Audi Allroad’s New Transmission Boosts MPGs, Doesn’t Lose Off-Road Cred

In the pursuit of ever-more-precious fuel economy, Audi re-imagined its all-wheel-drive Quattro system.

Wyoming weather in October can be a rascal. Depending on your location, elevation, and speed of transit through both, the whole situation can change by the second. While testing the new 2017 Audi A4 Allroad in and around Jackson, just south of the spectacular Grand Teton National Park, I encountered snow, ice, mud, driving rain, wind gales, and bone-dry but still slippery-as-hell gravel — and that was before I even left the parking lot. What better place to try out Audi’s new Allroad wagon?

The A4-based model — which starts at $44,000 and tops out around 10 grand higher — comes with a host of body tweaks and suspension improvements, namely more aggressive wheel arches, a better-protected underbody, and an extra 34mm of ground clearance over the standard A4, but its real trick is in the transmission. In the pursuit of ever-more-precious fuel economy, Audi developed — or better yet, reimagined — its all-wheel-drive Quattro system. The new design, called Quattro with Ultra Technology, aims for optimized performance and efficiency achieved via more precise and aggressive control of power distribution based on the conditions and driving style. (In English: It constantly flips back and forth between front-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive.) It uses an electronically controlled multi-plate clutch and — in the most significant departure from Audi heritage — a decoupling rear axle differential.

This is different from previous systems, which keep all four wheels engaged to one degree or another. In the new Allroad, the car can breeze down the highway in front-drive for maximum fuel economy but with milliseconds’ notice — or even before the demand is present, based on algorithms keeping track of road conditions and vehicle dynamics — can engage the rear wheels and apportion power to the wheels most in need of it. Fuel economy numbers for the new model hit 24 combined, up from the last generation’s 23 — not a huge bump for a completely redesigned drivetrain, but this is the world we live in.

2017 Audi Allroad

Engine: 2.0-liter 4-cylinder
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic; on-demand front- and all-wheel drive
Horsepower: 252
Torque: 273 lb-ft
0-60 mph: 5.9 seconds
Top Speed: 130 mph
Curb Weight: 3,825
MPG: 21/28, city/highway
MSRP: $44,000

Purists might be leery of this system, especially given that there are two distinct ways of looking at it: as an all-wheel-drive system that shifts to front-drive under less-demanding circumstances, or a front-drive system that can engage the rears when necessary. Optimists will choose the former; cynics will see the latter. But Audi swears there’s no performance penalty, and the system responds as fast or faster than traditional AWD. On the roads and trails in Wyoming, I found no reason to doubt that. The car performed beautifully no matter the conditions. Blasting down gravelly roads in remote, open spaces, it felt supremely planted even though the gravel was as loose as glass marbles. In the slower, thicker mud in the mountains, the power was always present. You can choose your mode — auto, off-road, comfort, eco, etc. — but the automatic setting seemed on point all the time, and the 2.0-liter, 252-horsepower four-cylinder engine robust enough to pull it out of trouble with its 273 lb-ft of torque. (It hits 60 mph in 5.9 seconds, which just a few years ago was the sports-car magic number — so there’s that, too.)

Blasting down gravelly roads in remote, open spaces, it felt supremely planted even though the gravel was as loose as a glass marbles.

Overall, the car is an exceptionally attractive alternative to its equivalents like the Subaru Outback, with all the safety and luxury enhancements present in the current A4, including the large Multi Media Interface display, a newly enhanced infotainment system, Apple CarPlay and Google Android Integration, and plenty of creature comforts and space. Upgrade options include adaptive cruise control, collision avoidance, obstacle detection, traffic sign recognition, and alerts to vehicles or cyclists approaching from the rear when you’re about to open the door, among other things.

Whether all the R&D specific to the drivetrain truly moves the needle for consumers will eventually prove itself, but the fact that Audi introduced Quattro/Ultra in their spry, popular, lightweight off-roader speaks volumes about their confidence in it. The technology will eventually arrive in Audi’s other non-SUV cars; the bigger vehicles have weight and engineering demands that preclude it at the moment. As for whether the AWD/wagon purists will continue to scoff — well, once they head up into the mountains like those in Wyoming, they’ll probably change their tune pretty fast.

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