Take a family-friendly crossover and splice in an energetic on-the-road attitude more like that of a sport sedan and you end up with the brawny, eminently useful 2014 Audi Allroad.
Audi essentially skipped the first wave of the SUV craze, more than a decade ago, but it did concede a bit to their popularity with the original 2001-2006 Allroad—essentially an A6 Avant wagon with slightly higher ride height and a touch of rugged trim.
The automaker has kept to the same formula with the current Allroad, introduced last year, but this time the Allroad is a bit tidier—and based on the Audi A4. In form, and in function, it's still a station wagon (or sport wagon as the marketing folks might want you to hear). And while it does offer some of the talents of a comparably sized utility vehicle, it carries forward with more carlike performance and a lower, sportier look than Audi's own excellent Q5 crossover.
Under the cloak of some cladding and the extra promise of a little more trail-running lift is the Audi A4 Avant; this time around we're only getting the Allroad, which is upstyled to connect the dots between the A4 lineup and the Q5 crossover. And the Outbacked treatment works very well, with its raised ride height, distinctive lower-body look, and aluminum exterior trim. The Allroad has a stronger stance from the side, while at the front there's a little more presence, probably due to the vertically ribbed grille. Trim LED headlamps are chamfered at the top corners for a subdued, sophisticated appearance across the nose, while wide fog lamps add substance down below. Most models get a matte-finish cladding for the lower body and around the wheel wells, but a higher-gloss look is available.
Get inside, and you'll have more trouble telling this cabin apart from that of an A4 sedan—at least from the front seat forward. The analog, cockpit-like gauge cluster isn't any more complicated than it needs to be, while Audi's controller-and-screen-based MMI system is over at the top and middle of the dash. The look is livened up with aluminum trim, and you can choose between several wood trims if that's not your thing. Overall, the A4's dash and controls have a high-quality look and feel that extends Audi's streak of excellent interiors.
You don't have any choice in powertrains, but we have absolutely no issue with the excellent one that Audi installs in all U.S.-bound Allroads. The 2.0-liter TFSI turbocharged four-cylinder engine makes nine extra horsepower for 2014—220 hp—but it keeps its 258 lb-ft rating. It's teamed to a responsive eight-speed automatic transmission, with a sport mode, and the latest Quattro all-wheel drive system is standard. This year's bump in power has knocked a tenth of a second off the dash to 60 mph—now 6.4 seconds, officially. From the driver's seat, the 3,900-pound Allroad responds well with any prod from the right foot, and the transmission doesn't hesitate to shift early when you don't need the revs. Gas mileage is officially 20 mpg city, 27 highway according to the EPA, but in an extended test we noted 24 mpg in a nearly 1,000-mile mix of driving and have seen, quite consistently, more than 30 mpg in relaxed highway driving at legal speeds.
Initially impressions may lead to some happy head-scratching after you've taken the Allroad through some tight esses, or any back road. Despite its stockier stance, it seems to handle a bit better than the A4 sedan. Big 18-inch wheels and taller-profile tires give it better stability than the standard A4 can offer. Though it rides about 1.5 inches higher, the Allroad's suspension loads up more predictably, and the Quattro system can send up to 85 percent of torque to the rear wheels (60 percent in normal driving). Like the four-door, the Allroad can be fitted with dynamic variable-ratio steering and Drive Select, which tailors its electric power steering, transmission, throttle and shock settings for sporty or soft driving.
The Allroad pushes the rugged look on the outside, but purchasing an off-road permit for it might be a little much. It's not intended for more than casual off-pavement driving—a gravel road sounds about right—but the Allroad's stability control includes a special mode which allows for more wheelspin, in case it's stuck in muck and needs to extract itself. Ground clearance is 7.1 inches—less than the Subaru Outback, but about the same as some 'soft' crossovers—and the Allroad has some modest skid-plate and underbody protection for light trailblazing.
Seating in the Allroad is excellent, although the tight back seat is a limiting factor. In front, even the base seats provide great support for longer highway trips, with just enough side support, too. In back, the seating position is a bit low, and perhaps better contoured than in most crossovers, but there's simply no place for knees and feet for taller adults. With 27.6 cubic feet behind the rear bench, and an easy-folding seat arrangement, the Allroad is great for making room for weekend projects and other cargo needs. Flip everything forward and you have up to 50 cubic feet.
At the base level, for just over $40k, the Allroad's standard equipment set includes leather upholstery; aluminum interior trim; power front seats; a panoramic sunroof; satellite radio; and MMI, Audi's multi-media interface. Options include iPod/USB connectivity; a power tailgate; 19-inch wheels and tires; adaptive headlights; Bluetooth; wood interior trim; 505-watt Bang & Olufsen audio; sport seats and shift paddles; and a navigation system. The Convenience Package, with its Audi music interface, HomeLink universal garage-door opener, the so-called driver information system, and Bluetooth connectivity, has been packed in as part of the Allroad's standard equipment for 2014.
Audi Connect is another noteworthy extra; the feature allows customers can tap into a built-in 3G connection that turns the Allroad into a rolling wireless hotspot for up to 8 devices, and to enable Google local searches via MMI. The connection also feeds input to the navigation system (with traffic and weather information) to render maps from Google Earth and Google Street View in stunning, crisp detail. While we have some gripes about the interface, the display features together are a game-changer.