angle, throttle application, and ambient temperature.
Audi’s dual-clutch, seven-speed automatic is the sole transmission available. This transmission uses extremely short lower gears and extremely tall higher gears, lessening the need for a gear-multiplication transfer case at the low-speed end of things, which would also sink the package’s efficiency.
On the opposite end, highway speeds are calm thanks to a very tall seventh gear.
Audi’s 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder engine cranks out 252hp (188kW) and 273lb-ft (370Nm) of torque, the only engine offered in the A4 Allroad. Though this basic engine can be found in millions of VWs, Audis, SEATs in Europe and others, this iteration proves remarkably quiet. At high speeds on clear, unpaved back roads, I had to look down at the rev counter to get any sense of where in the rpm range it was.
Though the Allroad weighs 3,825 pounds (1,735kg), 60mph arrives in just 5.9 seconds (0.5 quicker than the old Allroad). It also returns 23/28/25 mpg in city/highway/combined driving, and after a full day of back-road flogging, it returned 25.8mpg—fairly remarkable.
While the A4 Allroad is not an automotive mountain goat or rock crawler, it does handle snow, dirt, mud and limited rough terrain, dismissing all of these conditions I threw at it over 100 miles (160km) of Wyoming’s glorious backcountry.
Keeping Audi’s Drive Select system in “Offroad” mode for the unpaved portions of the drive softened the new adaptive dampers, adding compliance over the rough stuff. Drive Select offers several other settings, including “Dynamic” for stiffer on-pavement sporty driving, “Individual” which allows the driver to manually select certain parameters, “Comfort” (self-explanatory), and “Automatic” which manages all suspension, steering and transmission parameters.
Inside, the Allroad receives all the new A4 sedan’s basic design and detail. Front seats are typically supportive, but the bigger change is in the rear. Backseat passengers get 2.5 inches of additional leg room over the prior Allroad and even have notches cleaved out of the B pillars to allow easier foot extraction when getting out. In the way back, you’ll find 58.5 cubic feet (1,657 l) of cargo space with the seats down and 24.2 cubic feet (685 l) with seats erect.
Audi’s Virtual Cockpit gauge cluster option digitally represents the instrumentation on a large, high-resolution, 12.3-inch (31cm) 1440×540-pixel display. Owners can customize the configuration, including an expanded navigation display using Google Earth imagery. An Nvidia chip delivers impressive graphics, refreshed at a rate of 60 frames per second—which also helps show smoothly sweeping tachometers, speedometers, and map data in real time. For the Audi Virtual Cockpit, Nvidia uses its Tegra 3 SoC with dedicated processors for video, sound, and imaging. The VCM is also upgradeable, but I’m not so sure upgrading your car’s virtual graphics will set the world on fire like in gaming.
Audi has among the most user-friendly controller interfaces on the market with its MMI (“multi-media interface”) infotainment system, and it’s optionally available on the Allroad. Our tester was fitted with it under the Prestige package and included a Bang & Olufsen audio system, LED headlights, top-view surround parking assist and back-up camera system, head-up display, and dual-pane glass in the front doors. The MMI’s handwriting recognition touchpad on top of the controller recognizes letters when drawn with a finger, and the car runs both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration.
Decked out with almost every option available, the tested Allroad rang the register at $55,575 from a starting base price of $44,950. The new A4 Allroad faces off against BMW’s conventional-ride-height 330 xDrive Sports Wagon ($43,945) and Subaru’s less expensive ($26,520), but less technically sophisticated, Outback—though the latter can near the $40,000 mark with maximum options and trim. Sister brand VW’s new Golf Alltrak, a less premium choice, begins at $27,770. This leaves Volvo’s V60 Cross Country as the Allroad’s closest competition, ringing in at $42,695.
Considering the use and abuse that this go-anywhere automotive niche pre-supposes, that’s a load of money changing hands to go play in the dirt, mud, and snow. But there’s nothing within that niche that plays in it better.