At first glance the new Audi AG Allroad looks like just another station wagon on steroids, one of a growing list coming from SUV-less automakers hoping to get a piece of the lucrative light truck market.
While some automakers pursue new customers with increasingly car-like SUVs, Subaru, Volvo AG and now Audi are chasing potential SUV buyers with station wagons beefed up to be more truck-like. Jacked up suspensions and macho-looking fender flares and body cladding are standard issue in this category, which includes several Subaru Outback models and the Volvo V70 Cross Country.
What sets the Allroad apart from this pack - Audi hopes - is a 4-level pneumatic suspension system that allows drivers to vary vehicle ride height as much as 2.6 inches, from a road-hugging 5.6 inches for maximum maneuverability at freeway speeds to a towering 8.2 inches for off-road driving.
At the highest setting, Audi says the Allroad has as much - or more - ground clearance than competitors such as the Land Rover Discovery, Mercedes M-Class and BMW X5.
Ride height can be adjusted manually via a small control panel on the instrument panel, but if the car is being driven at the highest setting the system will automatically lower the car one notch when speed exceeds 22 mph and another notch when it exceeds 50 mph.
When speed exceeds 75 mph, the car will automatically lower itself to the lowest ride height for maximum stability and to minimize aerodynamic drag.
The key elements of the system are an air compressor unit and the electronic control system, which are installed at the rear of the vehicle. Each wheel has a ride-height sensor that detects ground clearance and adjusts the appropriate air spring strut separately until the correct ride height is restored.
Like most of its luxury car competitors, Audi is betting well-heeled consumers are willing to pay dearly for the latest cross-over (part car, part SUV) trend in personal transportation.
The Allroad's base sticker price is $42,450 including a $550 destination charge. Equip it with popular options, such as an automatic transmission ($1,000), heated seats ($800), a premium sound system ($750) and sun roof ($1,000) - and the price quickly hits the mid-40,000 range.
Other goodies such as an optional navigation system ($1,630) and high-intensity discharge headlights can price the car over $50,000.