From the moment we pull out of the underground parking garage at Audi's space-age headquarters in Ingolstadt, the light blue A6 becomes the center of everybody's attention. Audi drivers in particular go nuts trying to catch a glimpse of the new sedan and its controversial single-frame grille. As we stop to buy the obligatory toll sticker on the freeway to Austria, five occupants of an A6 Avant swarm out, then fire more questions at us than a trained salesperson could answer. The response during the three-day drive is positive, occasionally even enthusiastic. Thanks to clever advance publicity from the Pikes Peak, Nuvolari, and Le Mans show cars, Audi's future family face is met with almost unanimous approval.
After 700 miles, we can say the same about the whole vehicle. The latest A6 has made significant progress in many key areas. It is roomier than the model it replaces, it is more rewarding to drive, it can be ordered with a host of new luxury-car features, and its engineering has been upgraded to a level that must worry its chief rivals. Mercifully, the enhanced driver and passenger appeal is combined with classic Audi brand values, setting new standards in terms of fit and finish, cabin-related craftsmanship, and ergonomic efficiency. The car will start appearing in North American showrooms this fall.
We opted to try the new 3.1-liter gasoline direct-injection V-6 that delivers 252 horsepower and 243 pound-feet of torque, an improvement of 32 horsepower and 22 pound-feet over last year's 3.0-liter unit. In the United States, this engine will be available initially only in combination with Quattro all-wheel drive and the six-speed Tiptronic transmission. The sticker price will be around $40,000. In mid-2005, Audi plans to add a front-wheel-drive variant equipped with the continuously variable Multitronic that gets a seventh ratio in manual mode. At the top end of the range, there's a 330-horsepower, 4.2-liter V-8 Quattro Tiptronic. Waiting in the wings is an awesome V-10, which is expected to deliver 420 horsepower and 376 pound-feet of torque. Borrowed from the Lamborghini Gallardo, the brawny ten-cylinder will power the sporty S6.
On first inspection, the biggest improvement over the previous model is a more spacious cabin. Boasting a wheelbase more than three inches longer and a wider track, the A6 is now as roomy as the competition. Head, shoulder, and rear leg room have increased, and the trunk volume is a cavernous 19.3 cubic feet. While the torsional rigidity is up by 34 percent, the drag coefficient is down to 0.29. The A6 has evolved into a big car at 193.5 inches long, it plugs the gap between E- and S-class Mercedes-Benzes. The 3704-pound curb weight underlines the fact that this car is made mostly of steel, not aluminum.
It's hard not to love the interior of the Ingolstadt midliner. The materials are first class, color and trim are an object lesson in good taste, the seats are comfortable and supportive, and the Multi Media Interface (MMI) system is easier to use than iDrive by BMW or Comand by Mercedes-Benz. Even so, you still have to take your eyes away from the road to activate one of the eight main menus, and MMI is still the conduit for simple tasks such as adjusting the temperature of the seat heaters or storing a radio station. Nice touches include a power-operated glovebox lid, rain and light sensors, dual-zone climate control, and asymmetrically split folding rear seats. Like the A8, the A6 can be ordered with cornering lights, keyless stop/start, adaptive cruise control, and Bose surround sound.
The A6 3.2 Quattro isn't the fastest car in its class, but its performance is certainly respectable. Audi says it will accelerate from 0 to 62 mph in 7.1 seconds, and it tops out at an electronically limited 155 mph. On the highway, you relish the splendid isolation, the magic carpet ride at 100-plus mph, and the lack of wind, engine, or road noise. The six-speed Tiptronic is an absolute delight. It picks up revs with vigor, doesn't lose much momentum while changing up, and shifts smoothly, except in the busier sport mode. The communication among throttle, engine, and autobox yields prompt and well-balanced shifts instead of rushing or delaying them. Audi claims an average consumption of 26 mpg, but our specimen returned a less impressive 19 mpg.
Although our car ran on standard sixteen-inch wheels shod with modest 225/55HR-16 Continental ContiPremiumContact tires, it didn't soak up ripples, bumps, and grooves quite as efficiently as an E-class or a 5-series BMW. Extra money buys wider seventeen- or eighteen-inch rims. An optional adaptive air suspension, coming in 2005, is said to improve the ride at low speed and over imperfections such as expansion joints and manhole covers.
Close to the Czech border, on the heavenly country roads east of the Danube River, we encountered an inexhaustible network of gradients and radii, of long straights and spiraling ess-bends, plus solid ice on roads through forests and snowdrifts dotting the wide, open plains. Although it had ordinary summer tires, our Audi tracked like a star and climbed the iciest slopes without putting a hoof wrong, thanks to Quattro. But the 50/50 torque split is responsible for a certain indifference at the limit, because you are never quite sure whether the front end will let go first, or the rear end, or all four wheels at the same time. Although the engineers are working on a more aggressive 40/60 torque distribution, this tail-end bias won't be production-ready for another twelve to eighteen months.
Over the rolling hills leading to Vienna, the Audi got another chance to stretch its legs. The latest A6 has shed most of the mushiness and indifference of previous versions. The steering is not quite as sensuous and tactile as that of a BMW 530i, but it is quick and precise. Body roll is more effectively suppressed, and there's less understeer. The A6 generates higher levels of adhesion than its predecessor and remains neutral all the way to the edge of grip, at which point mild understeer typically prevails. Even the brakes, which used to be spongy and notoriously short of breath, are suddenly potent and progressive.
Although the new sedan is much more of a head turner than its predecessors, its driving character is one of inconspicuous efficiency and pragmatic ability. At night, on an unfamiliar road, this car is incredibly confidence-inspiring because it goes where you point it, period, and does a remarkable job of pairing stability and agility. Pushing hard-even very hard-involves neither drama nor squealing tires nor emphatic protests from the suspension.
But the dynamic performance isn't totally flawless. For a start, the new A6 definitely does not like crosswinds, and its responses to driver inputs can be a little too edgy at very high speeds. Braking hard to avoid a wayward truck from, say, 125 mph in the middle of an autobahn bend causes the rear end to go light, and it takes a quick flick at the wheel to calm things down.
During our three days, the A6 came across as a true luxury car in every respect. In fact, it's dangerously close in overall appeal to the standard-wheelbase A8, which Audi sensibly doesn't bring to the United States. Compared with its direct rivals, the Audi's packaging is up there, it musters the most powerful six-cylinder engine in its class, and the six-speed manu-matic transmission and Quattro drivetrain add to the appeal. Put the balanced road manners, the gorgeous interior, and the opulent specifications into the equation, and the newcomer from Ingolstadt becomes rather tempting. It may not be quite as sporty as a BMW or quite as prestigious as a Benz, but it is a great luxury sedan and a serious alternative to the establishment.