Driven: Audi A4 Allroad

Americans are their own worst enemies when it comes to car buying. Consider the latest batch of wagon/hatch/crossovers, the Toyota Venza and forthcoming Honda Crosstour; the BMW 5-Series Gran Turismo and Acura ZDX. Any and all, in a prior era, would have been called wagons with zero aspartame aftertaste.

But today wagons don’t sell. The word “wagon” carries the same stigma as “liberal” in America—hence the revival of the “progressive” brand. The labels may change but is anybody really fooled or does it just make folks happier to call themselves progressive Gran Turismo owners instead of liberal Volvo/Subaru wagon-drivers?

I raise the automotive question (and table the political one) after a week in Switzerland and Germany driving the splendid 2010 Audi A4 Avant Allroad with a 3.0-liter TDI, a car that likely will never make it to these shores because it steps too closely near turf reserved for the Q5, even if for purely pragmatic reasons it likely makes more sense and is certainly more fun to drive.

With 7.09 inches of ground clearance the Allroad wagon rides 1.5 inches higher than a stock A4 Avant, but at five feet tall is otherwise wagonlike—a full half-foot lower than the Q5, which by the way has 7.9 inches of ground clearance. Oddly and tellingly, neither Audi is a match for the 2010 Subaru Outback, which with 8.7 inches of ground clearance and a height nearly equivalent to that of the Q5 must be the tallest “wagon” in history.

Still, we can’t blame Subaru for making its Outback a skyscraper or Audi for chasing the same audience with the Q5; height is an attribute Americans still prefer in their cars, even if making an Outback or any other vehicle taller makes it less dynamically capable. That Subaru isn’t tall because our roads have suddenly turned to Chilean mountain pass rubble but because our wagon phobias — "People might think I have kids if I drive a wagon, eek!" — are ever-present.

In a word, this is lame. Too-tall is less fun, less efficient, less pragmatic. Whereas a vehicle that rides at the Allroad’s height splits the difference between having a little bit more ski-car prowess without completely neutering sports-wagon pretension, a vehicle like the Q5 or VW Tiguan adds more mass while dinging fuel economy, with little if any more utility to show for the height gain. Consider that the Allroad weighs 644 pounds less than the Q5 (3,600 lb vs 4,244 lb) but only gives up seven cubic feet of stowage capacity behind the front seats.

The good, the low, the wide

The A4 Allroad is only “light” when weighed against similar-capacity crossovers but in that field it proves that a lower, wider base is always a better starting point. With a longer overall wheelbase and wider track than the outgoing A4 Avant (and the track of the Allroad is yet wider by .79 in. than the 2010 Avant) this car can be pushed through hard stints of very tight cornering with little worry save managing increased understeer. The steps to such hooliganism require the following: 1.  A low-trafficked European roundabout. 2.  Adjusting the Audi Drive Select system to its most aggressive throttle, suspension stiffness, and steering modes. 3. Snapping off ESP (not fully off, actually; more below). 4. Now watch your mirrors for the cops and barrel around at a breakneck pace until you’re laughing your ass off.

It helps that our tester also came with Audi’s incredible S-tronic seven-speed paddle shift manual gearbox that can flick off gear changes in a few HUNDREDTHS OF SECOND, and even skip gears during downshifts to the highest possible gear. (In the U.S. you’ll see this transmission in the forthcoming S4.)And while the prior six-speed DSG we tested (on a VW) was probably the first automated paddle shift system to make “real” manuals seem obsolete, the contest is fully over with S-tronic. Audi/VW, you win. Also good is that Audi’s latest quattro biases torque split toward the rear wheels, 40 front/60 rear (and up to 65 percent front or 85 percent rear in low traction instances), so in default circumstances the Allroad drives like a rear-wheel drive car.

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