Cars, Culture, and the Modern World

Sophia Relph is a mechanical engineer who researches fluid mechanics by day, and writes about cars by night. This blog intends to not only explore the physical and mechanical nature of automobiles, but to investigate their cultural significance and the meaning they impart as texts and works of art.

Get more updates, thoughts, and commentary by checking out the CCMW Twitter account @carsmodernworld.

2016 (B9) Audi A4 Allroad

Word count: 3901 (~22 minutes), Last modified: Sat, 09 Mar 2019 04:44:34 GMT

What is it?

The A4 Allroad is an SUV. Sort of. It's complicated, though.

I'll admit it doesn't really look like one.

Technically, the Allroad is a crossover, in the classical style of the AMC Eagle or Subaru Outback; It's a lifted sedan platform with AWD, a wider track, and some offroad side cladding to protect it from mud and rocks. This is a tried and true formula, and yields cars that are comfortable and easy to drive, due to their sedan-derived suspensions and bodywork, but have more traction and more driving options, and in the case of the Eagle, are capable of true offroading. This model fits well with the American desire to have your cake and eat it too; namely, have a tall and plush offroad suspension as well as a well-equipped sedan interior. With a wagon body, this gets even better, with the added storage space. In the case of the Allroad, it follows this formula to a tee, adding suspension height, track width, plastic lower bodywork, and several suspension/traction control options for offroad driving.

The Allroad is Audi's entry into this extremely specialized market, competing with such vehicles as the Volvo V60/V70 (previously XC70), Subaru Outback, and Volkswagen's Golf Sportwagen and Golf Alltrack. For better or for worse however, the classical crossover wagon is losing out in favor of conventional SUVs and their smaller unibody crossover siblings in the United States, but why? A given AWD wagon will get better gas mileage, corner better, and be lighter than a similarly-priced conventional crossover, with its taller bodywork and bigger engine. What is it that makes SUV-like crossovers more appealing than sedan-like crossovers? In a word, control.

On Sport Utility Vehicles

As I mentioned in a previous review, SUVs are sold with the promise of control. They promise the driver that he is in control, not just of his car, but of everyone around him. They promise the idea that you can scare other drivers, the road, even the weather itself out of your way. If you believe uncritically that "the heavier car always wins" in a crash (note the focus on wins), then a tall, heavy SUV seems that much safer. You sit high above everyone else, scoffing at the downtrodden masses with their puny, weak hybrids and foreign compact sedans. An SUV promises you that yes, you can push your way through. Yes, you can rise above the rest, with your hard work and your pragmatic worldview that lets you clamber above the rank and file. Yes, you deserve to be sitting up this high, in a car this heavy, with an engine this big, and handling this numb. Your SUV is your throne and your bodyguard alike. SUVs are sold on the narrative of conquest, defense, and good, honest work. No wonder they appeal to Americans; the great vision of American exceptionalism is crumbling as the world economy turns away from us and our allies' patience wears thin. In the years following 9/11, it's only logical that Americans flock to cars that represent bastions of strength, honesty, and utilitarian virtue. Minivans are too soccer mom-y, station wagons too old-fashioned, hatchbacks too smug and European. A good American needs a truck under them. Only a truck will keep you safe. Only an SUV will win. Only an SUV will protect your family when the unthinkable happens. When you're in an SUV, it doesn't matter whether you're a bully, because you'll come out on top regardless.

And it sells! We love SUVs! We love cars that make us feel powerful and safe! So what if it's emotionally unhealthy? Nothing really has to be perfect, as long as it does everything you want it to. 4x4 powertrains give you the promise of adventure; V8 engines promise that your car is up to long highway hauls. You get a lot of space, more exciting looks than a minivan (which Americans seem to have tired of by the late 2000s), and for smaller SUVs and crossovers, gas mileage that borders on acceptable. In the age of cheap gasoline, that's not so bad. After all, like all cars, SUV's do have their place. A lot of people really do need the power for heavy towing, a lot of space, true 4x4 capability, and all the other features that SUVs offer together. They aren't necessarily bad cars, they're just good at very specific things. Perhaps the suburban family with a two acre lawn doesn't need a full on SUV for grocery runs and fencing practice. So would this family do better with an Allroad instead?

The plastic wheel arches have some old-school 90s Outback energy to them. I'm a big fan. Also this car just looks extremely mean. It's styled to intimidate.

What is it (the A4 Allroad) like?

In short, the Audi A4 Allroad makes no compromises. This is not necessarily a good thing, depending on what you want from a car.

The first thing the driver notices is that this is not a small car. The Allroad is firmly in larger midsize sedan territory, and is correspondingly hard to park; for more precise tasks, the backup camera and beepers are necessary, though rearwards visibility could be worse. This is also not a light car-Audi quotes the 2019 B9 Allroad with a 3800lb curb weight. While the car has many virtues, it cannot hide its weight, and the driver is isolated from road noise, but also road feel.

The cockpit of the A4 is just that-a cockpit. The center console is extremely large and houses not only the shift lever, but also infotainment controls and cupholders, with generous spacing between all of them. The center armrest is smaller to accomodate this, but is still quite useful. The HVAC and drive mode controls are canted towards the driver, and the wheel is well-padded and extremely comfortable to hold, and combined with the seat, makes the driver feel at home in the A4. This car makes you feel like you're piloting it rather than driving it. This level of accomodation extends to the passengers as well; the rear bench seat (which holds three) has its own vents, reading lights, and outlet, as one would expect from a higher-level modern car, and the seats do not get sore on long road trips. The cabin is actually extremely quiet at any speed, and this, more than anything else about the car, is the biggest factor that makes it so good to drive for long distances. The comfy steering wheel, effortless handling at speed, generous engine power, and ample space are all secondary to just how quiet the Allroad is. 90mph in an Allroad sounds like, and feels like, 45mph in a Civic. The engine deactivates when stopped, at least under certain conditions, which burns a little less gas (not that you notice if you could afford an Allroad in the first place) and obviously makes the car a lot quieter. After all, you notice engine noise the most when you're stopped watching the light.

The Allroad is far more spacious than a sedan, but with Audi's low, sleek styling, it isn't quite as practical as it could be. An Allroad owner will find themselves putting down the back seats a lot, which works fine for two or three people, but lacks appeal for larger entourages. Fortunately, it comes with roof rails, and the low height of the Allroad then plays to its advantage, and makes rooftop cargo pods much easier to access. Be careful though-just under those rails is the huge panoramic moonroof. To be honest, this is a tacky feature on a car this driver-focused, and does little to enhance the user experience that a simple sunroof over the front seats would not. Forgoing the huge roof glass in favor of something simpler would make the car lighter, less likely to leak, and not much less pleasant, though the moonroof is admittedly a gimmick that kids love.

The rear gate is electric, and can be opened by almost-kicking the back bumper.

The infotainment system of the A4 Allroad uses Audi's smartphone-based system, that relies on either Apple's CarPlay system or Google's Android Auto; the former works effortlessly, but the latter can take some finagling, if you're the type of person who deletes every app they don't need. I had to install Android Auto itself (didn't ship with my phone) as well as Google's music app, which I had deleted in favor of Samsung's OEM music app. This could have been made easier for me, but in the end it worked. The phone interface itself is pretty easy to use, and the maps and music functionalities both work well; the car also has functionality to use both developers' voice assistant tools. As with most modern cars, there is a multifunction display for the driver nested in between the speedometer and tachometer, and can be changed to any number of different display states with the extensive, but easy to use, steering wheel controls. To make room for all the steering wheel buttons, the cruise control has been moved to a separate stalk, which is a little confusing, but simple to get used to. The main infotainment screen is a freestanding structure that protrudes above the dashboard; it's actually quite visually distracting, and the weak point of the Allroad's interior styling. Visually, it is well located, but Audi would have done well to make the display somehow partially or fully retractable. That said, the controls for the infotainment system are on the huge center console, and are within easy reach though the fact they are situated on a completely flat surface feels strange. Curiously, the volume control is very far from every other part of the media controls; it's actually on the passenger's side, next to the shifter, where it's very difficult to reach from the driver. Audi clearly expects the driver to rely on the small thumb wheel volume control on the steering wheel. Overall, the interior is comfortable and expertly styled, but its complete dedication to the driver-focused vision of the designers makes it strange and a little hard to get used to. In some cars, everything is exactly where you expect it to be. In the A4, this is not the case. It definitely takes some getting used to.

The HVAC system is fine, with the typical multi-zone climate control we have come to expect from cars of this caliber. One nice touch is the row of rocker switches below the HVAC display that, when lightly touched, show all the options for that switch on the display. This was certainly not necessary, but is a charming touch that adds some prestige and character to the user experience. Little extras like an electric rear gate and mirrors that fold themselves when you turn off the car also make the car feel that much better. Maybe it didn't need them, but they make the Allroad feel like Audi really put some love into making it, and that's always welcome.

How does it drive?

In a word, great. Everything is fine. There's a reason this car costs $45k.

The shift lever is a little weird, but all the driving controls are placed pretty well. I can't say the same for the media controls though.

With its wide track, wide, low-profile tires, and sophisticated suspension, the Allroad corners extremely well. The steering does transmit some feedback, though not much, but the car feels extremely planted in turns, and its multiple suspension and traction control modes make it quite adaptable to the conditions. The maximum cornering speed of the Allroad is not defined by the car, but rather by the strength of your will and the patience of your passengers. At speed, the steering is still comfortable, not requiring a feather touch, but still being light enough to drive with one hand. The well-damped suspension soaks up bumps well, and adds confidence for high-speed twists and turns on the highway. Being in an A4 Allroad on the interstate means being able to pass every single person there without thinking about it, and the car won't break a sweat doing so.

The seven-speed dual clutch transmission is the finest gearbox I have ever driven. Its normal and sport mode shift logic is superb, and shifts are so fast as to not be noticeable, in terms of power output and vehicle acceleration. Like all dual clutches, it cannot be driven like a normal automatic, however. Do not creep this car. It will not be happy doing so and you'll have to get the clutches replaced way earlier than you're supposed to. Either you go or you stop. The engine shutdown actually serves to reinforce this-it makes the driver a little more committed about stopping versus moving. Hill starts feel slightly weird due to the electronically controlled clutches, but this isn't usually noticeable, as long as the driver is purposeful about their acceleration. Shifting manually can be done either by moving the shifter away from you and bumping it forward and back, or using the paddle shifters on the wheel. These are naturally located and feel good to use, and unlike an automatic, shifts come instantly as commanded, instead of waiting around for a thumbs up from the ECU before executing. Downshifts are incredibly smooth, with the engine logic apparently blipping the throttle to help rev-match and likely save on clutch and synchronizer wear. This transmission will not disappoint, and it is perhaps the strongest part of this overall extremely formidable car.

I didn't really mention the engine, but I didn't need to. It's quiet when it needs to be, makes loads of power, and you don't really feel when boost hits for better or no worse. No boost gauge in this car, you just put your foot down and gladly accept whatever power it gives you.

The A4 Allroad comes with several road condition options, that presumably change suspension and traction control settings; this lets the driver tune the car for normal driving, performance driving versus offroading, icy conditions and suchlike. I actually did not know about these settings for most of my test drive, but I did take the Allroad on a long stretch of bumpy gravel road and it performed admirably. On bumpy and loose surfaces the AWD system and suspension do a great job of maintaining controllability as well as comfort; at lower speeds (that you would expect on a gravel road), potholes are hard to notice, and I noticed no wheelspin at all, even when accelerating or braking on slopes. At one point on this drive, I even forded a creek, not expecting the route I picked to be so unimproved. The A4 did not falter in the slightest as it powered through the water; that said, please don't do this! It was very stupid! However, the Allroad is overall confident and capable on rougher roads and in conditions where traction is potentially compromised. It certainly lives up to its name.

Driving on narrow country roads is fun in a car like the A4 Allroad, but after a little while you do notice the sheer size of the car. It is extremely wide. On any road with narrower than normal margins or lanes, you feel extremely cramped in the Allroad. This, along with its substantial length, makes parking a tricky matter, and all tight maneuvers have to be executed carefully and delicately. This is not a city car. This car is sized for the highways and countryside; it is unwieldy to park and feels unnervingly large when confined in narrow lanes and small country roads. The thick pillars and low roof add to this effect, as rearwards visibility is limited, and the big mirrors are absolutely necessary to do proper lane checks. This, combined with the hefty weight of the car, means that it does not feel as sprightly and carefree as a smaller car. The A4 is a methodical car, meant to be driven by somebody who always has a plan.

The A4 wagon has classic Audi lines with that sharply raked D-pillar. Said pillar is hugely thick though, and obstructs visibility.

The other major downside of the A4 Allroad I noticed during my test drive is the sheer expense of keeping it going (on top of the fact that it's ultimately a Volkswagen car and therefore difficult to service). It takes premium gas, and despite the smart transmission, PZEV engine shutoff, and turbocharger, it's a thirsty car. According to Edmunds, it gets about 25 mpg, which is definitely in crossover territory for a family car. Add on the fact that you're paying for premium, not regular, and the gas costs add up quickly. This is not a cheap car to own by any stretch of the imagination.

There are not many cars that I am truly intimidated by. Even the 300hp V6 Dodge Charger I drove was still predictable and easy to read, on some level. The Allroad is such an interesting mix of experiences and expectations that for the entire time I drove it, I was afraid of its full capabilities. Perhaps that is because you can't just drive 110mph on public roads (I may have accidentally hit 90 in traffic though! Whoops!), it's because Audi put real engineering effort and real performance capability into this nearly two-ton machine. The A4 can move faster, corner harder, and accelerate quicker than I am willing to do. This is a high-performance car that hides its true capabilities behind a comfortable, quiet cockpit, reassuringly easy handling (sometimes), and family-friendly form factor.

I therefore have an interesting relationship with this car, because I like driving, I like pushing cars beyond what they normally do, and I like performance cars. But with the A4, it doesn't wear its nature on its sleeve. Most of the time it's quiet, comfortable, and put together; it feels perfectly in control. But then you put your foot down, or you slap the downshift paddle to pass a truck, or you turn hard into a corner, and the Allroad just looks at you and you can hear it say, softly, in its perfect German accent:

"Are you sure you want to do this? I will do anything you ask me to. I can do more than what you want me to. You will give before I do.

The Allroad is honestly deceptive: it looks like a "sporty" (not performance, sporty. The two are different nowadays) family wagon. It drives fine for normal use, but then for the normal driver, it has power that just keeps coming anywhere on the rev range, it has so much grip, and its transmission is laser-sharp. The only thing that keeps this from being a straight up racecar is the weight, which makes me that much more afraid of the Quattro A4 sedan.

Who is it for?

Firstly, the A4 Allroad is a car that does everything, to an extent. It carries a lot (more than a sedan, but less than a big SUV or van), it drives very well (though its weight is impossible to ignore), and it's supremely comfortable and quite well-appointed. The drawbacks? About what you'd expect. It's expensive to run, both in terms of maintenance and gas, kind of hard to find in the States, and it's also just hugely expensive. You get what you pay for, but you pay for a hell of a lot. Cars of this caliber are effectively off-limits to large sections of the market. On ones hand that's a shame, but on the other hand, who needs a car like this? Who would drop 45 large for a station wagon? Why?

The A4 Allroad is for people who really like cars, really like driving, and really can't avoid getting a practical car. The A4 makes no compromises that affect its functionality as a sports car (again, save for the massive curb weight), and it should more than satisfy anybody who has less-than-outrageous taste in performance cars. It's a great road tripper and highway cruiser, it fits in at car meets, and it handles rough roads really well. However, its size is anywhere from disconcerting to straight up unmanageable on cramped roads, and I would not even think of owning this car in a city. The Allroad is definitely a suburb car; In a city with start-stop traffic and sharp corners, you'll rue the visibility and wear the clutches out very quickly. Do not buy this car if you live in a city. Buy the A3 wagon or the Golf wagon or something if you absolutely need a German wagon. The A4 Allroad is for a suburban family (who makes a LOT of money) who never quite grew out of the zest for driving and the outdoors they developed before they had kids. They don't care about the price, they don't notice the weight, they don't mind how bad it is in cities and when parking, and they love the huge acceleration and firm cornering; the AWD and higher suspension, as well as offroad suspension mode, are a bonus.

The A4 Allroad is not a car for people who don't care about cars. People who don't like driving and don't care about cars will get very little out of the Allroad, and I think that's the core of its identity. Even more than being a scary but restrained "family" driver or a mixed sports-utility (like an SUV? huh.) car, the Allroad is a driver's car.

The complicated wheel is the heart of the user experience. It has so many buttons and wheels that they couldn't even put the cruise control on thumb buttons.

So then why is the Allroad an SUV?

It all comes back to control, and how cars like this promise control over something. Normal SUVs promise control over the circumstances around you; they tell you that the world will warp around you to accomodate yourself and your car, like some sick automotive Alcubierre drive. An SUV sells the idea that you can conquer the road, shrug aside other drivers, and take charge of your family and their ability to move through the world. The fact that it drives loosely, has a slushy transission, low-revving engine, and crap gas mileage doesn't matter; what matters is how high you are on your throne. In an SUV, you're the king of the road.

In an A4 Allroad, you're the black knight. You may not have control over the other drivers, or the road conditions, or anything at all outside your car. But you have precise control over everything your car does at every point in time. It will do whatever you want. It is an extension of your will. In an Allroad, if you don't like what's happening around you, you just put your foot down and suddenly that clown in the Lumina who was about to merge into your quarter panel is 200 feet behind you and 45 mph slower. The A4 Allroad makes no dares, makes no promises, and makes no illusions. It just makes eye contact. Constantly.

So the Audi A4 Allroad is a big AWD car with lots of power, offroad-oriented lower styling, a family interior, and makes you feel supremely in control. By that definition, it is at least emotionally an SUV. This car is what all crossovers should aspire to be. The station wagon is dead, long live the station wagon.