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When Audi launched the Allroad quattro in 1999, the crossover wasn’t really a thing. Oh sure, there were a fair few soft-roaders on the market, but the Nissan Qashqai – credited as being the first car to be dubbed a crossover – wasn’t even a glint in the Almera’s eye.

Today, the crossover and SUV segments are on a mission to take over the world, unprepared to sleep until they’ve killed the hatchback, saloon, MPV and estate car, or any other vehicle that dares to stand in their way.

So you could argue that the jacked-up off-road estate car has had its day. An already niche segment, about to be pummelled into the ground by the relentless march of the crossover. Audi disagrees, which is why it has launched a second generation A4 Allroad, complete with a new variation of its famous quattro all-wheel drive system.

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This new system – dubbed quattro Ultra – makes its debut on the A4 Allroad 2.0 TFSI and, in very simple terms, works by deactivating all-wheel drive when not required. So in effect, this is the first Audi quattro to operate as a front-wheel drive car, although all-wheel drive is permanently and instantaneously available. Audi claims the A4 Allroad can switch between front- or all-wheel drive in a split-second, often before you’d think you actually need it.

Among the headlines for the all-new A4 Allroad is a weight saving of 90kg across the range, resulting in CO2 emissions 21% lower than the previous generation. Ground clearance is raised by 34mm compared with the regular A4 Avant, while some additional body-cladding marks the Allroad out as an estate car ready to hit the rough stuff.

The question is, can the Audi A4 Allroad hold its own against the might of the crossover-SUV, or does it feel like a niche that’s well past its sell-by date? We travelled to Munich to find out.

On the road

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With the huge caveat that we were driving on some of Germany’s typically smooth roads, the A4 Allroad is is arguably one of the best riding Audis you can buy. All the test cars were riding on 18-inch alloys (standard on the top trim Sport quattro), but this did little to spoil what is a supremely comfortable ride quality. The 2016 A4 Allroad might not have the air suspension of the original Allroad, but in optional Comfort mode you simply don’t need it.

The small pay off is a noticeable increase in the amount of lean during hard cornering, but if you’ve bought an Allroad, kissing the apex won’t be high on your list of priorities. Should you wish to firm things up, simply engage Dynamic mode and enjoy the best of both worlds. There’s also a full-fat Off-Road mode, but sadly, the only less-than-smooth surface laid on by Audi happened to be some gravel placed on the floor during the press conference.

The standout engine is undoubtedly the 272hp 3.0 TDI, which enables the A4 Allroad to feel at its most regal and sumptuous best. Mated to a new eight-speed tiptronic transmission, the 3.0 TDI unit feels refined and serene, while delivering its ample power with a kind of composed urgency.

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By comparison, the 190hp 2.0 TDI feels run-of-the-mill, everyday even. Given the negligible differences in terms of fuel economy, we urge British drivers to fly in the face of Audi’s own forecasts and consider opting for the 3.0 TDI, either in 218hp or 268hp guise. It’s a peach of an engine, but note the eight-speed tiptronic transmission is only available on the higher-powered version. The other 3.0 TDI ‘makes do’ with the seven-speed S tronic transmission.

The fly in the ointment is the 2.0 TFSI, which benefits from the new quattro Ultra system. On the move, you’ll find it impossible to notice the shift between front- and four-wheel drive, as the transformation is as discreet as it is rapid. You just know it’s there when you need it and that it will automatically switch back when you don’t.

Sadly, while the 2.0 TFSI unit is smooth and free-revving, it can sound a little strained when pressing on. The six-cylinder diesel is the most tuneful, yet it also settles down to near-silence when cruising. It turns a great Allroad into a great Allrounder.

On the inside

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The A4’s interior is a masterclass in fit, finish and feel-good factor, making it the pick of the new breed of compact executives. It’s let down by a bewildering array of switchgear, which is at odds with the industry’s move towards minimalism and simplicity, but claws back some brownie points thanks to the optional, but must-have, Virtual Cockpit.

Not that the A4 Allroad scrimps on standard specification. As the current flagship of the A4 range, the Allroad benefits from a powered tailgate, electric load area cover, three-zone climate control, MMI Radio Plus, smartphone integration, DAB digital radio, eight speakers, multi-function leather steering wheel and paddles for automatic models. Upgrade to the Allroad Sport and this is boosted by rear privacy glass, 180-watt Audi sound system, and front sport seats with twin-leather upholstery.

Audi claims the new Allroad offers increased head- and shoulder-room compared to the outgoing model, although rear seat passengers may thank you for opting for the larger A6 Allroad. The boot offers 505 litres of space, extending to 1,510 litres with the split rear seats folded.

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We’ll give a special mention to Audi’s new trailer assistant, which made its debut on the new Q7. Although we will have to wait for the UK launch for a demonstration, on paper at least it has the potential to give the A4 Allroad an edge over its rivals.

Using sensors, cameras and on-board screens, the trailer assistant turns the steering wheel and directs the trailer on the desired course, with the driver controlling its path using the rotary/push-button control on the MMI. Ideal for those who tow horseboxes, boats and track cars.

Running costs

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Prices start from £35,560 for the 2.0 TDI, rising to £42,145 for the 3.0 TDI Sport quattro. Like for like, the Sport quattro trim commands a premium of around £3,000. Naturally, Audi will be keen to tempt you into ticking some must-have options boxes, including damping control, wireless phone charging, Bang & Olufsen 3D sound system, dynamic steering and matrix LED headlights.

The cleanest and most efficient A4 Allroad is the 2.0 TDI in standard trim, which emits 128g/km CO2, while offering 57.6mpg on a combined cycle. The least efficient is the 2.0 TFSI in Sport quattro trim, with figures of 152g/km C02 and 42.8mpg.

Audi is predicting a retained value of 63% after 18 months and 30,000 miles, which is significant, as – unlike other A4 models – the Allroad is likely to major on retail and user-chooser sales. This is a car bought as a result of a conscious decision, as opposed to picking your way through a list of names on an email sent by your fleet manager.

First year road tax starts from £0 for the 2.0 TDI (band D), rising to £180 for the 2.0 TFSI Sport quattro (band G). Subsequent years range from £110 to £180, figures that would be alien to the majority of SUV drivers. The A4 Allroad is like having your off-road cake and eating it. But, as Audi pointed out, this isn’t “as tough as an SUV” so you probably won’t want to venture too far off the beaten track.

Verdict

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Somehow, the Allroad feels like so much more than a jacked-up A4 Avant. The excellent ride quality certain helps, but the well-chosen cosmetic upgrades also play a part. In such an image-conscious sector, lifting the Allroad above the common or garden sales-rep special will be all important. On this evidence, Audi has played a blinder.

In isolation then, it’s a thoroughly convincing and highly likeable product. We’ll reserve final judgement until we’ve a) driven it on UK roads, and b) tested it on surfaces other than silken German roads. There’s also the enemy within, in the form of the Audi A6 Allroad, which is both larger and benefits from the addition of the brilliant 3.0-litre bi-turbodiesel engine.

But if you’re in the market for a premium wagon and you don’t expect to venture further off road than the point-to-point car park, the Audi A4 Allroad is a seriously impressive machine. Just make sure you don’t tick the box marked body-coloured cladding. The Allroad looks its best in authentic off-road spec (see below) and marks you out as a driver of fine taste.

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Far from being an ageing dinosaur, Audi has proved that there’s still life in the off-road estate car. And right now, the Allroad is the pick of the bunch. Still want that me-too crossover with the daft name?

Audi A4 Allroad 3.0 TDI: specification

Price: £39,180 (prices from £35,560)
Engine: 3.0-litre six-cylinder turbodiesel
Gearbox: 8-speed triptronic
Power: 272hp
Torque: 442lb ft
0-62mph: 6.6 seconds
Top speed: 143mph
Fuel economy: 53.3mpg
CO2 emissions: 139g/km