GENEVA - Audi AG celebrates 20 years of quattro (all-wheel-drive) technology with the launch of its '01 Allroad quattro, a beefy luxury car-based crossover.

Top Audi executives held a private anniversary dinner with a candlelit cake here preceding the Allroad's European introduction at the recent Geneva auto show. The car, which goes on sale in Europe in May and in the U.S. this fall, makes its U.S. debut at this month's New York auto show.

"Twenty years ago, 4-wheel drive was a technical curiosity on normal roads," says Audi Chairman Franz-Josef Paefgen. "We are moving successfully into the third mil-lennium, technically. We will see fewer and fewer automotive competitors but less uniformity. Customers are demanding a broader model range."

While based on the A6 Avant station wagon, Allroad has a wider track, a slight increase in body height and design nuances, such as boldly shaped bumpers, flared wheel arches and a roof painted in contrasting colors. It will be marketed as a separate model, officials say.

Allroad's Geneva's introduction comes exactly 20 years following the first Audi quattro premier at the international show. Since then, Audi has produced 800,000 quattro vehicles, with quattro models this year expected to account for 30% of Audi sales. Audi's overall January and February sales were up 11%, and the company is forecasting 90,000 sales worldwide for 2000.

The Allroad, which Audi insists is not a sport/utility vehicle, features a four-level air suspension system that adjusts the ride height automatically depending on the vehicle's speed, or the driver can engage the low-range mode on versions with a manual gear box. Officials say the multi-suspension feature sets Allroad apart from typical SUVs.

The way it works, both axles have air- spring struts controlled by separate height sensors. These vary the ride height at every wheel to ensure ample ground clearance in off-road situations and optimum aero-dynamics at highway speeds. The pneumatic system provides optimum ground clearance of 210 mm (8.2 ins.), besting the BMW X5; interior space and ability are likened by Audi officials to the Jeep Grand Cherokee.

The U.S., which is expected to be the largest market for the Allroad - with women in their 30s and 40s likely making up a large percentage of buyers - will get a 2.7L 250-hp V-6 engine with dual turbochargers, a Ward's Ten Best Engines winner for 2000.

The European version comes equipped with a 2.5L 180-hp V-6 TDI diesel engine. The transmission is offered in a 6-speed manual or 5-speed automatic with Tiptronic.

Design study for the car began two years ago after a concept version was in-troduced at the Detroit auto show, where it was well received. "Everyone said, 'When do you start taking orders?'" Mr. Paefgen says. The production model is basically unchanged from the concept version, and Audi already is taking customer orders. "It's an on-road vehicle for off-road driving."

Len Hunt, president of Audi of America, says the Allroad also is expected to appeal to former SUV owners looking for features of a car. "It's got a lot of advantages," he says, noting the Audi brand is particularly attractive to young buyers.

"Advanced technology is an essential of Audi," Mr. Hunt says, adding that Allroad has tires and wheels developed specifically for the vehicle by Goodyear and Pirelli. "Because the car is capable of high speed and rough stuff, it needs a more aggressive sidewall that doesn't collapse when you are climbing boulders," he says. "It's useful as well in the Northeast snow belts with their rough roads."

Allroad earns its off-road stripes, and then some, as it crosses lakes and flies off mountains in an upcoming Imax-Kino film, "Mountain Magic," a movie about the fun of winter sports due to air in U.S. Imax theaters in September. "We never expected to see Allroad perform as it does in the movie," Mr. Paefgen says.

Filmed in Utah and Aspen, CO, the moviemakers sought to portray a car that knows no obstacles. The film crew at first attached a parasail to an Allroad painted in zebra stripes and dropped the vehicle from a mountaintop via helicopter. But the vehicle didn't fly; it crashed.

For a second try, filmmakers put a special lightweight version of the car on a remote-control snowmobile equipped with a parasail. The vehicle zoomed off the mountain and actually flew, the movie's producer says. Audi is considering using outtakes of the Allroad's flying stunt in an upcoming advertising campaign.