Not quite a sport-ute yet not exactly a wagon, the Audi Allroad is an automobile with an identity crisis. It makes no pretense of being an off-roader, but its hiked-up stance and rugged-look body cladding ask for something other than pavement under the tires. It is a car with more capability; a truck with less compromise. It is a crossover -- if that word wasn't already owned by the breed of taller SUV apologists.
Of course, the Allroad owes its existence to the truck craze. In the late 1990s, with the SUV market erupting and an SUV-free product lineup, Audi borrowed a play from Subaru of America and transformed its A6 Avant into a truckster, just as the Legacy station wagon had spawned the Outback. Audi took the idea a step further by backing the 250-hp, turbocharged V-6 and standard all-wheel drive with an adjustable-height air suspension and, in Europe, an optional low-range transfer case. Despite enthusiastic owners and positive press, few people viewed the Allroad like they did a BMW X5 or a Mercedes-Benz ML, and the car flopped in its target market, as Audi sold more Allroads in Europe than in the United States.
Eight years after departing America with its exhaust pipes between its half shafts, the Allroad returns for 2013. This isn't, however, just a modern update of the last car. Whereas the 2001-05 Allroad sold in America was based on the A6, this time around we're getting the high-riding wagon based on the A4 Avant. (Audi builds both A4 and A6 Allroads for European customers.) The air suspension that drove the price up and the reliability down on the original A6 Allroad is nowhere to be found in the new car, and there's a turbocharged four-cylinder engine in place of the boosted V-6.
All of this begs the question of whether the new Allroad is as capable and distinctive as its progenitor. In search of an answer, we planned a road trip from Geneva to Munich, although the cities weren't the draw. They were simply the entry and exit points to the Alps, where constantly changing weather, diverse landscapes, and phenomenal roads made for the ultimate test of the Allroad's versatility.
For a city of just 190,000 public-transportation-loving Europeans, Geneva does a great job of mimicking some of America's finest migraine-inducing traffic. Attempting to escape the urban congestion, we creep past the Jet d'Eau fountain blasting water into the air at 120 mph at a fraction of that speed, which gives us ample time to pay attention to the pedestrians -- specifically the pedestrians paying attention to us. No one is snapping their necks, mind you, like they might be if we were driving an exotic car, but the fact that anyone is taking notice of our innocuous station wagon floating in a sea of station wagons is itself impressive.
The Allroad's attractiveness is the sum of several small details that create a fetching package. The A4 Avant lays the foundation with angular, expressive LED running lights, balanced proportions, and even-handed styling. The Allroad adds stainless-steel trim in the lower fascias and side sills, brushed-metal roof rails, chrome grille slats, and matte gray body cladding that all play off the restrained teak brown metallic paint for an appearance that is sophisticated yet humble and capable without looking unwieldy.
When we finally break free of the city, the omnipresence of the heavy-handed Swiss authorities encourages us to keep our speed in check, which allows us to enjoy the changing terrain. Yellow-green fields lying under winter's unceasingly gray skies roll into dark, steely mountains that soon grow too big to be fully captured in the Allroad's windshield. Turning from one two-lane to another is the difference between looking at the mountains and being in the mountains as we close in on Grindelwald, in central Switzerland.
Like so many European ski resorts, Grindelwald is one of a half dozen small, discrete villages united by a single, sinuous road and the snow-chain-shod buses that traverse it. We're here to go where the Allroad can't: Europe's longest sled run. The 9.3-mile route is accessed by a gondola ride and a two-and-a-half-hour hike. Unfortunately, overnight snowfall raises the possibility of an avalanche, and the run is closed by the time we wake up. Instead, we have to settle for a mere six miles of sledding.
Rita's Speedway is nothing like the idyllic scenes promised by the billboards and brochures, which show sledders slipping down wide, groomed paths quickly and in control on a sunny, blue-sky afternoon. We step off the gondola into a very different sledding reality: a heavy blanket of fog, falling snowflakes, and whitewashed mountainscape. The run alternates between long flats requiring you to tow your sled -- the trail traverses the mountain more than it runs down the mountain -- and steep, technical sections that favor the control of skis, not the directional indifference of a sled.
Typical of Europe's laissez-faire approach to personal liability, sled rental included neither release waivers nor advice for controlling the sled. With some trial and error, we discover that our rides are steerable, but putting them exactly where you want is a much taller task. Trying to follow a driving line through the tightest turns repeatedly puts me off the outside corner, usually into a fence or a few feet shy of a pine tree. Digging your heels into the hill to slow or stop is mostly futile. Instead of more control, you're rewarded with a frigid, blinding spray in the face, at which point you'll realize that the better option is to just roll off the sled before you hit something.
Our hotel receptionist, Margrit, had suggested that we take the gondola from the midway point back down to the parking lot, warning that the final five-and-a-half-kilometer stretch was for "expert sledders." But we're just starting to get the hang of things as we pass the gondola station, and my personal sledding record -- having never broken a bone or made a child cry -- is impeccable. We continue down the hill and about twenty minutes later pause at a sign that reads, "For good [pictogram of sledder] only." We certainly aren't about to walk down the final run, so we snap a few pictures in front of the sign and nose over the precipice with equal parts uncertainty and eagerness. Steep, icy, and uneven, the last stretch causes the sled to buck like a mechanical bull. We reach the bottom several spills later, wet, sore, and laughing like kids. Then we immediately hop onto the gondola for a second run, this time getting off at the midway stop for a second bout with the fastest portion of the hill.
When we check out of the hotel just fourteen hours after arriving, Margrit asks if we're chasing better snow conditions. She looks incredulous as we tell her we're actually headed to Liechtenstein. It's only 133 miles to our destination, but she laughs at the idea of driving more than an hour to get anywhere, highlighting how our European road trip is very much an American endeavor. In the brief drive from Grindelwald to Vaduz, Liechtenstein, however, we see more climate variation and landscape diversity than we'd find in a ten-hour drive back home in Michigan. As much as we appreciate the natural beauty, the topography also rewards us by transforming these point-to-point highways into fantastic driving roads -- assuming you're not stuck behind a 100-hp Fiat delivery truck.