Neil Dunlop, Contributor
The hiking boot display at REI offers a bewildering range of choices. I wanted a waterproof, stylish boot that would be equally at home scrambling up rugged trails and resting on the bar rail at the local brew pub.
I looked at a pair of $250 hikers with all the bells and whistles Gore-Tex liner, Vibram sole, full metal shank and treated leather uppers. A few shelves below, I spotted a $100 model that would be a serviceable alternative. They weren't as flashy, but they were water-resistant, had a decent sole and looked pretty snazzy. How much serious hiking am I going to do, anyway?
A similar conundrum faces anyone considering the Audi allroad. It's loaded with flashy bells and whistles variable height pneumatic suspension, variable speed-sensitive steering, all-wheel drive and a 2.7-liter bi-turbo V6 that are intended to make it as wonderful to drive off-road as on. But is all that technology necessary?
Will you ever use it? And is it worth $48,000?
One thing everyone can use is good looks, and the allroad (Note: the lower case "a" is not a typo: that's the way Audi named it) is a fine-looking vehicle. Built on the A6 Avant platform, the allroad has several exterior differences: It sits 1.3 inches higher (at the suspension's lowest setting) with 5.6 inches of ground clearance; the body is more blockish, broad-shouldered and muscular; the fenders, rocker panels and bumpers are wrapped in black cladding adorned with aluminum trim like an athlete's pads; and its 17-inch alloy wheels and 225/55R17 tires were specifically designed for it (the tires are produced to specifications by Pirelli and Goodyear and are stamped with the allroad name.) All this combines to make the allroad appear proud, burly, confident and ready to take on the world. Our titanium-colored allroad test vehicle verily shone in the sun. This must be why it gets so many compliments people love heroes.
Also, the allroad is packed with safety features, which everybody hopes they don't need but want on board in case they do. The allroad's impressive list includes driver and front passenger airbags, front side air bags and side air curtains, rear side airbags, pre-tensioning seatbelts (including in the rear middle seat), front passenger and rear safety belts with ALR, back-up warning sensors, electronic stability control, full-time all-wheel drive and four-wheel antilock brakes.
Another thing a lot of people want is performance. The allroad's 2.7-liter 250-horsepower bi-turbo V6 provides plenty of performance. It's the same engine used in the A6 2.7T. The twin turbo powerplant generates 250 horsepower at 5,800 rpm and 258 lb-ft of torque at 1,850 rpm. Audi brags that the allroad maintains peak torque output to more than 4,000 rpm. This is a broad powerband and would mean peak power was available at take off and nearly all the way to the electronically limited top speed of 130 mph. Our testing, however, did not support this claim. All of us here who drove the allroad complained of turbo lag, especially during city driving. The delayed turbo input made for herky-jerky power delivery that is exciting initially, but uncomfortable over time.
Our instrumented track-testing of the allroad provided a 0-to-60-mph time of 7.7 seconds. That's hardly electrifying. An Audi S4 Avant goes from a stop to 60 in 6.0 seconds. That's sports car fast. And it's a few thousand less greenbacks than the allroad.
Audi claims an allroad with the six-speed manual shifter will do the 0-to-60 dash in 7.4 seconds. We don't think it's worth it. Our test vehicle was equipped with the optional ($1,000) five-speed automatic transmission with automanual "Tiptronic" mode. This allows the driver to change gears manually using either the gear lever or steering wheel-mounted buttons. We like the buttons, but as the system will switch up (before redline) or down automatically in case you forget to, it's not much use except for going downhill or in sharp turns. Nevertheless, it involves us in the driving process, and we like that.
Despite its turbo lag, the allroad's power really impressed us once we were up to speed. When the rather porky 4,233-pound allroad gets some momentum, it really moves. Acceleration from 40 to 60 mph left us breathless. Here the allroad feels fast.
Part of our breathlessness, though, is due to the allroad's wooly steering and wobbly suspension. Wooly or remote steering feel is endemic to all Audi A6s. Despite the allroad's rather sophisticated variable speed-sensitive steering, which allows for finger-tip control in parking lots and then stiffens for highway driving, we felt little connection to the pavement. The allroad also has a tendency toward excessive body roll and nose-diving into corners. These shortcomings combine for disarming moments behind the wheel when you feel as though your input is irrelevant to the outcome.
To be fair, these are complaints about driving the allroad hard. During sedate city driving and freeway cruising, the allroad is as comfortable and luxurious as any high-end sedan.
Also, our track-testing driver reported that the allroad was "a very capable handler" and "easy to drive aggressively." There's no contradiction: The allroad may have precise steering and dynamic handling characteristics, but it still feels remote and wobbly in some situations. Actually, we would have been surprised if the allroad didn't do well in the slalom course, as we found its four-wheel independent suspension stiff. All bumps were transmitted to our seats, which usually means the car's underpinnings are tuned for optimum handling.
Regardless, the allroad's weight, ride height, power delivery and vague steering conspired to make us less than confident during our energetic forays onto twisty canyon roads. Refraining from aggressive driving would seem a sensible solution then, but we have a problem with driving a 250-horsepower $48,000 car like it's a Ford Focus wagon.
Make no mistake, the allroad is all Audi. The German marque is known for its high-quality, luxurious interiors, and the allroad is no different. Switchgear is plainly marked and easy to operate. Distinguishable detents let you know you're doing something when you turn a knob or flick a switch. And the excellent Bose premium sound system, heated multi-function steering wheel, 12-way power seats, power mirrors, sunroof, dual-zone automatic climate control and power up/down windows gave us plenty of switches to flick and knobs to turn.
Our test car's interior was comprised of high-grade tactile black plastics, leather upholstery, walnut trim and brushed chrome accents. The spacious, heated (front and rear) two-tone gray leather seats were as comfortable as they were attractive. The rear seats provide plenty of leg-, head- and hiproom for two adults, but three would be pushing it. The middle passenger would have to straddle the drivetrain hump that intrudes up from the floor. The allroad's interior is every bit as opulent as that of an A6 Avant and even more so, since the allroad's large greenhouse lets in more light, making it more airy and cheerful. If the A6 is a luxury paneled library, the allroad is a swanky lodge.
A lodge fit for James Bond on vacation. The allroad boasts enough high-tech wizardry to require a full briefing by Bond's weapon supplier, Q. There's a collapsible spare tire on a 17-inch alloy rim underneath the cargo area that is to a normal spare what a prune is to a plum. It is filled using a pint-sized portable compressor. And the side mirrors automatically fold in when you turn a toggle between the front seats.
The allroad's most impressive and single most discussed feature, though, is the variable height pneumatic suspension. Essentially, it's an air suspension system that can be adjusted to four different heights by pushing a button on the dash. Using an air compressor mounted at the rear of the vehicle, the air spring struts are either filled or deflated according to ride-height sensors at each wheel. Using this system, ground clearance can be adjusted between 5.6 and 8.2 inches.
The lowest setting is best for highway driving. Level 2, which is 1 inch higher, is suitable for paved roads at speeds up to 75 mph and then the system automatically lowers to Level 1 (presumably, Level 2 offers better visibility in the city). Level 3, at 7.6 inches, is good for unpaved rural roads, like the dirt track to your cabin. It can be used up to 50 mph or the system defaults down one level. And Level 4 is for rough off-road driving. At 8.2 inches, it has equal ground clearance to a Land Rover Discovery II and is 1.1 inch taller than a BMW X5.
It seems simple. Even the dash-mounted control buttons are simple, though the LCD indicators and corresponding labels are a bit misleading. The "MAN" abbreviation for manual seemed to refer to the ride heights. We thought we got a German model or something. It isn't really clear how to operate the system. Consulting the manual wasn't much help, either. There are three pages of instruction, and they're as decipherable as a physicist's notes. For example, from page 153 of the 2001 Audi allroad owner's manual:
If you manually select "high" or "highest" while the automatic mode is on, but the vehicle has slowed down to the point where it lowers to "normal" or "low" level, the system will automatically raise the vehicle back to the "High" position.
We pride ourselves on having, on average, IQs higher than the typical Jerry Springer guest, but we could make neither hide nor hair of it. So we resorted to by-gosh-and-by-golly: We just pushed the buttons to see what would happen. We could hear the compressor and see the difference in ride height (a full run through all four levels takes several minutes), so, despite our lack of book smarts, we figured it out. We're lucky no inconsistencies arose.
Our efforts were not in vain, as the allroad's off-road performance was a pleasant reward. The extra ride height did exacerbate the allroad's floaty feel, but it easily tackled an off-road track we usually reserve for sport-utility vehicles. The track's rocks, washboard surfaces, ruts, water crossing and even a 2-foot drop-off didn't faze the allroad and its quattro (permanent all-wheel-drive) system. We used the highest suspension setting; it is actually the most comfortable. We especially enjoyed watching the dust and biting bugs fly outside while we relaxed inside our climate-controlled, wood-and-leather luxury cabin. It was an impressive showing by the Audi. But we wondered how many people who plunk down 50 large for the allroad will duplicate it.
Back at the boot rack, I bought the serviceable pair of hikers and then went to Gucci for a pair of loafers. The amount of time I'm going to spend hiking is small compared to my urban excursions, so I figured I might as well pay for swell city kickers instead of fancy doo-dahs. Likewise, we'd suggest if you're not going to use the allroad's off-road capabilities much, buy an S4 Avant and a used Jeep Wrangler instead.
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