Pragmatism, you may have noticed, is a diminishing commodity in the modern world. Think about it. Does anyone need a watch that tells them to get off their lardy backside and walk a bit? Did any BMW 7 Series owner ever utter the words, “Touching a button to alter the cabin temperature of my car is exhausting me. If only I could gesture with my hand what I want the car to do.”
The same line of thinking could be directed to SUV buyers who rarely if ever leave the bitumen. If you have - let’s call it a ‘premium pragmatic’ streak - it’s possible an SUV is higher riding and more dynamically cumbersome that you really want or need. The sweet spot, then, could lie with something like Audi’s new B9-generation A4 Allroad.
The premise is pretty simple: an Allroad, much like the conceptually similar VW Passat Alltrack and Subaru Outback, will cheerfully negotiate around 90 percent of off-road situations that 90 percent of customers will ever have the need to tackle.
The simple truth is that the off-road ability of most ‘proper’ SUVs are limited due to road-biased tyres anyway, so the Allroad’s slightly raised ride height and underbody protection are sure to be adequate for the occasional lumpen unmade trail that leads to that prime surf spot, mountain bike retreat or weekender cabin.
First, though, a quick Allroad history refresher. Audi introduced the nameplate to the C5-generation A6 model in 1999. The subsequent (and rebadged) A6 Allroad has continued to do comparatively small but useful volumes to an ultra-loyal customer base ever since. So, in 2009, the previous-generation B8 A4 was deemed worthy of copping the Allroad treatment, and made it to Australia in 2012.
Before diving into the key elements that lift this second-generation model over its predecessor, we need to look at the powertrain options to see how Audi’s Australian product planners have schemed to differentiate it from the regular A4 Avant. Remember, the Avant is offered only with regular- and high-output versions of the 2.0-litre turbo petrol four; with either front-drive (low-output) and Quattro (high-output) drivetrains. So for buyers wanting four-cylinder diesel power and wagon practicality, suddenly the Allroad is the default choice. There’ll also be a narrow band of customers who may be lured by the grunt of the 200kW/600Nm version of the 3.0-litre V6 TDI variant, which is under consideration but not confirmed for Australia.
As for the petrol; it’s the excellent high-output 2.0-litre turbo as fitted to the top-spec Avant Quattro. It produces 185kW between 5000 and 6000rpm and 370Nm of torque from 1600 to 4500rpm, but surely this model’s most noteworthy feature is the introduction of a new all-wheel-drive system called ‘Quattro with Ultra’. After decades of trumpeting the advantages of all-wheel drive, Audi has had to face up to one inconvenient truth - an all-paw drivetrain creates more drag and increases fuel consumption. Not in keeping with the times, folks, so a rethink was required. The answer is an all-wheel-drive system that behaves as a front-driver whenever you’re not giving it stick or driving on slippery surfaces which is… well, lots.
The new system - fitted only to the 2.0 TSI model at launch, but set to become mainstream - does away with a centre differential. Instead it uses uses a clutch pack at the back of the transmission and another forward of the rear diff, allowing the prop shaft to be decoupled, and thus allowing the rear wheels to spin free of driveline drag. The system’s controller is fed information from sensors monitoring steering input, throttle position, torque output, yaw and g-force, and uses this to determine when drive to the rear is advantageous to the car’s dynamics.
The company claims the predictive Ultra all-wheel drive saves around 0.3L/100km on the NEDC cycle. Sounds small, but remember we’re at a stage where the chase for consumption improvements have become like the gram-by-gram weight loss strategies that really took hold in recent years.
Speaking of which, Quattro Ultra also weighs 4kg less than the traditional Torsen system, which seems will be ultimately confined to the high-performance RS models.
The big question, of course, is how well does it work? The short answer is: with seamless effectiveness. We drove the car on German roads, and gave it our best shot to get confused, forget to send drive rearward, understeer into the Bavarian woods … all to no avail. The system has an uncanny sense of your driving style and inputs, and milliseconds before Audi’s front-wheel drive chassis would be scrubbing into understeer and ESC activation, the quattro Ultra-equipped car is deploying all-paw traction and firing you out of the bend. We also tried it on an unsealed road with ESC disabled, and found that one generous bootful of throttle is sufficient to send the rear-end into dirt-roosting, party-time oversteer. A buttoned-down bum-dragger it is not.
So the car’s sense for torque distribution seems brilliantly judged, but if in doubt, selecting the Dynamic mode instantly primes the driveline for more torque to be directed to the rear. There’s also an Offroad mode for a near-50/50 spit front to rear.
Some other important distinctions between the new A4 Allroad TSI and the Avant Sport Quattro deserve detailing. Obviously there’s the hiking boots ’n’ rucksack bodywork,with its sill and guard protection, and plastic under-cladding extending beneath front and rear bumpers. (One caveat, people: it’s still plastic, and decent rock will lunch it.) Then there’s price; the petrol Allroad is expected to sell in Australia for around $75,000 with a very similar (though not yet confirmed) level of standard specification to the Avant quattro. That circa-$2000 increase buys you the light-duty off-road ability thanks to the 34mm increase in ride height, delivered by suspension that sits it 23mm higher, combined with the additional 11mm that comes from the taller tyre aspect ratio on 18-inch or 19-inch alloy wheels.
That chubbier rubber contributes to a more plush-feeling ride than the Avant, especially when teamed with the adaptive dampers, making their debut as an option on Allroad. This is a serenely compliant and comfortable-riding chassis set-up, with the only downside being less lateral grip from the not-so-sporty rubber. Combined with the zingy, elastic turbo four, which pulls from modest revs and cheerfully buzzes the redline, it makes for a car that feels supremely capable, obedient and well-sorted. Even keen drivers are unlikely to feel short-changed by the slightly more homely dynamics of the Allroad compared to the harder-edged Avant.
To the interior, then, which, as you’d expect, is essentially A4 Avant, and offers the same features and options, including the all-digital virtual cockpit instrument cluster, its 8.3-inch multimedia screen, head-up display and the option of in-car SIM internet connection. Personally, I’d argue you won’t find a more stylish, beautifully crafted, superbly functional cabin in the premium mid-size segment.
Disappointingly, there was no A4 Allroad 2.0 TDI available to drive at the launch, which is a shame, as Audi expects it to account for half of initial Allroad sales. That figure sounds about right, given, as we’ve mentioned, there is no TDI engine option for the A4 Avant. The Australian-spec Allroad TDI will make 140kW/400Nm, delivers combined consumption of 4.9l/100km (NEDC) and weighs 60kg more than the TSI petrol (all of it over the front axle) for a total dry weight of 1640kg. Claimed 0-100km/h figure is 7.8sec, so a bit slower than the 2.0 TSI. Expect it to be priced within a sniff of the circa-$75,000 tag charged for the 2.0 TSI. Will that be enough to make you want one over the petrol? Obviously we can’t say until we’ve driven it, but given the petrol car’s refinement, torque spread, frugality and handling balance, it seems unlikely.
What we did drive was the Allroad 3.0 V6 TDI which is “under consideration” for Australia. This engine does duty in the Q7 SUV, so its 200kW/600Nm outputs have no trouble hustling the A4 Allroad to 0-100km/h in a claimed 5.5 seconds while using just 5.3L/100 combined on the Euro cycle. It also has a pleasingly low level of high-compression diesel clatter to intrude in the cabin, and the eight-speed (torque convertor ) automatic makes fine use of the torque curve to be always primed to deliver serious overtaking shove.
But that’s about where the good news starts to stall. Through anything other than open sweepers, the V6 TDI feels much less agile than the petrol four - no surprise when you note it weighs 1730kg. The effect of that extra mass is to make the car feel a class larger than the Allroad 2.0 TSI. It’s as though you’ve suddenly found yourself in an A6 Allroad, with a nose that needs nursing to not dissolve into understeer, and less cooperative front-to-rear balance when pushing on. As a versatile, unstressed motorway cruiser, sure. But, given that Audi Australia would no doubt lob some extra equipment onboard and saddle it with a price tag starting with a “9”, you quickly see why it’s far from a no-brainer for our market.
Which leaves the 2.0 TSI looking persuasive. Some doubters may dismiss the A4 Allroad as an Avant in gumboots and a parka, but for anyone with a more pragmatic slant, it’s likely to be all the wagon you’ll ever need.