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.
We charge through a tunnel shaped like a coil spring that wraps back on itself as we ascend. After more than a mile of winding upward, we pop out onto damp pavement that leads to a rain-soaked road and eventually a snow-covered pass. Quattro all-wheel drive is of course standard on the Allroad, and straight-line grip on any surface is prodigious with an assist from a set of Dunlop winter tires. Pushed into a fast corner, though, the Allroad plows at the limit of traction briefly until the stability control system yanks it into line without sapping forward momentum.
Liechtenstein, which is some seventeen times smaller than Rhode Island, sits wedged between Switzerland and Austria. You wouldn't guess from the modest surroundings that it's also a financial-services hub and a tax shelter for global corporations, home to more holding companies than people.
Sticking with our theme of avoiding cities, we've planned to snowshoe the next morning, but the pleasant spring weather and emerald turf catch us off guard. When we meet our guide in a nearby parking lot, he promises fresh powder and then leads us on a ten-minute switchback sprint in his Skoda station wagon. After arriving at our destination, we put on our snowshoes and crunch into the wide-open whiteness. It's hard to believe we're on the same planet as the orderly village below.
Sixty-year-old Edi, who is a painter when he's not leading snowshoe tours, only speaks German, and even photographer Jim Fets, who's fluent in the language, struggles to understand some of Edi's Swiss dialect as we march up the mountainside single file. During the two-hour trek, however, there's one word that I hear and understand over and over again. I don't need anyone to tell me how romantisch the views are.
Looking over the valley at the neighboring peaks, we see not a single person, car, or building. As we tread over snow as deep as fifteen feet in some places, Edi leads us past a small, windowless cabin where his guests stop for wine and fondue during moonlight tours. With the bright morning sky overhead and a tight schedule in front of us, we settle for a fistful of virgin snow and continue our trek down the mountain.
From here to Munich, it's all about driving, but we're deliberately avoiding the direct route. Germany's 280-mile Alpenstrasse follows the country's southern border and the northern edge of the Alps, and it's one of those rare ribbons of pavement that delivers the roads, scenery, and distance for an epic drive. Within the first thirty miles, the road has lived up to the hype. Gentle two-lane highways connect short sections of mind-blowing twisties and quaint German villages. The majority of the road would require 100 mph for the turns to be challenging, but at 60 mph they're plenty entertaining.
Every half hour or so, the wide sweepers are pinched into an accordion composed of the best roads I have ever driven. Audi says the A4 Allroad is quicker, more efficient, and larger inside than its A6-based predecessor. Actually finding that extra interior space in the new car would require packing without suitcases, but the performance and efficiency claims are easily discernible. The 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that charms in everything from the Volkswagen GTI to the Audi Q5 crossover is in its element here as well. This is the refined, vigorous engine that set the standard for the companies that are just now beginning to downsize from their six-cylinders.
Despite being down on power by 39 hp compared with the old Allroad, the new car benefits from a curb weight that is some 600 pounds lower. Keeping the revs above 2000 rpm puts a wave of torque -- up to 258 lb-ft -- under your foot, which feels so good when you're bursting out of corners. The precise action of the six-speed manual shifter amplifies the satisfaction of flicking from second to third gear at the 7000-rpm redline. However, when the Allroad goes on sale in America (in May), it will be available only with an eight-speed automatic. That gearbox, in our previous experience in Audis, produces faultless, snappy shifts; improves fuel economy; and masks the slight whiff of turbo lag below 2000 rpm, so we can't complain. On these tightly kinked sections, though, the Allroad leans in turns just a touch more than a regular A4. Attribute that to the 1.5-inch suspension lift that sets the Allroad apart from its Avant sibling.
Everything we've read about the Alpenstrasse warns that it's difficult to follow, but any concern about being perpetually lost evaporates the more miles we cover. We pass through a half-dozen towns whose names confirm we're on the right path, and the navigation map suggests that we're making the right move every time we turn onto a new road.
Then we pass into Austria and that navigational confidence crumbles. After ninety minutes of driving, it's apparent that we're not on the right road, and we have no idea when we made our wrong turn. Even looking at a map after that fact, it's not clear where we lost the scent and what roads we actually drove. Rather than turn back, though, we embrace the unknown. We're running out of light, but we're still heading east and the roads continue to be amazing, so we push on.
As the sun passes behind the peaks, we reluctantly program Munich into the nav system, which directs us to a new, desolate, entertaining road through the thick Bavarian evergreens. The rutted, snow-packed surface jerks us from side to side, but the Allroad never loses its composure. It's one last endorsement for the Allroad's sure-footed handling, magnetic traction, confident ride, and potent engine before we're spit out onto the A95 freeway.
This fairy-tale road trip doesn't end with an hour of mindless monotony, however. It's the highway that issues the Allroad its final road test -- the fast one. The quickest, computer-calculated route into Munich involves a massive length of unrestricted autobahn, and we take full advantage of it. Our winter tires keep us from nipping the speed limiter, but we're not complaining. A sustained blast at 125 mph gives us the confidence to say that the Allroad lives up to its name.