Wasn't it just a few years ago that Audi's fortunes in North America were flagging? Or a few years before that when the horrible debacle with "60 Minutes" and unintended acceleration unfolded, effectively killing sales of the rising German automaker in the U.S.?
So why is Len Hunt, vice-president of Audi North America, lamenting that the brand is only considered a second-tier luxury marque? Hunt claims that Audi's true destiny is to compete head-on with the might of uber-luxury German brands BMW and Mercedes-Benz.
The latest weapon in Audi's relentless drive upscale is the allroad. (Audi, incorrectly in our opinion, specifies the use of lowercase for both the name of its new crossover utility vehicle and the quattro all-wheel-drive system underpinning it.) Already famous for its quattro all-wheel-drive systems, Audi needed something to capitalize on the huge popularity of sport-utility vehicles.
Like other car manufacturers lacking a history of truck manufacturing, allroad is entering the so-called crossover segment, originated decades ago by the archaic AMC Eagle, popularized by Subaru's enormously successful Outback and typified, in a luxury sense, by Volvo's V70 Cross Country. The Volvo is allroad's natural competition, but, in keeping with Audi's quest for luxury stature, the allroad is infused with a number of technological as well as performance advantages, which should add up to greater consumer appeal.
At $41,900, the allroad is also priced firmly in Mercedes ML and BMW X5 territory, not to mention the Lexus RX 300 and Acura MDX. Audi claims the allroad has two distinct advantages over its more traditional truck-like competition, the first of which is its twin-turbocharged, 250-horsepower 2.7-liter V6. Audi claims its allroad is quicker to 60 mph than BMW's 4.4-liter X5 and Mercedes' 4.3-liter ML430, yet produces significantly superior fuel economy. The Acura and Lexus are likewise rendered as also-rans in terms of sheer acceleration.
That's an impressive comparison, but while the allroad is quite competent, it doesn't have the lazy muscularity of the V8-powered German SUVs. Mat the throttle with the revs up and it indeed scoots, but that all-important, seat-of-the-pants dyno that gauges the immediacy of throttle response puts the smaller V6 behind those hulking V8s, despite its two turbochargers. Still, it feels sportier than the Volvo and even Subaru's new six-cylinder Outback provides less oomph. And, like all Audi V6s, this powerplant is wonderfully smooth. Audi is likely to shoehorn its 300-horsepower 4.2-liter engine from the A8 into the allroad at some later date, thereby tempting those with V8-envy.
Another interesting bit of gadgetry is the allroad's height-adjustable suspension. We've seen similar devices on full-blown SUVs like the Range Rover and Lexus LX 470, both heavyweights with stratospheric MSRPs, but Audi's four-level pneumatic suspension is the first such application on a crossover vehicle.
Airbags atop the four shocks alter their length depending on air pressure, thereby raising and lowering the allroad by as much as 2.6 inches. A button on the center of the dash alters the ride height to four preset levels, or the system can be left in its default position and the allroad automatically alters its ride height, depending on vehicle speed.
Four selectable ride-height positions are available (5.6 inches of ground clearance, 6.6 in., 7.6 in. and 8.2 in.). At its highest setting, Audi claims the allroad's ground clearance is 1.1 inches more than BMW's X5 and equal to that of the Land Rover Discovery, the benchmark in off-road ability. At its lowest setting, the allroad's clearance is less than an inch higher than the company's sporty A4.
Although the ride height can be manually set, there's an electronic control unit (ECU) that automatically monitors the system. For instance, at speeds greater than 75 mph, the suspension automatically defaults to its lowest height, improving road holding and aerodynamics for superior fuel economy. According to Audi, the second level, which is an inch higher, is suitable for paved or semi-finished road surfaces at speeds up to 75 mph. Level three, used for speeds between 22 and 50 mph, offers even more ground clearance for moderate off-road situations like a poorly maintained fire road.
The highest position is for extreme off-roading and steep slopes. It's especially important over deep ruts where lower ride heights can wreak havoc on the bumpers and underbody parts. This top level is limited to 22 mph, though a delay system in the ECU permits short bursts above that speed without activating the higher suspension level.
Raised to its highest suspension setting, allroad's 8.2 inches of ground clearance are more than enough, it turns out, for all but the most dramatic of off-road circumstances. Audi set up a short, but challenging, trail for journalists to test the allroad's mettle. Thanks to generous ground clearance and the traction of the quattro all-wheel-drive system, it passed with flying colors, skirting ruts that would challenge some mainstream SUVs. However, wheel travel isn't particularly impressive, and the front suspension makes fragile sounds during more aggressive maneuvers.
In its lowest suspension position, clearance is reduced to a modest 5.6 inches, which adds to the allroad's handling ability, as a high center of gravity is the biggest bugaboo of traditional SUVs. Certainly, on twisty roads, the allroad feels more like a sport sedan, rather than an ill-handling sport-utility vehicle. The air suspension also doubles as a load-leveling system. The ride-height sensors that detect ground clearance adjust the suspension to its preset ride height, even when fully loaded with cargo or towing a trailer. The only downside to the Audi's adjustable suspension is that it's slow to react.
Of course, the allroad has Audi's famed quattro all-wheel-drive system, first introduced in 1980. Now in its fourth generation, it features a Torsen self-locking center differential between the front and rear axles that can distribute up to 66 percent of the engine's torque to either axle. When even quattro's traction abilities aren't enough, there's an Electronic Differential Lock traction control system that takes over to prevent wheel spin.
Like most luxury vehicles, the allroad gets the latest in safety gear, including a four-wheel ventilated-disc antilock brake system and, as is becoming the norm in upscale autos, an electronic stability enhancement system that reduces (but can't eliminate) the effects of ham-fisted driving. This Electronic Stabilization Program (ESP) uses the ABS as well as yaw and lateral acceleration sensors to brake individual wheels to prevent over- and understeer. The inner rear brake is applied during understeer, while the outer front brake is used to minimize oversteer.
If ABS and ESP still can't prevent an accident, Audi backs it all up with dual-stage second-generation airbags that deploy at two different speeds depending on whether or not the front passengers are wearing seatbelts. Side airbags for front occupants, logically located in the sides of the front seats, provide an extra measure of security if the allroad gets T-boned at an intersection while rear seat side airbags are also available as a stand-alone option. Audi's Sideguard air curtains protect the heads of front and outboard rear seat passengers. Like a similar system soon to be available on the 2002 Ford Explorer, the Sideguard curtain remains inflated for five seconds, providing protection in the case of a subsequent rollover. However, unlike Ford's system, Audi's cannot be triggered by a rollover alone. An optional Parktronic sonar system rounds out the long list of safety equipment, alerting the driver when she is about to bunt the neighbor's kid or any other invisible object below the rear sightline.
As impressive as the allroad's performance and safety features are, one of its best attributes is styling. Plainly put, it's the most attractive of the crossover vehicles. While it's obviously derived from the A6 Avant Wagon, Audi's stylists have added the aggressive touches that an off-road intender wants without going over the top. The wheel arches are just the right size, the alloy wheels appropriately muscular and the aluminum "side rails" represent a pleasant crowning touch.
The interior is also attractive and sumptuously appointed, as well as spacious. It's plagued by the corporate-generic Audi audio system that, while performing well, simply has too many buttons to be easily operated. Otherwise, impressive materials rendered in aluminum and real walnut is the rule of the day, with leather-bound, 12-way power front seats providing more than enough comfort and support. Though not the visual and tactile feast presented in a TT Coupe or Roadster, allroad's interior nonetheless imparts a sense of class and quality.
Four main option packages are available. The premium package adds memory recall to the front seats' power adjusters, electrically folding exterior mirrors and auto-dimming for all the mirrors. A convenience package includes front and rear seat heaters, a heated, multi-function steering wheel and a Homelink transmitter to control three remote devices like a garage door opener. The warm weather package adds a high-tech solar sunroof that powers cooling fans that reduce the interior temperature while the allroad is parked on sunny days. There are also sunshades to screen the rear windows from the sun's rays. Lastly, there's the guidance package with its GPS navigation system and the aforementioned Parktronic parking system. Stand-alone options include a rear-facing bench seat for children, a power sunroof, xenon headlights, a 200-watt Bose audio system and a six-disc CD changer.
The only other negative comment regards the allroad's base price $41,900. Add all the options into the price and you're looking at close to 50 grand for a loaded allroad. That's shocking, especially when Volvo's Cross Country starts at less than $36,000 and barely tops $45,000 fully dressed.
The allroad has some distinct advantages over the Volvo and more truck-like SUVs from BMW, Cadillac, Lincoln and Mercedes. It's up to consumers interested in sport-ute alternatives to decide whether they believe Hunt's argument that Audi deserves to be considered a cut above "second string" luxury brand