A little more than a year ago, an oyster gray metallic Audi A6 nosed its way into our Four Seasons fleet. And we don't use the word nose loosely, because the first thing we noticed about the A6 was its front end and the gaping maw of its grille. We've applauded every successive chapter of Audi's mellifluous design language, exemplified by vehicles such as the iconic TT and the ultraluxurious A8, but this new corporate grille, which first appeared in the 2005 model year, seemed incongruous--a little bit too large and a little bit too showy for an automaker renowned for the well-proportioned, tasteful styling of its vehicles.
But after twelve months and 25,673 miles with our A6, like Professor Henry Higgins with Eliza Doolittle, we've grown accustomed to its face. In fact, the exterior styling of the redesigned A6 is one of the car's strong suits. From the trapezoidal grille to the low-slung windows, from the gracious curve of the roofline to the LED taillights, the A6 has a classy and refined look.
As with all Audis, the impeccable styling extended to the interior. A couple of people thought that the cabin didn't quite meet the bar set by previous Audis, but most of us appreciated the quality of the interior materials and the placement of the controls. Fit and finish are flawless, and there is an aura of refined elegance throughout. It's not surprising that we liked the glossy wood trim and the sumptuous leather on the steering wheel and seats (we chose the $1000 premium leather option). What was surprising, however, was that a simple item such as the volume control knob, located on the center console to the right of the MMI controller, got so much attention. "The location of the volume knob is absolutely perfect. It's strange how natural it feels. Every carmaker should learn from this Audi," wrote assistant art director Nicole Lazarus just a few days after the A6 arrived in Ann Arbor. During the year, many others echoed that sentiment, one going so far as to say it "deserves an award for Best Automotive Secondary Control of 2005."
Which brings us to a subject we can't avoid when writing about any German luxury car--its computerized control system. We've always found Audi's MMI more intuitive and easier to use than BMW's iDrive and Mercedes-Benz's Comand, so it wasn't particularly surprising that the MMI in the A6 was only lightly criticized.
"MMI is far superior to iDrive, and I had it figured out quickly," wrote road test coordinator Marc Noordeloos, "but [and there's always a but--Ed.] I still have moments of frustration." "MMI is pretty easy to navigate," echoed copy editor Rusty Blackwell, who nevertheless was perplexed that he couldn't figure out how to put the display screen into day mode with the headlights on.
And then there was senior editor Joe DeMatio, who at one point pulled over to the side of the road in frustration. "Why, why, why, is there no button labeled climate?" he whined. "It's easier to get air flowing using iDrive!" Histrionics aside, it is true that, as contributor Ronald Ahrens remarked, "MMI is always one step more complicated than necessary."
While things didn't always go smoothly with MMI, the same can't be said for the A6's powertrain. Audi's midline sedan is available with either a 3.1-liter V-6 or a 4.2-liter V-8, and we were happy that we opted for the former and its more-than-adequate 255 hp and 243 lb-ft of torque. With all-wheel drive, our A6 weighed in at more than two tons, but the V-6 and its six-speed manu-matic were up to the task of moving that much metal. "The engine is like buttah--so smooth at speed," wrote production editor Jennifer Misaros. "The 3.1-liter engine is great on the freeway, with plenty of passing power even at high speeds," added assistant editor Erik Johnson. "I love the transmission. Sport mode keeps the engine in its sweet spot."
Not so sweet was the drive-by-wire throttle mapping, which causes a maddening hesitation on initial throttle tip-in. "The first bit of pedal travel does nothing, and the next bit does too much," said Lorio. "The unpredictability of the throttle drives me crazy," wrote Blackwell. "I stopped for a few minutes (while in Drive, with my foot on the brake pedal) to purchase a pass at the campground. During that time, the throttle presumably 'learned' that I wasn't driving with a heavy foot. When I pulled away, I was rewarded with several seconds of sluggish acceleration, despite throttle input that should have resulted in a moderately quick launch."
The A6's chassis dynamics also let us down. The car felt harsh and brittle over bumps and expansion joints, while at the same time, it floated over crests and wallowed through corners. The upgraded wheel-and-tire package ($1000) was likely part of the problem. The eighteen-inch rims and low-profile, 40-series tires certainly looked sporty, but they didn't exactly absorb road imperfections. We didn't opt for the sport package on our test car, and forgoing it was probably a bad decision, because the tighter suspension tuning would have addressed the floatiness and soft cornering. On the other hand, the ride with the low-profile tires was already fairly harsh, and the sport package would have exacerbated it, especially on rough Michigan roads.
Mechanical problems with the A6 were of the annoying and inconvenient --rather than the expensive--variety. At least all eight (!) of our trips to the dealer for repairs were covered by Audi's four-year/50,000-mile warranty. Twice we had to replace the switch for the keyless start, and the software also had to be updated. The driver's window opened and closed on its own schedule, not ours, so we replaced the switch. The gas-filler door wouldn't open when the remote release button was pushed, necessitating another trip to the service department. Plus, faulty service reminders popped up intermittently throughout the year.
If those constant reminders of the problems that seem to be inherent with high-tech German engineering were highly aggravating, we at least were pleasantly surprised by the A6's relatively frugal fuel economy. Over the year we averaged 22 mpg, which is about what we expected considering its 19/26 mpg city/highway EPA rating. However, more than one driver averaged between 28 and 30 mpg during extended highway trips, and with gasoline tipping the $3.00 per gallon mark, that's reason enough to celebrate. Still, our A6 cost $51,420 as tested and ran on premium fuel, so that better-than-expected fuel consumption didn't come cheap.
Even with all its positive attributes, in the end, the A6 left us strangely unmoved. If looks alone could thrill, it would be a great car. The A6 is beautifully designed, and it has ample room for four adults, a smooth V-6 engine, and impressive fuel economy. For some people, that would be enough. But it had far too many quality problems, and its chief competitors, the BMW 5-series and the Mercedes-Benz E-class, are a step up in both performance and prestige. Until the A6 becomes a true driver's car, it is destined to remain a nice car for people who want to buy into the sport sedan club without actually knowing what a sport sedan can be.