It's funny, really. All thought of Audi heritage lead to Quattro, and how four driven wheels revolutionised international rallying 40 years ago, then road cars not long after. Which arguably makes Audi's contemporary SUV line-up easier to swallow than those of rival manufacturers; from Q2 all the way up to Q8 through 3, 5, and 7 on the way (and don't forget the Sportbacks), the manufacturer has harnessed its expertise to offer the buying public every possible sports utility vehicle variation they could possibly want. And probably a few they don't.
But it wasn't always that way. At the tail end of the 1990s, Mercedes-Benz had embraced the luxury, ever-so-slightly sporty 4x4 in the M-Class (the 55 AMG version is 20 years old this year). BMW followed soon after with the X5. Over the past two decades and through an assortment of generations, those cars have sold millions, validating the business case if nothing else. And where was Audi, the four-wheel-drive master? Making the Allroad. Which, reading it back, sounds demeaning. But that couldn't be further from the truth, because this, not the SUV, is the trend that should have caught on.
The Allroad quattro - note there isn't an A6 badge to be seen - was previewed in a 1998 Detroit concept, then introduced to the UK market in the summer of 2000 to mark 20 years of Quattro. Initially with a 2.5-litre diesel or 2.7-litre twin-turbocharged V6 (and even a low-range gearbox option!), the Allroad quattro was, according to Audi, "the best compromise yet between the comfort and refinement of a family estate car and the versatility and all-terrain capability of a serious off-roader." Quite a blend of talents to target. To achieve that it boasted a four-stage self-levelling air suspension system, with ride height sensors to vary the ground clearance between 142mm and 208mm - with manual override possible as well. Otherwise it was as you were for an A6 inside, which was as pleasant and passable a proposition at the turn of the century as it is now.
The V8 arrived in 2003, an "advanced new petrol engine" boasting five valves per cylinder, a 5kg weight reduction over the unit used in the S6 and an "unmistakeable V8 engine note". The headline stats were punchy: 300hp, 280lb ft, 7.2 seconds to 62mph and 149mph. There was also the small matter of 27mpg (extra-urban!) and 331g/km - but nobody really cared about that in 2003, did they?
So that's a wee bit of Allroad context; now to the point. What is it that's lured people to the genre over the past 20 years? Well, one could argue quite convincingly it's a combination of a rugged aesthetic, aspirational lifestyle marketing, a premium billing, a modicum of off-road ability and yet, broadly speaking, the sort of dimensions and driveability that remain manageable. Nobody wants an actual off-roader, now, do they? Heaven forbid. Much too cumbersome.
The Allroad conforms to all those criteria. The seat even raises up really high as well. It's just an A6 Avant, yet one equipped with sufficient off-road ability that if, say, your cricket club is at the top of a craggy, potted track (we're looking at you, Coldharbour), there's no need to worry. It's the confidence that the Allroad treatment gives, the ability to raise the ride height and feel assured in what it can do, that makes it such a clever idea; especially so because there's little sense of the flat-footed handling, either, that can come with larger 4x4s.
The original Allroad seen here is a 16-year-old car with 120,000 miles on it; clearly it's not one to test and critique like something fresher. Especially so given the Allroad's well documented issues. But it lapped up everything required of it in a cold, wet, miserable day on the byways of Surrey. An Allroad most likely never tackles much more challenging than a cul-de-sac kerb, but a test day of torrential rain meant it faced a lot: sludgy, boggy inclines, branches strewn everywhere, routes craggy and awkward already because of roots, rocks and holes made super slippery. It was difficult to walk on, given the inclines, surface and water, even if it doesn't look it from the pics. Never at any point did the old car feel overawed, nor the new car even remotely bothered by the situation: raised ride heights meant the vital bits were protected, and to be honest the traction was never really called into question either. They just got on with where we needed them to go, without squeak, groan, or complaint, looking for all the world like two lost A6 Avants but in reality searching for more of a challenge in the forest.
Now, obviously, this wasn't exactly Camel Trophy levels of exploration - it would have been a surprise if they hadn't made it, as well as extremely embarrassing. Crucially, however, it was sufficient to prove that the Allroad estates can cope off-road, at least to the level they or rivals would be required to. People buying Defenders and Land Cruisers would naturally expect more, but those looking at Touaregs, X5s and XC90s? This has to be more than enough. That's always been the clever thing with Allroads; while ostensibly A6 Avants (whether badged that way or not) they can deliver beyond expectations when required. Need an off-roader? Buy an off-roader. But up until the point an Allroad will see you right. Then back on road they're near-as-dammit regular A6s (even if that does means aloof and a touch ponderous sometimes) - a neat trick.
Because that V8 engine was twin-turbocharged for the original RS6, then reworked and renewed for use in the R8 and B7 RS4, it's pretty cool to have it rumbling along in an old Avant. Even paired with a five-speed automatic that surely wasn't the swiftest when new, there's no denying the potency of the 4.2. The joy of a muted V8 woofle should never be underestimated, either; the noise satisfying in a way that subsequent, synthesised V8s seldom have been. Useful to remember that joy when filling up again, too...
Furthermore, while the diesel A6 Allroad of 2020 can't deliver the same sort of emotional pull as a big V8, it does deliver the same finely-judged, desirable array of talents. And doesn't emit half a kilo of CO2 per mile. By and large it's a capable, cossetting, tech laden and effortless A6 Avant. Only when the situation dictates does it show off its Allroad credentials; contemporary reports of the original Allroad suggested it felt noticeably less wieldy than its Avant base, but that's been addressed here. Obviously it's no great driver's car, but the Allroad pays little penalty for its fair 4x4 ability. With a far smarter gearbox and enormous torque reserves from the twin-turbo diesel, the latest iteration is miles quicker than the old V8, even if the style of the performance - relying on the low-rev muscle, never feeling to exert itself too much - remains the same.
It's hard to see, honestly, why the Allroad format hasn't caught on. Credit should go to Audi for extending and continuing the model range; there's an E-Class All Terrain currently as well, though precious little else. Bizarrely it seems that the Allroad look has been more successful at a lower price point, with everything from a Ford Fiesta Active to a Honda Jazz Crosstar available for those who need a tougher ride height... in front-wheel drive superminis. Fashion never did make much sense.
For those that aren't too bothered about trends, the Allroad remains a hugely likeable and adept package. If anything, as we demand more from our cars now than ever, its breadth and depth of talent is more impressive than at any point in the past 20 years. Because what more, really, do you need a car to do? So while the rest of the world continues flocking to SUVs, it's nice to know that there's still an option for anyone willing to think a tiny bit differently. And for the truly brave, an Allroad with a great big V8 remains quite the way to travel - on road or off it.
SPECIFICATION | 2004 AUDI ALLROAD 4.2
Engine: 4,172cc, V8
Transmission: 5-speed automatic, four-wheel drive
Power (hp): 300@6,200rpm
Torque (lb ft): 280@2,700rpm
0-62mph: 7.2 seconds
Top speed: 149mph
MPG: 27.7 (extra urban)
Price: £41,255 (2004), from £6,000 today
SPECIFICATION | 2020 AUDI A6 ALLROAD 45 TDI
Engine: 2,967cc, V6 turbodiesel
Transmission: 8-speed automatic, four-wheel drive
Power (hp): 231@3,250-4,700rpm
Torque (lb ft): 369@1,750-3,250rpm
0-62mph: 6.7 seconds
Top speed: 155mph
Weight: 2,020kg (with driver)
Price: from £54,555 (45 TDI Sport)
Photos: Dafydd Wood