Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Test Drive: 2014 Audi Allroad Premium Plus

Update: See how the Allroad did against its competitors in our Bike Month Wagon Comparison Test.

Back in college, a friend of mine had one of the original Audi A6 Allroads, sporting the same 2.7L twin-turbo V6 motor as the S4 of that period, a six speed manual, and an adjustable air suspension. That wagon was plain awesome and saw many a trip to the local Target as well as the local storage facility between semesters. I always envied the versatility of that car so you can imagine my excitement when Audi announced that the Allroad would be making a comeback. The new Allroad, now based off of the A4 platform, still sports a turbo-charged engine, although it has shrunk from a 2.7L V6 to a 2.0L inline-4 and gone are the manual transmission and air suspension. Even so, the Allroad is still in an exclusive group as options for wagons with more than 200 horsepower are few and far between these days. Still, the limited competition in the segment is stiff with some great products, so is the current Allroad able to rekindle the magic of its predecessor?

The current generation A4 is an attractive car and putting a long roof on it does not hurt things one bit. In profile the Allroad retains the A4's handsome look, but adds a touch of contrast color body cladding to try to up the ruggedness of the wagon. Luckily, those pieces can easily be repainted to match the rest of the paint because in most cases, it looks a bit odd. The same single-frame grille and LED DRL accent lights are present as well, lending the Allroad the same menacing glare as the regular A4, just a bit higher off the ground. In a further effort to ruggedize the Allroad, Audi saw fit to raise the ride height, which gives the car more suspension travel, but also raises its center of gravity, a fact that will come back later to wreak havoc. It seems clear that while the underlying good looks are still there, Audi's efforts to try to make the Allroad feel more like an SUV and less a wagon ended up sort of like dressing a hot girl in a safari hunters outfit. The result just feels a bit cartoonish.

Still, open the door and step into the well-appointed cabin and it remains clear that Audi still excels at putting together well-designed interiors. Our test car did not include the upgraded MMI-plus system, which means the center control panel feels a bit cluttered, but the rest of the interior exhibits the high quality materials that are used throughout the A4 line-up. There are a few pieces that are made from cheap feeling plastics, but they are generally well hidden enough that the average owner will likely never come in contact with them during the course of ownership. The gauge cluster is simple and legible, but lacks some of the customizability and wow-factor of the competition without the expensive MMI upgrade. And without the sport package, the front seats lack lateral support, making enthusiastic driving a bit of a pain since you end up sliding around on the seat.

In back, there is plenty of space and the materials still feel of decent quality. Sitting three adults in back should not be a problem for shorter trips and two adults can comfortably enjoy a longer road trip. The presence of the panoramic roof certainly does not hurt in making the whole space feel less claustrophobic. Behind the rear seats is a sizable cargo area that makes generally good use of the space, though at 40 inches wide at its narrowest point between the wheel wells, it is just a pinch too small to fit my road bike without a bit of wrestling or adjustment. Still, with the available underfloor storage there is a ton of space for the average buyer to hold just about everything you could possibly think of. Combine that with the clever design of the cargo cover that makes it easy to quickly access things being stored, there is much to like about the Allroad's versatility.

Press the starter button and Audi's ubiquitous 2.0L turbocharged inline-4 cylinder comes to life. Mated to a traditional 8-speed automatic and driving all four wheels through the Quattro AWD system, this motor manages to perform far stronger than its numbers would otherwise imply. Acceleration is adequate and, despite its nearly 3,900 lbs curb weight, the car never feels slow getting off the line and is comfortably able to get up to speed on the highway. However, attempt to dig into the engine's rather deep reserve of torque and be prepared to be let down by the transmission. Several times during my time with the car, attempts to call up power from the engine for passing left the transmission momentarily flummoxed, resulting in a noticeable hesitation before the power finally arrived and was able to be transferred to the wheels. This unrefined behavior is surprising given Audi's reputation for building extremely well-sorted cars. Another disappointment of this drivetrain is the fuel economy, which is a rather paltry 23 mpg combined. That number is overshadowed by most of its competitors by as much as 33%. In real world driving conditions, that is only going to get worse, not better.

To make matters worse, the handling dynamics are thrown off by a combination of the numb, artificial feeling steering and the extra inches added to the car's ride height. The steering in Audi's has never been fantastic, but the absolute absence of anything resembling real feel meant the car just could not provide the kind of driving pleasure that anyone who enjoys driving could actually appreciate and would likely lead to greater fatigue in the long run since it takes a lot of concentration to keep the car moving in a straight line. On the handling front, the added weight and raised suspension offer excellent ride characteristics, making for a very comfortable ride, but makes an already nose-heavy car understeer even more and adds in a dose of rather noticeable body roll. The end result is a comfortable car that an enthusiast will simply get no joy out of driving. It is a comfortable daily transport, but simply does not provide anything resembling fun.

At the end of the day, the Allroad only manages to register as being unremarkable to me. There is much to like about it, such as the panoramic roof and large cargo area, but the soul that made the A6 Allroad stick out in my mind is simply no longer there. The disappearance of key enthusiast focused options such as the air suspension and manual transmission seem to signal that Audi is resigned to the fact that this car will not appeal to those who enjoy driving. Instead, they have chosen to focus on comfort and convenience instead, which is a perfect valid decision since this likely appeals to the majority of the market. Using largely off the shelf components also means that they will get to squeeze the most profit out of each one of these they can sell. 

Still, it is a bitter pill to swallow that the Allroad I remember fondly from my college days is gone for good and the vehicle that replaces it is merely but a husk of its former self. I wish Audi would skip the rugged treatment and instead offer us a normal Avant or, better yet, an S4 Avant with that superbly torquey supercharged 3.0L V6 and much better tuned steering feel. Now that is a wagon I can truly lust after again.