By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
What is the difference, really, between a “crossover” SUV and a wagon?
The lines blur.
Both are almost always based on cars (usually, front-wheel-drive cars, almost never rear-wheel-drive trucks).
Most offer some type of all-wheel-drive system — either standard or optionally available. But rarely — if ever — four-wheel-drive (with Low range gearing).
The crossover usually sits higher off the ground — and looks like it’d be able to trundle off into the woods . . . and make it back, without the assistance of a winch.
The wagon’s stance appears more on-road inclined.
Then there are the in-betweens like the Audi Allroad.
It’s certainly a wagon, looks-wise. A sporty wagon, even. But it has a bit more ground clearance (7.1 inches) than is typical for a sportwagon (BMW’s otherwise similar 3 Series wagon has less than 6 inches of clearance) though not quite as much ground clearance as the typical crossover SUV (a BMW X3 has more than eight inches of clearance).
Thus, it bridges the gap between something like the X3 (and Audi’s own Q5) and something along the lines of the BMW 3-Series wagon.
A bit better in the snow than the latter — a bit better in the curves than the former.
What was it Goldilocks said about just right?
WHAT IT IS
The 2014 Allroad is a compact wagon based on the A4 sedan, but with more ground clearance (and of course, cargo room). It comes standard with Quattro AWD (optional in the A4) as well as a snappy (and fuel efficient) eight-speed automatic vs. the CVT that comes standard in the A4.
It also comes with a higher price tag: $41,595 vs. the A4 sedan’s base price of $34,695.
But, it’s got a lower price tag than a 2014 BMW 3 Series wagon — which starts at $42,375 — and which isn’t set up to be as snow day-friendly.
For 2014, the output of the Allroad’s 2.0 liter engine is kicked up to 220 hp (from 211 last year) and Bluetooth wireless and USB hook-ups are now standard rather than optional.
There’s also a price bump of $1,100 for the 2014 vs. the 2013.
Like all things Audi, this is a tight car, inside and out. Beautifully proportioned, elegantly finished. The Browning Hi-Power of the bunch.
More room inside than in the A4 sedan on which it’s based.
More able to deal with less-than-perfect weather than the lower-skirted BMW 3 wagon.
Better on-road manners/ride and handling than a BMW X3.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Not as up to the curves as a 3 Series wagon.
Not as capable in the rough as an X3 (or Q5).
No diesel option (BMW offers this in the 3 wagon).
Over-teched MMI input.
UNDER THE HOOD
Just one powertrain in the Allroad: Audi’s 2.0 liter turbo four, teamed up with an eight-speed automatic and Quattro AWD.
Power is up slightly for 2014 — to 220 hp from 211 for the ’13 model. So is acceleration, which improves to 6.4 seconds to 60 from 6.5 last year. Gas mileage, however, stays the same: 20 city, 27 highway — which is fairly hungry for such a small engine (in a relatively small vehicle). That’s because the Allroad is a fairly heavy vehicle — 3,891 lbs. empty, so well over 4,000 lbs. with just the driver on board. The A4 on which the Allroad is based is almost 400 pounds lighter. Hence the A4’s significantly better EPA rating — 24 city and 32 highway — with the same engine
To be fair, the Allroad is heavier because it’s larger — and because it’s AWD. The physically smaller A4’s better numbers are achieved with FWD (and a more fuel efficiency-minded CVT automatic).
However, there’s trouble in the jungle.
BMW has just introduced a 2.0 liter turbo-diesel as an option for the 2014 3 Series wagon, a car that is very similar overall to the Allroad except insofar as its Bad Weather Bona Fides. This engine will — according to preliminary reports — give 35 MPG, average. This is 13 MPG better than the Allroad’s 23 MPG average. In addition, the diesel’s got the inherent advantage of right-now torque at very low engine RPM — which is what you’d want for a winter car, clawing its way up an unplowed driveway. The BMW may not have the clearance for that (just 5.5 inches or about 1.6 inches less than the Allroad has) but it’s a shame that the Allroad hasn’t got the engine it arguably ought to have — especially given that Audi has the engine available. In the A3, you can get a 2.0 diesel good for 42 highway — and 30 city. It delivers reasonable acceleration, too: 0-60 in about 8.4 seconds.
Or, how about the Q5’s available 3.0 liter turbo-diesel? 240 hp (20 more than the 2.0 gas engine) and 428 ft.-lbs. of torque (almost 200 ft.-lbs. more than the 2.0 gas engine). Just imagine that.
It’s the kind of stuff I imagine, anyhow.
ON THE ROAD
What you’ve got here is a compromise (a good one) between notched-up poor weather tenacity — and handling on nice days on paved roads that’s still pretty good, too. The main reasons for this being the extra inch-and-a-half or so of ground clearance (vs. the A4) and more all-seasony tires.
Plus, of course, the standard Quattro all-wheel-drive.
The Allroad has the capability to tackle most roads, in most weather. It’s a great snow-day car. But don’t view it as a potential off-road car, because it’s not set up for that. Chiefly because while it does sit higher off the ground than something like the A4 sedan (or BMW 3 wagon) it does not sit as high as something like a BMW X3 crossover (8.3 inches of clearance).
But, the upside to that compromise is the Allroad’s closer-to-sportwagon handling when on the road. It’s very close, in fact, to the less bad-weather-able BMW 3 wagon, which offers AWD but which hasn’t got that essential extra inch or so of clearance that can make — or break — your day when the white stuff starts falling hard and it’s 20 miles yet to the safety of your garage.
You could notch it up a little more by having a set of Blizzaks (or similar hard-core winter tire) mounted come November — and swap back the more aggressive dry/wet weather treads when April rolls around. Changing tires is relatively cheap — and very easy — way to alter what a car can deal with and do. Much easier — and a whole lot cheaper — than changing ride height or suspension settings, which usually means major suspension work.
The Allroad’s 2.0 engine is peppy enough, but it’s also pretty thirsty. Audi, like BMW, like Benz — like pretty much everyone in the business — is going over to small fours goosed by turbos, in order to push up the EPA stats (and avoid gas guzzler fines). But, here’s the catch. A small, turbocharged engine can be fairly fuel efficient — if you keep your foot out of it. Once you put your foot down — and the turbo spools up — you have effectively increased the engine’s displacement (its capacity to move air and fuel) and — no, surprise — it will use more fuel.
During the week I had the Allroad, I averaged low 20s. That’s pretty hoggy for a compact with a 2.0 liter four.
In a very real way, these small-size turbo fours are mechanical straw men set up for the benefit of the EPA — and for the sake of marketing and PR. I have found that there is very little meaningful difference between the real-world gas mileage you get with a non-turbocharged V-6 in the 3 liter-ish range and a turbo four in the 2.0 liter range.
I much prefer the conventional (hydraulic) eight-speed automatic you get in the Allroad as standard equipment vs. the continuously variable (CVT) automatic that’s standard in the A4 (the eight speed is available optionally). It’s smoother than Obama in front of a Tele-Prompter — and a whole lot more fun. Even more fun would be a manual six-speed, but no dice. Probably because of the EPA (the manual would notch down the mileage stats relative to either the eight-speed automatic or a CVT).
However, you can get manual-control paddle shifters for the eight-speed automatic if you order the optional Sport package. Upgrade 19-inch wheels are also available as a stand-alone option (on Prestige and Premium Plus trims). I recommend test-driving an Allroad with the standard-issue eighteen-inch wheels (which come with less aggressive, Pirelli Cinturato all-season type tires) and then trying one with the optional nineteens. You may find the latter’s ride a touch too firm — and be aware that the nineteens will not be very helpful on snow days — kind of defeating the purpose of buying a car like the Allroad.
AT THE CURB
I like wagons. I like them more than sedans. Especially sportwagons.
What’s not to like, after all?
You lose little to nothing in the way of driving dynamics — and you gain versatility that makes the car a lot more everyday useful. You can, for example, cart around the family dog — without having him tear up the car or take up space that might be needed by people. You can also cart around stuff that would be harder — even impossible — for a sedan (with a sedan’s limited trunk space) to deal with.
I used the Allroad to get a fairly large appliance home from Lowes. If I’d had an A4, it would have been much more difficult — and maybe not doable at all.
Of course, it helps when the wagon looks good, too — as the Allroad surely does. Because the A4 on which it’s based also looks good. The Allroad’s designers took that package — and did not ruin its proportions. The Allroad is only slightly longer overall than the A4 (185.9 inches vs. 185.1) and just a touch wider (72.5 inches vs. 71.9 inches). Interestingly, the Allroad’s wheelbase is slightly less (110.4 inches vs. 110.6) yet despite the nominal size increase overall (and despite the slight decrease in wheelbase) the Allroad has more than twice the cargo capacity behind its second row vs. what the A4 offers in its trunk: 27.6 cubic feet vs. 12.4 (with the Allroad’s second row folded down, total capacity swells to 50.5 cubic feet).
Courtesy of the taller profile, you’ll also get more headroom — a lot more: 40.4 inches in the Allroad vs. a duck-and-cover 36.9 inches in the A4. Same deal for the second row: 38.2 inches for the Allroad’s backseaters vs. 37.5 in the A4.
Front and rearseat legroom is identical in both cars, 41.3 inches and 35.2 inches, respectively.
Relative to the BMW 3 wagon, the Allroad is the slightly larger — and slightly roomier — car. However, its chief deficit relative to the BMW is fuel-efficiency rather than cargo or people-carrying capacity. Even when equipped with its 2.0 gas engine, the BMW delivers 22 city, 33 highway — the latter number being just under the soon-to-be-here mandatory minimum 35.5 MPG — and six MPG better than the Allroad’s best number.
Keep in mind, too, that you can buy a 40-plus MPG diesel in the BMW.
Unlike some of the other winter-wagons that have cropped up in recent years — the Volvo XC series, for example — the Allroad’s body cladding is not pontoon-ish and cartoon-ish, and you can elect to have it painted the same color as the rest of the car.
In two-tone, it looks distinctive. In monochrome, it looks slick. Take your pick!
But, be prepared to pay. The monochromatic look adds $1,000 to the sticker price.
A curiosity — given the Allroad’s four season mission — is the absence of heated seats from the roster of standard equipment. They’re available — and provide toasty warmth when activated — but you have to buy the extra-cost Premium Plus package to get them. Audi — and a number of other higher-end marquees — may not have noticed that heated seats are now pretty common in run-of-the-mill stuff. Probably, they ought to be standard in a high-end car like this.
The Multi Media Interface (MMI) you use to do things like adjust fan speed or temperature, or change the radio station, is a bit on the overdone side. What ought to be a single step operation is in several cases a multi-step operation. To alter the fan speed, for example, you must first push the little fan button and then rotate the knob to dial it up or down (a digital display appears to show you the gradations). Then, if you want to change the temperature either hotter or colder, you have to first tap the control for that, then adjust the temperature settings.
Of course, there’s only so much space on the center stack (and console) when you have a car with as many features and functions as comes standard (or can be added to) a car in this price range. Hence the multi-function buttons (and mouse inputs). All higher end cars are like this. People expect “all the bells and whistles” — but where to put them?
Initially, the array (and inscrutability) of all these multiplexed controls can be intimidating. But after a day or two, you get used to them — and after a week or so, comfortable with them. The thumbwheel control for the audio system’s volume (located on the steering wheel) is genius. All cars ought to have this.
Another cause for applause: All trims come standard with a panorama sunroof with full-length, power-actuated sunshade — a feature that is usually optional and mucho extra cost. You can up the ante with three-zone climate control (with defrosters for the back quarter glass), Wi-Fi access and a superb Bang & Olufsen 14-speaker ultra-premium stereo rig.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Allroad is just the ticket for people who live in areas where there are winters — and snow — but not too much, too often, of either. Three hundred sixty days out of the year, you’ve got the Sportwagon Experience. But on those 3-5 days each year when the weather’s really vile, you’ll probably get where you have to go.